return to religion-online

Graceful Courage: A Venture in Christian Humanism by Roger Hazelton

Walter Wink is the author of The Powers That Be (Doubleday). This essay appeared in Loving God With One’s Mind, by F. Thomas Trotter, copyright 1987 by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church. Used by permission. This document was prepared for Religion Online by William E. Chapman.

Chapter 6: Beyond Humility and Obedience?

What is sanctity in a creature, if not to adhere to God with the maximum of his strength? -- Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu


Recovering a Missing Note

Teilhardís question, rhetorical as it is, goes straight to the core of the connection between courage and religious faith. His point seems obvious enough until it is recognized that the Bible generally, and Christianity in particular, gives but short shrift to courage, preferring to regard it as the result of a lively faith in God rather than as the ground and springboard of such faith. For is it not true that faith is an indication of human weakness instead of an innate creaturely strength? If so, may not faith see in courage little more than whistling in the dark, possibly even a form of self-assertion in the presence of trial or trouble which Christians have been taught to call the sin of pride?

It is odd that the books of the Bible, as we have already noted, abound in evidences of courageous conduct while seldom calling them by their right human name. Is it accidental that Abrahamís courage in leaving his homeland for an unknown destination should be termed "faith"? Or that Jobís "patience" has become proverbial, when the text itself suggests an impertinent courage in daring to argue with God? How is it that Queen Estherís bold confrontation with her husband the king, strong-willed as it is, gets all but lost in Godís manipulation of the power conflict between Mordecai and Haman? Daniel in the lionís den is interpreted not as a type of human bravery but as an instance of divine deliverance. The same underplaying of courage can be seen all through biblical narrative and prophecy. It is almost as if courage were always there, conspicuously present, but remained unnoticed or possibly suppressed in the writersí intention to give all the glory to God.

The New Testament is as reticent about courage as the Old. Nevertheless it is implicit on almost every page, taking shape as steadfast endurance, unabashed devotion, bravery in speaking out, bearing up under betrayal, torture, shipwreck, threat of death. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem; disciples become apostles through the strangely transforming power of the Spirit (one of the most ancient words for courage) as out of weakness men and women are made strong for living a new life in a new community of unquenchable love and hope. All this is made possible, most assuredly, by the presence of what can only be termed faith of an unprecedented and amazing kind. But when Paul recounts his tribulations in preaching the gospel, or the Letter to the Hebrews in chapter 11 recollects those exemplary persons of whom the world was not worthy, is it not courage as well as faith that is being witnessed to and celebrated? Or rather, has not faith in such cases shown itself to be the stuff of which heroic, valiant virtue is made, so that we who follow them "may not grow weary or fainthearted" (Heb. 12:3)?

It may not take much of a man to be a Christian, said a bishop once, but it takes all there is of him. The bishop did not intend to exclude women, of course, but the point to be made here is that faith in God depends on courage quite as much as faith produces courage. God is not rightly praised by human weakness but by the maximum of human strength, expended and expressed at its most honorable, high-spirited levels.

It is tempting to suggest that at least part of the current difficulty in communicating biblical and Christian truth may be due to the fact that courage is so largely a missing note, perhaps a lost accent, in presenting the case for faith in God. Efforts to repair this lack are constantly being made, it is true. More recent translations of Scripture are a case in point. Whereas the King James Version of the Bible used "courage" infrequently (fourteen times in the New Testament), for the good reason that the noun and its adjective occur so seldom in the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, more recent English translations like the Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible employ these words far more often, in conformity with modern, indeed secular sensibility and taste. Exactly what this vocabulary shift may mean its not at all easy to determine; yet it does seem to support the view that the lost note of courage may at last be finding its voice in biblical interpretation -- a discovery, or rediscovery, that is as welcome as it is overdue.

