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Christianity 101: What God Can't Do

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More from Phil:

When I was a kid there was this boy in my catechism class named Matt, who, though appearing human, was thought to be demonic. When Father McLaughlin at our Catholic Church gave a sermon in which he described the devil, everyone turned and looked at Matt. Here’s how bad Matt was, that once when I was standing beside him in the communion line, I could smell sulfur, and when I looked closely at his head, I saw the nubbins of little horns, poking through his fire-singed hair.

Danville was a small town then, so I knew Matt’s parents, and even his grandparents. One day I was with my mother at Kroger’s and we bumped into Matt’s grandmother, so my mother stopped to chat with her. His grandmother looked at me, smiled, and said, “You look about the same age as our sweet little Matt.” I didn’t know who she was talking about because the Matt I knew was diabolical, like Norman Bates in Psycho, which had been filmed the very year Matt was born, 1960. A coincidence? I think not.

It was one of my earliest experiences with the notion of contradictions. To me, Matt was the Prince of Darkness who gave me wedgies, lifting me high in the air until my underwear tore. But to his grandmother, Matt was sweet and cuddly and snuggled in her lap while she read him stories. How in the world could we be talking about the same person? It was a mystery to me.

I feel that same discrepancy when I hear some people talk about God. In one moment, God curses, in the next moment, God blesses. The ancient polytheists had it easier when it came to God. When you worship many gods, and a flood carries your house away, you can shake your fist at the rain god, and then when the sun comes out and dries everything up, you can fall to your knees and praise the sun god. But when you only have one god, that one god must contain all the divine activity, and before long you can’t help but wonder how the same god can be responsible for everything that happens. If your child dies in a car wreck, you wonder why God would do that to you? A few years later, your first grandchild is born and you hold her in your arms and thank God for her precious beautiful life. Notice how the exact same God cursed you and blessed you. How does that make sense?

Last week, we took notice of the theological illiteracy in our culture, which can have troubling effects, one of which is Christian Nationalism, this noxious notion that white American Christians are uniquely loved and blessed by God, that white American Christians, especially males, should enjoy rights and privileges others don’t, that it is appropriate to write their hate into law, thereby using the considerable weight of government to further their theological and political objectives, all the while making their hatred seem virtuous and noble. But we know better, don’t we.

This effort can, of course, be challenged in the political arena by not voting for Christian Nationalists. But it must also be challenged in the spiritual arena since their understanding of God is at the root of their sacrilege. Their image of God is not just wrong, but dangerous, and must be countered by good theology. The only solution to the ravages of bad theology is good theology, which is theology that believes the best about God and humankind and not the worst.

Toward that end, I want to talk today about what God cannot do. Sometimes we hear Christians say God can do anything. If something bad happens to us or is about to happen to us, they urge us to have faith, telling us God can do anything. There’s a woman in my extended family who writes this on people’s Facebook page when they post about some difficulty they’re having. “God can do anything,” she says, then adds a little smiley face with praying hands.

After she writes that God can do anything, I want to write, “No, God can’t.”

We must disabuse ourselves of the belief, instilled in us since childhood, that God can do anything, that God is all powerful. Because just as soon as we were taught that, we were also taught that God is all-loving and all-knowing. This the trinity of bad theology, God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, and it causes untold human misery.

After all, if God is all-loving and all-knowing and all-powerful, then why are their bullies? Or worse! Why does God allow starvation? Or the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans? Or slavery? Or the Holocaust?  Why does God seem to have the infuriating habit of entrusting beautiful, innocent babies to drug addicts and alcoholics?

The formula doesn’t work, does it? It makes no sense. If God has the power to stop such things, knew they were going to happen, and didn’t stop them, that God is not loving. I would have stopped it, you would have stopped it, but God didn’t stop it? Who wouldn’t stop those things? Apparently, God. If this is true, let’s dispense with worshiping this God, admiring this God, loving this God.

Of course, another option exists, we can re-examine our theology and consider the possibility that maybe some of the things we’ve been told about God aren’t true. We’ve got to give up this fantasy about God’s power. That’s what we would want if we were God, isn’t it? We’d want power. It’s almost as if the early church fathers sat around a table thinking this stuff up. Can’t you just see them pushing back from dinner, glasses of wine in their hands, feeling slightly buzzed and philosophical?

“What would you do if you were God,” one of them would ask.

“Oh, I’d want the power to make people do what I wanted,” another would say.

“Yeah, I like that, that’s a good one.”

“I’d want to have knowledge of the future,” said another.

“That’s smart. That would come in handy.”

Then one of the church fathers, a quiet kind of guy the others often overlooked, said, “If I were God, I would be all-loving.”

The others thought of that, and one of them said, “Nah, too hard. Let’s go with power and knowledge.”

So here we are, saddled with a theology that has driven more people to atheism than any other reason. Not to mention made some people miserable. People whose lives have been one long painful struggle, only to be told it was God’s will.

Forget power. Forget knowing the future. Keep love.

“Let us see what love can do,” said the Quaker William Penn.

Not “Let us see what power can do.”

Not “Not let us see what omniscience can do.”

Let us see what love can do.

Friends, love is the only tool at God’s disposal. It is the only note God sings.

Not power. Not foresight. Just love. In our life together, in our lives in this world, let’s do what God does and see what love can do.

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