God is becoming

This is an excerpt from a piece written by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who teaches at the American Jewish University. It appeared in the last issue of Tikkun, and is now available online:
I believe that God, in choosing to create, created us really. That means that our independence is not illusory or ephemeral. We, along with all creation, have real agency, and the choices we make are truly untrammeled, unprogrammed, and unforeseen by God. God is vulnerable to surprise and disappointment just as we are. The universe unfolds according to its own inner logic; the laws of physics operate, and God cannot/does not suspend them based on moral standards. As Rabbi Harold Kushner says, asking the universe to treat you better because you are moral is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian. I believe that God did irrevocable tzimtzum (withdrawal), creating the reality of our own autonomy and agency, along with all creation.

I believe that people misunderstand the nature of divine "power" as coercive, as omnipotence, which I regard as a philosophical mistake, a religious disaster, and a source of emotional and ethical torment. Thinking of God as having all the power leaves us rightly feeling betrayed and abandoned ("was I not good enough for God to intervene?"). It leaves theologians in the position of Job's friends-discounting our core ethical knowledge in an attempt to defend the indefensible. We do know good and evil: God infuses us with that awareness. And someone dying young, someone struggling with special needs, illness, or poverty is indefensible, especially if God is omnipotent. Hiding behind "it's a mystery," or "we can't understand," or "it's all for the best" is, in my opinion, worse than unsatisfying, because it requires either blaming the victim or denying our ethical compass.

I don't think we have to abandon a conviction of a loving God. But I invite us to grow past an almighty one. If God has truly ceded to creation the ability to make choices, then God didn't kill the innocent, didn't allocate disability, didn't impose poverty. Looking for God in special effects causes us to mistake theater or science fiction for life. God is found not in the suspension of nature's laws, but in the intrusion of novelty and surprise from within fixed law, in the abiding nature of hope, and in the transforming power of love (a power that is persuasive, not coercive).
You can read the whole thing here.

I also recommend checking out more of Rabbi Artson's writings, which are available here. He has some interesting and progressive perspectives on pluralism, process theology, homosexuality, and so on.



Blogger crystal said...

What he has to say is a lot like what's said in that book When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Kushner (who he mentions?).

But this way out of the dilemma of an all good, all powerful God who permits evil isn't very satisfying to me, I guess, because I feel a not all powerful God just doesn't seem like God.

I was going to say that I wonder if the idea of a God who intervenes is a christian thing, but of course God intervenes a lot in the OT.

8:39 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I'm not sure what to make of that, "a not all powerful God just doesn't seem like God."

Why do you suppose that is? What is it that contributes to that feeling? Obviously the all-powerful God of supernatural theism is what most of us are raised to believe in.

I thought it was interesting that Rabbi Artson invoked the notion of tzimtzum, a Kabbalistic idea where God is said to have contracted his being to make space for creation. I came to a similar conclusion, but was inspired more by the notion of kenosis, of God emptying himself into human form (Phil 2.6-7). The verb Paul uses in Phil 2.7 (kenoō) is used elsewhere to mean "emptied of power" (1 Cor 1.17). If humans are truly free, then we have power that God has relinquished. I think, after the violence of (especially) the last century, we can safely say that God does not override human free will. That has implications for the idea of divine omnipotence, if we think about it deeply enough, and are willing to face it squarely.

11:48 a.m.  
Blogger crystal said...

You're right - tzimtzum is an interesting idea.

About the idea that we have free will and that's the reason God doesn't interevene, I saw an interesting post at Experimental Theology (the second of three) about Marilyn McCord Adams' book, Christ and Horrors. She argues that we're too fragile as beings to truly have free will. I tend to agree.

Maybe I take the gospels too literally, but I see there examples of God (Jesus) intervening, healing people, calming sorms, raising the dead. If there were no free will conflicts then, why now?

But it's true he certainly doesn't seem to interven in some of the most horrific stuff, like the holocausr, for instance. To me that means either that he doesn't exist, or doesn't care (he's not all good), or he'd like to help but can't (the Rabbi's view), or he helps sometimes and in ways that may not be obvious (I guess this falls into the "mystery" catagory :). I go back and forth, but I'm not willing to give up yet on him being all powerful and intervenionist because the detached Gofd I'd be left with isn't one I want.

3:42 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I don't actually like the term "free will." Genuine free will is probably a rare achievement, as most of us sleepwalk through life, merely reacting to stimuli according to this or that fear or craving or hang-up. Most people are quite predictable -- push this button, they light up, push that button, they flare up in anger. Free will, understood in this way, is obviously limited.

What I'm talking about is freedom for the divine puppetmaster so many people believe in and worship. In other words, the God who intervenes to stop people from doing bad things. I don't know how anyone can reconcile the violence we see (and don't see) happening in the world with such an idea of God.

Your examples of Jesus's miracles are not obviously applicable to the kind of freedom I'm talking about. I don't take them quite as literally -- certainly not the so-called "nature miracles," like stilling the storm or walking on water -- but that's kind of beside the point. I don't think any of the examples you cited diminish in any way the kind of human freedom I'm talking about, at least not in any way I can think of.

I'm not sure if what I'm getting at -- or what Rabbi Artson was getting at in the article I quoted -- leaves us with a "detached God." Artson describes God as "persuasive" rather than "coercive." Caring and active, but not controlling people like puppets, and not stopping people from doing bad things. I wonder if the God he's speaking of is the "detached God" you're imagining.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful comments. I'm going to be writing about some more of Rabbi Artson's ideas on this subject, as well as similar ideas from other sources. Soon, I hope.

2:16 p.m.  

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