If God is Good and Everywhere Why Isn’t Everything Godly and Good?
A sermon based on Acts 17:22-31
May 25, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott
A pair of mischievous eight-year-old twins got into a lot of trouble in their neighborhood. When things got damaged or went missing the neighbors called their parents. Exasperated their mom asked the pastor across the street to tell the kids God’s watching when no one is looking. The pastor agreed to meet the boys one at a time. When the first one arrived the pastor sat the boy on the front stoop and asked, “Son, where is God?” The little boy’s mouth dropped open, but he said nothing. So, the pastor asked again “Where is God, son?” The twin just sat and stared. The pastor started to again ask “WHERE IS GOD?” but the boy jumped up, ran home and hid under his bed. His brother peeked under the bed and whispered “What happened?” The frightened twin replied, “We are in BIG trouble! God is missing and they think WE took him!”
Where is God? is a question that comes up a lot in my vocation. Often it is asked in frustration or disappointment, as in, “Where was God when we needed God to stop a war or a death or an illness or a misfortune of one kind or another?” Memorial weekend seems a good time as any to address this question and the Lectionary text we heard Cliff read helps . . . I think.
I try and preach and teach a wide variety of messages, but you may have noticed I tend to repeat the central themes that God is good, God is everywhere, God is love and that we are, all of us, loved and matter much and that we need to be love in the world. This isn’t new stuff. It’s thousands of years old and Bible based.
But here’s the thing, these core messages run against a cold hard fact that seems to conflict with them. The fact is bad things happen in the world. If God is good and everywhere why do bad things happen? If we are soaking in God, why don’t we always experience this always good, always love, always everywhere God’s presence?
Where is God? Part of the problem is an assumption that God is all powerful and uses on earth all the power we humans have come to imagine that God wields.
You may have noticed that I did not, and I do not, preach and teach that God is all powerful, omnipotent. I do not assume that is a true, at least not in the sense we are taught to. By that I mean, the evidence before us suggests that God does not use instance supernatural fixing, powers to stop bad things. If “all powerful” means wielding the power to immediately end all bad occurrences in creation whether natural or human-made, well God’s not doing that in day-to-day reality.
The troubling question boiled down is basically this: If God is love and all powerful then why doesn’t God lovingly use all that power to stop bad things immediately; or why does God let them happen at all? This has been a theological conundrum for eons. How is God just and loving in light of the existence of suffering and evil?
This is tough stuff. More than a few people have walked away from church or God when bad things happen, because they’ve thought that God didn’t stop them, or worse, that God caused them. If we are soaking in God, why isn’t God rescuing us? Some argue it’s a mystery. Some argue it’s a lesson. Some argue it’s payback for sins we or others commit–that’s a real popular one in the televangelist circles and most pastor’s that capture the media’s attention.
There are other ways of answering the question. One way that I find particularly intriguing (and wanted to share in case some of us might find it helpful) is derived from a line of theological thought called “Process Theology.”
Professor Robert Mesle introduces process theology in his book An Introduction to Process Theology in this simple way: “‘Process theology’” he writes “‘is the name of an effort to make sense, in the modern world, of the basic Christian faith that God is love.’” 1.
Making sense in the modern world of the basic Christian faith that God is love, that’s one of the main reasons many (if not all) of us are here today. It’s why we belong to this faith and this church. As fully as possible we want to know, we want to understand, we want to experience and be a part of this God of Love that we talk about and worship and pray to– Right?
Parts of Christian faith, as it has been handed down to us does not always make sense to us. It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it is even very hard to believe, to have faith, that God is love as we consider ideas and doctrines and preachings that make no sense in the modern world, at least not if God is really truly love and all powerful.
The Bible’s repeated declarations that God’s love is steadfast and endures forever clashes with theological claims which declare God causes plagues and diseases and deaths and disasters– and hell and damnation. There are so many competing theologies, discourses within our tradition about God. We hear not only that God is love, but, also never changing, all powerful and all knowing and everywhere.
And hardest of all – for me anyways– is that popular notion of a vengeful, punishing God; this idea of a loving God meting out harsh punishment in life and eternally afterlife. The punishment we are told is especially imposed on those who cannot grasp or accept an often fuzzy, complicated and – dare I say– at times unbelievable way of Love.
The idea of Christianity that we seem to most often hear about in the culture makes God so fearsome that we become too afraid to ask questions about God. Yet, the truth is no amount of Bible thumping and fear-mongering about God can chase away the nagging questions about how a God of Love who is all knowing with unlimited power and omnipresence does not stop violence or save lives or prevent disease or accidents or death or other calamity and suffering.
How could Love not stop – or worse, cause– harms in the world? How could love create an everlasting hell to put anyone in?
Professor Mesle addresses the dilemma like this:
I find the ethics of the traditional God quite appallingly erratic and often demonic. In the Bible and in much of Christian thought, God has been described as directly willing and causing great evils: war, slavery, plague, famine, and even hardness of human hearts. At the very best God has been depicted as standing by and allowing needless suffering that “He” could easily have prevented. 2.
Although many in Christianity’s history have tried to stop this type of questioning and observation, they are nonetheless fair and natural questions and observations. Here at this church we encourage such questions and observations, we do not hide from them or bury them or try to scare us away from them.
