Let Omnipotence Die a Natural Death. No need to kill it. Buddhism can help.
Thomas Oord’s The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence is written for people shaped by Abrahamic faith, mostly Christians, who are alienated from images of an all-controlling and dictatorial God. They are hounded by images of a God who is responsible for, or could prevent, violence and tragedy in the world. Oord wants to help them find their way into an image of God as all-loving, all-compassionate, active in the world in a non-controlling way, and worthy of trust - so that they can be channels of grace in a troubled world. He speaks of this God as amipotent not omnipotent.
This move is not easy. As Christians move away from the image of God as omnipotent into more loving imagery, they often carry within them the emotional residue of the older imagery. The very word "God" is part of the problem, because it carries within it the legacy of the older imagery. Many people have a hard time hearing the word "God" without feeling, somewhere in their consciousness, that the referent is, or could be and is for others, the all-controlling and dictatorial deity they seek to move past. Thus the birth of amipotence emerges out of a battle in their hearts that is never quite finished.
The battle may be within themselves but at the very least it is with others. They find themselves battling against people who, in their view, have "bad theology." Or, to be more precise, against the "bad theology" that "other people" have.
The battle is apparent in the vehemence with which they critique other points of view and in the intentionally provocative and violent natures of their book titles, building upon themes of battle. The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence.
The death of omnipotence is, for Oord, not a natural death. We do not let the idea of omnipotence pass silently into the night; instead we kill it because, so we insist, it does so much harm. Oord writes: "It's time to end omnipotence. Fortunately, killing it does not mean killing God. If we detach ourselves from traditional answers to evil from the idea that God has unlimited power, we can salvage most of them. The God who emerges better fits scripture, philosophy, and everyday experience."
For my part, I believe much of what Oord says about the God of amipotence, but I worry about the spirit in which it is sometimes said. I worry about dividing the world into two camps: people with bad theology not like mind and people with good theology. I think of my mother and grandmother, who probably believed in omnipotence. I don't want to kill the theologies that helped them get through the night. I think of many wonderful Jews and Muslims who would disagree with Oord and with me. We seem a little too fixated on the battle and may ourselves be part of the power-centered ethos we seek to move past.
Is there a gentler way? A more loving way? A way more attuned to the spirit of amipotence? Might amipotence be best argued, not by dividing the world into two camps and assuming we have the "right theology," but by embodying amipotence in the way we live our lives?
Finding New Language
One way is found in Oord's book itself. Toward the end of the book he begins to avoid the word "God" and speak instead of a "universal Spirit" at work throughout the world. His very language helps readers move gently into another way of thinking. Oord summarizes what he says about Spirit in this way:
1. "The amipotent Spirit always loves everyone and everything. 2. The amipotent Spirit acts but cannot control others. 3. The amipotent Spirit has no body but has material and mental dimensions. 4. The amipotent Spirit’s activity cannot be perceived by our five senses. 5. The amipotent Spirit can be perceived through nonsensory perception. 6. The amipotent Spirit’s influence can be inferred from what occurs. 7. The amipotent Spirit is present to and influencing all creation, all the time. 8. The amipotent Spirit is maximally powerful."
Another way is to learn from Buddhism. It can help to encounter and learn from traditions in which amipotence has already been at work, albeit not with the legacy of the dictatorial God. Consider the following recasting of Oord's sentences above.
Let Amida Buddha be shorthand for The Buddha of Infinite Wisdom and Compassion who pervades the cosmos with loving arms and who seeks the well-being of each and all. Amida Buddha is a Consciousness in whose heart the universe unfolds, whose light is part of any and every act of compassion in the world, and who lures each and all, relative to their circumstances, toward wisdom and compassion. To be sure, we have icons of Amida Buddha just as we have images of the cosmic Christ. But Amida is beyond the images as the invisible light of the world. 1. Amida Buddha always loves everyone and everything. 2. Amida Buddha acts but cannot control others. 3. Amida Buddha has no body but has material and mental dimensions. 4. Amida's activity cannot be perceived by our five senses. 5. Amida Buddha can be perceived through nonsensory perception. 6. Amida's influence can be inferred from what occurs. 7. Amida Buddha is present to and influencing all creation, all the time. 8. Amida Buddha is maximally powerful.
