Avengers and the problem of evil: part two – omnipotence otherwise

In my last post, I argued that the Avengers films help us diagnose a possible problem with certain formulations of the problem of evil. The films present quasi-deities who intervene to redress evils at successively greater orders of magnitude, culminating logically in Thanos’ intended annihilation of all living beings in the cosmos in order to eradicate the evil inherent in them. When we ask how God can be all powerful (in an all knowing way), good and yet tolerate horrific evils, we may need to be careful about the logic of divine intervention we are implying, and where it leads.

There are many approaches in the Christian tradition to understanding God’s role in relation to evil. All seek to uphold the goodness and justice of God, but in other respects they vary widely. As with most subjects in Christian doctrine and practice, this one is highly contested, now probably more than ever. My particular focus here is on how Christian thinkers conceive divine omnipotence in respect of evil.

In the modern era, if I can venture a broad generalisation, in contexts shaped by the enlightenment movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, there has been a tendency to think of God in interventionist ways, and to treat divine omnipotence (and other divine attributes) as an easily conceivable predicate with a simple meaning continuous with other discourses about power, one that can readily and straightforwardly be deployed in syllogisms. The inconsistent triad is a product of that development (I suspect much of the history of traditional Christian-centred western philosophy of religion is, too). Its influence is felt when divine omnipotence is asserted, problematised, defended and denied.

Questions of the nature of divine power in relation to creatures run through every area of Christian thought and teaching, but I want to focus briefly on three that seem especially relevant to the topic of evil: creation; Christology; and pneumatology.

Creation

I’m fairly persuaded by those (such as Kathryn Tanner, Janet Soskice, Denys Turner, and before him Herbert McCabe) who take the doctrine of creation ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) to be key to the way Christians should understand what they mean by the concept ‘God’. It’s an idea with its roots in the concern to affirm the uniqueness and unrivalled primacy of the Creator which early Christianity found in second Temple Jewish texts and in Jewish Scriptures they took as scriptural such as what biblical scholars now called Second Isaiah. Thomas Aquinas is usually taken as one of the conceptually clearest exponents of the doctrine and its implications, and it’s his sort of approach (informed by readings by David Burrell, McCabe, Turner & Tanner) I have in mind here.

Creation out of nothing is a negation. It says that God did not create everything out of pre-existing material. Not only the basic ordering principles on which the order of things hangs, but the reality to which they lend the possibility and character of order, come from God. The consequence of that affirmation is to distinguish God from creation, and God’s creative action in respect of creation from other kinds of action, cause and effect, in an unparalleled way. This second consequence distinguishes the difference God makes in creation from every other difference in creation. It is, as David Burrell puts it, not a difference within the world, but one which nevertheless appears in the world. It is the difference between the whole cosmos in all its vastness and minute complexity, its empty tracts, its burning stars, its worlds, barren and life-filled, and the myriad forms of life which inhabit, furnish and transform some of their ever-changing surfaces and sub-surfaces, and… nothing: not even an absence. It is a difference for which there is no category because it is unlike any difference knowable to us, any difference within the world. It is the work of omnipotence, if you like, but it is not an intervention.

It is a difference that makes possible differences of every kind. It is a difference directly and intimately present in every difference in every particular, at the very heart of everything that exists: the making real of each thing by the touch of the One who is simply and essentially Reality, as a flame ignites by contact with itself, to borrow Aquinas’ metaphor.

It is a difference which realises a contingent cosmos, ever changing, full of inter-dependencies, home in places to fragile ecosystems and vulnerable creatures. On this account, the evanescent life of plankton, flies and beetles in their food chains is as much the work of omnipotence as the uplifted mountain chains or the glaciers which grind them away. Indeed, it is all these and everything connected to them, however remotely, at once and together and all the time, through the physical, biological and social systems and processes from which they emerge, but achieved from God’s side in no time and with no motive other than the desire to share the gift of existence and multiply its recipients. That exercise of divine power produces systems of energy and motion at every level of scale, with their relative integrities, and finite organisms, with their several powers, drawing and producing and circulating and expending energy, information, and affectivity.

None of this does away with the problem of evil. But it does recast it. Evil, on this account, is something contingent and adventitious to creation, a kind of difference that arises within it by the reduction and impairment of the ordered existence and functioning of systems, corporeal, psychological, social and environmental. Some of that impairment seems intrinsic to certain ecosystems, to the operating of food-chains, for example. Some of it seems wanton, excessive, and meaning-collapsing, to borrow Marilyn McCord-Adams’ definition of horrific evils. And it involves the de-formation of creaturely agents and structures so that their capacities mal-function, working destructively and oppressively from their impaired created powers.

