Omnipotence (together with omniscience) is frequently mentioned as a characteristic of God, and looking at the universe who can doubt that, if indeed it was created by some force, that force is indeed omnipotent. And yet the true meaning of the word is rarely taken seriously, whether in church or elsewhere.
Omnipotence means, simply, being able to do and be absolutely anything: good and evil, true and false (although it should be pointed out that these are relative terms, differing in different societies). It can even mean being its own opposite: both/and rather than either/or. Thus a real theological problem for the medieval church was how to reconcile God’s supposed goodness with his omnipotence. Simply, if he’s omnipotent he can also be evil. But then, if he’s omnipotent he can also reconcile the two.
If we apply this to God as being part of our world, we see that everywhere it is full of life—not only humans, but animals, the insects in our lawns, the very lawns themselves (vegetable life), the bacteria in the air. I would see God as all of this, and as the “non-living” parts of the world too: rocks, mountains, water, etc. Someone recently equated God with nature. Well, I would certainly see God as nature, but not nature as God, for God is far more than nature. God, simply, is everything.
Then we again have the universe. If God in omnipotent, then he is in the universe too. Everything is possible: other worlds, populated by creatures both like and unlike those on earth, with societies in more primitive and in more advanced stages of civilization as well. God’s omnipotence means that everything imaginable—and unimaginable—is possible. If we look at Star Trek, we can say that everything invented there exists within the universe too, plus a great deal more, for if a human can imagine it then God can “imagine” and create infinitely more—including other forms of life which are entirely non-physical. A scientist might say, what of the laws of physics?—which seem to apply (although there are things yet to be discovered) within the universe as we know it. But an omnipotent God cannot be limited by the laws of physics. So what of other universes? There may be—and indeed must be, if God is omnipotent—different laws of physics in different universes.
Omnipotence means that everything, indeed, exists.
I don’t wish here to go into the arguments for and against reincarnation, or the theories about its purpose or the forms it might take. However, there are two things that relate particularly to my own belief.
Conversations with God makes the point that, for God to experience his creation, he has to be able to forget that he is God: otherwise he could not experience limitation or indeed any of the doubts, hesitation, anguish—but also faith—that all of us know. This answers one of the common objections to the idea of reincarnation, that we cannot usually remember previous lives.
It seems illogical to me to accept the idea of an after-life, in what is commonly called heaven, and reject the idea of a before-life or a between-life. Suddenly a human is created from nothing to live a life on earth which can last anywhere from a few seconds to over a hundred years, and then it’s all over and one ends up, according to the traditional view, in heaven, purgatory or hell, experiencing bliss or punishment! Far more logical for me, particularly in the light of God’s omnipotence, is the idea of continuing life, in various incarnations, all as God experiencing his own creation.
The “Afterlife,” judgement and morality
If God is in each human experiencing his own creation, he will experience both those who are considered evil and those who are considered good, and the many in between. Thus all, after death, will know that they are God, whatever they have been on earth. The idea that we are punished afterwards, when God of necessity has to experience evil as well as good, doesn’t make sense. Nor does supposed “free” will, if it is limited by the idea of then having to do what God supposedly wills for us (and how can we know?). As Conversations with God puts it (and many people have difficulties with this), “Hitler went to heaven”—for indeed, there is nowhere else to go. This doesn’t prevent his understanding of what he was on earth. But God’s love can surely cope with a Hitler and the many others in history who are just as bad. Wanting him or others we disapprove of to receive punishment is part of our human desire for revenge.
What, then, of behaviour? On Earth there are certainly consequences for our actions, including the possibility of punishment by law. Most societies are governed by laws, just or unjust, and one can also risk the censure of one’s society. Most of us assent to a certain standard of conduct, which may or may not have a religious basis. Yet not all religious “laws” are just: in Christianity one might look at the laws in Leviticus, and many of us would disagree with the Sharia laws of Islam. Historically, religions have not done a good job of instilling morality. On the whole, we as individuals pick and choose those laws that seem to make sense to us, whether propagated by a religion or a purely humanistic viewpoint. Religions do not have an exclusive claim on morality—and furthermore “religious” people are often highly selective in the laws they observe. For instance, in the ten commandments, few in North America take note of the commandment “Thou shalt not covet”—indeed the whole economy is based on the coveting of consumer goods—while stressing “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” often interpreted to mean any kind of sex at all.
