Chapter 18: The Love of an Empowering God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 18: The Love of an Empowering God


We are coming to an end of a long and fruitful journey, which is in turn a new beginning. The task that remains is to flesh out an understanding of how the love that is God empowers every becoming occasion to maximize its own exercise of power. I begin with reminders of what is being rejected, before moving forward to what is being affirmed.

I began at Dachau. Overwhelming suffering and the callous destruction of human life bring to the fore Leibniz’s problem of theodicy: How can one believe in a God of love if the seeming exercise of God’s power results in such repeated calamity? Power seems to cancel out love. How does one surmount that?

I have insisted that beginning with a preformed notion of divine power that includes omnipotent control of all that becomes simply does not allow any notion of divine love to be shoehorned in. Starting with conventional understandings of the exercise of power leads to a dead end. The dilemma of affirming a powerful God who is also a God of love cannot be resolved by starting on the power side of the issue. [247] It can only be resolved by starting instead with the affirmation that God is fully and unconditionally love and then asking the question in reverse: If God is love, what does power mean when applied to a loving God?

The first element that is surrendered is the matter of control. A loving God does not presume to determine all by God’s self the outcome of the movement to momentary novelty that arises within the temporal flow. God influences every moment of becoming but finally decides the precise nature of no moment of becoming. In Whitehead’s terms, the “initial” aim that God offers each new becoming, or “concresence,” does not simply become automatically the “actualized” aim. God proposes without imposing. Or, to put it in the apostle Paul’s ringing terms, love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:4).

As an issue, theodicy dissolves into thin air when God is not weighed down by the responsibility of determining every outcome and controlling every decision. But I aver that this does not render God impotent. Power as empowerment alters the landscape of the discussion radically.

I affirm Genesis’ proposal that creation is a matter of generating order out of chaos, rather than the church’s post-biblical proclamation of creatio ex nihilo. This appears to me to be a dimension of all of God’s ongoing creative activity. God never works with a “clean slate” in offering new possibilities of becoming. Just as I have a world of the past behind me pressing forward upon me, limiting my options, providing a concrete context for the shape of a new possible “me” that God is proposing, so does God have degrees of chaotic disorder to take account of in every specific lure God initiates. Even the physicists’ Big Bang theory of the origination of the universe does not negate the understanding that there was that out of which the primal explosion arose, even if only a “singularity.” Therefore, every instance of God’s empowering offer for a new becoming is conditioned by the raw materials of the past of which God necessarily takes account. Evil as embodying the forces of chaos is that which God is ever endeavoring to overcome but in responsive freedom we are significant participants in that ongoing process.


One additional element of the Augustinian synthesis that I am rejecting remains to be surfaced. Time is experienced from “within” time as a moment-by-moment migration from what has gone before to what is occurring now to what is not yet. To rephrase this in Whiteheadian terms, what has gone before is what is able to have an influence on what is occurring now. What is not yet is that which is able to be influenced by what is occurring now. And every simultaneous occurrence in the present moment is regarded as “contemporaneous,” neither influential upon nor influenced by this momentary actualization.

The question then becomes: Is time real for God? The classic response has been that God is “outside of ” time, that temporal progression is a process that God in God’s eternity embraces as a whole, with no distinctions of already and not yet. It is for this reason that God is said to be “omniscient” regarding even matters that, from our time-bound perspective, have not “happened” yet. But if God is acting out of love to empower my new becoming with no control over my free response, then the new of my becoming is new also for God. God’s omniscience is not “inaccurate”: that is, God is not confused about matters already settled, possibilities unresolved, and the current moment of self-actualization. In other words, God is precisely omniscient in knowing the past as past, the present as present, and the future as future. God works within time to affect the way in which time is filled out. As the interactions between the God of love and the beneficiaries of that empowering love occur successively in temporal sequence, with movement taking place in both directions—from God to us, from us to God, as I explain later in this chapter—so is God a part of the temporal continuum. Time is very real for the God who is love. Tom Oord, in criticizing Augustine, puts it quite nicely: “Love takes time.”1

