Omni

Rev. John Smith, upbraided by his wife for having gone out for exercise and forgotten the fish van, asks in exasperation, “Do I have to remember everything?” This is not a good response, but had the Christian God been upbraided for the same offence he could not even have asked this question, as being omniscient and omnipotent, he is naturally expected to remember everything. This example points to one of the problems of epithets beginning with omni- they leave very little wriggle room for any failure or mess-up.

This problem is immediately evident to John Smith when he envisages making God responsible for the course of evolution. Development of new species by the mutations, one of which proves the most adaptable to new environments, may be a respectable mechanism for biological process, but it looks bad in the hands of an omniscient, omnipotent, and beneficent God. What about all the mutations that led nowhere except to seriously inadequate creatures? What about the changing environments like ice-ages which killed off many creatures? And what about the parasitic wasp mentioned in his scientific text-book?

” It lays its egg inside a caterpillar. The tiny larva lurks in the flesh of the caterpillar soaking up its nutrients and drinking its blood, all the while being careful to keep its host alive, until it is ready to eat its way out and pupate.”

It’s a neat trick of evolutionary process, but difficult to imagine as the act of an omnipotent and beneficent deity.

Then the volcanic activity and the asteroid impact that ended the lives of most dinosaurs does seem a little like carelessness or even deliberate malice on the part of the omniscient and omnipotent One. John tries offering the excuse that the death of dinosaurs led to the flourishing of mammals, and hence to human beings, but then he realises the omniscient God could surely have bypassed dinosaurs altogether as they contributed nothing to the human genome.

No, the fact is that it makes no sense to attribute the process of evolution to an omniscient, omnipotent and beneficent God. So how can he believe that evolution is evidence for the existence of God?

Because he doesn’t believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God. He believes God is wise and loving, but rejects any words beginning with omni.

But is such a being worthy of being called God and worshipped as such? If he/she/it is not in complete charge, surely they are merely a demi-God, a pathetic excuse for a deity, and certainly a big disappointment compared with Jehovah in the Old Testament bringing floods and smiting the Egyptians? JS is a little impatient with this Old Testament stuff as anyone ought to be able to see the Bible as the story of a God who blunders in creating disobedient humans and tries to bring them to heel by mighty acts like the flood, then learns that the only way to sort his world is by patient persuasion of one family. Yes, there are still some miraculous outbursts but basically he sticks to persuasion. And if we add the New Testament, it’s all persuasion. So, in fact, there’s not much omni- about the biblical God. The omni- bits are because the bible authors inherited images of God as similar to the despotic monarchs of the ancient middle east, but the main story is all about persuasion. In JS’s view this truth is fundamental to any decent religion.

Is it possible to see God’s role in evolution as also persuasive rather than determinative, that God has to persuade the elements of the universe and its life forms to move towards perfection, rather than enforcing his own blueprint?

In fact, JS knows, this is the fully argued view of one of the greatest 20th century philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead.

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