Is God in Charge? Kathryn Tanner

Part Two of the Is God in Charge essay.  I’ve put off writing this for a week, because I found the assignment so frustrating.  I’m supposed to decide which vision of God I prefer, McFague’s (if you read the last one, you probably get that I don’t appreciate it) or Tanner’s.  Tanner has a nicer vision of God, but even more than McFague she fails to answer the question of her essay.  She paints a picture of God that says that he is very much in control of absolutely everything in creation, but makes absolutely no mention of how or why evil exists (the context of her very essay).  I’ll give a bit of a rundown of her essay, and I guess we’ll just speculate from there about how God handles evil in both her view and McFague’s.

First of all, Tanner doesn’t reference Scripture at all; kind of a strange omission considering the subject matter, and the fact that the questions of control and evil inevitably arise from certain passages.  She grounds her argument in Greco-Roman philosophy to explain the classic Christian understanding of God’s action in creation and providence.  I had to read it twice (it’s a bit dense and very conceptual), so bear with me as I stumble through it with you.

God is not a “kind” – there is no such thing as “God-ness”, there is nothing else that has a quality of “divinity”, there is nothing or no-one like God.  Therefore, there is no degree of divinity.  There is also nothing that can separate him from creation, because (unlike the Greek gods) contact with creation cannot dilute his attributes or destroy the attributes of creation, because his divinity is not in fact an attribute of his “kind” – because he doesn’t have one.  So God is separate from his creation in that it is made up of many different kinds and he is not a kind at all, but also very immediate to it.

Because God is not a “kind”, we can’t identify his creating acts with any kind of agency, operation, or principle of activity found in the world – God doesn’t create like we do, which is good, because we don’t really create anything anyways.  Our creation acts are actually just manipulation of existing materials through intermediaries like other creatures, machines, and even processes.  God’s creation is thus without all of those things, and does not use pre-existing materials.  His acts of creation are immediate; he uses no tools (he doesn’t even have hands) and his creation involves no process to carry out (he doesn’t need to stack bricks to build a house) and he uses no materials (he doesn’t need bricks at all to make a house) and he doesn’t create by making other agents build things for him (he’s not a divine foreman).  God creates because of who God is: the God who wants to create things (not that creating the world is a necessary part of God’s nature – it’s still quite volitional).  If you take the lack of process point to its furthest, God doesn’t even need to think about creating something; he desires it, and so it is.

The lack of a process in creation part was confusing, so I’ll elaborate (as Tanner does): if creation is perfectly comprehensive, then we cannot speak of it as change, movement, or process, which is why we can’t imply that God used existing things or intervening processes or agencies to create with, and thus would be a kind of agency, operation or principle of activity found in this world – i.e. something limited to a “kind”.  Obviously this view sees Creation as one comprehensive product, though it has many tiny parts.  I wonder what Tanner thinks of evolution or other processes that seem somewhat evident in nature.  This seems to me like she’s saying that God created the world with less than a thought in its comprehensive completeness.  But I suppose that’s neither here nor there, because we’re talking about God and not as much about creation.

Because there is no movement, change, or process to creation, it has no temporal dimension; we can’t even speak of it changing from non-existence to existence, we can only see it as existing.  As long as the world exists, it is creation.  To quote Tanner, “the world’s temporal movement away from its beginning is not distance from the creative activity of God.”  And “the world does not exist on its own, independently of God’s action for it as creator.”

We can describe these attributes of God through the combination of two images or metaphors: Personal Agency and Naturalistic Emanation.  To clarify, a naturalistic emanation is like a fire giving off light and heat, or a light source giving off light.  It doesn’t work as an image for God in the sense that Naturalistic Emanations (NE) produce or reproduce only in “kind” – i.e. a light only produces more light, a fire more fire, etc. – while God can produce whatever he wants.  He is a person with agency, or a personal agent, capable of producing endless variety without boundary.  But, though God is a person with agency, he does not work with preexisting materials like other personal agents; like an NE, God is self sufficient – his creations come directly from him.  He doesn’t make furniture out of wood like a human agent, he makes wood out of nothing.  An NE can only produce more of itself in this way, but as we already mentioned, God isn’t limited to that; he doesn’t make things out of himself that reproduce himself, he makes whatever he wants.  A personal agent takes steps in their creation (like putting together IKEA furniture), but like an NE God’s creation is immediate; he doesn’t even need to take the step of deciding to do something, he simply does it.  The creation of a personal agent eventually becomes independent from its creator (i.e. a house is a house separate from its builder, usually after it has been fully built) but like an NE God’s creation does not continue independent of him (i.e. without a continuing flame, the heat and light will dissipate; so too God’s creation without God).

