Rabbi Kushner on Omnipotence

NPR interviewed Rabbi Kushner as a part of a series called The Long View. My ears perked as I listened to him discuss God and omnipotence:

What I realized is, Where did we ever get the notion that worshiping power was the greatest compliment we could play to God? Why is power the most admirable virtue? If I, walking through the wards of a hospital, have to face the fact that either God is all-powerful but not kind, or thoroughly kind and loving but not totally powerful, I would rather compromise God’s power and affirm his love.

Amen! Amen! Not only is omnipotence not a biblical category, at least not a static one, is is theologically empty for those who grieve and suffer and pastorally empty to those who minister to them. Denying that the biblical God is an omnipotent God is not a rejection of God’s power, but of a kind of divine power poorly evident in the world in which we live. There’s more, but I won’t spoil it for you. Read NPR’s summary here, or listen to the interview here.

For more from Kushner’s on this subject, check out his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. For an academic discussion on this same subject, check out Jon Levinson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence.


8 thoughts on “Rabbi Kushner on Omnipotence

  1. Speaking of Kushner’s observation, it mirrors C. S. Lewis’s observation shared in a letter he wrote the year he died:

    C. S. Lewis to John Beversluis, July 3, 1963:

    “The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘so there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'”[1] Only four months before his death, Lewis wrote in a letter to an American philosopher that there were dangers in judging God by moral standards. However, he maintained that “believing in a God whom we cannot but regard as evil, and then, in mere terrified flattery calling Him ‘good’ and worshipping Him, is still greater danger.”[2] Lewis was responding specifically to the question of Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites by divine decree and Peter’s striking Ananias and Sapphira dead. Knowing that the evangelical doctrine of the Bible’s infallibility required him to approve of “the atrocities (and treacheries) of Joshua,” Lewis made this surprising concession: “The ultimate question is whether the doctrine of the goodness of God or that of the inerrancy of Scriptures is to prevail when they conflict. I think the doctrine of the goodness of God is the more certain of the two indeed, only that doctrine renders this worship of Him obligatory or even permissible.” [3] “To this some will reply ‘ah, but we are fallen and don’t recognize good when we see it.’ But God Himself does not say that we are as fallen at all that. He constantly, in Scripture, appeals to our conscience: ‘Why do ye not of yourselves judge what is right?’ — ‘What fault hath my people found in me?’ And so on. Socrates’ answer to Euthyphro is used in Christian form by Hooker. Things are not good because God commands them; God commands certain things because he sees them to be good. (In other words, the Divine Will is the obedient servant to the Divine Reason.) The opposite view (Ockham’s, Paley’s) leads to an absurdity. If ‘good’ means ‘what God wills’ then to say ‘God is good’ can mean only ‘God wills what he wills.’ Which is equally true of you or me or Judas or Satan.”[4]

    1. C.S. Lewis, A grief Observed (New York: Seabury Press, 1963), pp 9-10.
    2. Letter quoted in full in John Beversluis, C.S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 156 f.
    3. Ibid., p. 157. Emphsis added.
    4. Cited in ibid., p 157.

  2. C.S. Lewis is always very interesting to read, particularly when one considers that he was a layman when it came to the Bible; his approach was not academic, although academics could gain much from reading him.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly. The omnipotence of God is not a biblical concept. It is a product of that cotangent philosophy. I leave you with the words of Tertullian, “What do Athens and Jerusalem have in common? Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!

  4. Perhaps you would like to explain how omnipotence “is theologically empty for those who grieve and suffer and pastorally empty to those who minister to them.”

    Now I would consider something like Open-Theism to fit your quote exactly; not the thought of an all-powerful God.

    And I dismiss the premise from Rabbi Kushner. Why is it an either/or? Is not the One True omnipotent God also infinitely loving? Seems the problem is is that sinful creatures define “love”, then try and force God into that defined box. Would we normally consider it “loving” to plan on the murder of your own Son from before creation? Would any human come up with such a concept of love? Doubtful; but that is actually the infinite love in full display.

    Grace to you –

    1. Theologically empty because it connects all the dots. God wills. Creation responds. There is a one to one relationship between the two. Eventually this leads to the ever pervasive question of how God avoids sullying his hands with sin and evil. And right before admitting the inevitable–not even God escapes depravity–appeal is made to the magical category. . . mystery. Somehow, someway, God remains untainted by the otherwise universal condition. Neither Kushner nor I reject the category of mystery, rather we choose to invoke it before the eleventh hour. We choose to apply the mystery to God, not to the implications of a God figured-out.

      Pastorally empty, because it provides no hope. In the end, those who grieve and suffer must reckon with the fact that God is the reason. I dare to believe that God is bigger than that.

      I can accept that the either/or dichotomy is not one that can be forced on people; other options are conceivable (even if unlikely). But you have not addressed the more pressing question that Kushner raises, Where did we ever get the notion that worshiping power was the greatest compliment we could play to God? Before a person can feel persuaded that omnipotence is something to be rescued, they would need to believe omnipotence something characteristically divine.

      And even then, the category of omnipotence must be carefully spelled out. In this instance I side with open theists, the more powerful God is not the one who knows all the moves you will make before you make them, but the one who doesn’t need to know what you will do in order to ultimately win the game.

  5. Hi Jr,

    How exactly does planning to have your son murdered constitute “love?”

    How also does tossing people into an eternal lake of fire constitute “love?”

    Imagine how both such actions would stain the character of the devil. But it is God who is portrayed as killing nearly everything that breathes on earth during the Flood, and God who is portrayed as commanding that pregnant women and children be slaughtered mercilessly, and God who is portrayed as sending famines and plagues upon the Israelites, and who forced parents to eat their own children. Imagine how such acts would have stained the character of the devil.

    If I and many others have a bit of difficulty conceiving that such acts were performed by an infinitely loving compassionate and omnipotent Being, then I guess that Being might have constructed people’s minds in such a way as to make it quite clear that all such acts arose out of love, perfect love.

    Or maybe ancient Near Easterners simply interpreted both the worst disasters and the best circumstances in light of their BELIEF in a controlling high god and/or gods? And maybe they projected human anger and vengefulness (and also forgiveness) upon such god(s) as well?

  6. In the beginning God was perfect and whole, needing nothing. Then he said, “I need something to aggravate me and make me suffer,” I’ll create humans. And then I’ll also make most of them suffer, first on earth (where they shall be born into ignorance and swept up by hormonal waves of emotion, and experience uncertainty, dread, and miscommunication), and then after that lifetime of suffering on earth I’ll add to it eternal woes in hell–for not riding the right waves of emotion, and not discovering my proper holy books, nor interpreting their meaning correctly.

  7. Also as God, be it known that I cannot forgive anyone anything, not until BLOOD IS SHED. I know I had Jesus teach people to pray in this fashion–that I would forgive those who forgave others–but that’s wrong. I only forgive after BLOOD is shed. I cannot forgive in any other fashion. And most of the blood that I said to shed was shed in vain, including a millennia of animal’s blood. Worthless. And even the blood of Jesus was shed in vain for the vast majority of doomed humanity. God and time are not the best teachers in the next life, I just give up on souls after they have passed through this valley of ignorance, emotions, uncertainty and fear, then they go out of the frying pan into the eternal fire, eternal concentration camp. Why? Because I’m God. Makes sense to Me.

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