Thus as an individual I behave according to a basic morality, which largely, if not entirely, coincides with that of Jesus’ (supposed) teachings. At the same time, however, as an individual living out his own destiny (as God living out his incarnation in me) I reserve the right to make my own decisions. To give two trivial examples, I refuse to keep to speed limits which I think are ridiculously low—particularly if I have more pressing needs—or to abstain from language considered profane when there is no biblical basis for this and yet a good linguistic one (except that I will not go out of my way to offend others).
Religion in general
I see all religions, including those generally referred to as pagan, as an attempt to understand our world and our place within it. All contain certain truths. It makes no difference whether a religion is monotheistic or polytheistic—or indeed lacking the concept of a God at all (Buddhism)—since these are simply different ways of understanding the same thing: and an omnipotent God can certainly cope with differing beliefs.
Religions, however, have been created or interpreted by humans, and I would see those I am familiar with as short-sighted in that they fail to see the larger picture. Personally, I could never accept Judaism with its belief in a God of one chosen people, whereas Islam in its practice denies the equality of men and women. Christianity has its own shortcomings. However, I also recognize that other people are helped by their own beliefs, which I can respect—as long as they don’t start to tell me what I should believe (as happens in churches all the time).
Why I no longer consider myself a Christian
For me, the great strength of Christianity is, first, a belief in God and, second, Jesus’ teachings of love for all people, forgiveness of one’s enemies and turning the other cheek—however rarely this is put into practice. Unfortunately, many see Christianity in terms of rules to be followed, with punishment and judgement if we fail.
If God is indeed within each person (animal, etc.) of his creation, then to me it makes no sense to talk of Jesus as his only son—and what does that idea mean anyway? “Begotten not created” is meaningless in my understanding. We are all children of god (there are mentions of this in the Bible), including of course Jesus: I would see him as an older brother, for whom (to the extent that I know anything at all about his real life, which is another huge problem) I have the greatest respect, as a man.
Thus I strongly object to the idea that Jesus came down from heaven in order to bring us salvation or save us from our sins. If, individually, we are all God we are saved anyway, and the doctrine of sin (in view of God’s fully living out his creation) is meaningless—except, perhaps, when I may act, as all of do at times, in a way that is contrary to my own deep beliefs. While Jesus may, or may not, have believed he gave his blood for each of us, as commemorated in the Communion service, it is for me irrelevant. I object to the ending of most prayers, “Through Jesus Christ our Lord,” etc. God did, and does, nothing more through Jesus Christ than he does through any of us.
Clearly, then, I have problems with Christian dogma, although some things I can accept symbolically. While I don’t believe in the virgin birth, I can accept God’s “entering into” each one of us at birth. Thus I can say the Nicene Creed if I regard it strictly as symbolical: we all, as God’s children, came down from heaven, suffered, were “crucified” and were buried, etc. The trinity I find meaningless, although I can again accept the Holy Spirit not as a person but symbolically, as the “God” within myself. However, I find this unnecessary, when I believe that we commune with God directly.
While I love the tunes of many of the hymns, which have been familiar to me since childhood, there are hardly any I can sing without disagreeing strongly with the words. (I mention a couple of exceptions later.) A recent example of a modern “almost” hymn that I find particularly objectionable is “Mary’s Boy Child” with its line: “And man shall live for ever more, because of Christmas day.” I believe that humans live for ever more anyway, certainly not because of Christmas day, which never took place, at least not in the way the Bible describes it.
This leads to a further objection to church Christianity. The bible was written by humans with their own agendas. Biblical scholarship has shown that, while there may be some evidence that someone called Jesus existed (but even this is disputed), nothing in the gospels can be accepted as factual, for indeed they were all written years after his death, one based upon another, or at least on one common source. This in itself would not matter so much, since in the ancient world the story was more important than historical fact, except that few in the churches are ever told this, and many still believe, erroneously, that John, Matthew, etc. were written by the actual disciples of Jesus. Moreover, there are many other accounts with an equal claim to consideration (usually referred to as the apocryphal gospels) which were specifically excluded from the Bible by the Council of Nicaea on a political basis: what the then developing church saw as according with its own beliefs. Thus I reject the authority of scripture, other than as a story. Later, the church did everything it could to establish its own power, labelling as heresy everything with which it disagreed and persecuting those of different beliefs. Always it has stressed its own authority, rejecting those who claimed to discover (often by personal revelation) a God within themselves.
