Martin Luther King Jr.'s Conception of God

Throughout his seminary and graduate school experiences, King worked relentlessly to develop a doctrine of God that made sense to him. From his father and other black preachers, he learned that the God of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus worked cooperatively with humans to achieve the divine expectation that justice be done in the world. What King needed was an intellectual conception of God that was consistent with this stance. We get a sense of how important this was to him from the many papers he wrote in seminary and graduate school which addressed various aspects of the divine nature and God’s relation to human beings and the world. King’s doctoral degree was in systematic theology. His struggle to develop a reasonable conception of God culminated in his doctoral dissertation which examined the conceptions of God developed by Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.

King wrote his dissertation under L. Harold DeWolf, a third-generation personalist. My reading of the dissertation suggests that King actually used the thought of Tillich and Wieman as foils to look even more critically at the (more traditional) personalist conception of God to determine whether it might be the more reasonable framework for thinking about God. Essentially, he sided with Bowne’s and DeWolf’s conceptions of God rather than Tillich’s or Wieman’s. Bowne’s and DeWolf’s doctrine of God was closer to the traditional orthodox view, and consequently to that of King’s Afrikan American religious heritage. Although King did not address Afrikan American ways of thinking about God, there is no question that the doctrine of God learned while growing up in the black church was not forgotten as he wrote the dissertation. Historically the vast majority of Afrikan Americans have adhered to the more orthodox doctrine of the omnipotent-omnibenevolent God. James Cone is adamant that “Black Theology finds itself in company with all of the classic theologies of the Christian tradition.” In doing so, he rejects William R. Jones’s suggestion that God is a white racist and therefore is not perfectly good, as well as Brightman’s theory that God is perfectly good but has limited power. Cone and other black theologians contend that King was sympathetic only to this tradition. I agree that King was sympathetic, but am not convinced that subsequent to graduate school he was consistently sympathetic with the classical view of the omnipotent-omnibenevolent God. Nor am I convinced that such consistency existed in seminary and graduate school. We will examine the ideas of Cone and other black liberation theologians relative to King’s view of God later in this chapter.

There is no such thing as the personalist conception of God, even among those with whom King studied at Boston University. Personalists share a number of basic tenets, including but not limited to: reality is personal, persons have inviolable dignity, to be is to be free, reality is social, and the universe is friendly to value. Beyond agreement on these and a few other fundamental principles personalists diverge along a number of lines. For example, the majority of personalists in the BowneBrightman tradition espouse a doctrine of God that is very similar to the orthodox view of the omnipotent-omnibenevolent God. The most significant difference with the more orthodox position is that these personalists, following Bowne, tend to soften the term omnipotence to mean that God is only able to do the doable, although they also maintain that apart from human freedom God’s power is limited by no factor either within or outside the divine nature. On the other hand, a minority of personalists in this school of thought reject this view, claiming that there is an internal uncreated factor that limits the power of God’s will to achieve God’s purposes in the world. Brightman developed this strand of personalism and had a number of outstanding disciples, including Peter A. Bertocci and Walter G. Muelder, who taught and mentored King. S. Paul Schilling had a strong affinity for Brightman’s doctrine of God as well. Schilling was not as close to King, but he was the second reader and examiner of his dissertation. King, of course, had occasion to examine both Bowne’s and Brightman’s doctrine of God and ultimately found the latter’s to be wanting, although we will see that he actually vacillated on the matter. And yet there is no question that at the conclusion of King’s dissertation his own doctrine of God was closer to that of Bowne and DeWolf, and thus the more orthodox view of the black church. The question that this chapter asks and tries to answer, however, is whether this remained the case in King’s postdoctoral years, during his leadership in the civil and human rights movements. In other words, just how amenable was the postdoctoral King to Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God?

The Finite-Infinite God

During his formal academic training a vacillating Martin Luther King, Jr. came to reject Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God, the theory that God’s power is limited not only by the incidence of human freedom, but also by an uncreated, internal factor that Brightman called “the Given.” In addition, Brightman maintained that God is infinite in love, compassion, righteousness, and justice. Brightman retained this much of the more orthodox view of God in his own largely unorthodox conception as it developed.

Until the mid-1920s Brightman was a proponent of theistic absolutism. While a student at Brown University, he came under the strong influence of the absolute idealism of Josiah Royce, which he “accepted as a whole for two or three years.” When introduced to William James’s Pragmatism in graduate school, however, he could no longer accept the entirety of Royce’s absolutism. Brightman declared that Pragmatism “swept” him off his feet. It was through his study of personalism under Bowne, however, that he was able to synthesize the truth in Royce and James.

