Posted by: Gabriel | March 2, 2009

Quest for the Living God [of the Gaps]?

Elizabeth Johnson’s book portrays several different ways of applying God and theology to modern day issues that affect many people in a very serious way (for this post, I’ve decided to use liberation theology as my main example, not because I have any particular love or animus for it; it’s just what I, and I imagine most people, are most familiar with). Johnson speaks of how God can be seen and used to bring justice to the poor, respect to women, equality to racial minorities, unity to diverse religious communities, &c. In all of these ways, God descends from the unattainable Infinite in order to be felt and known in our world.

It has struck me that perhaps, by using God in this way, theology is slipping into the same hole in which it previously tripped. We’ve discussed how in the past theology has used God to explain parts of the physical world which did not make sense, thus creating a ‘God of the gaps’ who shrank as science filled in those gaps. From what I’ve gathered, the class seems pretty unanimous that this ‘God of the gaps’ technique is bad theology and bad for theology.

I’m curious, however, if by using God to solve our social problems, aren’t we just settling for another ‘God of the gaps’ who exists only for us, just as the previous gap-God did. Previously, our intellectual curiosity needed something to make our worldview coherent, and so we used God wherever we found a hole in physics, biology, &c. Now our social conditions need something to make our worldview coherent (e.g. people want to be liberated from oppressive poverty, but still want to live Christian lives, so now theology teaches that God approves of liberation).

Once groups with based their understanding of God primarily on liberation become liberated, mustn’t this God lose His meaning, just like the scientific God lost Hers? Won’t only two options be open for the group: find another God (perhaps it would be clearer to say ‘find another conception of God’), or abandon God altogether? This is the question that I want to ask with this post.

I think:

Now, I am not trying to say that God can’t have a place in the world at all; but I do want to make one of my favourite distinctions: that there are idolatrous Gods and iconic Gods. If God exists to bring liberation or respect or understanding, then ultimately that God is not worth worshipping. Idolatrous Gods are not always bad; they can be very good up to a point – but only up to a point, after which they must be discarded and up to which they must be used very carefully.

If, however, we exist for God and through our existence for God we achieve an understanding of our own self-worth, this can only be termed an iconic God. An iconic God, can perfectly well be a God of the gaps, but even after the gap has been filled, the God would not lose His meaning. For example, back in the day, people thought that respiration came miraculously from God [of the gaps]. Now we know all the biological workings which allow us to breathe. I see no reason, however, why this should preclude an understanding of divine action in our breath. The fact of our breath can point us to the reverence of God, whether or not we understand its biology. This is the kind of God of the gaps which I think can be fruitful. I’m afraid that some (perhaps even many) of the theologies that Johnson describes, in their present state, may fail to meet the requirements of this iconic God of the gaps and fall into idolatry.

:I’m done thinking

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Responses

  1. What up Gabe. I understand your concern with using God as a gap and tool to solve our social problems, but I think you make too big of a deal out of things. Let me explain a bit…

    There is nothing wrong with viewing God as one who liberates and frees people from all forms of oppression: Whether personal, communal, social, political, etc. In fact, this is a wonderful characteristic of the God of the Hebrew Bible and the NT.

    Sure it could become an idol if we close God into only a liberator of those trapped in the social problems of our world. And I think your criticism is important to remind people to be aware of how they view God. But this view is totally legitimate and part of who our God is. Johnson’s not trying to say that these ideas constrict God to a certain arena. She is saying that these are all developments in our understanding of the Living God, whether that is the Living God we see acting in the universe or the Living God working along side the poor.

    Liberation theology has walked some tough ground, and has inspired or led to social movements and revolutions in which people believe that God is on their side, as long as their intentions are for the liberation of their people. The most important liberation theologians, though usually supporting one side or the other, do not grant these liberation movements a “free pass,” being completely blessed by God. They are imperfect, flawed and political. Yet the overall movement toward liberation is said to be understood and supported by God, and God is present in this imperfect striving of humanity toward this goal, always purifying, challenging and refining and leading us towards this.

    Oscar Romero always warned against making God an idol who solely supports sham liberation movements. He always stressed the goal of TOTAL liberation, which comes in communion with Christ and is the restoring of the fullness of humanity and the earth with the Living God, which addresses all aspects: The personal, the political, the communal, the ecclesiastical, etc.

    Check out the homilies of Romero, see what he says about these movements and the action of God. If you want you can borrow one of my books. Peace Gabe

  2. Hey, Ryan; thanks for your comment. Let me try to explain my intentions with this post a bit better and maybe that will clear up some misunderstanding. First, I don’t have any problems with a certain incarnation of the God of the gaps. In fact, I support creating gaps when God needs a little room to stretch God’s legs (e.g. by attributing breath to a miracle rather than to the respiratory system). My post was directed to anyone who would criticise the God of the gaps. I meant to stretch their understanding either of the God of the gaps, or of the theology in Johnson’s book. Now, Ryan, if the impression I got from your post is correct and you have no problem with the God of the gaps, then my post should present no dilemma for you. If this is the case, then you can probably disregard the rest of my comment, since it will just be a critque of some language you used which probably was merely a slip of the tongue.

    I think that there are a couple of theological errors in your post (which, as I said, may just have been misrepresentations of what you really think). In your third paragraph, you talk about “understanding of the Living God” and what “God is”. Which is fundementally incoherent since God isn’t and we can’t understand God. More explicitly, since God doesn’t exist [in the world] we can only grow in our knowledge of God by unknowing God. As I recall from Johnson’s thesis (I don’t have the book in front of me), she wanted only to talk about our experience with God, not about God. If, however, you were trying here to identify here that “part of who our God is” is a liberator then this is at odds with your first sentence of that paragraph, since you are saying that you have grasped even a part of what God is.

    The other important disagreement I had was with your second-to-last paragraph which discussed “the goal of TOTAL liberation” (which may be more Romero’s inaccuracy than your own). The problem I have with this paragraph is that it speaks of communion (i.e. liberation) as a goal to be attained rather than a goal to be eternally approached. Paradise is not a state of static being, as I understand it, but rather a continuous drawing near; an ever-improving. There is never anything to which we can point and say ‘In ten years, we’ll have reached perfection’ or ‘After ten rosaries, I’ll be spiritually perfect’.
    Anyway, I’m sorry if this is too little or too much of a response to your thoughts, Ryan. Cheers!


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