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.

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Avengers and the problem of evil (part one)

It’s not difficult to make a case for reading the Marvel Universe theologically. Not only do gods like Thor, Odin and Loki, and celestials like Ego, feature amongst its cast of characters, but many of the Avengers and their opponents have quasi-divine powers, albeit the supernatural is often re-naturalised by way of back-stories involving genetic or other technologies. The differences between divine and human Avengers are differences of degree. As ‘War Machine’ tells Captain Marvel at the headquarters of the surviving Avengers in Avengers Endgame, ‘everyone here has that superhero vibe.’ Noticing the way these films are populated by characters with such divine qualities allows us to ask what is done through these representations of the divine, which is to ask about these films as works of theology, in a fairly generic way. (1)

One effect is implicit in what we’ve already observed: these films blur the distinction between divinity and other (humanoid) species by way of technological enhancements of various kinds. The humans among these augmented characters are treated as still fully human in the films. They exhibit human needs and desires for relationships, for example. They have human flaws and vulnerabilities. And they are taken as representative of humanity by others, whether by opponents like Ultron or Thanos, or by allies, like Vision. Their augmentations and powers do not seem to place their humanity in question. (Perhaps the only characters who begin to really raise the question of the post-human in earnest are the AI characters, Jarvis and Ultron). Other characters tend to show the same features, they are anthropomorphically imagined, including deities. Altogether, then, the divine and quasi-divine inhabitants of the Marvel Universe seem to be a projection of an imagined humanity (a so far predominantly heterosexual humanity, though the films celebrate less conventional images of the family) on to a larger scale.

That enlargement of scale serves a number of purposes in the films. It allows them to invest ordinary human dramas of love, friendship, family and loss with extraordinary heroic, even cosmic significance. It is part of the Afrofuturism by which Black Panther celebrates and affirms a pan-African identity. It also allows them to treat standard themes of redemptive violence (even while briefly questioning them as Age of Ultron does) and noble sacrifice on a scale at once cosmic and individual. In this way, perhaps, like other stories of super-heroes, the films allow us to imagine a sense of individual agency in a vast, complex world menaced by myriad large-scale threats. In this way also, like other stories of super-heroes, it brings the Avengers – but not only the Avengers – up against the question of evil, its nature, origins and undoing.

What’s interesting to me about the later Avengers films in this respect is the way they seem to focus in on the issue of divine responsibility for undoing, redressing or preventing evil at large, or what is commonly called ‘the problem of evil’, and is both a standard question in traditional modern, western philosophy of religion, and a common reason for the rejection and loss of belief in theistic religions.

In this regard, we can trace a process of increasing scope and scale of the interventions made by divine and quasi-divine beings to redress, undo or prevent evil acts or situations. We might distinguish the interventions by individual heroes to save specific places, interventions by teams of heroes to thwart larger conspiracies and organisations (e.g. Hydra), interventions to save the planet or large parts of its population, and interventions by still a larger alliance, in Infinity War and Endgame, to undo the elimination of half the population of the universe. In a sense, the Marvel films are peopled largely by interventionist gods and their friends and we are invited to suspend our disbelief in them.

There is a thread of ambiguity attached to these heroes and their interventions and the institutions that support them. That ambiguity attaches in part to the US military, to the organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., to Tony Stark as a hero and former arms manufacturer, a semi-rogue member, even embodiment, of the industrial-military complex, and to the Avengers as a group. In each case suspicion is raised about how far the heroes differ from the villains, their links with the military-industrial complex, and the lack of oversight or checks on their actions: who guards the Guardians? This is the basis on which we are invited briefly (and not very successfully) to entertain empathy with the critical perspective on the Avengers of the self-conscious, rogue AI entity, Ultron, in Age of Ultron.

Ultron was dreamt up by Tony Stark as the presiding AI genius of a global defence system against alien incursion, which Stark, with the assistance of Dr Bruce Banner, creates in secret and without anyone’s authorisation. It is an intervention that creates a quasi-human quasi-divine entity (who in turn inadvertently creates a second, the Vision) as a means of preventing evil on a planetary scale. Ultron’ assessment of risk is the converse of this: the danger comes from the Avengers, indeed from humanity. Eventually Ultron concludes that a planetary level solution is required, the mass extinction of humanity (and presumably other creatures, but Marvel is, despite itself, a firmly anthropocentric universe). As Wanda points out in that film, Ultron’s plan betrays the lineage of Stark’s scheme. The continuity between them is the augmentation and expansion or upscaling of power as a rationalistic response to the threat of evil.

Ultron’s scheme rests in part on appropriating the Space Stone, one of the Infinity Stones through which fundamental dimensions of reality can be manipulated (Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Time, Soul). As Thanos’ appearance and speech at the end of the film suggests, we are to enderstand Ultron’s taking of the stone as part of a larger plan by Thanos to obtain all six stones, in order to wield their combined power through a gauntlet constructed to hold them and allow their power to be used. But there is continuity also between Ultron’s scheme and Thanos’ grand plan. For Thanos’ plan is also a coldly rationalistic response to evils in the cosmos, one which he previously been carrying out in piecemeal interventions: to eliminate half the population of the cosmos in order to eliminate the competition for resources to which Thanos ascribes social (and perhaps ecological) evils. What distinguishes Thanos’ plan, successfully accomplished by his snap of the fingers of the gauntlet at the end of Infinity War, is its scale and scope, and the degree of divine power required to achieve it. It is a work of a kind of omniscient omnipotence, the ultimate divine intervention, paralleled only by the act that undoes it.

Or nearly. Near the end of the convulsed plot of Endgame an earlier Thanos, having learnt of the Avengers’ plan to reconvene the infinity stones in order to bring back those annihilated by his finger snap, is transported forward through time to the Avengers HQ just after the success of that plan. Faced by the revived and reassembled Avengers he announces the lesson he has learnt: that the survivors of his semi-annihilation have not been able to adjust to what his later self has done. He will have to scale up his intervention to a total wipe-out, and a fresh start. By way of the connections between the planning of Stark, Ultron and Thanos, this intended act is the culmination of an escalating logic of intervention by gods and demi-gods with ever closer approximations to a sort of omniscient omnipotent total intervention.

There is a horrible logic to this escalation. Limited interventions can at best halt, limit or prevent certain acts or events causing horrific suffering. But the causes of such suffering are complex, systemic and pervasive and the vulnerability of living beings to it seems inherent, extensive and may at best only be mitigated. Thanos’ choice to annihilate everyone and start again perhaps recognises this intractable difficulty in intervening to stop and prevent all suffering, but does so without any real compassion for actual living beings, or any real appreciation of the goods of their fragile, ambiguous existence. It is, in the end, a pitiless rationalisation of pure multi-genocidal will to power: ‘I am inevitable.’

This line of analysis raises a question, I would suggest, for formulations of the problem of evil which involve some sort of omniscient omnipotence as one of their key premises. For popular (and academic) constructions like the ‘inconsistent triad’ – God cannot be both omnisciently omnipotent and good and yet permit the existence of horrendous suffering – seem to imagine omnipotence in interventionist terms, making specific differences to the world or to the conditions of creaturely existence. Such accounts may need to show how they can avoid implying or requiring the kind of escalation of intervention we find in the Avengers films. On the whole, as I’ll argue in a second post, the emphasis in much of the Christian tradition has been on imagining divine intervention in a rather different way.

(1) I’ve seen many of these films, but not all, and I’ve not read the comics.