The concept of divine omnipotence is the ultimate expression of male dominance as control. Divine omnipotence is the view that everything that happens in the world happens according to the will of a divinity, who is in control of everything that happens in the world. When someone dies or great suffering occurs, we are told, “everything happens for a purpose,” “it was meant to be,” or “everything happens according to the will of God—or Goddess.” In our recent book Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I criticize and reject this view on both rational and moral grounds.
The doctrine of divine omnipotence is widely assumed, not only in Christian theologies, but in Islam and to a lesser extent in Judaism. Moreover, it is also to be found in western metaphysical and mystery traditions and in the many New Age and Goddess theologies based upon them. Thus we not only hear that whatever happens in the world must be “the will of God,” but increasingly that it must be the “will of the Goddess.” Traditional views of divine omnipotence create and fail to resolve the theological conundrums known as “the free will problem” and “the problem of evil.”
The notion that everything happens for a reason or purpose that is determined by a higher power is comforting to many people. I have no wish to deny that human beings can find or create meaning in suffering. I also note that suffering can cause great harm to individuals and groups that is often passed down through the generations. The notion that God or Goddess is the cause of a child’s rape or death or the cause of great evils such as the slavery, the Holocaust, or the nearly worldwide subordination of women, has led many to conclude that a divinity who shapes are ends does not exist—or if it does, it is not worthy of worship.
The traditional responses that “God’s ways are not our ways” or that “God has a purpose we cannot understand” simply do not make sense to me. I also reject the notion popular in New Age worldviews that God causes great suffering to individuals or groups in order to “teach a lesson.” Holding a child’s hand to a fire may teach it to be careful around fires, but it is just as likely to teach it to distrust adults or to wish to push a smaller being into a fire. I agree with Hartshorne that at some point traditional defenses of divine omnipotence ask us to “forget everything we know about values,” about good parenting, about good teaching, and about right and wrong. This is why the doctrine of divine omnipotence founders on “the problem of evil.”
There is another problem with the traditional doctrine of divine omnipotence and this is known as the “free will problem.” Charles Hartshorne calls the problem created by the concept of divine omnipotence “the zero fallacy.” What this means is that if God has all the power, then human beings and other beings have zero power. If everything that happens in the world happens according to the divine will, then it is a fallacy to assert that human beings or other beings have free will in any meaningful sense of the term. Rather what we have is a single divine power and the illusion of a world.
For if God has all the power, the world does not exist except in the fantasy of the divinity. If every outcome in the world happens according to the will of God, then human beings and other beings can have no real power to act in the world. If we have real power, then our actions affect what happens in the world. If so, then it cannot be said that “everything happens according to the will of God.” Some things happen according to my will or your will and some through a confluence of multiple wills and circumstances that produce outcomes that no one could have foreseen.
This is a very simple argument: either God has all the power and other beings in the world have no power, or God does not have all the power because other beings in the world also have power. The question then becomes: why have so many people in the world, including many otherwise very intelligent philosophers and theologians, wished to believe something that is patently false: that free will exists but nonetheless that everything happens according to the will of divinity.
There seems a very strong desire in human beings to believe that someone is in charge, that what looks and feels to us like unnecessary suffering or evil is part of a higher plan in which everything not only happens for a reason, but for a very good reason. Freud wrote about this desire in The Future of an Illusion. Faced with contradictions in their own thinking, theologians often assert the relation between free will and divine power is “a mystery.” People seem to be willing to take refuge in “mystery” because they do not want to think about the possibility that many things that happen in the world are not the will of God and serve no higher purpose.
Finding these arguments convincing, Judith and I conclude that the traditional theism that states that God rules the world from outside it and the doctrine of divine omnipotence that is its corollary must be rejected. From here our views diverge. I view Goddess as intelligent, loving, and good, but not all-powerful. In my view, Goddess cannot be all powerful because Goddess is always in relationship to other individuals in the world that have their own forms of freedom and power. Judith in contrast, insists that God is an impersonal creative power that is inclusive of the whole of reality and is the ground of both good and evil. In Judith’s view, God is the ground of creativity in which all individuals participate, exercising their own freedom to choose good or evil.
Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.
Join Carol on the life-transforming spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available!