Finally, I find that Christianity fails to see itself in the wider terms of time and space. Jesus’ coming to earth to save humans some 2000 years ago ignores the fact that they have been there for about 150,000 years, while the earth itself, from which humans have developed, is about 4½ billion years old. And what of the rest of the universe? Obviously what happens with other beings there is unknowable, but is the concept of a God not relevant to the universe as a whole? Should not we at least show some awareness that our lives are only an infinitesimal part of creation—or rather, I would say, of God himself.
Two other relevant passages I wrote long ago
In what follows, there are perhaps a few terms I would now specify more carefully, but essentially both passages still represent what I believe.
“And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” From this text the vicar developed the idea that the Father gave us gifts which, valueless in themselves,are only of value to the greater glory of God. And is not this, in essence, my whole view of creation? God living out the lives of each individual, providing all the bounty of life, but in the end it is all God. All to his greater glory, as the vicar put it.
True, in our rather traditional church in Oxford, this wasn’t quite what he had in mind. He elaborated on God’s gifts in relation to what he called self-centredness on the one hand or service on the other. Whereas I would say there’s no contradiction between self-centredness and service. If God is living out the lives of all, then all of life is service and everyone is doing God’s will by being what he or she is. The moralist will not be content with this, say we should try to live a certain way, but if someone is what he is then the one who’s a tryer will try and the one who isn’t won’t. Which, if we look at human behaviour around us, is no more than a statement of fact. Oh it’s more complicated than that, and I’m aware that such statements sound like determinism, denying humans free will. I can’t argue that. I can only call upon my fundamental belief, that man’s greatest limitation is to see everything in terms of either-or, whereas ultimate meaning consists of both-and. Life is not either determined or free, it is both determined and free.
Every life in the service of God. A consoling and terrifying thought, for I must look at others and recall that the I within me—God living out His creation—also lives out their lives too. I shall know (or have known already) riches but also poverty; peace, but also violence; happiness but also grief; great faith but also atheism. I shall have the wisdom of some but the blindness of others. I shall be a thief, a murderer, a child molester: ‘There, with the grace of God, go I.’ For God has chosen to live all these lives as He has mine, plunging down into the world in each of us, to experience this life of triviality compared with the conscious heights of calm omnipotence. ‘God loves man as He loves Himself’ is no more than a statement of what is: God loving man who is Himself. ‘We should love God as we love ourselves’: God who is our very selves without interfering in our independence.
Yet the problems are no less real. Our despair is real when things go wrong, so is our rare joy when things go right. And this must be, for otherwise God would not be living in each individual, who’s incapable of grasping the whole. Who’ll still find life difficult. What help that I am God, if I haven’t the money to pay for a decent meal? Will a finger slammed in a door be any less painful? Will, indeed, the limited nature of my life be any more endurable? The answer remains the traditionally religious one of faith, to which one might add the element of humour, regarding life as a game which has to be played in the roles of all the different players in turn. Jung: it’s as if I were now being treated unjustly, it’s as if I were now being jealous of another’s success, it’s as if I were now myself successful.
An individual’s understanding is fragmentary. I can’t say the traditional church view is wrong, for it expresses a truth from a limited human viewpoint, while the higher, omniscient view is wide enough to embrace the more limited one. The mystery of life will remain a mystery, and let us rejoice that it is so. And so, one may ask, is not this mere speculation? I can only say that the concept is meaningful to me, an intellectually satisfying way of seeing my own life. Intuitively I know that it must be. Not the hows and the whys, but the general outline. That God lives in His creation, first. And that life is a both-and and not an either-or (or indeed, as cowards see it, a neither-nor). Life as one, God as one. Past, present and future as one. Christianity and paganism as one. All life: one.
For me, Christianity’s greatest fault is its narrow-mindedness. Here we have a magnificent idea, what should be an approach to the wider life of the spirit. Yet today, as ever, most committed Christians insist like all other dogmatists on their unique claim to a truth which all are seeking. Instead of recognizing other religions as natural and equal allies in probing the deeper mysteries of life, how often have Christians attempted to limit this to one interpretation, attacking other views as heresy at best? How often has a narrow moralism, allied with the unthinking conventions of society, substituted for a belief in God’s creation, so that the vague utilitarian ideal of ‘being a good person’ is all that matters, supported by the comfortable reflection that ‘we are right, they are wrong’?
