June 9, 2010

Unliftable Objects and Crucified Lords

This morning I am asked to say something about something called the "Hawking Conundrum," which is alleged to prove the non-existence of God, or at least the absurdity of the idea of God. This distinction matters, as we shall see. The problem was delivered to me in this form:

Assuming that God is the God of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition (which is to say both omniscient and omnipotent), can He create an object so heavy that He can't lift it?

The conundrum creates a logical impossibility, as follows:

If the answer be 'yes' (because God can create anything), than God cannot be omnipotent because He cannot then move the object; and if the answer be 'no' (because God can move anything), than God cannot be omnioptent because He Cannot create such an object. It follows logically that since God is not omnipotent, He is not God.

Of course this is not a new problem.

I doubt that my response--I dare not call it an answer--will satisfy atheists, and perhaps it will satisfy believers still less. It's hardly even satisfying to me and involves theological questions within which I am still searching myself (thank God!) So if you think you will be annoyed by an unsatisfying answer, stop reading now.

I suspect that the presentation of this problem does not produce many sudden conversions to atheism. Perhaps more often it causes the discomfort of doubt or the increase of questioning. Neither of these are enemies of faith, however, but friends that are hard to recognize. I suspect an atheist reacts in a similar way when presented with something like St. Anselm's "Ontological Argument" for the existence of God. I have heard of a few conversions, but mostly the simple inability to find fault with the logic does not induce conversion.

My simple answer--and here is where it will become unsatisfying--is that God's omnipotence just doesn't work like that. Let's say that later on today I allow my own fatigue and the despair I bring upon myself with my sins to overwhelm me. I drive my car up the Saw Mill Parkway to the Tappan Zee Bridge, park in the middle, and jump off. What will happen? Surely it is God's will that I live and flourish and be happy, but all of that will be over as I hit the water and die. So, at least on the spiritual level, God has made an object (me) so heavy that he cannot, or at least will not, lift it to safety.

This is exactly why St. Paul called Christ crucified a scandal to Jews (i.e. believers) and an absurdity to Greeks (i.e. believers in human wisdom.) And it remains so. Believers are annoyed to hear about the God of Jesus Christ who, apparently, refuses to control the world or intervene in the suffering we bring upon ourselves in anything like a heavy-handed way. Atheists--and this is the logical force of the conundrum--complain that this God doesn't seem very intelligible as a deity.

What does it mean to say that the omnipotent God is revealed as a condemned and tortured criminal in the midst of his execution, not being able to move his hands and feet, much less lift infinitely heavy objects? It means, at least, that omnipotence and almighty-ness as divine attributes are not exactly what they are supposed to mean, prima facie, to us human beings.

Nevertheless, I am lifted up. When I received Holy Communion this morning, that same Christ crucified continued to unite himself to me precisely in my own brokenness and the misery, despair, and confusion I have brought upon myself with my sins. It's not that Christ has taken me, an infinitely offensive and heavy object, and lifted me up from above, but that he has pushed me up from below by descending into my powerlessness and weakness. With the strength of knowing this salvation, I will not have to struggle this afternoon with the temptation to jump off the Tappan Zee Bridge. And it is my prayer and hope that it also gives me the strength to avoid all of the other little suicides of sin.

Please follow this link for a follow-up post.


Sara said...

The idea that *I* might be the object too heavy to lift is not satisfying, exactly, but not unsatisfying either. I'm really happy that I read this today.

Anonymous said...

My father once told me he couldn't worship a God that he could fully understand. That always stuck with me.

If you can fully understand your God, it's very possible you're just worshiping yourself. Or at least your own understanding.

Pebbles said...

Ignoring the fact that this question seems to be predicated on a vision of God as some sort of mass, force or subtly material spirit that interacts with the physical world according to the laws of physics rather than pure Being as Augustine says or pure consciousness if you want to call it that, the question could be rephrased like this:

can God create something that either opposes his own will or is beyond his ability to control? In other words, can God be the effect of that which he creates? I imagine the answer would be yes, insofar as he chooses. But only insofar as he chooses. God is capable of overwhelming human free will, for example, if he so chooses. As you note, however, he chooses not to do so.

I suppose it would even be theoretically possible for God to choose not to be omnipotent. But that does not mean he is inherently finite. Rather he is limited only to the extent that he chooses to be so. No contradiction.

Greg said...

Can a philosopher who sets up a false dichotomy word game ever gaze upon the face of God? Probably not.

Pebbles is right. God can satisfy both ends of the argument at will.

First, He can create a rock that is too heavy for Him to lift. He does it by deciding it is so. Then He changes His mind and there are no rocks too heavy to lift. He satisfies both A and Not A.

All such physical conditions are simply the decision of God at any one moment. See Bishop Berkeley.

All created conditions are temporary and contingent, not absolute and timeless. Therefore, one can have both A and Not A, playing with time.

The box of finite logic is such a sad place to hang out.