Brightman’s continued reading and reflection began revealing to him signs of a God who was struggling to achieve God’s purposes in the world—something that must not be the case with the God of theistic absolutism, since such a God presumably does not have to struggle. In addition, there were some painful empirical occurrences which, coupled with Brightman’s reflections, suggested the need to modify his earlier adherence to an infinite, absolute, and omnipotent God. For example, he had witnessed the slow, painful death of his young wife, who succumbed to facial cancer. He witnessed the terrible deeds of a close acquaintance, a very good man, who was strickened with insanity. Another close acquaintance was paralyzed as a result of a freak swimming accident. These and other experiences, in addition to his reading of works on emergent evolution, forced Brightman to rethink his conception of God and evil.

The first evidence that Brightman sensed the need to alter his more traditional conception of God appeared in a 1925 publication. He probably had been mulling over the idea long before this time. Brightman’s first systematic exposition of the theory of the finite-infinite God appeared in The Problem of God (1930). He explicated the doctrine further in a number of other books: The Finding of God (1931), Personality and Religion (1934), arguably the best brief exposition of the theory, and A Philosophy of Religion (1940). (The reader is also encouraged to read Brightman’s presidential address to the eastern division of the American Philosophical Association at Cambridge, December 29, 1936, “An Empirical Approach to God.”)

Even in his unorthodox doctrine, Brightman, unlike other theistic finitists such as Plato and Herbert G. Wells, argues that God remains infinite in many ways. Consequently, Brightman does not speak only of the finite God. Rather, he characterizes God as finite-infinite. God is infinite in love, goodness, and justice, for example. God’s power of will is finite, however, in the sense of being limited by eternal, uncreated, unwilled conditions within the divine nature. “The limiting conditions must be within God, if we are to avoid an unintelligible dualism; but they must be limits to his will, not products of it, if his will is good. . . . The evidence points to a finite-infinite God whose will is in control of the whole range of experience.” Brightman maintained that God’s will retains such control without being perfectly powerful. It is powerful enough, however, to accomplish what God needs to accomplish in the world, although God cannot do so alone. Brightman was aware that to many persons the idea of a finite-infinite God is incompatible with traditional religious faith and the demands of reason, which maintain that all power has its source in God. But this claim is not incompatible with Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God, for he remained adamant that this God is the most powerful being in the universe and the fundamental source of all that is good and perfectible. Therefore, to claim that all power has its source in God is not in itself an argument against the theory of the finite-infinite God, for this God’s power is surpassed by no other entity in the universe. This God, Brightman maintains, “is the source of all being,” who eternally wills and strives toward nothing but the best possible good. To speak of God as the infinite or absolute, means only that all being has its origin in God.

In the doctrine of the finite-infinite God we have, finally, the most powerful will in the universe that eternally strives to achieve the highest good. It confronts obstacles that sometimes lead to disappointments and temporary setbacks, but never to defeat in any final sense. The will of the finite-infinite God is eternally loyal to reason and righteousness. This God suffers, but always conquers; faces obstacles, but frequently overcomes them in cooperation with created persons. This means that God and persons are fellow sufferers and overcomers. An extended passage from The Problem of God summarizes Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God.

This conception of God means that we think of him as the one who can bring good out of evil. If he is supreme value, he cannot allow any evil that will permanently frustrate his purpose. He may delay, but he cannot fail. Whatever the origin of evil may be, and however awful it may be, God is the one who is never baffled by any evil. It may be that many goods are possible only through a co-operation of God’s will and man’s will, and it may be that man may fail to co-operate. Yet, in any given situation, we may suppose, God can achieve certain goods through man’s co-operation; if man does not co-operate, then different goods will have to be achieved by God in a different way. But no situation is finally evil. Beyond every obstacle there lies a possible achievement, out of every evil a possible good may grow. This is the meaning of faith in God.

. . . God is not simply a happy, loving Father; he is the struggle and the mysterious path at the heart of life. He is indeed love; but a suffering love that redeems through a Cross. . . . On our view, God is perfect in will, but not in achievement; perfect in power to derive good from all situations, but not in power to determine in detail what those situations will be. It is not a question of the kind of God we should like to have. It is a question of the kind of God required by the facts.

As we can see, Brightman did not consider the finite-infinite God to be a weak deity, but one who possesses unsurpassable power (to use Charles Hartshorne’s term) and infinite love. He believed his conception of God to be more consistent with the facts of experience than the traditional hypothesis of the omnipotent-omnibenevolent God.

