Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Humble Attempt to Deal with G-d and Omnipotence

When I was visiting my Christian friend, who happens to be a Fundamentalist Baptist, out in Denver a couple weeks ago, we were engaging in religious polemics, which is not a surprise at all to me. I was trying to explain to him the Jewish concept of G-d, how G-d is infinite, and consequently, incorporeal. Obviously, this descriptive was incongruent to his theology. When I gave him the description of apophatic theology, he threw a question at me, and it’s been bugging me since.  He asked me, “Are you saying that G-d can't do anything, that He's limited in some way?” For those of you who understand G-d from a Jewish perspective, you can understand how this question brought me to a pause.

Fortunately for me, I am not the first one to be troubled by this question. I say “fortunate” because it means that I can refer to men much wiser than myself while grappling with this inquiry. This dilemma has been thought of so often that it comes with its own name—it’s called the omnipotence paradox. Essentially, the omnipotence paradox addresses what an all-powerful being can do, including whether an all-powerful being can render himself powerless. The most cliché example of this paradox is this: Can an omnipotent being create a stone so heavy that it cannot lift it? In more general terms, one asks whether an infinite being can self-limit.

This is difficult to understand, considering that I have taken on the Jewish concept of G-d, which is a perfect, incorporeal, eternal, Infinite Oneness. Based on this definition, G-d couldn’t become a human because that would make G-d imperfect, not to mention finite. As such, omnipotence seems to put a damper into the Jewish notion of G-d. What I offer are three responses to this paradox. I want to point out that the latter two responses have significant overlap with one another.

1) Being finite beings ourselves, we are unable to grasp the nature of an infinite being. His awesomeness is just too much for us to fathom, even with something as paradoxical as this. To paraphrase Job, “If I were G-d, I’d be G-d.” However, I’m a Jew with a rationalist bent, and that answer doesn’t satisfy my intellectual curiosity. Although I am a man who does his utmost to humble himself before G-d, I also realize that life isn’t worth living if you don’t use the intellect that G-d gave you.

2) If G-d can be all of these other things (i.e., incorporeal, eternal, infinite, unity, perfection), and if omnipotence is what is causing the conflict, throw omnipotence out of the equation. Why isn’t it sufficient to say that G-d is exceptionally powerful, more powerful than any finite being could be? Can you not still be in awe of G-d because He created the universe and keeps sustaining the laws necessary to keep us going? 

And if G-d could “do anything,” I would find that even more perturbing. If "G-d could do anything," that means G-d could do things like be prone to harm, become spiteful and take it out on others, fall down and scrape His knee, contract cancer, sin, murder others, kill Himself, die, or even turn Himself into a cockroach (all of this, of course, being followed with a whole-hearted "G-d forbid").  It's safe to say that G-d having the hypothetical possibility to become imperfect and finite is much more troubling to me than saying that the one thing G-d cannot do is become finite.

Side note for those who are Jewish: If you look at Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Belief, which is the closest thing one gets to dogma in Judaism (and I only say that because there were some "principles" with which Maimonides himself didn't even agree), omnipotence is not listed on there.

3) We don’t understand the true meaning of power. You can say to me: “If G-d can’t drive a car, then that’s something G-d can’t do.” But then I will ask you, in kind, what driving a car is. Driving a car is getting from point A to point B. The fact that you have to be dependent on a hunk of metal to transport you is a weakness, mainly because you are limited spatially. Even extorting people for money is a form of weakness. The reason I say that is because if you have to do that, you either have self-esteem issues or you need the money. No matter what your excuse for extortion is, you cannot maintain independence in the truest sense. Whatever we consider “true power” is in fact a concession to weakness. Even any form of “power” which is construed as an imitation of G-d (such as an act of loving-kindness) is a diluted, limited form of power. We can never know the true meaning of power. To reiterate, if I knew G-d, I’d be G-d.

I’m glad to finally feel [a degree of] resolution on this paradox because it’s nice not to lose shuteye over this anymore.  I have a feeling that many will have a problem with this blog entry because they feel that if G-d were not omnipotent, it would diminish Him in some way.  As I have stated, it's the other way around.  By declaring him not omnipotent, you actually make G-d greater because of it.  Omnipotence is overrated, and I have no problem whatsoever saying so because if G-d were omnipotent, the house of cards that is known as G-dliness would be-a-tumblin’.

1 comment:

  1. A tongue-in-cheek answer that I've heard to this question is that G-d can make a rock that He can't pick up and He can pick it up too!

    I think the problem is that we exist within the world of logic that G-d created. But He doesn't.

    I agree with your 3rd point wholeheartedly, that part of the problem lays in our understanding of what G-d's "power" is. We don't say G-d can't drive a car because G-d is not capable of driving a car, but because driving is not a word that can be used in conjunction with G-d. The sentence is meaningless. Can 14 run spider wall? The whole question of G-d doing something that He can't do is a word trap.