The “Great Machine” of the 19th centuryEarlier today I had a conversation about the idea of God’s “control.” My friend and I were discussing this in the broader context of prayer and of the use of language in contemporary “God-talk.” In talking about how language becomes trite and cliche and devoid of meaning when it’s overused, the cliche of “Whatever happens, I know God is in control” came up. So we started thinking about this and what it means, particularly, as my friend observed, it seems to be a much more common expression among Protestant Evangelicals than among Catholics, at least so far as he’s observed (he’s a life-long Catholic). My buddy pointed out that it’s hard for him to hear his co-workers and other friends use this worn-out language, which he (correctly, IMO) regards as essentially a Christianized expression and acceptance of believing in “fate,” without inwardly rolling his eyes a bit. He wanted to know what I think of all this, having been brought-up-born-again.

I basically agreed with him (which did not surprise him) but also told him that the question doesn’t interest me much (which did surprise him). See, this idea of God being “in control” isn’t exactly a biblical one, and in any case, it’s entirely conditioned by industrial and technological modernity. The idea of God in “control” conjures to our minds today a machine operator at the helm of an incredibly sophisticated machine or a computer programmer (as in the example of the Architect in the Matrix). God’s “control” is, in effect, him driving or operating the machine or using some sophisticated software and hardware synthesis in order for the world to function. 18th century Deists, in fact, seized on this analogy with the idea of the “Watchmaker God,” but their example suggested a machine designer that was “hands-off” of the completed design once it was fully wound up. In any case, this kind of machine operator God, in control and at the controls, was a useful metaphor for a while once more modern and sophisticated machines began to become commonplace in the seventeenth century. The very best I can tell is that the specific wording of God being in control doesn’t even show up until the 19th century, right around the time the first inklings of American Evangelicalism begin to appear, and, not coincidentally (again, IMO), during the explosion of the Industrial Revolution and the intensified employment of operator-machines in every field of labor.

Obviously this is not the kind of metaphor that is going to be found in Scripture; there weren’t any such complicated machines requiring constant and perpetual operation by an operator. Even more problematic, at least in my mind, is the relationship of this metaphor of “control” to the nature of God himself. I just don’t think it works. To say that God is in control is rather like saying God is a supercosmic machine operator, and the machine simply does its job with God at the operational controls. The machine, in this analogy, is not in control of what it does. Machines never are. They only do what they are told to do, or programmed to do. But what happens when the machine breaks, or goes out of control, or gives you a Blue Screen Of Death, or whatever? Obviously, the implication is the operator/programmer/user screwed up. This, obviously, doesn’t go over very well with the idea of an all-powerful, all-knowing God. The “god in control” metaphor is flawed, because it’s too reductionist; either the machine sucks, which is a problem because it was made by a God who is all knowing, totally benevolent, etc; or, the operator doesn’t know how to use the machine, which is clearly a problem; or both, which is a BIG problem.

So that’s what I mean when I say the question of whether or not God is in “control” doesn’t interest me much. What does interest me is whether or not we can conceive of God any other way that relates to and makes sense of our global technological and industrial period of history.