Recent events—the death of Jordan Fowles, the shooting of the Stay family in Texas—have prompted some internal BCC discussions about the character of God. Commenters occasionally accuse BCC of being an echo chamber, but our discussions of this topic have turned out to be full of lively debate and disagreement. We’ve decided to bring our discussion to the blog, with several posts on the subject over the next few days. Our collective goal is to stimulate further conversation, not to defend any particular theological position (although some of us might choose to argue vociferously in the comments).
Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps offers a provocative vision of a God whose heart beats in sympathy with human hearts, presenting this, as its subtitle (How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life) proclaims, as a compelling answer to the difficulties of being human. I want to follow in the spirit of Adam Miller’s thoughtful critique of Weeps in the Spring 2014 issue of Dialogue (subscribe if you haven’t yet) by probing some of the implications of the vulnerable God that the Givenses find in Moses 7:28-29. This probing will be ad hoc rather than systematic, stirring up dust rather than settling questions. With Miller, my aim is not to denigrate the book (pas du tout!), but rather to honor its contribution by allowing it to provoke further thinking.
1.1 Weeps seems premised on rejecting the notion that God is sovereign. In our post-monarchical age most of us are probably pretty uncomfortable with sovereignty, especially when concentrated absolutely in a single person. What we have long ago rejected in politics, however, we may be slow to dismiss in theology. In the recent debates about Ordain Women, for instance, I have frequently read comments to the effect that the current status quo in the Church perfectly reflects the will of God as revealed to living prophets. Whatever one might think of this proposition more generally, it strongly presumes a sovereign God who exercises absolute control over ecclesiastical matters large and small. So, one question raised by positing a vulnerable rather than a sovereign God is: how does such a God meaningfully lead the Church? Is “lead” even the right word? What is the nature of God’s involvement with human religious community? (I noticed, and others did too, that Weeps is rather light on ecclesiology. It may have much to say about how Mormon theology makes sense of life, but it does not have much at all to say about how life together in a religious community actually works in light of that theology. The hierarchical Church, which seems like a sovereign kind of structure, is wholly absent from the book.)
1.2 Rejecting the sovereign God seems to run afoul of scripture—even Moses 7! Verse 32 says that God gave humans their agency, which suggests that humans didn’t already have agency and were therefore dependent on the arbitrary will of God to receive this gift. Verses 60-62 include a promise from the Lord to fulfill an oath made to Enoch, and his ability to fulfill it implies a high degree of control over earthly events. This is to say nothing about the promises of wrath, vengeance, and judgment on the wicked, including the massive destruction involved in the flood. My point is not that Moses 7 depicts a sovereign God—there is too much contrary evidence, not least the verses about weeping—but rather that it complicates the notion that God is defined solely by vulnerability.
1.3 It’s worth asking whether sovereignty and vulnerability are really mutually exclusive. Sovereignty is defined by the ability to act, and vulnerability by passivity. Etymologically, vulnerability means susceptibility to being wounded. In grammatical terms, sovereignty pierces, while vulnerability is pierced. Putting these together in one person might place us in the realm of masochism, by making God both the wounder and the wounded.
1.4 As a sort of corollary to the last point, the idea of a vulnerable God can be used to attempt some kind of end-run around the problem of evil, because the question of how God can allow [terrible thing X] to happen only makes sense if God is meaningfully empowered to do something about it, or, in other words, if God is sovereign. On the other hand, if God is sovereign and evil exists, then God is responsible for evil, and that’s a problem. But if dropping the notion of God’s sovereignty might seem to make the problem of evil go away, then where does the idea of a vulnerable God really leave us?
2.1 If we accept for the sake of argument that God is characterized by vulnerability, in addition to the good (a God who can, in keeping with Alma 7, assume the full breadth of human experience), some serious questions still remain. The big one is this: given the reality of evil and suffering, can a vulnerable God save us in any meaningful way? Is perfect empathy enough? What does “save us” even mean, in this context?
2.2 It may be that what gets redeemed is not so much us as it is suffering itself. On this model, a capacity to absorb suffering and transmute it into something else (lead into gold) makes God God. We are therefore saved in that the experience of divine empathy teaches us to turn suffering into love.
2.3 A model of theosis along these lines might, however, lead us to fetishize suffering. People could feel guilty for not suffering enough, as though a failure to contract fatal bone cancer were hindering their spiritual progress. Others might seek out suffering like vinophiles search out fine wines, meeting each new outpouring of abjection with a snobbish swirl, sniff, savor, and spit before commenting on its complex profile of pain (“notes of a sound lashing, with hints of crucifixion in the finish”) and rendering judgment.
2.4 We might also fetishize suffering by aestheticizing it, making horrible stories beautiful for our own uplift in a way that cheapens the experience of others and hinders us from developing genuine empathy.
2.5 Moving in the opposite direction: by imagining a passive God, we might justify our own passivity. I think Thoreau was right to fear learning, when he came to die, that he had not lived. Experiencing life in all its variety means approaching it actively. So maybe we have to think in terms of a God who is actively vulnerable.
3.1 Perhaps one way of thinking an actively vulnerable God is through Giorgio Agamben’s notion, derived from Aristotle, of negative potentiality. According to Agamben, potential is actualized only through the exhaustion of its negative potentiality: “Radical evil is not this or that bad deed but the potentiality for darkness. And yet this potentiality is also the potentiality for light.” 
3.2 This God, then, might save us by showing that light is really only attainable by fully realizing darkness.
3.3 We don’t have to go looking for darkness. It’s everywhere. We just have to pay attention to it.
3.4 Not everything is darkness, but perhaps the only way to realize that is to really attend to the darkness.
3.5 Maybe this explains why, these days, a certain tang of sorrow is my most reliable indicator that something is deeply true.
 This is from his essay “On Potentiality,” in the collection called (you guessed it) Potentialities. Actualize your potential by reading it.