On this understanding, God’s creative power is the source of capacities of resistance and repair, and some accounts of God’s governance of creation stress the divine restraint of forces of evil and the upholding of creatures against them. But in Christian tradition Jesus Christ is central to how God addresses the phenomenon of destructive evil in creation. The dominant paradigm in Christianity for understanding who Jesus Christ is, and how God acts in him, has long been the incarnation: the advent of God’s own Word in the form of this particular fully human life.

Christology

At first glance, the incarnation looks quite like a super-heroic intervention of the order of the Avengers. Alien superheroes who live apparently human lives on earth, whether explicitly divine with divine parents, like Thor, or with superpowers and alien father-figures, like Superman, in the DC comics and films, seem to echo this Christian doctrine.

In a way, there is plenty of precedent for them in some of the ways in which Christians have imagined Jesus. Indeed, the history of Christianity is haunted by efforts to grasp Jesus Christ’s identity by understanding him in terms like these, a Demi-God with tremendous powers and a degree of vulnerability who defeats his enemies through his victorious sufferings and his overcoming of them. It is an enduringly powerful picture of the Saviour, easily attached to powerful historical human figures with putative divine missions.

Yet it does not do justice to the New Testament portraits of Jesus, especially if those in the Synoptics are taken into account. For, variously rendered, with their different themes, emphases, and theologies, but sharing basic commonalities of plot, they present an individual who is, as Hans Frei argued, irreducibly particular and just so of cosmic significance; the subject of a life in history and yet, as one whose identity is inseparable from that of God, whose life, death and resurrection matter decisively and comprehensively for the life and identity of everyone, even every creature. Jesus for Matthew in particular is someone in whom is combined a genetic and cultural heritage that looks back to through the genealogies, to Abraham, and yet also ‘God with us’,  whose identity is of ultimate import for Israel and for every people. That combination marks a contrast with the identities of the Avengers and their enemies, and the logic of intervention they share, even at its maximal scale.

Toward the end of Age of Ultron, Ultron seems to suggest that he is putting humanity on probation. He is asked, What should happen if they fail the test? ‘Ask Noah‘, he replies, and implies he is God’s instrument of annihilation (as pointed out here), foreshadowing the mission Thanos has already adopted. In the narrative of Genesis, in its eventual form, God appears to turn away from this way of thinking, promising never to wipe life from the face of the earth. As Christine Hayes suggests in one of her online Yale lectures, God seems to learn from the episode. It is as though the development of God’s character in the narrative enacts the exploration of a theological option that is then – apparently – left behind: a certain catastrophic interventionism. An alternative approach that works through particularity is explored instead. God henceforth takes a different approach, one that seeks to make a difference to all people through one person and his descendants, namely, Abraham. Matthew, Luke, and Paul, frame Jesus’ identity as the culmination of this project

The logic of intervention in respect of Jesus looks different, then. But isn’t there a coincidence of particularity and cosmic scope in the case of Avengers Infinity and Endgame also? The scale of Thanos’ original and his later intended annihilation and the undoing of the former and the prevention of the latter are both cosmic. Thanos also links his cosmic genocides to his identity (‘I am inevitable!‘), as Tony Stark links the action which annihilates Thanos and his hordes in an act of self-sacrifice to his Avenger name (‘I am Iron Man‘, a remark which recapitulates his first self-revelation). There are christological echoes here, signalled by the use of the ‘I am’ formula, which Thanos had also used in Avengers: Infinity War, standing in the wreckage of the Asgardian ship (‘Dread it. run from it. Destiny arrived all the same. And now it is here. Or should I say, I am.’) But the differences made by these characters, though cosmic scope, do not extend as far and as deep as the difference the New Testament attributes to Jesus Christ, nor do they inhere as deeply in the particularity of these characters: in who they are, typically or cumulatively. For by means of the narratives about him, Jesus’ particularity comes to colour and shape the difference he makes: what it means to be the Son of Man or the Son of God, a king, or the Christ. And such is the difference made by this Jesus that one NT writer, Paul, can describe it as a new creation.

On Frei’s analysis (and that of several NT scholars), the NT presents a variety of high Christologies, of which Johannine Christology is only one. For those in the Christian tradition who have sought to understand the figure indicated by those witnesses, the parading of the incarnation has been central to combining other scriptural patterns and titles along with extra-biblical concepts. If we can summarise the overall tendency of this way of thinking, amidst its considerable internal disagreements, it is to see the union and difference between Jesus and God in the Spirit as reflecting an eternal differentiation and unity in God, in which it is grounded. The particularity of Jesus of Nazareth in its cosmic significance is then the expression of that first difference in God, in a historical life, by the joining of the One who is God in the way, with creaturely life in its human form.

