Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Credo in Deum, Patrem Omnipotentem

Well, you really can't get much more Catholic than putting the words of the ancient creeds in your mind and on your lips. The Tradition of the Church is a great gift, and dogma is a part of that tradition. Though today we really are suspicious of dogma, (its not really a good thing to be 'dogmatic'), understood as a gift of a living body of faith, understanding and belief, a gift bequeathed from the past to the present, we can accept and authenticate the gift. Yet, we might say to ourselves, 'beware of Nicaeans bearing gifts.' And therein rests our suspicion; where's the catch? what must we give back, what return is implied in the giving? Perhaps we should just say, 'thanks but no thanks.' Still, a gift is a gift, and some gifts, the really good and authentic gifts, have no strings attached. A gift is in its purest, holiest form when it is dissociated from reciprocation, even the possibility of reciprocation. I want to keep the tension between pure gifts and less than pure gifts in this discussion of omnipotence, an idea handed down not just from the 4th century, but from the formation of Christian identity in relation to God.

Sadly, the problems with omnipotence subvert any realism, falling prey to the inability to distinguish the univocal from the analogical, collapsing both into some impossible human ideal of what something 'all-powerful' can do, has done, and continues to do. The dogma of divine omnipotence is intended as a gift, but brings trouble in all the confusion. Even the dogma itself is troubled by speculation on the absolute power of God and the ordinated power of God. The distinction between these 2 manifestations of the divine omnipotence is intended to bring peace, but instead often brings discord. Peter Damian denies the potentia ordinata, while Thomas Aquinas holds this ordered power in tension with the potentia absoluta. Neither purveyor of the divine power gives a satisfying synthesis of what humans actually experience, both thinkers being entrenched in big-time onto-theology. Still, an omnipotence ordered to the world declared 'good' in Genesis makes more intuitive sense than holding the divine omnipotence to pleasing the desires and judgments of creatures. The simplicity in a strategy of restricting the absolute power of God to the choice of 'any world order,' and describing the ordinated power as the self-limiting realism attached to divine power in 'this world order' just accounts for the phenomena confronting creatures better than a strategy that draws no distinction at all.

In any event, the Catholic dogma of God's omipotence has always been more nuanced than an unqualified "God can do all things." It is a very Catholic notion that God cannot contradict, betray integrity, suspend the 'good' of himself or creation. So, against the good monk Damian, God is incapable of making occurences 'unhappen.' There is nothing capricious about the divine omnipotence, reports to the contrary in the bible and recent headlines notwithstanding.

I am certainly not arguing that the distinctions between the potentia absoluta and the potentia ordinata have solved the riddle of the aporia of an omnipotent God. These distinctions do, however, show the traces of the way omnipotence haunts both dogmas and sacred texts, and how omnipotence is harbored in the name of God, how it is structured in texts (sacred and profane---and by 'text' I mean any locus [or circus] of signification). Everywhere God's power is in such texts, there will be found the creature wrapping its head and fist about it. Still, if we use Caputo's definition of 'theopoetics' as the discourse of what haunts theology, of what circumfesses within confessional theology, then Catholic dogma is the religion's first whack at a living theopoetics. The next developments in Catholic dogma might be to be less dogmatic about it; developments in doctrine might be to be less doctrinaire. A dogma without dogma seems to fit inside the notion of a religion without religion.

Indeed, each word of the ancient creeds is but an invitation, our four words in this post's title each a call to reflection. What is belief? God? A Father? Omnipotence? Pantokrator? Almighty? All-ruling ruler of rules? The creeds, traditions, and sacred texts of the Church are an invitation to read. But not only to read draped in a hermeneutic from which no one really emerges, but reading to release the events waiting to be born in these texts. What event is really harbored in the dogma of omnipotence if not that of love and freedom, integrity of creation and embrace of the good?

Not every event of human complicity with power in this world has its call in the divine insistence. The events released in the name of God, especially those events pried loose from the divine name with analogical claims of univocal omnipotence, are often just plain trouble. They visit the absolute upon the relative, totalizing in events what cannot be totalized; and trying to contain the uncontainable sends the event back to the harbor, even after the trouble comes, which is usually in the form of violence.

Violence results from gifts that are assumed to be asking for something in return. Only a real openness to the gift can discern the nature of the gift. If the gift is a contract, then thanks but no thanks. We see how those gifts are reciprocated in this world. If the gift is a gift of grace, then we know the tree by its fruit.

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