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Miniblog #127: No Longer Seeing God as A Sort of Divine Muppet Master Following “The Plan”

by Carson T. Clark on September 16, 2012

It’s interesting how our faith changes through different periods of our lives. During college I took great solace in God’s sovereignty. That assurance remained despite uncertainty as I spent countless hours wrestling through the various theological systems.11.At various times I considered myself an Arminian, Calvinist, and Open Theist. Regardless of what happened, there was a plan. Believing that God was doing something through those challenges brought hope. He held the reins amidst all that confusion and heartache. In a world of apparent chaos and turmoil, He was in control. Suffice to say, that’s no longer my perspective. These days my comfort comes from far more from the fact that the Father isn’t please with the crapfulness of humanity, Christ empathizes with our suffering, and the Holy Spirit is actively moving despite the incomprehensible depths of our ability to screw things up. That is, I’m finding grace not so much in trusting “the plan” but trusting in the triune God who overcomes our ability to deviate from the plan.22.And all those philosophical-theological differences between God’s perfect and permissive will that I’ve studied so intently? I now find them far more disconcerting than reassuring. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the Creator somehow made an incomprehensible entity in this creation that even He cannot know. This isn’t about one of those cosmic head games where we ask if God can create a rock so big that even He can’t move it. I’ve little patience for questions of that nature anymore. All I’m saying is that my hope and trust increasingly resides in God’s faithfulness, not in this Westernized view that He’s a sort of divine, omniscient, omnipotent muppet master who scrupulously implements “the plan.”

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

    There’s got to be some kind of moratorium placed on the word “abstract” in theological discourse. Any time anybody wants to disparage some theological point of view it, or some concern connected to it, is (mis)labeled “abstract” and is sufficiently tarnished. In any case, it’s hard to see how a doctrine of providence with a greater emphasis on God’s particular concern for each and every moment of history can be labeled “abstract.” One could make the argument that views like that are the most “concrete” in many ways. God doesn’t simply allow what he allows because of generalized goods like “freedom”, or “morality”, etc. but instead wills particular goods for his children.

    Heidelberg’s Answer 26 sets the doctrine of sovereignty and providence in its context by confessing “That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”

    I don’t think anybody is particularly concerned to speak of an abstract providence. I love talking about the Fatherly care of the Triune God who not only cares for our suffering, (empathizes?), but also is unsurprised by it and has sovereignly done something about it.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Before getting to the main thrust of your reply, I’d like to clarify a couple things on my use of abstract. I’m a guy who gets accused of having abstract, impractical theology all the time by people don’t get that solid theory underpins quality action. In that sense I’m definitively not an intellectual pragmatist. I value abstract thought. Moreover, I’m sure I’m guilty of this as well but I get frustrated by the inconsistent way people use abstract ideas. All these people who decry abstract thought seem to spend all day long extolling love. Yet that too is an abstract idea! That having been said, your criticism is sound. Abstract isn’t the right word. I’ll either delete or replace it. Thanks.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I don’t think anybody is particularly concerned to speak of an abstract providence.”

      Really? I’ve met many, many such individuals.

      “I love talking about the Fatherly care of the Triune God who not only cares for our suffering, (empathizes?), but also is unsurprised by it and has sovereignly done something about it.”

      Whether we agree or disagree on this is going to depend heavily upon what you mean by “unsurprised.”

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      Welp, that’s not the sort of providence I’m concerned with, nor have I been reading about in the theologians in the Reformed tradition I’ve encountered. That has been admittedly limited, though.

      As for my “unsurprised” comment, I’ve always taken great comfort in God’s foreknowledge even while I was not even close to being “Reformedish” and arguing with my Calvinist friends. It’s a great comfort to me that Jesus knew Peter’s sin before he even committed and yet still spoke to him graciously and loved him. God is not surprised by my sins, or sins that others commit against me. He knows and has provided accordingly to judge, forgive, or redeem these things as he sees fit. I remember when I was first called attention to 1 Peter 1:18-20, and Rev. 13:8 that speak of Christ as a lamb slain before the foundation of the world. I know that there are translation issues with those verses, but Miroslav Volf tells a rabbinic tradition that God, knowing of the sin to come, had to forgive the world before even making it. That thought was mind-blowing for me. God adopted me knowing how I was going to jack things up. There’s nothing I can do that he didn’t already sign up to fix when he saved me. It’s covered. Now, that, among other implications that you can draw from the word “unsurprised” is a great comfort to me.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      This may seem tangential, and you may have told me this before, but do you know your Myers-Briggs?

