The Powers Of God
Copyright © by Len Holman, 7/30/10
Almost every policy issue, private conversation, incidental chat at the check-out line at Von’s, and the political mutterings of everyone from the President of the United States to the local dog catcher in this country is framed—directly or indirectly—in religious terms. Even if the wording of objections to, say, gays in the military, is couched in terms of military cohesion or morale or efficiency, the subtext is that such a situation is distasteful to God, that it is immoral because God disapproves, and that we, as a society, are slipping quickly away from the path God wants us on—and that we know that path because it’s written in some holy book or another, and we know the holy words are true because the books says they are.
This all presupposes, of course, that there is a God—or more specifically, that there is a God, the supernatural likes of which the devout advertise, a God who has the divinity and power claimed. But if there has to be a God, why is such an extra-human God necessary at all? Why couldn’t there be a God who comes short of such power? And wouldn’t such a divinity be better—easier to believe in, clearer in purpose and desired results? Less mystical in interpretations, and not prone to the machinations of various religious power brokers? And wouldn’t such a God (if there need be such a creation) be a better divinity for humans?
From the very beginnings of our species’ existence, extra-human qualities have been attributed to certain entities in the natural world by our earliest ancestors, and these mental and emotional activities eventually led to the gods and goddesses of historic times, to which we have granted extraordinary powers. It is precisely these powers conferred upon them which make them seem superior to humans and which evoked the awe and reverence accorded them. As the history of humankind unfolded, as humans and the institutions they created evolved, so did their objects of veneration: piles of pebbles, lofty mountains, small, life-giving spirits, to gods of particular activities, such as agriculture, husbandry, music, etc., to a henotheistic pantheon, jostling with one another for prominence, even supremeness, but the final step was—amidst all the human indecisiveness about whether there was (or needed to be) any gods at all—just one god who, to be any creation worthy of worship and obedience, must have attributes which are not merely awesome (in the older etymology of that word), but must exceed any possible human attribute.
So, at last, came the final step in the development of the powers of the gods: a jealous, sometimes truly bloodthirsty, omnipotent God. Subsumed within the power of an omnipotent god are the powers of all-knowing, and all-virtuousness, for any god who is all-powerful is certainly an omni-potential god, who is all to all. If this is not the case, then we have no god at all, merely a celebrity on the order of Mother Teresa or Ronald Reagan. Thus we humans have before us a Supreme Deity who is definitely All to all who believe, who is omnipotent and fills the universe with Divine Presence. Some questions arise for the curious: could such a Supreme Deity be supreme without omniscience? Could God be a god without a potential and actuality which is limitless?
Is there partial “Supremeness?”
The first thing we must remember is that omniscience/omipotence, by definition, has always been an “all or nothing” proposition. No god given cosmological supremacy, such as the gods of current monotheism, can be just a little omniscient or a little omnipotent, just as no woman can be just a little pregnant, so when we ask if a Deity could be supreme without omnipotency, then we are asking if a Deity could be supreme with only partial knowledge and power—though much more, to be sure, than humans could ever aspire to, no matter how many moments of punctuated equilibrium there may occur in a future evolutionary cycle. That is, there would have to be a supreme being who does not have complete and total knowledge, has no Omni-potential, who is, in other words, limited.
The answer to that question would seem to be immediately clear: for a Supreme Being would surely NOT be limited. It seems, in fact, a being called “Supreme” must be unlimited. But there is one notable issue, and that is that this Supreme Deity is, by choice, and under special circumstances, limited—or more precisely—self-limiting just because this being IS Supreme. Only a being who is omniscient and omnipotent (and therefore in complete and total control of Self) could resist the temptation—for all time and under every conceivable circumstance—to use these incredible powers for self-indulgent purposes—so the Christian God, for example isn’t swooping down as a swan or thundering across the field as a bull to satisfy his desire. But even a proposed self-limiting God could STILL have omniscience and omnipotence, even if this deity refrained from allowing these powers full rein. So the very question of “partial” omniscience seems ridiculous, but for the constantly shown issue that humans require—or think they do—unlimited power from their deities. God must be a superstar or is no god at all. These requirements of all-potency, all-virtuousness and all-knowing, however, have, in scripture, culture and mythology, been shown to be something less than what has been ascribed to God or the gods or Godhead, as we will investigate next.
How Much Is Enough?
