In Introduction to Comparative Religion courses, professors often raise the question, “If God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, why is there suffering in the world?” If He knows all, shouldn’t He stop bad things from happening? If He is all powerful, he certainly could. And since He is all-good, shouldn’t He?
Not surprisingly, this sparks a lot of conversation in the classroom, and there are many questions from students exploring the inherent paradoxes in being omni-anything. Such as: ‘if God is omnipotent, could He make a boulder so big that He couldn’t lift it, but then wouldn’t He not be omnipotent because He couldn’t lift it?’ Eventually, students are brought to the idea that God can be all of these but granted us free will and thus it is this that is the root of our suffering (not any failing of God)—which, of course, is the essence of Christian theodicy, or the Christian explanation of suffering in the world. God is perfect, but we are flawed, and it is our bad choices that makes Earth (aka our testing ground before eternity) such a living hell.
Every religion has a theodicy. In the face of horrible suffering, we need the psychological comfort of this—and religion offers a far more convincing selection than science. When a parent, a spouse, or “God forbid,” a child dies, few of us can face that without some sort of assurance that the world is still good. But while God in the sky might promise these things, and provide comfort for those that believe in Him, can Gaia? For Gaia is not omniscient, nor omnipotent. And Gaia is definitely not omnibenevolent.
The idea that God is all-knowing is a comforting idea—it means you’re not alone; that someone who cares about you is always watching; and that there is a reason not to succumb to the temptation to ‘sin,’ even when no one is around to see (Santa Claus plays that role with many children as well). But other than if you live in a police state where Big Brother (or Sister Alexa) is constantly watching you, you are alone. What combats that loneliness is your community. And what combats your temptation to do something you know is wrong is your understanding that you are part of a community, and that while you might benefit from your transgression, the community will suffer (whether we’re talking about your direct community or the broader community of life).
Perhaps one could make a case that Gaia knows all, for Gaia is made up of everything on the planet. However, Gaia is not even sentient, let alone omniscient. And Gaia is not everything. She is just one planetary being among many—though She is our planetary being, and we are of Her—which forms the basis of our relationship with Her. And being in relationship with Gaia means you have obligations to Her, and She to you: She provides fresh water, clean air, food, and resources with the expectation that you do not pollute Her, that you care for Her, that you take only what you need and now, after centuries of abuse, that you heal the damage inflicted upon Her by you and your ancestors.
God of the monotheistic persuasion may be all-powerful but Gaia certainly is not. She can be wounded, even killed. In fact, Her death is inevitable, as the sun will eventually burn away Her atmosphere—assuming something else doesn’t kill Her before then. I hope humans are still too small to completely destroy Gaia (even if we force Her into a new, hotter state that makes Earth uninhabitable to most species currently alive). But we’re trying awfully hard, and in the instability that is coming, if we unleash thousands of nuclear warheads on each other, we can only guess whether Gaia will survive the onslaught.
Her power, on the other hand, far dwarfs ours—as the unfolding climate crisis reveals. All our technologies, our human drive will not prevent scores of cities from being washed away, from entire lands being drowned or set ablaze or millions of lives from being lost. So it would still be wise to cower in the face of Gaia’s awesome power—rather than continue our current game of Chicken, which we cannot win.
While some argue that God is omnibenevolent (ignoring His slaughtering of 99.999 percent of humanity and almost all land-bound life in the Great Flood), we know that Gaia is not omnibenevolent. If anything, she is “abenevolent.” She is not ‘well-meaning.’ She just is. Gaia is a force of nature, literally and figuratively. But Gaia does provide clear rules—the rules of physics, biology, chemistry, and ecology. If you follow them, you will most likely be allowed to live—though even that is just a probability—due to the ever flowing interactions of competing life, from bacteria to other humans, and due to the natural disasters that are part of Gaia’s body (and, in some forms, have been exacerbated by Her current climatic fever).
What Does This Mean?
How does a philosophy shift when the orienting being at the center is not all-powerful but vulnerable? Can one be in awe of a vulnerable being? I think so. In fact, perhaps the relationship can be even stronger. If God is beyond our influence, all powerful, all knowing, what truly is our role? Simply to worship Him, to give thanks, and accept whatever He grants us? With Jesus, Christians added a vulnerable being to their mythology—one who the invincible father sacrificed to show His love for humanity. That is one way to make a religion more approachable.
But I think Gaia, being naturally vulnerable, and indeed actively threatened, is even more approachable. And the fact that the threat—and much of our suffering—stems from us makes this even more so. As with Jesus, it is we who nailed Gaia to the cross. But the end is yet to be written. Do we take Her down before She expires—nurse Her wounds and bring Her back to health? Or through our denial and indifference, do we allow Her to languish, eventually lancing Her side and letting Her bleed out, spilling Her water, Her oil across the lands and watching Her fevered body perish and then resurrect into a new (and, from a human perspective, unlivable) form. Unlike with the Christian story, it is not only our individual salvation, but our collective salvation, that is at stake and depends on the choices we now make.
While the loss of our omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent protector in heaven may evoke fear, sadness, or lack of clarity, our continuing, tangible, and permanent relationship with the living Earth as well as our active role in Gaia’s story can more than make up for that loss.