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      No. I am supposed to take that test for a work thing. I think last time I took it I was INTJ, but I know there’s only a 5% difference between Introversion and Extraversion. Also, there’s a pretty close split on T and F, if I remember correctly.
      Why? Does that tell you why I answer the way that I do?

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’ll be interested to know if you’re a P or J. While I’m unwilling to put this forward as even a working theory, I’ve been noticing that Ps tend to take more comfort in God working through stuff and Js tend to take more comfort in God knowing stuff.

    • http://derekzrishmawy.com/ Derek Rishmawy

      That is interesting. Who knows how much of theology has been driven by personality types? I wonder if there’s a particular one that leans towards heresy. I mean, I doubt it given that heresies are spawned from all sorts of impulses, both conservative and progressive.

  • Lawrence Garcia

    Carson, I am sympathetic to your post, but I think what you’re saying must be kept at the level you keep it here; precisely because the moment these issues are raised it seems to be almost impossible to refrain from getting into the abtract theological discussion on soveriegnty/human free will etc. I think the best way to approach these issues is a sort of psalmic-genre approach: a axiom filled complaint and comfort way of looking t the world before the mysteries of God.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I’m genuinely intrigued. Can you unpack this a bit more?

  • Greg S

    When philosophers say something is “abstract” they mean it in contrast with “concrete”. The number 2, in the eyes of a certain kind of realist, is an “abstract” object. The universal ‘being red’ is an abstract object. A few examples of concrete objects are my laptop, God, and parking tickets. It becomes confusing when someone discussing things like theological or philosophical issues uses “abstract” to characterize some realm of discourse. Do they mean that they are talking about abstract objects, or something else? It seems to me, generally, that when people utter a statement like, “That’s an abstract theological issue,” they mean something like, “That’s a theological issue and not merely a command to love my neighbor as myself.” I’m with Derek here about a moratorium on the use of “abstract”. I’m skeptical that there are any meaningful senses of the word remaining beside the two I’ve tried to indicate.

    • Greg

      And I suppose I should add, since this is probably why you posted this on my wall, that quotes like this one are confusing: ”
      This isn’t about one of those cosmic head games where we ask if God can create a rock so big that even He can’t move it. I’ve little patience for questions of that nature anymore. ” I understand that people sometimes get sick of philosophical or theological issues. But it makes no sense to say “I trust X” and “I don’t have any good reason to think X is the sort of thing I can trust.” That’s basically what’s going on when someone says “I trust God” and “I don’t care about all that theological stuff.” It’s fine to find such issues annoying (or whatever), but whether or not your practice and your use of spiritual language makes any sense depends those issues having well-developed answers.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      The reason I shared the post with you was just to share the development of my thought in this area. I just copied and pasted that initial excerpt that I’d been sharing elsewhere.

      I’m not saying that I trust X and don’t have a good reason to trust X. What I’m doing is trying to see/approach X from a different angle.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      I cannot disagree.

  • Greg S

    I attempted to post another comment regarding the providence stuff, but it looks like it disappeared. Here’s a second, slightly less patient attempt. It doesn’t make any sense to say “I trust X” and “I don’t have any idea whether or not X is the kind of thing that I can trust.” Exactly this is going on when people say things like “I trust God” and “I don’t care about that theological logic-chopping stuff.” Whether or not it makes sense to live and use spiritual language the way it is often used depends upon there being thoughtful answers to questions like, “Can we have free will if God has predetermined everything that happens?” Many people would be surprised to realize that if the answer to that question requires them to replace their pre-reflective conception of “free will” or “God” or “providence” because they realize that these concepts just don’t fit together anymore. They’re even more surprised when they realize that whichever picture of how those things relate hang together would require them, if they’re interested in speaking precisely, to change the very way they use words. Calvinists should say: “No, God doesn’t answer your prayers.” Open theists should say: “No, it’s not a definite fact that just because God wants something to happen, it will happen.” (Arminians can stay quiet or say: “We need to be either Calvinists or OTs because our view doesn’t make any sense.”)

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Repeating a prior comment:

      I’m not saying that I [simultaneously] trust X and don’t have a good reason to trust X. [That would be stupid.] What I’m doing is trying to see/approach X from a different angle.