On this page I want to make the case for Amida. I suggest that thinking about amipotence as Amida can help Christians and others enter more deeply into the spirit of amipotence of which Oord speaks. Taking Amida Buddha seriously, as a universal Spirit, can help free us from the need to battle, free us from excessive self-promotion of our favored theologies, and free us for the loving-kindness which is, after all, the world's only true hope.
- Jay McDaniel
The Amipotent God as Amida Buddha
A Buddhist Contribution to Thomas Oord's Work
Notes on Buddhist Panentheism
The Buddhist tradition is intimately familiar with the destructive forces of violence, despair, greed, hatred, and envy, and their profound impact on our world. While the concept of karma is often used to explain these effects, the idea of an all-controlling God who created the world out of nothing, is rarely invoked. Even among the many Buddhists who believe in celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, these divine beings are not seen as exerting control over events in the world, but rather as gently luring people towards awakening and, as in the case of Kuan Yin the Goddess of Tears, sharing in their suffering. In this way, the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can be seen as functioning in a manner similar to the Amipotent God described by philosopher Thomas Oord, albeit with a distinctly Buddhist flavor. They are, as it were, multfarious faces of the Amipotent God. They are channels of God's love.
But there is another way to put it. We might say that what Thomas Oord calls the universal Spirit is in fact a cosmic and all-inclusive Buddha, embracing and guiding all things towards their highest potential. Rather than saying Amida is God, we can say God is Amida.
John Cobb's Proposal: The Universal Spirit is Amida Buddha
Cobb recognizes that from a Buddhist perspective as from his own perspective, the ultimate reality is not the God of love but rather a "characterless" ultimate which Buddhists call pratitya-samutpada or dependent origination. This ultimate is found anywhere and everywhere where there is actuality of any kind, whether good or evil. Pratitya-samutpada is the dependence of what happens on other happenings, such that nothing happens in isolation. Cobb sees a parallel to this in Whitehead's idea that creativity is the ultimate reality of the universe: the sheer process of the many becoming one in quantum events, galactic explosions, cancer cells, laughing children, acts of kindness, acts of cruelty, and in the ongoing life of God, whose nature is love. Even God, says Whitehead, is an expression of creativity or dependent origination, but not the only expression.
Cobb then notes that when Buddhists awaken to this ultimate, they find themselves filled, not with hatred or violence, but with wisdom and compassion. This suggests that, in addition to the characterless ultimate, there is also a primordial expression of it, itself wise and compassionate, to which the Buddhist awaken. This primordial expression is, in Cobb's words, an Infinite Wisdom and Compassion. It is what many Christians call Christ or the living spirit of God in the world. Cobb finds in Buddhism the language he seeks to express what he is saying. Buddhists sometimes speak of characterless ultimate as the Dharmakaya and the Infinite Wisdom and Compassion as the Sambhogakaya.
Pure Land Buddhist all over the world experience the Sambhogakaya as a personal spirit, Amida Buddha, placing their trust in it. Cobb writes:
...in addition to the characterless Dharmakaya there is a character that is also universal and ultimate. Dharmakaya as characterized by wisdom and compassion can be thought of as the Sambhogakaya. The wisdom and compassion that characterize the Sambhogakaya can be identified as Amida or as Amida's Primal Vow...Instead of seeking in one's own strength to attain enlightenment, one can rely on the Wisdom and Compassion that are Amida to overcome all within oneself that blocks the acceptance of the truth. One finds in a nondual relation to Amida the emergence of wisdom and compassion within oneself. Thought of in this way "Amida" names the Wisdom and Compassion that work in and through all things and especially oneself."
Cobb offers his proposal for Buddhists. However, I find it imaginable that Christians and others in Abrahamic traditions might benefit from his proposal, too. The word God in Abrahamic faiths is so freighted with images and feelings of a controlling God, that it may be helpful to turn to other traditions, Pure Land Buddhism, for example, in re-educating the mind and heart toward what Oord has in mind by amipotence.
This need not mean that Christians and others use the name Amida Buddha for the universal Spirit. But it does mean that they actively entertain the idea that the word "God" can get in the way of being attuned to a universal Spirit of Wisdom and Compassion whom Buddhists name Amida Buddha, that other names are preferable, and that there are other ways to the Spirit that are gentler, more open, and less confrontational. Pure Land Buddhism can be a profound complement to the direction in which Oord points. And nothing need be killed along the way.
