Sunday, May 01, 2005

Power and might

I want to say, before I begin, that I write this note under a certain duress. I have no business taking up time writing this just now, but it's something I have to get off my chest. It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently, but I just read an article on the "religious right" in Harper's and just got home from mass, where even we Newman Hall Catholics sing songs about the God of power and might.

My God is the God of power and might only as a trivial corollary. A glance at the Psalms will reveal that I'm on doctrinal thin ice in this opinion. On the other hand, I think this realization is one of the great lessons of our age. Shortly, I'll share two illustrations that I have had in mind for a while. First, though, I submit the question, why don't we sing about the God of fineness and elegance and delicacy? When we come to understand that tremendous power is really not all that interesting in itself, we will have made a real step. If I were to have a teaching, I think that one would be my first choice. There are a great many painfully banal "spiritual paradoxes" that slouch around out there. Excuse me--they're not really banal; but like various other paradoxes (take Russell's paradox, say), they should teach us to think harder and more creatively about the question, rather than just accept them sheepishly as paradoxes. One of these, I think, is the contrast of a God of horrifying power who is also the God of love. Leaving this question in the land of paradox allows people to do such silly things as pick one and not the other--the way a certain sect seems to have settled on power as the central description of God. (As rebuttal to the evangelical thesis, I would point out that we humans are pretty adept with fire and brimstone ourselves at this point, so that "My ways are not your ways" really should suggest that kicking-ass is not really worthy of admiration in itself, even when it's the Lord's Own Can of Whup-Ass. Even if you insist on taking Revelation as prophecy of the end of creation, one needn't be particularly impressed.)

Let me give you my illustrations. First, a relatively large number of people I know like to characterize God as "the infinite." Well, infinity is, indeed, really, really big--much bigger than any finite number, so in some sense, I guess this is not unreasonable. The problem is that we will only ever have experience with very small numbers. There are finite numbers so big that it would be impossible to represent them even using every single particle in the universe to represent one of them. Still, infinity is a whole lot bigger than any one of those monsters. So, you get to "effectively infinite" without getting any closer, at all, to the infinite (\omega is not a successor ordinal, I guess you'd say). Second, let's think about big things. Take big men, say. Shaq, for example, is enormous. Elephants are also very big. But galaxies are so big. When we say something is "big" we're talking out of our collective ass.

The same goes for power. Let's simplify the question to explosions. We can make pretty big explosions. They kill lots of people, and last as long as a few minutes sometimes. But a star is a tremendous explosion that lasts for billions of years. One can say, then, that God's power is so great that it dribbles out stars, but that's beside the point. Being a huge exploding massive body is really not the most interesting aspect of the sun in human life, for example. The "God of power and might" is a terribly coarse filter, so coarse, in fact, that it allows people to ignore most of the wonderful things about God that we are able to perceive or conceive. Moreover, I think the underlying murk of the "power v. love" paradox is identical with the coarseness of the filter--I don't see any paradox in "elegance v. love," for example.