There’s a good case for saying that in much of the pre-modern Christian tradition, it is this joining of One who is God with a human life that is central to salvation: reconciliation, death-defeating, justice and the healing of human nature hang off this union (in this sort of mode, Kathryn Tanner has argued that the Incarnation is atonement). It represents another mode of the work of omnipotence, one focused in and shaping a particular life with comprehensive, cosmic significance. It is, as Karl Barth argued, a work of divine freedom for this One to take on fully creaturely existence in this way (indeed, Barth would argue that this is where we learn what divine freedom is). It is a work of divine power to make creaturely life ‘his’ or ‘her’ own, such that the creature is not annulled or diminished but becomes very much himself, such that One who is God is born, grows, learns, knows joy, fatigue, hunger and thirst, works, learns obedience to God, carries out the work of divine love, suffers death and is raised to life – and in just this way remakes creaturely existence in and as this creature and unites it with God’s own life. It seems like an intervention, yet it takes place within the creation where God’s power already touches everything, and, in one person, it makes a difference with universal, cosmic ramifications: a re-creation that does not destroy but heals creaturely life, turns it back to God, and lifts it to share in the circulation of God’s own life, within the difference and unity internal to God.

Once again, these tenets do not obviate or resolve the problem of evil, but they do give it a different cast. They proclaim that in this person, evil is overcome, defeated, and exhausted; the wounds it leaves are healed and the threat it poses is finally superseded . But it also says that this difference is one in which creatures are yet to fully share. It conditions our reality, it lies hidden, its fullness may be anticipated in human lives, communities and even in our larger histories, but its full realisation in creatures is not yet and must be awaited. It structures human subjectivity in longing, lament and in hope. It prompts the question, why this way? It evokes the ancient cry, ‘how long?’

Pneumatology

In much Christian tradition, the joining of lives and communities to the new creation in Jesus of Nazareth is the work of God’s Spirit. This incorporation into his humanity and thereby into the divine life is a third work of omnipotence, the joining of other creatures to God, which only God can do. It is, as Sarah Coakley has argued, an experiential as well as scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, one which (I think) is operative in fourth century arguments for the Spirit’s full deity. This joining has potential for helping us re-conceive omnipotence further, and the difference it makes in the face of evil.

As Willie Jennings points out in The Christian Imagination, there is considerable danger in Christian universalism. The history of modern European colonialism which he traces in selected episodes there demonstrates that thesis, in the way it fused the universality of Christ with white identity and power, premised on supersessionism, which reduced land and place to exploitable space and racialised de-racinated identities of subjugated peoples. That legacy, and the vision of Christian power it embodies, is still very much with us, including in our images of superheroes and superpower.

Jennings finds, however, in the story of Pentecost and especially of the conversion of Cornelius and his household – and of Peter to eat with Gentiles – an alternative vision of human intimacy, of the joining of those with different cultures and with the land, in the Jewish body of Jesus. It points us to other possibilities of living out belief in divine omnipotence in response to evil, to the possibilities of affirming omnipotence otherwise.

Contemplating God at Exeter St David’s

I was in Exeter this week, travelling by train, and so came again across Bridget Hall’s wonderful murals in Exeter St David’s, on the stairs from Platform 1. This one is the clearest clue to what’s going on: the train guard leaning out and gesturing imperiously from the dining car is a pastiche of Michelangelo’s depiction of God the Father creating the sun and moon, from the series of images depicting scenes from the book of Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Hall’s murals are witty pastiches of some of those images.

To catch the allusion is to enjoy the joke: the serious subjects of Michelangelo’s paintings in their exclusive, sacred and awe-inspiring setting at the heart of the palace of the purported Vicar of Christ become whimsical mundane characters at work or waiting for a train in a British railway station. Smile and walk on to your platform or the exit. Yet they’ve stayed with me, and I think deserve a little further thought – without losing sight of the joke – as examples of theology done in public.

I’m not claiming to know what Bridget Hall was thinking in choosing to nod to Michelangelo. But by putting Michelangelo’s God in a dining carriage on Exeter station, and in alluding to other scenes he painted from Genesis, she makes her murals theological. And that invites reflection.