Still, in the popular teaching and preaching of the churches the idea persists that "all you need is love," or hope, or faith, without so much as a bow in the direction of the necessary grain and grit of courage. One searches in vain through the writings on Christian ethics of theologians like Barth or Küng for explicit treatment of the courageous dimension in all living that deserves to be called Christian. One wonders: Is this because courage is suspected of being a "pagan" virtue long ago transcended, or is it so much taken for granted that it goes without saying when more crucial matters are at stake? Christians living under oppression, and their numbers are legion, know better and think differently. Whatever the reason, the loss to Christian understanding and discipleship is great. No wonder believers and nonbelievers, not to mention unbelievers, should be feeling this unfortunate lack.

Whatever may have been the case in former times when, we are assured, the tide of faith was at the full, our present age is well aware that it takes a deliberate and decisive measure of courage actually to believe in God. Reiterating old sanctities and orthodoxies, as if faith came already packaged needing only to be reaffirmed, cannot help. Faith is no substitute for downright courage, nor does it automatically generate courage. Becoming a believer in the Christian mode does not afford exemption from the common frailties and liabilities of human existence. Rather, faith itself must learn to live with honest doubt, hard struggle, dulling sorrow as these engage to the utmost the maximum of human, creaturely strength.

Oftentimes, lay people and the general public seem to understand this better than religious professionals do. This can be seen as saintsí days become feast days in religious tradition. Persons whose names are on the church calendar because of their singular piety go down in history as folk heroes or heroines instead: Saint George the dragonkiller, Saint Patrick the snake-charmer. Saint Cecilia, though canonized as a virgin martyr, is honored in popular imagination as the patroness of music represented sitting at an organ. There is something almost infinitely touching in the way legend making surrounds the lives of the saints, quite apart from official sanction and intent. It is as if worshipers kept stubbornly insisting that sanctity is humanly achievable, not merely the fallout of divine grace.

Considerations such as these may be put in the form of questions worth exploring further. Is there not a courageous quality in biblical and Christian faith that needs to be made more explicit by its advocates today? What does the traditional reluctance to use courage-language have to tell us about ways of viewing the divine human relationship? Rephrasing Teilhardís query, with an assisting accent from the apostle Paul, is not the prize of faith given to those who run lifeís race so as to obtain it?

Christian Courage

When the text of courage is read within the context of biblical motifs and Christian concerns, both text and context are affected. While some rather explosive repercussions may be expected, there will be surprising confirmations and agreements as well. Christian thought and practice, indeed, has always had the task of contexting and recontexting this virtue so necessary to the very pursuit of human existence. Thus, for example, Saint Ambrose repeats the viewpoint of Cicero regarding the duty of courage, but with what a difference! Unlike the pagan statesman the Christian bishop holds that all human strength comes solely from God and therefore has no virtue of its own. Medieval theologians translated classical Stoic courage as fortitudo, with late Roman overtones of stouthearted militancy; often it was seen as the corrective of accedie or apathy which is one form of sinning against God. Abelard is a case in point. He wrote:

Fortitude seems to us to be comprised of two parts magnanimity and endurance.... Magnanimity is that by which we are prepared to take on the most arduous tasks when there is a reasonable cause.... Endurance is that by which we steadfastly persevere in carrying out this resolution. 1

Abelardís portrayal of courage as large-souled constancy makes no explicit reference to God or faith; instead he stresses "that by which" human beings generally summon up the strength to do reasonably arduous tasks, in quite a classical vein.

Later, of course, Saint Thomas Aquinas treats the virtue of courage by baptizing it, so to speak, in a two-level structuring of all the cardinal virtues with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love -- subordinating the former to the latter. However, a different interpretation of Aquinasís effort at synthesis can be given. A cardinal virtue such as courage may be thought of as a human minimum or sine qua non that is basic and substantial to any Christian character formation. If Thomas appears to distinguish two kinds of virtue, that may be only for the sake of relating them more positively to each other. At all events, a Thomistic rendering of Christian ethics scarcely justifies any belittling of robust humanness as "filthy rags" compared with the superior majesty of God.