In any event, while in graduate school King wrote numerous papers that compared and contrasted the Bowne-Brightman type of personalism with others, such as the atheistic personalism of John M. E. McTaggart. He also compared it to the systems of other thinkers like the absolute idealism of William Ernest Hocking. This practice culminated in King’s dissertation: “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” His comparison of these theologians was essentially done through the lens of personalism, for he cites approvingly Bowne’s conception of God a number of times.

Divine Omnipotence: Seminary and Graduate School

King’s most systematic discussion on the doctrine of God appears in his doctoral dissertation. His ministry after graduate school made it impossible for him to return to systematic scholarly writings on God, although nearly everything he wrote and spoke, from Montgomery to Memphis, had something to do with how he understood God. Peter J. Paris is correct in his contention that God is the most pervasive theme in King’s writings and speeches. King was seeking a way of thinking about God that was consistent with his growing passion to help his people, which meant getting into the fray. Whatever doctrine of God he came to in the academy would only be precursor to the God who would lead him into and sustain him in the struggle for justice and righteousness in the civil rights movement. The view of God arrived at in his formal studies would have to be battle-tested. Out of this would emerge a conception of God that would make sense to him.

In the dissertation, King examined the theistic finitist view of Wieman’s and Tillich’s claim that God is being-itself. King concluded that both men essentially espoused impersonal views of a God whose power to accomplish the divine will was questionable at best. Against both men, King argued for the conception of a God who was in direct communion and fellowship with created persons. Such a God, he concluded, could only be personal and loving, the type of God one can pray to and expect answers. Furthermore, King rejected Wieman’s and Tillich’s claim that because “personality” is essentially anthropomorphic and limiting it should not be applied to God. For King, God, by definition, is not limited. Agreeing with Bowne, King argued that “human personality” is limited, but that “personality as such” has nothing at all to do with limitation. Instead, no other term is as consistent with and applicable to “the Absolute” than “personality.” King did not clarify his own reasoning for this claim, but we know that from a formal academic standpoint he was so influenced by Bowne’s conception of God that his own view differed but little. Bowne made the claim that no term is as applicable to God as personality, for he was describing “personality” as a metaphysical category. Bowne sought what he considered the deeper meaning or essence of personality. In Theism (1902), Bowne discussed essential personality, claiming that it must be distinguished from all human limitations.

The very objections urged against the personality of the Absolute show the incompleteness of human personality. Thus it is said, truly enough, that we are conditioned by something not ourselves. The outer world is an important factor in our mental life. It controls us far more than we do it. But this is a limitation of our personality rather than its source. Our personality would be heightened rather than diminished, if we were self-determinant in this respect. Again, in our inner life we find similar limitations. We cannot always control our ideas. They often seem to be occurrences in us rather than our own doing. The past vanishes beyond recall; and often in the present we are more passive than active. But these, also, are limitations of our personality. We should be much more truly persons if we were absolutely determinant of all our states.

Human persons and all finite being have their source in God, and thus “owe their peculiar nature to their mutual relations and to the plan of the whole.” The human person is always dependent on something not itself. Causally the finite person is a dependent being, unlike God. We will see later that God depends on human persons, but not in the causal sense. For now suffice it to say that King was much influenced by Bowne’s description of essential person, with all of its idealistic baggage. For from a metaphysical standpoint the view made it difficult to know what to do with the body. Basically Bowne sought to show that the tendency of critics to see personality as a limiting factor when applied to God was due to their mistaken tendency to confuse or equate it with corporeality. The essence of the personal, according to Bowne, meant only: selfhood, self-knowledge, and self-direction. These traits “have no implication of corporeality or dependent limitation.” King argued that it is in this sense that person as such is not limited, and, therefore, the category of personality is more applicable to God than Tillich and Wieman seemed to know.

According to King, then, person is indeed a large enough category for God. King would have been in fundamental agreement with Personalist Francis J. McConnell’s critique of critics on this point. According to McConnell, “If the ‘more’ means more personality than we can conceive of, who can protest? If it means that there is some other principle greater than self-consciousness and self-direction we do protest that personal life is the highest form of existence conceivable by us. To say ‘more’ beyond personal existence is to say what to us has no meaning.” The most perfect example of person, accordingly, is the Supreme Person, not isolated human persons. There might well be a principle greater than person, but we humans have shown no capability of knowing what it is.

King himself had some very explicit things to say about the power and goodness of God in his dissertation. King scholars maintain that the stance articulated there changed relatively little after graduate school. In what follows, I am less concerned about King’s view of divine goodness, for Afrikan Americans have seldom called into question this particular attribute of God, although the philosopher William R. Jones is an important exception. In addition to affirming God’s goodness, Afrikan Americans have generally affirmed the omnipotence of God. Historically, this meant that God possesses all power. What was King’s view of divine power?

