September 9, 2010

God and the Universe

I was reading today about the conflict in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania involving its controversial bishop, Charles Bennison, who has returned to his post after eluding deposition on a technicality. (The latest Episcopal News Service story about the situation can be found here.) There is now ongoing discussion in Episcopal circles about how we might facilitate the removal of a bishop whose relationship to his or her diocese has become dysfunctional.

My reading led me to thinking about how we choose our bishops, a process we say is influenced by the Holy Spirit. We have maintained this view even though the process sometimes goes awry. (I’m sure that many Pennsylvania Episcopalians have been thinking that their convention made a terrible mistake in choosing Bennison.)

On the other hand, we protest whenever some evangelical preacher suggests that a natural or artificial disaster is the fault of its victims, who are said to have been punished for their iniquities by means of divine intervention. (The instrument of destruction might be an Indian Ocean tsunami or airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center.) We resolutely dispute that God metes out vengeance in such a fashion, even though the Bible speaks frequently of such instances.

We are inclined to attribute good things to heavenly dispensation, but we dismiss the possibility that bad things have an equally metaphysical explanation. Likewise, we pray for the sick to recover but do not blame God when they fail to do so.

We cannot, I think, have it both ways; either God intervenes in worldly affairs and should be credited with doing so, or God does not intervene, and we are pretty much on our own.

At the risk of being accused of heresy, I am inclined to see God as uninvolved in the day-to-day management of the universe. Prayer is probably useful, but not for convincing God to grant our wishes like some genie found in a lamp on the beach. Prayer, I suspect, makes us more sensitive, thoughtful, and less anxious. It does not make us richer, our families healthier, or our enemies either nicer or transformed.

I’m not sure if these thoughts make me a bad Episcopalian. Be assured that I am open to listening to counterarguments for the point of view expressed here. Perhaps I should pray for guidance.


  1. You don't sound like a bad Episcopalian. You sound like a Deist. I don't believe they are mutually exclusive.

  2. At the 'God at 2000' seminar sponsored by Trinity Institute, Marcus Borg made the bold statement that he "no longer believed in an interventionist God."

    To my mind, moving beyond the theistic conceptions of God that have dominated Christian theology for the past 20 centuries to a more abstract understanding of what we call 'God' will be one of the biggest challenges to the Christianity of the 21st century.

    I like the image of God as "Light Energy". This idea is not as unscriptural as it might sound (cf. I John 1:5).

    One of the chapters of my forthcoming book is entitled: "God doesn't do anything."

  3. Good morning, Lionel. Indeed, the inclination to see the hand of God in favorable events and to blame other forces when things don't seem to go our way is an ancient and familiar pattern. Thus the readings we've had from Jeremiah in Track #1 of the RCL the past few weeks. I do think God often holds back his hand, to allow us to reap what we have sown, and perhaps that is what our friends in Pennsylvania now experience. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind, etc. But while the rain falls on the fields of the just and unjust alike, Jeremiah's Potter reminds us that He has the whole world in his hand.

  4. I'm interested in the title of Canon Magee's chapter, but I would think certainly that to be congruent with Biblical witness you'd need a footnote. In my sermon on Jeremiah this past Sunday I enjoyed quoting Pittsburgher Annie Dillard in her book, *Teaching a Stone to Talk*:

    “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

  5. Lionel, you mention the Holy Spirit in our choices, and I have always had an awareness of His presence in my own, personal choices.

    We sing a hymn, "He leadeth me, by his own hand, He leadeth me." We believe this and conduct ourselves accordingly--with confidence. Right or wrong! Why must we always be right?

  6. Clearly, Lionel, you simply need to review your Baltimore Catechism. The following are from #3, 1891:

    Q. 163. What is God?

    A. God is a spirit infinitely perfect.

    Q. 164. What do we mean when we say God is "infinitely perfect"?

    A. When we say God is "infinitely perfect" we mean there is no limit or bounds to His perfection; for He possesses all good qualities in the highest possible degree and He alone is "infinitely perfect."

    Q. 165. Had God a beginning?

    A. God had no beginning; He always was and He always will be.

    Q. 166. Where is God?

    A. God is everywhere.

    Q. 167. How is God everywhere?

    A. God is everywhere whole and entire as He is in any one place. This is true and we must believe it, though we cannot understand it.

    Q. 171. Does God see us?

    A. God sees us and watches over us.

    Q. 172. Is it necessary for God to watch over us?

    A. It is necessary for God to watch over us, for without His constant care we could not exist.

    Q. 173. Does God know all things?

    A. God knows all things, even our most secret thoughts, words, and actions.

    No need to think about God and the Universe, when the Baltimore Catechism has all of the answers. By contrast, even Stephen Hawking seems to have dropped the pro Deist view in his latest book. I look forward to Rev. Magee's book, though. I also like the Annie Dillard quotation. Rev Robison is at his cryptic best though, for those of us trying to figure which people are the "friends in Pennsylvania...(who) reap the whirlwind".


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