The modern period saw the rise of other attitudes and patterns of thought that were distinctly hostile to these older views of courage. One was pietism, a code word summing up a many-sided movement intent upon recovering for Christianity a devotional sincerity and inwardness of experience through self-surrender and submission to Godís will. Moralism, equally prominent in Roman Catholic and Protestant circles, saw doing Godís will as the supreme end of Christian development, hence setting itself squarely against any view of human good as including self-reliance or self-realization. Either way, human nature is seen as weak and wretched as it stands, needing the saving help of divine omnipotence even to become its own true self. Leafing through any hymnal or prayer book still in church use, one finds these same themes of human ineptitude and the divine sovereignty repeated many times over.

Conditioned thus to portrayals of the Christian life as an exercise in absolute humility and strict obedience, what then becomes of courage? Our life-world at present gives a distinct urgency to this question, not to say poignancy. For one thing, we are told over and over by therapists and counselors that what many of their patients suffer from is not excessive self-confidence at all, but rather "a low threshold of self-esteem." Therefore it would seem that to go on berating people for their pride, so-called, falls rather wide of the clinical target. And for another thing, it should by now be clear enough that persons have enough real hang-ups about authority and power in high places without adding any further distrust and grounds for their present helplessness. How then shall we respond to this situation, perhaps unprecedented, in world history? Rehabilitating a greater measure of courage in the Christian context ought surely to have a high priority among us. Resources both practical and theological are by no means lacking for taking on this timely and compassionate task.

There is an enfeebling of Christian fortitude that has been going on for a long while to which attention should he given now. Insofar as this has been abetted and prolonged by pietistic and moralistic notions of the Christian life style, these notions ought to be corrected. There is too much at stake in the threatened future of humanity, and too little to be lost in any supposed orthodox or authoritative readings of the Gospel, not to make the effort needed to reconstitute the primeval, ever-present virtue of courage.

In short, when pietism degenerates into privatism and moralism hardens into legalism, the living wholeness of religious faith is torn asunder. The fabric of faith is always fragile at best, vulnerable to the ups and downs of personal fortune and of public happenings. "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief" has been the cry of many for whom faith is no longer capable of giving either certainty or authority. The difficulty is compounded by those dehumanizing forces at work in our present world. It is ordinarily supposed that religion brings ethical seriousness and moral stamina into the common life; but when its resources become liabilities, what should be our response to them? It is plain that some rethinking is in order.

Is Obedience Enough?

Consider first the standard of obedience that has occupied so large a place in Christian tradition. Obviously its force depends upon ideas and images of God as sovereign Lawgiver and Judge. These have their roots in the Mosaic covenant centered in the Ten Commandments, and they have reappeared continually in Christian history as well.

Basic to this traditional norm is the age-old understanding of the will of God as law, revealed precisely in order to be obeyed, whatever the human consequences. Here is one with whom we have to come to terms, who makes demands and sets requirements, rewarding or punishing according to our merits or demerits. The life of faith, therefore, must always take the shape of obedience to the divine imperative. For is not doing the will of God the sum and substance of what being faithful means? Surely at any rate a Christianís discipleship involves discipline, modeled upon Jesusí own obedience even unto death, bringing law and order into an otherwise fretful, wayward life. The massive fact of human sinfulness, rooted in "manís first disobedience" when Paradise was lost forever, gives a grim credibility to the need for a God whose will is law.

All well and good; yet there are questions raised by this understanding of faith as obedience. Does it not omit as much as it includes? On these terms, what becomes of the freedom for which Christ has set us free? And where on this reading is the glorious liberty of the sons and daughters of God? If keeping the commandments, following the injunctions and imperatives of the Gospel constitute the main thrust of a Christian life, what room is left for the wondering freshness and childlike spontaneity that Jesus more than once set forth by his own teaching and example?

Well-meaning defenders and protectors of the faith have often scored the "antinomian" tendencies of fellow Christians who, they felt, presumed to be above the law. Mystics and charismatics, it is true, have never made up the rank and file of Christianity, but theirs is a precious testimony nevertheless. There may be whole ranges of communion with God in any vital faith that the obedience-ideal is bound to miss entirely. Assuredly such faith cannot be programmed into rules and regulations claiming divine authority, as prophets have always insisted. Fidelity to the God whom Christ revealed is not definable as submission or subjection, any more than as mere conformity or compliance.