I wish to introduce at this point a shift of metaphor. The primary metaphor I have been using is one of architectural construction, writing of crumbling foundations weakened by the varying confrontations with the theistic synthesis originating with Augustine. That is not a purely masculine activity, but it does have a primarily masculine tone about it. I think a preferable and gender-shifting metaphor to utilize as we move forward is the action of weaving a tapestry. I am indebted [249] to O. I. Cricket Harrison for an insightful hymn text that sings of the “Restless Weaver, ever spinning threads of justice and shalom, dreaming patterns of creation . . . gathering up life’s varied fibers—every texture, every hue.”2 That seems a more suitable image for expressing the new unifying task for “weaving” a post-theistic alternative to the inherited but discredited tradition concerning God’s power and God’s love. And so I ask next: What fabrics and textures and threads can be appropriated from the challenges explored above in Part Three that contribute to a vision of a God of empowering love?


My work of constructing an alternative answer to the divine power/love conundrum draws on a vast array of predecessors whose breakthroughs into fresh modes of understanding underlie what I now present. Eight basic threads are identified here, with acknowledgment to those who originally recognized and began to interweave them.


This insight can be traced all the way back to the Medieval mystics, starting with Dionysius and Bonaventure but also especially prevalent among the women mystics. Significant contributions to this pivotal understanding were provided, at least in nuce, by such varied individuals as the Wesley brothers, the American reformer Alexander Campbell, and Søren Kierkegaard, as well as Albrecht Ritschl and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin among others. William Vanstone’s probing analyses of the subject are noted below.


We are primarily indebted to Clarence Rolt for initially championing this insistence that the only power God has is a power of love, though he did not live long enough to pursue this idea in richer detail. Others who picked up on his challenge include Jürgen Moltmann, Nels F. S. Ferré, Eberhard Jüngel, and a rich company of Whiteheadian process/ relational thinkers who benefited from the teaching of John B. Cobb, Jr.



I quietly initiated a discussion of this theme four decades ago. Those who have pursued it in their own way particularly include Wendy Farley (the first, I think, in 1990), Elizabeth Johnson, Thomas Oord, and especially Catherine Keller. The contribution I am making here, in the remaining sections of this book, is to attempt to spell out more explicitly just what it means to speak of God in this way.


The breakthrough to the recovery of a biblical God who shares in creation’s suffering came particularly in the World War I reflections of the Irish-Anglican Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, later championed by Jürgen Moltmann. Dorothee Sölle and Wendy Farley have been among the leading voices within a widespread community of scholarship who have elevated this vital insight into contemporary prominence.


John Cobb and those of us he mentored, as well as Daniel Day Williams, have appropriated the philosophical vision of Whitehead and Hartshorne in putting theology back into contact with the biblical understanding of a God in dynamic interrelation with all of creation. Trinitarians recognized this essential quality in God’s own internal relations but did not always extend it outward to that which is other than God. That God is love includes the realization that God is in intimate relation with all that is, not incidentally but constitutively.


The overturning of the classic patriarchal model for conceiving of God provided space for generating fresh ways of understanding the mode of divine activity in the human and cosmic sphere. Feminine characteristics of God were greatly in need to counterbalance and constrain the overwhelmingly masculine values attributed to divinity. As we have seen, trailblazing work from such women scholars as Mary Daly, Carter Heyward, Rita Nakashima Brock, Elizabeth Johnson, Wendy Farley, and Catherine Keller, among so many others, paved the way for a more embracing view of God’s indefatigable love.



For God as love to desire and act positively toward the well-being of all includes an understanding with liberation theologians that God wills the well-being particularly of those who are most lacking in that quality of being. This conviction can be traced all the way back to Micah and Hannah in the witness of the Old Testament as well as in the pronouncements attributed to Jesus. My departure from the positions generally taken within liberation theology is the recognition that conventional notions of divine power are no solution for the plight of the disenfranchised. God by Godself does not reverse those conditions of oppression. That remains an open-ended process in which all of us, in our response to God’s lure, make our contributions for good or for ill.


