I begin at Dachau.
At Buchenwald. Bergen-Belsen. Auschwitz. Anne Frank, who did not make it home. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed days before the liberation. Elie Wiesel’s father. So many millions more.
The classical Christian synthesis of the power of God and the love of God—forged in those formative years of contact with Greek philosophy, hammered out by Augustine and Aquinas and other giants of Christian thought, fractured by the critiques of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and their comrades in intellectual arms—was smashed to pieces by the overwhelming human devastation that was the Holocaust. No longer could any reflective person in the church pretend that the God of power in the traditional sense was truly loving—or that a God of love had any significant power in the world we actually live in. One or the other, it seemed—or the very being of God—had to go.
This is, of course, the issue addressed on a more personal level in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s highly popular When Bad Things Happen to Good People, reassessing a conflict at least as ancient as the biblical Book of Job. It seems that more and more people are taking Kushner’s option of choosing a good and caring God, who does not control events, over the traditional God of power. It is almost as though the God of power was tried for over two thousand years and found wanting, so now we are trying the God of love instead.
This book is an assertion that the choice between God’s love and God’s power is one that we are not required to make.
The prevailing voices in two milennia of Christian tradition asked, “How is an all-powerful God loving?” They answered in a variety of unsatisfying ways, but essentially the problem is that they asked the wrong question. I am asking, instead, “How is an all-loving God powerful?” or “How is God, who is essentially love, powerful?” Therein lies all the difference. I maintain we must allow love to redefine power, rather than allowing power to redefine love. Similarly: To ask how God’s power is loving, and how God’s love is powerful, is not to ask the same question in two different ways; it is to ask two different questions.
I contend that God has all the genuine power that God can possibly have without ceasing to be Love. That is the heart of the issue. And it leads me to affirm the central thesis of this extended exploration into the history of theological debate: that the God we worship and try to comprehend is no other than a God who is Empowering Love.
My initial foray in Part One is into the biblical witness to One characterized very explicitly as a “living” God, tracing the dynamic interrelationship between God and God’s creation, God’s people, through the Old Testament into the New. The centrality of hesed in the former and agape in the latter gives us a handle on understanding the God powerfully at work in us and among us in ways we still struggle to grasp.
Part Two covers the initial encounter of biblical content with the widespread influence of Greek intellectual ideas in the milieu of the Roman Empire, leading to accommodations to the biblical message that proved problematic. What became the predominant synthesis of Christian theism in Augustine of Hippo can be seen to have endured through ensuing centuries down to the present, with subsequent modifications but no essential alteration of the fundamental position on God’s power and love initially formulated. Absolute power won out over love. Love, wherever and however possible, had to be “shoehorned” in, somehow.
In Part Three, I introduce multiple challenges to the Augustinian synthesis that eventually brought about its collapse, ranging from the mystics’ elevation of divine love to a questioning of God’s immutability and essential apathy, including the call for a post-patriarchal understanding of a God who is more than merely male, and arriving eventually at a renewed witness to the absolute importance of elevating love to the center of divine reality and determining this to involve God in essential relationality not just with Godself, through the Trinity, but with all that comes into being under God’s impetus.
The final part of this book is a reconstructive one, the objective toward which all that precedes has been aiming. There, I attempt to explicate the precise meaning I have in mind when I name God the God of Empowering Love.
I fully perceive that there is nothing even remotely final or definitive about this reconstructive effort. Every human construct of thought is subject to deconstruction as a step on the way to a new reconstruction. This is offered as a step in that ongoing process, with no claim greater than perhaps it proves informative and helpful to others who are wrestling with the same problem I am concerned with. I fully expect others to make important advances over what I present here, and that is how it should be.
I also do not deny for one moment that my own perspective is shaped by my social situation. The reach for objectivity is always limited by the reality of one’s own very specific subjectivity. I am a European American male, a Protestant, of some considerable years. My writing is colored by my contextuality. That can only be acknowledged, not surmounted. But I hope that the reflections offered here are expandable into other formulations by those with different cultural settings that inform them.
I have made a conscientious effort to let the voices of the Christian tradition speak for themselves in their own—though often translated— words, rather than interpose my own paraphrasing that can introduce unintentionally a personal bias. Even so, I acknowledge two clear aspects of subjectivity: my particular selection of quotations, and my lifting of them out of their original context. That is, obviously, unavoidable. My claim to fairness is justifiable only by appeal to the reader to delve further into those original sources on your own, should you so choose. My limited attempt to overcome my subjective particularity is to be found only in the range of voices to which I have tried to listen as attentively as possible.
The project for which this book is a culmination had its beginnings four decades ago, when I first published a short essay defining and exploring what I called a “Gospel of Empowering Love.” This is finally a putting to rest of notions that would not let go of me for forty years.
I offer it here as a gift.