Then there is the question of the right use of Scripture. Literal-minded readers treat it as a rule book of actions forbidden or demanded, as if it contained all possible answers to all possible moral problems. They find it rather easy to confuse the Word of God with the very words of God, as if biblical texts had been produced by supernatural dictation. But Scripture is no collection of mere "must" words, orders to be carried out, although its central imperative is plain enough for any Christianís conscience: To love, as we are loved, God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength, and my neighbor as myself. If all that is required of us is "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God," as the prophet Micah summarized the law, then that law is violated when it is splintered into prescriptions for making it in this mad, bad, sad world.

A further question has to do with the effects of the obedience ideal upon Christian motivation in the human struggle for a more just, more peaceable world. Recently some sharp protests against this way of defining faith have been launched in the churches, chiefly by workers and writers committed to a theology of liberation. They point out how frequently in the past Christian obedience has been distorted to cover up social, racial, political, and sexual oppression, to pacify those who suffered from it, and to excuse those who perpetrated it. This misuse of faith, they insist rightly, is a gross betrayal of the Gospel mandate; did not Jesus begin his own ministry at Nazareth by applying to himself Isaiahís words about releasing the captives and setting at liberty those who are oppressed?

"Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" -- not in some attenuated spiritual sense, not as a Utopian program, but as the energy to carry out the liberating work laid upon every Christian conscience. That is bound to mean contending with structures in society that oppress many to the profit of a few, and so following Jesus in his mission of human liberation.

It is in this vein that Dorothee Soelle asks "whether obedience is not precisely one of those ideas which are no longer valid after the holocaust? . . . Can one want and develop an attitude towards God which one criticizes in people in their attitude towards men and human institutions?"2 She believes the answer to be plainly No. When we recall the self-excusing alibis of Gestapo henchmen and their leaders at the Nuremberg trials that they were only acting under orders, it is hard not to agree. Obedience should not become the ideal of conduct for a faith of truly radical and revolutionary implications, Soelle believes; it belongs, rather, to an outgrown type of authoritarian religion shored up by centuries of patriarchal and monarchical models for the human-divine relationship. Furthermore, in actual practice such a norm can only mean complying with the dictates of official authority, whether in church or state.

We who must live in a time of massacres and purges, violence and torture carried out by people under orders upon fellow human beings, are very likely to find this criticism of traditional obedience convincing. How could it be otherwise? Not surprisingly, those of us who would defend and promote genuine Christian faith will turn instead to supporting acts of civil and religious disobedience on behalf of our victimized neighbors in the world. We may well ask whether such disobedience is not, as it has always been, the ground of every creative advance in science, art, politics, or religious faith. For we cannot doubt that in our kind of world it takes more courage to disobey than to obey, and this sort of courage belongs to honest, responsible Christianity in every age.3

All this is true, and yet there is more to be said. Obedience, like any other criterion of behavior, may easily become subject to atrophy and abuse. In the hands of some hierarchy or another designed to uphold the status quo of privileged power, it assumes all too often the shape of servile conformity. There are times when any deliberate break in the chain of command seems a good and necessary thing. But the worth of a moral ideal like obedience is not to be measured by its misuse alone, as if the best were always at the mercy of the worst in human conduct. At its moral best, obedience represents the choice of one alternative over another: "We must obey God rather than men"; "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision." When obedience is given to a freely chosen authority, it takes on the clear quality of courage; and if that quality is lacking, a truly human measure has gone out of it.

Then too, obedience is not merely institutional but deeply personal. I observe a law but I obey a person whose authority I trust and accept. Those who would discard this rubric from contemporary faith seem to have forgotten this. Allowing the world to write the agenda for Christian action denotes more than dismissing ideas whose time has gone; it also requires facing up to the fullness of tradition whether or not it accords with the needs of the moment. Only so can wise and durable choices he made and followed through.

Hence courageous obedience will continue to be a vital part of Christian character, however refined and revised by the sort of world in which our living must be done. That is because it means taking upon oneself the life pattern of the Lord Jesus, who learned to obey through suffering and has the right to claim it of his disciples since it was the very thrust of his own earthly vocation.