The insufficiently-known and underrated work of the Anglican canon William Vanstone remains of vital importance in recognizing a continuity between a phenomenology of love as we experience it and a phenomenology of love at work in God. In particular, the realization that, truly to be love, God’s power is one that surrenders the illusion of invulnerability and control remains a key component in any theology of a God of empowering love. But, of course, it is already there in Paul: “Love . . . does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5).

In what now follows, I put into play Catherine Keller’s use of the Greek words eros and agape in distinguishing the two movements of God’s empowering love, as initiating and receiving. The divine eros attracts, calls, invites.3 The divine agape responds, receives, feels our feelings compassionately.4 How do these two movements helpfully redefine divine power?


I am new every day, every moment. Of course, I am not brand new. I am the result of decisions made by me, and by decisions made by others that affect me, from the time I was born and even before. In this new moment [252] of my “deciding” myself, I am deeply influenced by that staggering array of past becomings. I may well be “addicted” to repeating those past decisions, even apart from the technical definition of addiction.

But I am not condemned to repeat my previous decisions on and on into every new moment of my life. In the peculiarity of the human consciousness, I have something called “imagination.” That is the capacity, for good or for ill, to entertain possibilities beyond my present self-actualization. I may “imagine” a healthful life of veganism in contrast to my current dependency on nutrition that increases my weight and my susceptibility to diabetes. I may even imagine something so new that it sets in motion a whole new complex of emergent realities, in the vein of a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates—or a Martin Luther King, Jr., or a Mahatma Gandhi. Or, perversely, an Adolf Hitler. The imagination runs both to progress and to regress, to the diminishing of chaos or its servitude.

Belief in the reality of One who interrelates empoweringly with every miniscule component of the cosmos is the conviction that I am not totally on my own in those acts of imagining. I am being “pointed” in a certain consistent direction, moment by moment. The shape that “pointing” takes is what might be called “case specific.” That is to say, the direction in which my imagination is being encouraged to flow is one that is both personally enriching and potentially enriching as well for everything “not me” that I influence. It is what Whitehead regarded as the aim toward an increasing presence of Peace, Beauty, and Harmony in the universe.5 This pointing is not the same as asserting that God “has a plan for me.” That is far too limiting of God. A deeper truth is that God has a plan for me in this particular moment, and it is shaped both by God’s desires for the best way in which I can become but also by my individual bundle of past decisions and decisions by others that also “in-form” me. God may well, and does, have an overall proposal in mind for the person I can become, but the specifics of how I may move in the direction of embodying that proposal are determined by how far I have come and where I am and what is happening to me in this present moment.

The gift God’s love bestows on my present becoming is precisely that God opens up before me a future possibility I had not previously entertained.


John Cobb expressed it this way. Imagine a room full of people wrestling together to reach a consensus on a way out of a paralyzing conflict of wills. Who, Cobb asks, is the most powerful person in the room? Is it the one who has brought the most chits to call in? Is it the one with the most persuasive vocabulary, the loudest voice, the most powerful bearing? Not at all. It may well prove to be that the most powerful person in that room is the one who is able to entertain an alternative way to overcome the conflict, a possibility not hitherto perceived by any of the other participants. Cobb called this “leadership by proposal,” but more fully, “leadership by proposal and the Holy Spirit.”6 His understanding is that the way God who is love empowers us is by opening us up to future possibilities beyond our current comprehending. The proposal may be rejected, or ignored, or derided. But once it is “in the air,” it is now a factor in the “new past” of every participant in the room. It may well be that some months later someone else makes that same proposal and this time it gains traction, with perhaps no awareness that it had surfaced before. “Love takes time.”

In love, God does not leave me floundering about on my own. In love, God gathers up all the influences on my present reality and offers to me a maximal proposal for how I might so organize them as to constitute my new self in the most gratifying way possible. That is what I call “empowerment.” I am empowered by God not to repeat past mistakes; not to lash out at those who are persecuting me; not to seek vengeance in a perpetuation of the cycle of death and destruction; not to sink into despair over my own seeming powerlessness against whatever forces are defeating me. But the degree to which I do so is not predetermined by God. This is where empowerment triumphs over coercion. My own freedom is enhanced, not diminished, by God’s offer to embark upon a new and more fulfilling movement into my future.