    • Greg

      Carson,
      Whatever approaching matters from a different angle consists in, if it isn’t to violate the standards we just agreed on, it’s going to require offering some answer to the good old-fashioned hard questions about providence, freedom, and foreknowledge. I’m inferring (but not with total confidence) that what you’re hinting at is that your conception of God is changing. (?)

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Without a doubt. My theology proper has changed.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Copying over what I wrote on facebook:

      Me again. I read through your comments on my blog and replied to them, but was left feeling dissatisfied. So I’ve been sitting here trying to figure out how to explain what I mean by a “different angle.” I suspect the context of providence and free will is detrimental since you almost know it too well to kind of step back and see the forest rather than the trees. So, I thought a related theological field I could use would be sacramental theology. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe not. But I think this post highlights how I’m wanting to think about things carefully without mechanizing the hell out of theology: http://carsontclark.com/uncategorized/12286/wrestling-with-sacramental-theology

    • Greg

      I think I get it now. I’ll just defend the side complained against: once you have a firm understanding of a core theological concept, you’ll see that your new understanding resists occupying just the same place in your life that the old one did. Once you get, for instance, a clear view about how different interpretations of providence, free will, and foreknowledge work, it will no longer be a ‘mystery’ why certain things happen. Of course, you might not know the specifics of why this thing and not that happened, but you understand the system that takes certain states as inputs and delivers others as outputs. You stop thinking about life in just the same way you did before. In short, (I’d say) you grow up.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Bozeman/1143676742 James Bozeman

    Here is what I posted on my facebook page… it looks like I’m a little late to the game:

    I think that this is definitely one area where we must agree. The whole idea of God’s will in the form of a “plan” (which is a very human and temporal notion) that we had to somehow decipher or align to or whatever caused me no end of trouble in my earlier Christian life. If God has a plan, it is not something that we will ever figure out or decipher in any tangible or useful way. God is perfectly sovereign: all things are under his control, good or bad (our definitions, not His). Whatever comes our way is ultimately from His hand, whether triumphant or tragic. He is perfectly at rest in His sovereignty. But we have no way to understand how this works or how it is going to work out. Our job is to meet each moment, one at a time, trusting in a Person, not idolizing our flawed concept of Divine Providence (which is what we usually do when we start talking about discerning God’s will and a “plan”).

    What amazes me is when we look into something like church history, for example, and you see these hugely critical moments such as the ecumenical councils. At these moments, are those persons involved simply praying and loving one another and having a deeply spiritual time? No, they are fighting and arguing and conniving and theologizing. And at the end of the day, someone is going to pronounced a heretic and someone else is going to triumph. Our usual response to the victor’s victory is to say that Saint Such and Such was used by God, with the accent of our meaning being on the fact that because he was used by God, he was the saintlier of the two (the other being the heretic). The fact of the matter is that when we really look at these bits of history, we find that the Holy Spirit was there and worked through the really bad motives, behaviors and intentions of those involved. The fact that we have these necessary truths preserved for us today is in itself a miracle and pure evidence that the Holy Spirit continues to move, and that God the Father is in control. None of this is meant to denigrate the saints.

    Is this the part of some plan? I don’t know and I don’t care. I wouldn’t understand the plan anyway, so why bother with it. The only plan that you and I need to be occupied with is to “crucify” each moment on the cross that we have been given to bear, and give those moments— one at time— back to Christ. As the saying goes, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Ultimately the Gospel is super simple.

    It is so easy to trust the idea of some “plan” that we believe that God must have, rather than God Himself. Which I believe was your entire point. And I think that my comment here is now actually longer than you blog piece. I really hope that this makes some sense.

    • Gill

      I really like this. It is so easy to start trusting in ‘things’ rather than God Himself. We keep forgetting that it is all about relationship.

  • Gill

    The Orthodox Church would completely agree with you, I think!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.oller Stephen Oller

    I’ve actually struggled because of the concept of “God: The Divine Puppet Master”. In my case, I’ve found myself (I’m trying to get away from this) trying to play into his plan as opposed to just living and loving. I would always ask myself, “What is God waiting for me to do?” The time I spent trying to figure out his plan lead me, I believe, down more wrong paths than not. By the results it has wrought in my life, I see how flawed this idea is and I’ve been trying to get away from it because God just isn’t trying to micromanage our lives.

    EDIT: Aw, dangit. I’m two weeks too late. =P

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