What About Humility?

Another theme in moral teaching which has come under present criticism, both secular and Christian, is the familiar one of humility. Manuals of devotion and discipline have emphasized this virtue for so long that it can hardly be overlooked in any discussion of courage. Humility is abundantly warranted by biblical example and precept; it "goes before honor" (Prov. 15:33) but "whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt. 23: 12). Thus in Scripture humility is not only commanded but is joined to a promise of spiritual reward, which goes far beyond suggesting that this virtue is its own compensation.

In discussing this virtue, Edward Schillebeeckx shows that the ideal of humility arose in conscious reaction against pagan notions of human grandeur. The conviction of the ancient church, he holds, was summed up by Saint Augustineís statement that humility "consists in knowing that you are man, because humanity is firstly being Godís creature and secondly being bruised by sin"; Schillebeeckx comments that "by means of a radical change in the pagan concept, this obedience is called magnanimity or human grandeur."4 Obedience and humility are almost interchangeable terms, and both imply the same paradoxical idea -- that lowliness is the way to greatness.

Medieval spirituality often expressed similar convictions. Saint Bernard, writing for his monks at Clairvaux, compared the degrees of humility to steps of a ladder ("your life in this world") leading upward to the final goal of charity. From candid self-scrutiny ("the despising of your own excellence") though compassion (mercifully aware of similar frailty in others), the truly humble person reaches loving purity of heart as Godís reward and gift.5 This "journey not of feet," a favorite phrase of Augustine, has often been stressed by writers as familiar as Thomas à Kempis, John Bunyan, even François de Sales, whose influence has been most important within Christianity.

Humility is a lesson more quickly taught than learned, of course. Hence its teachers usually mingle demand with promise, presenting it as a necessary step to some more attractive blessing. This may be divine approval at the end of oneís life, but almost certainly the ultimate goal will be said to include human well-being here and now as well. Claims for humility seldom are allowed to rest on humility alone. This fact gives some curious twists and tangles, not to say contradictions, to moral teaching on the subject. Mixing material images of benefit or profit with spiritual ideals is always a tricky business. The popular radio comedian Fred Allen used to put it crisply: "Iíve heard that the meek will inherit the earth, and Iím standing by to collect." His parody of the Third Beatitude has an amusing ring of truth.

Since no one wants to be humble merely for humilityís sake, there is bound to be a certain amount of ambiguity in practicing it. One senses this throughout the Psalms and in the parables of Jesus, which are not averse to suggesting that humility pays off in something better and more delectable. Dickensís Uriah Heep had his own version of this virtue, but one need not accept this caricature to recognize that some hypocrisy, playacting, is inevitable; humility is like something forever being tried on for size, a costume that never quite fits.

Furthermore, if we are to mean by humility what Saint Bernard called it, "the despising of your own excellence," we are in for some real psychological trouble. Making a habit of self-disapproval and self-distaste can be a bitter, destructive thing. Monastic history contains many instances of confusion and struggle over this point. How far may one safely go in judging oneself to be worthless and without promise? Moreover, has there not been a "poor-me" strain in Christianity from its beginnings, detected by its severest critics such as Nietzsche, Marx, or Freud? We come upon this strain in ritual confessions, "there is no health in us," or in hymns of the breastbeating sort, "such a worm as I." Surely in everybodyís world of fantasy, reality, or both there is quite enough to be ashamed of, without exaggerating blame beyond the limits of decent self-appraisal. Behind Saint Bernardís definition lurks the double jeopardy of pride masked as self-pity, more a sign of sickness than of health in the soul. This psychological state is better described clinically as masochistic and narcissistic than as humility in any humanly acceptable sense.

Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that humility may be a source of pride to the humble. Cultivated deliberately, it can only lead to bleak and suicidal despair. Its side effects may far outweigh any intended remedy. Self-blaming, whether only finicky or noisily fanatical, is only made worse by confusing it with genuine humbleness of heart. For there is such a genuine article, which in its own strange way witnesses to human excellence and greatness. The root of authentic humility is to be found in an unsparing self-scrutiny that refuses to ignore the standing gap between my ideals and my actions. Without blaming or boasting, I can see that I am weak and wrong just when I am tempted to feel strong and right. The fruit of real humility consists in clemency toward others in the same moral boat as myself; as Saint Bernard wrote truly, it is impossible to think of anyone who is merciful and not meek at the same time.

