What, if Anything, Can God Do? Divine Power and the Ecological Crisis

 By John J. Thatamanil

Powerless—that is how many feel when facing the immense ecological challenges of our time. What can anyone do about the whole of India, an entire subcontinent, running out of water? What are we to do about precipitous glacier melt, sea level rise, mass species extinction, and a thousand other harms? The sheer scale of the problems overwhelms human capacities for meaningful action and repair.

Who then will save us?  Traditionally, saving or damning the world has been in God’s job description, not ours. But God hasn’t been in the business of saving human beings from self-destructiveness for some time now. The Holocaust often serves as the paradigmatic modern moment in which many religious thinkers, both Jewish and Christian, surrendered confidence in an Almighty who might swoop in to rescue us. If not then, when?

Not all religious communities have lost confidence in omnipotent redemptive action. Fundamentalists and some evangelicals believe we needn’t fear because God alone has the power to save or damn the world. We lack the capacity to destroy ourselves. How grandiose to grant humanity world-destroying power!

End-time proponents say that we should worry instead about what God will do. If not, we might find ourselves unprepared in the midst of divine apocalypse. It is, in any case, God’s plan to destroy the world so there is no point in working to save it. In such accounts, divine power utterly erases human agency, but our powerlessness need not occasion despair. We can take comfort in the fact that God is in charge.

No wonder atheists and agnostics regard debates about divine agency as a distraction at best and complicity with the planetary destruction at worst. Human beings made this mess, they say, and only we can fix it. Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, now Christians fiddle—theologize—as the planet is enflamed. An ounce of action is better than mountains of theological tomes, especially if those tomes encourage human acquiescence to planetary annihilation.

Fair enough. But action is essential from both the religious and the irreligious alike. Planetary crises require a planetary response. Squabbles between the God-only and the human-only camps are the true distraction. Surely atheists such as Richard Dawkins cannot hope to persuade the world’s many believers to surrender faith before they join in the fight for climate justice.

From my religious perspective, what we need now are accounts of divine agency that motivate human action rather than encourage passivity. This is not the atheists’ responsibility, but they might also be interested in and learn a bit from such conversations.

What then is the right balance to strike between human and divine power when it comes to planetary peril? Grant to God too much power, and human passivity is often the consequence. Grant to God too little power, and one might as well be atheistic: there is little meaningful difference between atheism and positing a powerless God who cannot help human beings in their predicament.

There are many ways to thread this needle. First, there are modes of religious life—the entire Buddhist tradition, for example—that make no appeal to divinity. But, suppose you live your life within a broadly theistic religious tradition. How might you proceed?

One contemporary theological option, process theology, suggests that God is the name for what keeps the future and the universe itself open and developing. God is what opens mind and heart to new and unforeseen possibilities when all seems lost. God neither intervenes in natural processes nor imposes actions on human beings. God’s lure proposes new courses of action when we feel we’ve hit a dead end.

A second related possibility is that God’s power is not controlling but empowering. When one’s energies for action flag, when one’s capacity for resilience fades, God is that infusion of moral energy, meaning, and love that comes from we know not where and permits us to go on. God is Spirit who inspires the dispirited.

In both accounts, divine initiative does not displace human initiative. God does not interrupt, divert, or disable human agency. God does not compete with us. God empowers us.

A third family of options focuses less on divine action than on divine being. These theologians do not look to God primarily to perform particular actions but instead see God as permeating everything in the world or as being the reason that anything exists and continues to exist at all. They see the world, for example, as God’s body (Sallie McFague). Or they see everything in the world as participating in divinity, as having something of God in it (Thomas Aquinas, Paul Tillich). Some pantheists see the world itself as divine.

On these views, God is not a person or being among beings—like Da Vinci’s celestial bearded white man who mucks about in the world’s workings. God is what makes it possible for anything to exist or, perhaps, God is existence itself. All of nature, organic and inorganic, is full of divinity and so is holy, worthy of wonder, love, and service. Nature is only reducible to “natural resources” if God is exiled from it, permitting us to do with “it” as we please. Instead, nature is beautiful, beloved, and even holy—sentiments that atheists and agnostics might share.

These are just three quick takes among several possibilities. The point here is that the world’s many believers, regardless of tradition, do not have to choose between atheism and disempowerment before an omnipotent, monarch-like God. Believers have robust options to bypass the Scylla of waiting passively for a deus ex machina rescue operation (God, like the hero at the end of the movie, does everything) and a Charybdis in which we are left to our own limited capacities (God does nothing). Neither will do for the faithful in a time of climate emergency.

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John J. Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament and the forthcoming book, Circling the Elephant: Constructive Theology through Interreligious Learning. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and the founding chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.


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