This line of questioning and observation about God’s existence in the face of bad things happening actually has a theological fancy name. It’s called “theodicy” which means justifying God’s “justice and goodness in light of suffering and evil.” 3.
Traditional church answers to the dilemma of theodicy have included almost anything, from insisting on the unquestioning belief in the infallibility of the Bible and the God depicted therein, to claims that the ways of God are too complex for humans to comprehend and so we should not trouble ourselves with contradictions but live with them. Boiled down their answer seems to be: We are not to question this depiction of God.
A lot of people have wound their way through the morass of contradictions and concerns raised by the clash of God as love and the not so loving things we hear about God. That is great! If you are one of those folks: hold on to what you have found that helps you. Truly. Just because a pastor preaches and explores a way different than yours does not mean it’s a better way than what is working for you. In the end you should decide after careful prayer and consideration what works best to help you understand and experience God and follow Jesus’ Way of love.
If you are not one of those who has arrived at a comfortable theology, and a way of understanding how awful things exist in light of the God who is Love you are not alone. This conflict between the God of love and the reality of the harshness of life, hangs in the air for a lot of people, and traditional views and the relatively new idea of Fundamentalism do not seem to be all of our-cup-of-tea. They don’t answer our questions and concerns. In particular the idea of God as a male super-being above creation (but not part and parcel of it) doesn’t fit with all of our experiences.
But there is a way to understand God called panentheism. Pan means “all.” En means “in.” Panentheism: All-is-in-God. Panentheists understand the universe – all– to be in God, but that God is more than that all-ness. God is creation-plus.
Panentheism is how process theology (and others like Marcus Borg and Barbara Brown Taylor) understand God. There is Biblical warrant for this. As we heard, Paul claims God is what we live and move and have our being in. We also heard, Psalm 139 asserts that God is everywhere from Sheol to the ends of the earth. I also like 1 John’s claim that we “abide in God and God abides in [us].” These verses give a sense that we are soaked through and through with God. God is love. God is everywhere and then some. It’s these core ideas that Process Theology springs from.
Because God is love and everywhere then God must be at and in the location of all events good and bad. It’s not hard for us to picture God in the good, because God is good (all the time).
It’s hard though to picture God in the bad precisely because of that. But if God is everywhere then God has to be present in the bad. If that is true, then logically God has to share in the bad experience; and be limited in power to stop the bad. This is so because love at the human level would stop bad things from happening if it could, pure love itself would surely stop it if it could.
If God is love and all powerful then God logically should have instantly stopped –for example– things like the torture and killings in Nazi Germany. We know that did not happen, so Process Theology assumes that God is either not all powerful or God’s omnipotence as humans imagine it has otherwise been limited. God is not tossing down lightening bolts or otherwise instantly stopping evil and suffering. That’s reality. This is hard to accept for those of us brought up thinking of God as wielding any and all power that we humans imagine.
Process Theology understands that God does not coerce creation in any way, God does not overrule our freedom or nature’s laws. While God’s power is not coercive. In this way of thinking, Process Theology understands God does have power; the power of self-revelation and the persuasion of Love which causes creation and us, to react and respond.
So, for example, while God did not stop Nazi Germany with instant supernatural intervention, amazingly God’s Love – present in all that was happening– called and beckoned us from within to stop it, to be persuaded by Love away from what was hate and toward what is Love, what is God! And although it was not relatively instantly stopped, Nazi Germany was stopped.
See, Process Theology understands that moment-by-moment God aims us toward Love and calls us, persuades us toward that aim unceasingly. We in turn respond by either moving toward or away from God’s aim and call. God then adapts to our response and in the very next moment re-aims and calls us again toward Love; toward the best we can be.
Humans have two choices in response to God’s aim and call through the persuasion of love: accept it or reject it. The consequences of our choices are that all of creation and God is affected.
Since we are living and moving in God, since we abide in God and God abides in us, God’s self is included in all that happens and has been since the beginning of creation. While God’s work in creation is always good, there is a big difference between God’s aim and what happens. Bad things happen through human choice that resists God’s call. In addition to evil choices by humanity, bad things also happen as part of living; the laws of nature bring about accidents and disease, destruction, injury and death. Bad things happen by human choice or cause of nature, not because God causes them. What God does is call us to Love in each happening . . . in each moment.
If we understand God as not welding all human imagined power to alter our choices or render the laws of nature void. If we instead understand God as always in everything pulling us toward Love such understanding can take away the confusion and contradiction inherent in much of Christianity’s traditional way of understanding God as having the power to do anything we might imagine– it helps infuse reality into the answers to theodicy. That’s why I find it intriguing and am sharing it today. It’s something for us to think about.
Here’s Process Theology in a nutshell: God is love. We abide in God. God abides in us. God creates. God aims creation toward its best– which for us humans is toward Love. The power God wields is the power is to persuade, to call creation to move toward its best and us toward Love. Humans respond to God’s call choosing to follow it or not. God adapts and responds to each moment’s choices and events calling us anew to our best and to love in each and every moment that follows. That’s the process. God is always about love. We are always called to love.
Christianity can be understood to be about the process of Christ’s Way of Love; about responding “Yes!” to God’s unceasing call and aim to be our best, and to move toward love.
God is good and God is love. And where is God? God is everywhere. AMEN.
1. Mesle, Robert, Process Theology: An Introduction, p. 1.
2. Mesle at 5
3. Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms p. 279