In other words, the truly humble are those who acknowledge the sinful nature of all life, beginning with their own. They are not the sorry specimens of humankind who grow adept at despising their undoubted excellence; on the contrary, they think neither too highly nor too poorly of themselves. For humility is above all a social and not a purely private virtue. Its other names are equity and fairness.

The song of Mary called the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) highlights the meaning of genuine humility in the original Christian context. The tone is that of down-to-earth happiness at being chosen by God, heightened by wonder that the usual order of things is reversed, for Mary sees her election as a further evidence of Godís exalting the oppressed and putting down their oppressors. Only the greatest artists such as Bach and Fra Angelico have been able to express this tone, as far removed as possible from that downcast, demure, downtrodden state that often passes for humility.

In Clarence Dayís Life with Father there is an amusing boyhood incident, describing how Day learned French by reading with his tutor some passages from the Douay version of the Bible. Assigned one day the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, Clarence was utterly charmed to see "Heureux sont les debonnaires" in place of the familiar "Blessed are the meek." Delighted by the thought that the gay and urbane might find a place in the kingdom of heaven, he drew closer than he realized to the Gospel meaning of humility (in French, débonnaire means gentle, easy-tempered).

Meekness of spirit, then, is a precious sign of human greatness in those who learn to let themselves go, traveling light through the troubles of this world. No amount of humiliation applied externally can produce it, whatever the cause or source may be. True, biblical portraits of humility associate it closely with poverty or childhood as if destitution or dependence were essential. Taken literally, this association can be very misleading, however. Humiliation produces resentment or rebellion, not humility; its only advantage comes from the fact that the humiliated ones of the earth are not likely to confound might with right, or prosperity with blessedness. Social injustice, far from creating conditions for promoting humility, sooner or later sets the stage for hostility instead.6

Despite the malformations and maladies to which it has been subjected, the humility ideal has permanent validity in Christian morality. When it has failed, the failure has been due to the missing element of courage. As in the case of obedience, humility has lost much of its evangelical motivation, tending to become cheerless and supine. True discipleship cannot be generated out of an inventory of personal faults, any more than by a "yes-sir" kind of compliance with orders from above. But brave and honest acceptance of oneself and others, warts and all, is certainly required and rewarded in a life that is fittingly termed Christian.

God and Human Empowering

The words we have been considering function not only as shorthand descriptions of human conduct and character, but plainly derive their moral force from the belief in a more-than-human reality known as God. Both terms refer to a source and standard of behavior which, although other than human, are taken to define and determine our humanity itself. Apart from such a reference obedience and humility are ultimately meaningless --and this despite the obvious fact that they are drawn from all-too-human experiences of subordination and submission.

Relationship to God has immemorially been expressed in such terms, carrying the implied view that human life stands under God, demanding obedience, and before God, signifying humility. We are not our own light, as Flannery OíConnor wrote to a friend, but have our being in dependence on Another. Our very existence, bracketed by the mystery of birth and death, points beyond itself to that Otherís will. Most forms of religious tradition seek to penetrate these mysteries through prayer and worship issuing in active devotion to the One believed to "hold the whole world in his hands." The only right response must be that of avowed humility and unconditional obedience.

The sense of life as something given, held in trust, and rendered back to God is probably strongest in the great monotheistic religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam accentuate in various ways the almost universal persuasion that living is a precarious business at best, requiring that the guidance of a superior, surrounding Being should be acknowledged and accepted absolutely. Rituals of penitence and praise reinforce the sense of finiteness and temporality felt in the presence of what is infinite and eternal.

In the religious West, God is generally addressed in power-language, however modified by motifs of mercy and forgiveness coming from the Most High. This language is buttressed by images of ownership, command, or sovereignty which arise naturally in domestic and political experience. Thus God is named in sacred writings and in the creeds, prayers, and hymns of the faithful as King or Lord or Father -- all of which are titles given to those who stand in power and authority over others who have only to assent and accept.