No matter what advertising and the current riotous and splintered media proclaim, humans have found they cannot have it all. Maybe that’s why we think that, at the very least, our gods should—but how much limitlessness, how much “superpower” do humans truly need in their gods? If the Greeks are any example, the answer has to be: not very much. That rapist par excellence, Zeus, was unlimited in certain respects (certainly in his lusts), but as Homer points out repeatedly, there was little omniscience or omnipotence exhibited on the part of the gods of Olympus, who, for example, took sides during the war at the fabled city by the Scamander. If you and your fellow gods can foretell who will win a war, or can easily direct the outcome of such a war, then there is little point in disputing about it, or aiding one or another side. Story after story point to the willingness of gods to intercede, but nothing to indicate they had but limited foreknowledge of events to come. They might not, however, have needed such super powers as granted them in story and song. The many centuries of their existence would have given them an advantage as to predicting events yet to come, just as a human parent can—much to the disconcerted and grudging amazement of his or her callow offspring—more often than not, be found to be correct in his or her prognostications. In other words, experience and the ability to put that experience to practical use can be a major substitute for any need for real omniscience. It is the agent who constructs the reality of the situation which is the major factor here. I offer as a thought experiment something which seems far removed from our inquiry, but which bears on it directly.
Presently, the United States, fearing the rise of technology-based, more accurate counterfeiting of its currency, is beginning to change the oblong pieces of paper we call money, as a counter-measure to criminals who would contaminate the supply. But consider how successful counterfeiting might actually work: If I made a twenty-dollar bill that was so good, it was virtually undetectable, and could spend it without incident, and THEN the merchant to whom I gave the bill could use it him or herself, and could safely and without notice deposit it in his bank account, then the acceptance at every level of my fake twenty MAKES it real—at least, real enough that it performs its function. All it takes is that the agents who use the currency accept it as such. That’s all. To follow this example with my point: if a god is not up to the standard of omniscience or omnipotence, but is accepted as a god by the agents of veneration, then that’s good enough for the humans who do the sacrificing, worshipping and trembling with fear and awe—the agents. There is no necessarily logical need for actual omniscience OR omnipotence, as another example implies.
A very strong man might, say, be able to benchpress 400 pounds several times, while a “normal” human couldn’t even get the bar to move, but does that make the Herculean athlete a deity because he can do what most any other human could not? By extension, might there be a God who can know and do things which are not divine, but certainly things which no human has been recorded as knowing or doing (so far on our evolutionary path) and still not be omnipotent or omniscient—just incredibly talented or gifted? It seems that there is no necessity to impute omnipotence or omniscience to a deity by virtue of any human standard, so partial knowledge and power are certainly real possibilities for worshipping such a being.
Finally, there is the so-called “psychological factor.” It is claimed that humans NEED an omnipotent and omniscient god for the comfort and support such a being provides, that humans would not be content with a merely “very strong” god a “very smart” god because the very fact of human frailty precludes such; humans must have such a god as to be beyond the scope of human minds, unreachable and unimaginable in only the dimmest and poorest of ways—if at all. If one imagines early humans encountering some unexplained phenomenon which terrifies them, it seems at least plausible that they would soon come to realize that no one of them could comfort or explain anything to the others of their kind, since all are affected in the same way, that they would imagine something or someone beyond them to aid them, to explain things to them. But such a “going beyond human” is not necessary, and historically and genotypically has not been needed. Great comfort and support was obtained from even flawed humans, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Queen Elizabeth I and a whole host of fictional characters—such as a Superman, who, for all his powers, still had to deal with the ravaging effects of Kryptonite—which have sustained and motivated generations of humans. Not to mention the myriad of parents and grandparents and friends and other humans who have aided and comforted their fellow beings quite well. Why is there a necessary need for a Being so supreme as to be called, repeatedly, “ineffable?” Comfort is found where it is needed to be found, by the ones one need it, and a limitless god or goddess isn’t an absolute necessity for that comfort. What IS necessary is that our society teaches us how to use the resources other, fallible, flawed humans can bring to bear.
Is It ‘Only Words’?
If humans can accept a very powerful deity, with blemishes, and with certain limitations—as they have for millennia—why must we now have one who is Supreme, who cannot NOT know everything or one who cannot DO everything? Why can’t we just be content with one who is merely mightier and more knowledgeable than any human alive, or any who might be born, into the foreseeable future?