I am not satisfied with calling this the power of “persuasion,” which tended to become paramount in much of process-relational theology. I think we all have had experiences in which persuasion transformed, perhaps very subtly, into manipulation. Manipulation is my attempt to get you to do what I want, without regard to what you might want. Manipulation treats the other not as an equally free subject but as an [254] object precisely to be manipulated, like moving toy soldiers around on a table. Persuasion is presumably my attempt to influence your free choice without violating it. I am simply not comfortable with attributing that activity to God.7 Empowerment, in my estimation, offers. The degree to which I respond positively to the offer enhances the power of the offer to influence me in the next moment and the moment after that.

By virtue of the potential of the sum total of the past that impinges upon my present becoming, it is accurate to speak of a “power struggle.” Power as empowerment is in conflict with power as “power over,” power to dominate, power that threatens to “force” itself upon me. Once again, God’s power does not negate or nullify that very real power opposing it. In love, God’s resources for my new beginning are an offer to checkmate the hold that conventional ways of being powerful have over me, but they are not an over-powering of them. That history is strewn with the corpses of power gone awry is very real testimony to the fact that God only and ever acts in an empowering way, never in a controlling, all-determining way. Resistance to God’s offer happens. Suffering and loss bedevil God’s creation. Love’s assurance, once again, is that these are not ever allowed to have the final say. God’s capacity to lure the world (cosmos) to its own continuing transformation is inexhaustible.

It is self-evident that this perspective allows no misunderstanding that God wills the bad in order to promote a greater good. That is vastly different from recognizing that, from God’s loving empowerment, good can emerge from what seems irredeemable evil. A vivid case in point is the impact that Bull Conner’s attacks on the civil rights marchers, and the Ku Klux Klan’s murder of four African-American girls in the bombing of a church—among many other such atrocities—had on the unfolding of events, including the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Americans awoke from their uncaring slumbers to rally behind changes in the law that brought new opportunities in the promotion of racial equality. Nothing more decisively embodies the position being outlined here than Martin Luther King Jr.’s ringing affirmation, “I have a dream.”8

Regarding human and divine love, I must make a careful distinction here. I may well think I know what is best for my beloved so that I act [255] in such a way as to bring about what I regard as the most appropriate self-actualization. But that is presumptuous on my part. I am human, not God. No individual’s understanding can be that absolute. What I offer to my beloved must remain open to be modified or even enhanced by my beloved’s response. What is explicitly true of God, however, is that God’s discernment of the maximal possibility of actualization for God’s beloved is indeed understandable as absolute, unsurpassable. The problem of our putting ourselves in God’s place litters history with misdirected acts of “love”: “I’m doing this for your benefit, not mine.” “I’m destroying your mortal flesh for the sake of your immortal soul.” Or even, “You’ll thank me in the morning.” Examples pile up higher than Everest.

Here, once again, is the power of the expression, “the more, the more.” The more effective God is in luring us with an initial aim for actualizing ourselves—that is to say, the greater the extent of our enacting with minimal modification what God points us toward—then the greater the possibilities of God empowering us even more effectively in the next moment and beyond. The more our exercise of freedom corresponds with God’s desires for us, the more God is able to offer us in future aims. The “adoptionist” heresy in Christology actually embodies precisely this understanding in the life of Jesus. One could readily maintain that Jesus so opened himself up to the leading of his “Father” that he began to see his world more and more from God’s perspective, rather than seeing God from the world’s perspective as the rest of us do.9 This is one more instance, like patripassianism, where heresy may one day be received as orthodoxy.

To sum up: God loves me into moment-by-moment existence, never giving up on me, never being defeated by what I do with God’s gifts or what the world does to me in opposition to those gifts. This is indeed creatio ex amore, and it is not a one-time matter in the beginning of history. It occurs over and over in God’s offer for me to share in the bringing of order out of the chaos of my life. God empowers me in how I definitely shape my moment-by-moment existence, offering me (preconsciously) the maximal possibility of how I incarnate value and harmony and love in my own becoming. But what is true of the human individual is also [256] true of all of creation. Evolution, even of the galaxies and the stars and the planets, is nothing other than God’s patient luring of all that is into newly emerging fulfillments of possibility.