The tragedy is that Christianity could be so much more. I’m no theologian, but it seems to me that Christ’s words rarely limit people to a narrow morality. Rather it’s Saint Paul—and those who followed, more concerned with establishing orthodoxy under the leadership of a politically powerful church—who brought a small-minded understanding to a vision which encompasses all people’s strivings. Christians simply couldn’t tolerate rivals: a pettiness repeated often enough since. Yet there’s no contradiction between the worship of the pagan gods, say, and that of Christ, for the reality they represent is the same. Why couldn’t Christianity have had vision enough to see this?
An interesting hymn in the Church of England hymnal exemplifies both that possibility and the tragic reality. Ascribed to Saint Patrick, it’s sung to a rather beautiful melody and begins “I bind unto myself today The strong name of the Trinity”—the image of binding on the breastplate of a suit of armour. After the first three unexceptional verses, the fourth is a magnificent expression of all that Christianity could be:
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star-lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
Any religious man of the ancient world could have pronounced those words with conviction. But fear of the wide magnificence of life begins to enter in, as man shrinks to the safety of limitation:
Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course...
I bind to me these holy powers.
By the seventh verse it’s clear that Saint Patrick has retreated to a condemnation of everything he doesn’t understand, even of knowledge which doesn’t support his particular view:
Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death-wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning.
Well, we can’t object to protection against physical dangers—although the “death-wound and the burning, the choking wave” were all too often caused by fanatics intent on protecting others against the supposed evils relating to “heresy” and “the knowledge that defiles.” But let us note how (in the same way as Communism once condemned its adversaries) Saint Patrick simply applies emotive, pejorative words to what he doesn’t like: “false,” “defiles,” “idolatry,” contrasting the “evil craft” of the wizard (which means “wise man”) with the healing power of Christ, as though there were no wizards with healing power too. A vision of the star-lit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, becomes subservient to man’s petty understanding.
“It’s only a hymn,” many would say.
Precisely, only a hymn. Which sincere people sing with good intentions, often without bothering about the words, whose rightness is taken for granted as is Christianity itself: and why should we bother about the ancient gods which educated, cultured men worshipped for a thousand or more years before Christ?
True, not all Christians think like that, but on the whole Christianity remains so much less than it could be, because of the closed minds of congregation and preachers. I see the church as a travesty of Christianity, in the same way as Soviet Russia was a travesty of the communist ideal.
My funeral wishes This is something my wife asked me to set down so they should be clear, since I obviously would not like a service which conflicts with my fundamental beliefs. At the same time 1) I strongly believe in God and 2) I recognize that funerals are for those attending as well as myself. Thus I have no objections to a service in a church or chapel, but the traditional Anglican service, with its emphasis on Christ as saviour, is inappropriate. Some memorial service, with a few short reminiscences—and even perhaps some indication of what my beliefs were—would be fine.
I would like one particular hymn, Lord of Creation, whose words I can agree with, sung to a traditional Irish melody (SHANE) that I love. This is number 634 in Ancient and Modern, but I prefer the words found elsewhere. Since these are a little tricky to find, I set them out below, particularly since they are a fitting conclusion to my fundamental beliefs.
Other religious elements which may be included if desired are:
The Lord’s Prayer
The hymn “Oh God, our Help in Ages Past.”
But please, no “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” or anything suggesting he was anything other than a most admirable man.
Lord of Creation
Lord of creation, to you be all praise!
Most mighty your working, most wondrous your ways!
Your glory and might are beyond us to tell,
And yet in the heart of the humble you dwell.
Lord of all power I give you my will,
In joyful obedience your tasks to fulfil.
Your bondage is freedom, your service is song,
and, held in your keeping, my weakness is strong.
Lord of all wisdom, I give you my mind,
rich truth that surpasses man’s knowledge to find.
What eye has not seen and what ear has not heard
is taught by your spirit and shines from your word.
Lord of all bounty, I give you my heart,
I praise and adore you for all you impart:
your love to inspire me, your counsel to guide,
your presence to shield me whatever betide.
Lord of all being, I give you my all,
If e’er I disown you I stumble and fall.
But sworn in glad service your word to obey,
I walk in your freedom to the end of the way.
A.Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, from www.barnesandnoble.com, and from www.iUniverse.com.