The depiction of God the Father is as I say, the most obvious. Compare it to the original:

Michelangelo’s muscled God zooms toward us, sending sun and moon spinning into place from nowhere by his gesticulated command, his determination to order etched upon his frowning, bearded face, while cherubs attend in wonder and amazement. Hall’s God looks alone and less certain, less dynamic, leaning rather than zooming, and framed by a window, rather than defining the surrounding space. His gesture, still too large for the setting, might be to point out the right platform to an enquiringly traveller. He has been brought down to earth. This is God as one of us, a stranger on a train rather than a bus, but who might at least be able to point the way home if we’re lost. We don’t suppose even the Pope in Rome will be calling on the phone. (Apologies to Joan Osbourne).

The Exeter mural, precisely by its humour and pathos, pays a wry homage to Michelangelo and passes comment on his deity. That comment could be construed as socio-cultural commentary: God is no longer in his heaven as far as many of us are concerned, no longer a figure of power and command, the paternal archetype of the Christ the Judge of the Sistine rear wall; the tide of faith has (the mural suggests) receded in Devon as on Dover beach. The timetable, standardised time as a universal measure of mechanical causality, rules in place of God, and frames what we make of God. Hall’s God as conductor or ticket inspector could be taken as a wry comment on a deist deity or ‘God of the gaps’, fitted awkwardly into the frame of a cosmos ordered without reference to him, a hypothesis of which we have no need in our World Come of Age.

Alternatively, it could be taken as Feuerbachian or feminist analysis: Hall’s image tells us that Michelangelo’s deity is the projection of human self-understanding in general, and of patriarchal ideology especially. Indeed, it could be taken, consequent on all these analyses, as negative theology: the divine patriarch of the Sistine chapel, and the Deist deity squatting in our universe, are human creations in our image, idols. God is not this, not that. God’s nature, in at least parts of Christian tradition, is beyond comprehension, unnameable, beyond adequate conceptual or visual representation, beyond species and genus, as Aquinas says. Not much apophatic theology, however, makes its point so wittily or accessibly!

What about the other images? I think I can identify two possible allusions. This one alludes to the creation of light and its separation from darkness, the first of the Genesis scenes on the Sistine chapel ceiling and, if I remember correctly, this is also the first mural you encounter as you ascend the stairs at Exeter. Here’s the Exeter image and the original:

Michelangelo depicts God flinging light into being and dividing it from darkness by his robed body in an image framed by possibly angelic nudes reclining against neoclassical architecture. Hall has apparently replaced the deity entirely in her version. Light is represented by an information board, which a pair or couple walk past, animatedly discussing something. The reclining nude angels have been replaced by two male passengers in casual clothing in similar poses to the angels, holding a ticket and (perhaps) a timetable. The one on the right reproduces the right-hand angel’s intense, possibly erotic, gaze at his neighbour. In fact, it is only their poses which allow us to identify the allusion. This is also an image which, in contrast to Michelangelo’s scene, includes a black person in the space analogous to that occupied by Michelangelo’s God. More of that later.

The other image I want to mention alludes to the creation of Eve:

Michelangelo has an elderly God beckons Eve from a sleeping Adam, bordered by more corpulent angelic nudes. Again, in Hall’s mural the angels are the main feature and the only clue to the allusion, transmuted into clothed, lounging tourists, neither replicating the statuesque whiteness of Michelangelo’s figures. There’s no Adam or Eve in the framed image, only a grey bearded man with a briefcase, who looks like he’s swaying backwards as a train passes.

These murals are images in which sacred history has been replaced by quotidian experiences of being in transit, of leisure anticipated or exhausted, of meaningless surprise and ordinary conversations about routes or directions. They are also images alluding to scenes before what Michelangelo, following the Christian tradition, construed as the Fall. They depict a mundane paradise of mild boredom, perhaps of bored erotic interest. In Michelangelo’s images, the human form echoes the divine and the angelic. In Bridget Hall’s murals, God walks incognito as another human, and the angels are earthly, the dramas are small-scale and intimate. These are what we are to celebrate, looking at them at eye level, in public spaces.

They are also images which challenge the hegemony of white bodies as representatives of sacred history, angelic life, and the divine.

One could read them as celebrations of travel, of a time when opportunities for leisure and the disposable income to take advantage of them are relatively widespread. But perhaps one could also see something else. In the Christian tradition, leisure has been seen as a condition of possibility of contemplating God. Perhaps another way to read these images is to see these quasi-angelic figures as contemplatives who, disabused of the idolatrous theologies of projection, patriarchy and whiteness, seek the God who cannot be seen, but whose creative action makes possible the everyday world, the ways we order it, and its dramas and mundanities. Unlike some stations, Exeter St David’s can hardly be compared to a cathedral (sorry). But through Bridget Hall’s murals it can be read as a kind of liminal sacred space where ordinary time may be suspended between journeys, and our attention diverted by images into an imageless prayer.