God, in love, gives. Does God, in love, receive? Is there anything about the way we implement God’s empowering gift of possibility that somehow contributes to the very being of God? The traditional declaration, that God is perfectly self-contained and aloof from every response of God’s creatures to what God makes possible for us, collapses under the realization of the necessarily interrelated and interactive character of love. It moves in both directions, from God to us, from us to God. Love that is not also open receptively is half-love, uncompleted love.

What I am here calling God’s receptive love is what Whitehead termed the “consequent” nature of God. It is that aspect of God that is totally inclusive of change, denying God’s immutability. It is that aspect of God that takes account of what happened as a result of God’s initiating move toward us and receives it fully, lovingly, into God’s own being.

God’s loving receptivity does not occur without valuation. This is what Christians have traditionally called judgment. God, indeed, judges moment by moment the adequacy of each actualized response, assessing the degree of fidelity to God’s initial aim. But an equally vital theme in the Christian tradition is that God forgives the wrong we do. That is a key component of the receptive love of God that empowers. We are continually being judged and forgiven, freeing us from carrying around the heavy burden of our past misdeeds that, unchecked, would weigh us down unendurably. The new gift of empowering possibility already includes within itself the lovingly bestowed gift of empowering forgiveness.

The receptive love of God is what requires us to endorse the counter-affirmation of God as a God who suffers. That God “feels” our becoming in the depths of intensity denotes a God who is the very opposite of apathetic. God not only suffered with Jesus on the cross. God suffers with every element of creation that experiences its own suffering of one [257] kind or another. Whitehead could write glowingly of God as “the great companion—the fellow-sufferer who understands.”10 The healing that God offers to those who suffer emerges out of God’s own shared pain over creation’s chaotic brokenness and the individual manifestations of that brokenness.

And so Jesus follows Moses in encouraging his hearers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Is that only for our own sakes? I do not believe so. I believe it is also for the sake of God. Loving God contributes to God, as not loving God diminishes God. The greater the love that flows back to God, the greater are the possibilities for fresh embodiments of love with which God can grace us.

The mystery of prayer completes this dual movement. Genuine prayer is not an attempt to “change God’s mind” or persuade God to act in a way God would not otherwise have done. Nor is prayer utterly inconsequential to anyone but the one who is praying.11 Joseph Bracken writes that prayer “somehow releases positive energy, the power of love, into the world which God . . . can tailor to fit the needs of specific people in specific situations.”12 Prayer, in short, empowers God. Praying sends into God a reinforcement of the best that God is continually offering, contributing to the fullness of God’s receptivity in a positive way.

I now bring these extended reflections to a close with the observation that, for anyone who receives these proposals for rethinking the power and love of God in a positive way, the next essential work to be done involves the development of a Christian ethic of responsive and responsible love that incarnates fully the understanding that we are created in the image of God who is Empowering Love.


  1. Thomas Oord, The Nature of Love, 79. He also calls God’s love “timefull love” (79f).
  2. O. I. Cricket Harrison, “Restless Weaver,” in Chalice Hymnal, #658 (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995).
  3. Wendy Farley describes this movement of divine eros incisively in [258] her The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), chapter 6 on “The Divine Eros.”
  4. Catherine Keller, On the Mystery, 99.
  5. Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, 294f.
  6. John Cobb, “The Holy Spirit and Leadership by Proposal,” in his Can Christ Become Good News Again? (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1991), 131–33.
  7. Critics of process theology have carped that God, by history’s standards, is not a very effective persuader.
  8. Coincidentally, this paragraph is being written on the fiftieth anniversary of that speech.
  9. See John B. Cobb, Jr., The Process Perspective II (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2011), 111–15.
  10. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 351.
  11. See Marjorie Suchocki’s marvelous survey of this topic in her In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 1996).
  12. Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., Christianity and Process Thought: Spirituality for a Changing World (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), 95.