On our Shabat morning Torah study that focused on the exodus from Egypt, we were offered four different views of God as the all-powerful in relationship to the freedom granted to human beings. This is the second time in the Tanach where the tale directly deals with God’s power. The first is the creation story at the beginning of Genesis. However, that deals with God as a creator, not as a source of power competitive with other sources. In the different interpretations of the Exodus tale, the four alternative interpretations on offer of the basic premise of an all-powerful God in relationship to human freedom can be characterized and arranged as follows, all premised on a conception of God with unlimited and boundless power and omnipotence.
The Four Quadrants of Freedom
|Freedom as Choice||Freedom as Surrender|
|Individual freedom acquired – only by identification with God||Through God’s Grace God is so powerful that He, using His mercy and grace, can save humans from sinning and radically transform a human so that he or she will freely choose what is good and right.||Through Intimacy w. God God moves in mysterious ways but, through “true” knowledge and understanding of that inner, mysterious process, the greatest intimacy with God can be attained – the Kabbalah|
|Individual freedom given and inherent in humans.||As Real As Maimonides claims, God limits His power to make room for human freedom. Man can choose to exercise freedom as an ally of God||As an Illusion God is all powerful and knows all things, including what is about to be; the individual sense of freedom is then an illusion.|
These are all efforts to reconcile a conception of God as an all-powerful and all-knowing entity with the limited knowledge and capacity of humans. In the fourth quadrant (#4) characteristic of classical rabbinic views, the theological God of theism allows humans only one choice – whether to submit or not to submit to God’s will. The individual is then an object of absolute knowledge and absolute control with no real agency. Righteousness equals conformity. Service to the Lord and compliance with His norms is the only true freedom.
If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, God has the ability to foresee the future. If God has foreknowledge of our actions, then these actions are predetermined before any choices even present themselves. However, in quadrant #2, God is considered “so great that we cannot know him” [Job 36:26]) There exists negative and positive freedom, not in the modern sense of “freedom from” and “freedom to,” that is, freedom from oppression and freedom to perform as an agent in the world. Rather, negative freedom is privation. “All evils are privations” constituted by the lack of perfection, by an absence of a degree of an attribute of God. Positive freedom entails the acquisition of those attributes and virtues that are akin to God’s.
In Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (the answer offered in #3), God’s wisdom was not transparent to finite minds. The resolution to the problem of determinism and freedom is not found in a form of superior access. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why then is there injustice? Why do humans misbehave and choose evil over good? Because humans surrender themselves to their material being and neglect the perfection of the soul. In addition to the infirmities with which we are born, and the evils inflicted on ourselves by bullies and tyrants, there also those evil actions an individual commits on his own against others and his or herself, from the profound to the relatively trivial – lying and overeating, In the final accounting, we are responsible for what happens to ourselves. There are two paths to enhancing freedom – expand one’s horizons and look into your own soul. Why is there any evil in a world created by a wise, benevolent and all-powerful God? Because we are not sufficiently farsighted and not sufficiently knowledgeable of ourselves.
Finally, we have the first quadrant familiar to evangelicals in white churches. The gospel is powerful. The power of God can save and radically change humans. (Romans 1:16). The Holy Spirit is the power of God, but humans must be open to receiving that spirit. In two forms. As holy water that informs our actions (John 7:37-39) and as sacred oil that soothes and heals our souls. There is both a nourishing and a healing power that belongs to God.
The problem is that the Exodus story is not about any one of the four conflicts depicted above. There is no mention of an all-powerful God. There is no mention of an omniscient Being. God is a source of strength, of my strength. God is a jealous God, intolerant of other gods. Humans shall not worship idols. God is the God of my ancestors with whom He made a covenant. God is a healer. God loves and is faithful in that love. Further, the most holy day, shabat, is when God rests, when humans rest, when neither uses their strengths. However, God is also a source of violence. And the Israelites only gain their freedom as a result of violence. There are no Gandhian non-violent marches and resistance.