Thoroughly accustomed to such language, Christians in particular tend to forget that it carries the burden of models drawn from long experience of monarchy, hierarchy, and patriarchy in human affairs. How indeed could it have been otherwise if men and women were to think of God at all? King of the universe, Lord of hosts, Judge of all history, God is deemed to have absolute control over everything natural and human. Not even family living escapes the all-seeing eye of God the Father, whose will is law and whose word is always right.

The article of faith in God as Power has come under criticism recently from believers and nonbelievers alike. An age as power-hungry and as power-threatened as ours is peculiarly able to understand the traditional fascination with divine omnipotence. Not surprisingly, some argue that the older ways of belief are not for us, as they have been too deeply eroded by modern encounters with power in its most perverse, corrupting forms. Others of course assert that power-language with God as its object remains indispensable, if not sacred, and is not to be rejected for whatever reason. Either way, a crisis of credibility is upon us, as the stoutest reassertions of old doctrine grow more tense and frayed, and as it is suspected that Almightiness is more demonic that divine.

How then shall men and women of religious faith respond? Neither repeating nor rejecting ancient names for God, but aware that we have this faith-treasure in very earthen vessels, is it not a believerís duty to try to discriminate one from the other? Not to do so means willfully abandoning the prophetic task of faith itself. A far better way is that of courageous questioning, and being questioned, by Godís truth which is ever old and ever new in its concern for making human life more human.

Following this clue of faith does not mean denying any kind of power to God. The choice, rather, is between two very different understandings of divine efficacy and energy. The first is strikingly expressed in John Calvinís statement that "not a drop of rain falls to the ground except at the deliberate command of God." The second finds its voice in Saint Paulís conviction that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

There is a world of difference here which faith must learn to read and grasp. Belief in God cannot tell us why everything that happens must happen, from raindrops to revolutions. We are not thereby provided with an explanation of the way the universe acts, for that would make faith quite irrelevant. If I know, I do not need to believe. But that is a far cry from Paulís confidence that God works in everything for good with those who love the purpose that has called them into being. Godís power here assumes the form of empowerment, favoring and fostering the work of love, never coercing but always constraining humankind in manifold and wondrous ways. We shall not go wrong if we keep in view this gentler, more humane understanding of divine power.

Recently a prominent rabbi declared that he could not believe in a God who willed the Holocaust. There is surely something darkly and doggedly perverse in any so-called faith that can regard the suffering and dying of fellow humans as ordered or permitted by God. Divine omnipotence is the shabbiest possible excuse for the harm and hurt persons inflict upon each other; it is scarcely less suspect when it is used to explain weather changes or freak accidents or sudden death.

To ascribe unlimited, indiscriminate power to God is plainly unworthy of religious faith. Omnipotence raises far more questions than it answers; it is bad ethics and worse theology. There are better images for God than potentates or dictators, and the Bible is closer to the truth of faith in speaking of God as a wronged husband, a pleading advocate, an unselfish giver, a devoted lover, a long-suffering parent. Unilateral control that rules by force and fear, claiming our homage in servile obedience and downcast humility, belongs not to God but to a usurping idol which has no right to that name.



1. Peter Abelard, Dialogue of a Philosopher with a Jew and a Christian (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1979),121.

2. Dorothee Soelle, "Paternalistic Religion as Experienced by Women," in Concilium, "God As Father?" (New York: Seabury Press, March 1981), 75.

3. See Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1950), for the distinction between authoritarian and humanitarian religion cited by Soelle here and elsewhere in her writings.

4. From his essay, "Secular Criticism of Christian Obedience and the Christian Reaction to That Criticism," in Concilium, "Christian Obedience" (New York: Seabury Press, November 1980), 14.

5. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, The Steps of Humility (London: Mowbray, 1957), 21-43.

6. James Cone says that when black people read "Blessed are the meek" it does not mean that "black people are going to let white people beat the hell out of them."

Viewed 62521 times.