- Jay McDaniel
Pure Land Buddhism
Jay McDaniel and ChatGPT
Keiko is a Pure Land Buddhist living in Osaka, Japan. After spending a year in the United States studying sociology and philosophy at a liberal arts college, she now runs a local community center that provides welfare, healthcare, and education for her community. Keiko has a special connection with the elderly and her community center serves as a hub for them to gather and participate in games.
Keiko's primary practice is to chant "Namu Amida Butsu" in Japanese. She learned this practice from her grandmother, who believed that it would help her attain rebirth in Amitabha's Pure Land. Although Keiko is not entirely certain about the existence of a separate Pure Land, she sees the Pure Land as this very world, rightly understood. By chanting, Keiko hopes to better appreciate the world around her and respond ever more caringly to those she seeks to help. Her compassion for others has earned her the reputation of having a Bodhisattva heart.
As a Buddhist, Keiko believes in the interconnectedness of all things in the field of inter-becoming. She believes that enlightenment comes from understanding this interconnectivity and living a wise and compassionate life in the here-and-now.
Some of her secular friends occasionally tease her about her faith in Amida, but her study of philosophy of religion in the United States has fortified her faith. Through her studies, Keiko discovered the idea of panentheism, which asserts that everything is in God but God is more than everything added together.
Keiko believes that her faith in Amida Buddha aligns with panentheism. She sees Amida Buddha as a Consciousness, a radiant Light, in whose heart the universe resides. Her work is spreading the light of Amida, and she believes that acts of compassion help radiate God, animating one another.
Keiko's encounter with Ren, a Zen Buddhist and philosophy professor, deepens her interest in different philosophical and religious perspectives. Ren's ideas are influenced by the philosopher Whitehead and the Kyoto School of Japanese Buddhist philosophy.
Ren's understanding of ultimate reality is unlike anything Keiko has encountered before. Ren believes that the ultimate reality is not Amida Buddha nor the universe, but rather an emptiness from which all things emerge. He explains to Keiko that this emptiness is not a creator or source but rather a formless field of potentiality from which all things spontaneously and creatively emerge in relation to one another. According to Ren, citing the Heart Sutra, Emptiness is the very world of Form itself even as Form is Emptiness.
Keiko is intrigued by this perspective and asks if even Amida Buddha is an expression of this emptiness. Ren confirms that Amida Buddha is indeed an expression of this emptiness. In short, according to Ren, there is something ultimate, namely emptiness, in addition to God, but it is not a competitor to God. In Ren's view, God or Amida is the ultimate actuality, and emptiness is the ultimate reality.
At first, Keiko struggles to reconcile these seemingly conflicting ideas of emptiness and God, but Ren assures her that it is possible to believe in both. He suggests that as she delves deeper into process-relational panentheism, she will see that it is essentially saying the same thing - that there is a formless creativity of which all things, including God, are expressions.
Ren is particularly drawn to the concept of anatman or no-self, which posits that all beings, including oneself, lack a permanent, self-existing self. He believes that the world would be a better place, more compassionate and loving, if people realized that they are a series of momentary experiences rather than a substantial self, and that each moment is itself connected to all other moments.
Ren extends this idea of no-self to Amida Buddha as well. He believes that Amida, too, is empty of self-existing selfhood. Ren explains to Keiko that this does not mean that Amida does not exist or is not worthy of devotion. Rather, it means that Amida's nature is not fixed or permanent, but rather dynamic and dependent on the conditions that give rise to him.
Keiko finds this idea both helpful and beautiful, and Ren can see the light in her eyes as she nods in agreement. "Yes," she says, "that is the Amida in whom I place my trust." Ren smiles and replies, "I do, too." Keiko is surprised to hear Ren say this, assuming that as a Zen Buddhist, he was not a theist. Ren explains that in Chinese monasteries where Zen Buddhism arose, it was common for the monks to chant to Amida Buddha and meditate in a Zen style, neither practice to the exclusion of the other. In fact, he says, the two practices can complement each other, as Pure Land Buddhism emphasizes faith in Amida Buddha and the Pure Land, while Zen Buddhism emphasizes the realization of Buddha-nature through meditation.