A being greater than whom no other being can be conceived is, historically, not really possible, in that humans are well-known for their paucity of imagination, as mirrored in the myriad myths and legends about three wishes, deals with the devil, choices of political leaders, etc. Human imagination (remember that not everyone is an Augustine, a Curie, a Socrates, a Pythagoras) cannot soar into the infinite, which is beyond imagination. Conceiving of a great being greater than any human I’ve ever met or am likely to meet, is—relatively—easy, but imagining the greatest being possible (that is, one is beyond my imagination) is patently contradictory, not to mention simply ridiculous. Perhaps it’s the very word “Supreme” which is the problem.
A Supreme Being is supposed to be unlimited, but being is limited, for humans, to the reality of all there is. It is limited to just being, and is not “beyond” anything; if it were beyond humans, then there would be no arguments, no moral dilemmas, since (as Protagoras famously stated) “man is the measure of all things,” including gods. “Supreme Being” must mean, then, that there is a way to be that is beyond being, and being beyond being is a pretty tall need for humans whose existence is very restricted in mind and body. But still, there is that phrase which humans use to mean someone or something beyond or above them, whose powers—however they may be described—are more than humans can conceive, so perhaps what is meant by “Supreme Being” is “Great Being” or “Mighty Being.” If such is the case, if what humans mean by this phrase is that they need, want, suppose, a being of greater stature than any conceivable human dimension, then the term “Supreme Being” IS only words. After all, our present culture’s celebrity worshipping is done when the one being worshipped (in the form of open adulation, buying of their signatured products, the following of every tidbit of information about them, and the identifying with them on a physical and psychological level) is less than supreme; the one being worshipped is, in fact, so fallible as to be much less than god-like. If humans can go so far as to venerate such beings, why do they need an almost perfect one in their Deity?
Why is This Important?
Wouldn’t acknowledging that there is no “Supreme Being” destroy (for many) the gold standard of rule deontological ethics? Wouldn’t it seem that, since there is no perfect being watching our every move, certain religions would suffer a death-blow? Wouldn’t having a less-than-supreme being as a god mean that such a god could be (gulp) wrong about certain things? What of the people who cannot access a grandparent, a mentor, a friend?
Let’s examine the first question: for the Divine Command theory to apply means that humans are totally incapable of making a standard of their own, that they need some rule created by the mythological or imagined Perfect Being who knows what’s best for us. But such a being isn’t necessary, as in the case of a child who can get excellent and helpful advice and standards from a very fallible, but experienced and insightful caregiver, who is—admittedly—not “Supreme”, but (in the manner discussed above with the counterfeit money) accepts the caregiver’s input as superior to his/her own, as “supreme” within the child-adult context. So a superior being can be just as good, for human consumption and psychological comfort, as a Supreme one, since “superior” is (as far as human minds and hearts are concerned) just as good as a being who is Supreme.
As to the destruction of religion: it is not my purpose here to suggest that there should be no religion, only to suggest that a Supreme Being is not necessary to any religion. Recall that early Buddhism had no deity and that the Buddha, himself, eschewed any veneration directed toward him, and that his whole message revolved on the idea that, given sufficient motivation, any human could become enlightened, without resort to the constructed or imagined supremacy of any being. If there is a Being who is merely superior, it might give pause to those who insist on telling the rest of us that a Supreme Being says to do this or that, and failing to do will result in some horrific punishment, and that implies that what is morally right (as promulgated by a less-than-perfect being) might have to be THOUGHT about by the beings who have to live here on earth with one another. Such a conceptual God could be thought of as having blemishes, could be thought of as INVITING humans to check his decisions, just to be sure they are correct. This would mean that humans would actually have to think for themselves.
But what about scripture? Many religions have them, and they have been misinterpreted and twisted by the opportunistic and misinformed, while using the scripture—which is claimed as coming from a divine source—to prove (tautologically) that the scripture comes from a divine source. If scripture can’t be resorted to as an easy way to bypass thought, then reason and practicality might play a bigger and more important rule in human affairs—especially in public policy. If there is no divine, omnipotent and omniscient source, only a fallible, though superior being who is involved then it will soon become obvious that human rules of conduct are, ultimately, up to the humans who must live by them.
It may be the religion can give comfort and aid and a way to make sense of it all, but I thought that was what our minds were for. God only knows what might happen if we knew we were alone with only each other to use for help and guidance.
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