Also like a Naturalistic Emanation, God does what he does not out of necessity (as it may appear) but out of a superabundance.  The sun doesn’t shine because it needs to shine, but because it has so much heat and light.  The sun doesn’t need to shine; it has a greater, more perfect light inherent to its very being.  God doesn’t need to create anything (it’s not like he’s lonely); he has perfect love in overwhelming abundance within the Trinity, his very being.  God’s love and goodness and creativity overflow in such generous abundance that he creates other things to love and be good to as a natural outflow of his being.

God’s creation is never ending, but we call this Providence.  “If the world is created by God in all its respects then the world is being created by God as things within it act and form arrangements and move toward new ones by natural and human causes.”  Tanner basically says that all things exist as a result of God creating and sustaining them, and thus everything that his creatures do are an extension of his act of creation, and God is responsible for all things within creation.  Me writing this sentence right now is an act of God’s providence, which is actually God creating a world in which this sentence exists (if that is his plan).  Providence is God’s plan for the world and its execution in a world that has its own powers of activity.  Because God’s creatures have their own activity, they have a hand in executing God’s plan, whether by choice or ignorance or even unwillingly.  He doesn’t need to do things “himself”; he simply creates something or someone with the ability to do the things he desires them to.  Creatures’ actions, however, do not replace God’s creative action (we don’t do everything for him); after all, the very existence of creation requires God’s continuing creative action to simply sustain it.  God also doesn’t need to augment his creatures with divine power: it is through the very human act of dying that Jesus saved us all in accordance with God’s providence.

I’m very sorry that this is so long, but I hope I’ve explained her view as well as I’m able.  If you’re feeling frustrated at this point, I’m with you.  While I feel that this essay exalted God far, far more than McFague’s, I feel like there’s a few enormously gaping holes in it.  For example, if God doesn’t even deliberate about things before he does them, what does that say about Sodom and Gomorrah, or Sinai, where God not only deliberated but actually changed his mind?  And that’s just in the first two books of the Bible (which Tanner didn’t quote)!  If God is responsible for everything that occurs within creation, what is sin?  Even if God is only responsible for the potential good in creation, and sin is going against his control, then what kind of control does he actually have?  If God is ultimately responsible for everything and creatures all play a role in his plan, even unwillingly, does that make him a puppetmaster in some tragic drama?  Is Tanner simply affirming hard predestination in a very roundabout way?  Except for the last, these are the questions I feel spurred on this chapter in the first place: Placher started off this chapter talking about theodicy and the problems of evil and divine justice, and Tanner seems to have promised to shed light on these questions and then done absolutely nothing to answer them.

Thankfully, my professor today told us that theodicy and justice are not issues this paper is to discuss; my task tonight is to choose which vision of God I prefer, comparing and contrasting, and then talk about how that vision of God affects my Christian life and ministry.  Personally, I quite dislike both versions: McFague demeans God and divinizes creation, while Tanner ignores scripture and demeans human agency.  To McFague, God is not in control; to Tanner, God controls absolutely everything and the world is messed up anyways.  Perhaps I need to re-read the essays, but I don’t have time for a third go-round.  If you’ve read this far, thank you; please pray that I can make some sense of it all.

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2 thoughts on “Is God in Charge? Kathryn Tanner

  1. Thank you for writing about your frustration with Tanner. I have been agonizing over her book, “Christ the Key” and am frustrated beyond belief trying to understand what she is getting at and how do I argue when I keep going to scripture and she does not? Like you I will just have to write what I think that she is saying and what I think of that.

    • Thanks for your comment! This is one of the posts that I’m least proud of on here, because I try to make sure that my blog makes sense somehow. I found it very difficult to keep my frustration at Tanner in sensible terms, just as I found it difficult to make sense of where she was coming from. I think perhaps our worldview or milieu not only has a huge influence on how we interpret the text, but also in how we understand the interpretations of others! It’s clear that Kathryn Tanner and I come from different faith perspectives (or, as it sometimes seems, different universes!).

      I hope you have more luck than I did!

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