In the ten plagues, a singular powerful God is in a slugfest with the whole hierarchy of divine beings in the Egyptian cosmology. God is vengeful. God emerges victorious. There was a clear power struggle. God emerges as indubitably the most powerful. But not all-powerful. Otherwise, He would simply get Pharaoh to submit. The children of Israel remain bystanders and witnesses to the event. Other than Moses serving as a messenger boy, victory required none of their initiative, ingenuity or wisdom to defeat the enemy. And that is the problem – freedom from oppression has been removed from their heads but not from their souls. The latter will take 40 years – two generations to cleanse them from the sense of slavery that is deep in their spirits. For they were born into that system. They were conditioned by it.
God parts the Reed Sea and the Israelites march across on dry land. There is nothing there to nourish their souls. Further, one huge wave represents the power and might of the Egyptian system they are leaving behind and that has infused their very being. The other huge wave represents the enormous attractions of the life of the Philistines imbued with a Greek culture. Instead of oppressive power, the Israelites will be faced with soft power, with the influences of a culturally cultivated world that celebrates autonomy and freedom of the individual and will act as a magnet to attract the Israelites. Swamped by their own power structures, the story also adumbrates how a battle between two mighty forces will not be the essence of the coming struggle, although such battles will continue. Rather, the battle will be over what replaces the empty void when the values of a slave culture are expelled from within a people.
The Israelites are not initially ready to handle those temptations of a new and very powerful worldview. Instead of traveling the 150 miles or so along the Mediterranean coast, they are taken on a roundabout 40-year journey through the wilderness. In slavery, the Israelites were oppressed. But they did not have the burden of agency, of choice. In Egypt, they may have not been physically free, but they were free of responsibility and accountability. That slave mind-set must be expunged. A sense of agency and accountability must be developed and nurtured.
In that worldview, God has the power to offer a path towards freedom. God does not govern individual choice. God is not a perfect Being, but One who is Becoming, One who develops, revealing Himself in partnership with man. The choices made will be critical. They will determine the way the world unfolds to the extent that there is any control whatsoever.
In the current era, we were saved – barely – from the horrors of fascism and Nazism and the Shoah. From 1948 to 1988, for forty years, we wandered in the wilderness preparing ourselves for the discipline and the skills necessary to enter the Promised Land of the Information Age and the successor and beneficiaries of the industrial and financial revolutions. But when we last crossed the Jordan River, when the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union imploded, we seemed to blow it.
Not initially. In the decade between 1990 and 2000, we believed we had made it. We had escaped the scourge and threat of totalitarianism. We had escaped the threat of nuclear war. Never were so many exposed to so much. The American economy grew by an average of 4%, the Chinese economy by an average of 9%. Never before were so many lifted up so fast and so much over such a relatively short period. The numbers in poverty In Canada and the United States reached their lowest levels. Unemployment rates dropped to their lowest levels. Even violent crime declined. Apartheid South Africa collapsed. Israel and Palestine forged the Oslo Accords.
There were still horror shows – the destructive ethnic cleansing and slaughters in the former Yugoslavia and the genocide of 800,0000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda in 100 days in 1994. Saddam Hussein was driven out of Kuwait. But overall, the prospects for peace seemed to be improving. By the end of the decade, the new digital age was clearly underway. And Y2K, the apocalypse at the end of the century when it was feared that all our computers would crash, turned out to be a non-event.
But there was real danger on the horizon as scientists still debated the dangers of climate change. And Bill Clinton, by softening financial regulations, put in place the conditions for a financial collapse in 2008 once a new form of financing mortgage debt emerged with the creation of a new algorithm in 1999. Then 9/11. Then the absolutely misguided Iraq War from anyone’s point of view. Obama, as I tried to show, attempted to reverse the direction of the first decade, but by 2016, he had only succeeded in creating the context for the worst four years in American political history after the Civil War. Trumpism emerged triumphant culminating in the insurrection of 6 January 2021 and the occupation of The Capitol.
When we only have a decade left to reverse the forces that are carrying humanity towards the edge of a suicidal cliff, when we are faced with a worldwide viral plague and an even greater plague of untruth, there is now so little time and so much to do and accomplish. The path before us has been laid down by the past. Fortunately, with the help of some manna from heaven – a bit of luck and an enormous amount of effort – it may be possible to come out the other side and cross the next River Jordan.
God offers a path, one with travails and opportunities. But it is up to us to traverse it.
Tomorrow: The American Black Church as a Harbinger