If we trace King’s view of divine power from seminary through the mature period of his ministry, it will not be difficult to understand why I contend that he was, and was not, a proponent of divine omnipotence. That is, at times he talked, wrote, and acted as if he believed God possesses absolute power, while at other times he seemed more comfortable proclaiming the “matchless power of God,” which did not at all mean for him that God possesses perfect, absolute power. Nor did it mean that God was in any way a weak God.

Indeed, James Cone may have inadvertently created an opening for making sense of this seeming vacillation, despite his claim that King was in no way a theistic finitist. In Martin & Malcolm & America (1991), Cone wrote that King essentially had two audiences: one white and one black, and that he adapted his speech for each. King’s wife made a similar observation. One might surmise from this that before black church audiences King was more inclined to use more orthodox or traditional language about God. However, when addressing predominantly white audiences, he was not as apprehensive about using language that sounded more like theistic finitism. King knew that the predominantly Afrikan American audience could not manage this as well. For their historical experience was such that the more traditional doctrine of the omnipotent-omnibenevolent God gave them more reason to be optimistic in a racist society.

In his last year in seminary, King wrote a paper on Brightman’s and William P. Montague’s doctrine of theistic finitism. He concluded that theistic finitism was unacceptable. He wrote: “To suggest a finite God as a solution to the problem [of evil] is to fall in the pit of humanizing God.” It seemed to King that while both Brightman and Montague escaped cosmic dualism, they both “fall right back into the dualistic trap by setting forth a dualism in the nature of God. But dualism affords no real answer to the problem of evil. With such a view faith in a supreme God is endangered and the triumph of good left uncertain.” King concluded that the “ultimate solution” to the problem of evil is not intellectual, but spiritual. For him, “the ultimate solution” is a matter of faith. Once we go as far as reason can take us in the attempt to solve the problem of evil, “we must leap out into the darkness of faith.” One takes such a leap, however, not in a spirit of pessimism or fatalism. Rather, one does so with the confidence that he has done his best in utilizing his God-given intellect, knowing that over the course of time more divine truths will be revealed as persons apply reason and remain open-minded to what is being discovered. Not all of the mysteries will be solved, but one presses on in the faith that God does not deliberately hide God’s self from created persons.

King first began studying Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God in seminary and continued his study in graduate school. When King began doctoral studies at Boston University he enrolled in Brightman’s course on the philosophy of religion. In a major paper for the course King praised Brightman’s theory of the finite-infinite God: “There is much that can be said to commend Dr. Brightman’s view at this point. It has the advantage of accounting for the evil in the world without involving the character of God. Moreover, it has the advantage of establishing the Christian ideal of sacrificial love on metaphysical grounds.” In an earlier essay, written for the same course, King cited what he considered to be limitations or “difficulties” in Brightman’s doctrine of God.

First, Dr. Brightman does not completely escape dualism. It is true that he escapes cosmic dualism, but only to leave a dualism in the nature of God. Does not such dualism leave faith in a supreme God endangered and triumph over the nonrational Given uncertain? What evidence is there that God is winning a gradual mastery over the limitations in His nature? Then, too, this theory seems to establish too sharp a dichotomy between God’s nature and his will. We use these terms to denote different aspects of the divine life, but at bottom they involve each other. God’s nature gives content to His will and His will gives meaning to His nature. It is the union of the two which constitutes the divine Personality.

At first glance, it appears that King was exhibiting some independence of thought, rather than merely accepting uncritically all that Brightman taught. However, his critique was one that Knudson, Harris Franklin Rall, and other scholars had already made of Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God. King uncritically accepted these criticisms as his own. Brightman’s reply to those who offered this criticism was that if one understands that persons—human and divine—are complex, indivisible unities, it should not be difficult to understand why placing the limiting factor within God’s nature does not set up an internal dualism. For as perfect Person, God is a perfectly unified being through and through.

Interestingly, in his final examination in Brightman’s class on the philosophy of religion King addressed the statement: “Define the ‘finite God’ as treated in this course.” In his concluding paragraph King wrote:

At present I am quite sympathetic with this idea. After a somewhat extensive study of the idea I am all but convinced that it is the only adaquate [sic] explanation for the existence of evil. Moreover, it is significant and adequate from a religious point of view because it establishes the Christian idea of sacrificial love on metaphysical grounds. It is the most empirical explanation that we can set forth in relation to the God idea. It makes a thorough distinction between good and evil, given an explanation for the existence of both. This theistic absolutetism [sic] fails to do.

How does one account for King’s vacillation regarding Brightman’s doctrine of the finite-infinite God? While in seminary, King studied Brightman’s philosophy of religion under Davis. King undoubtedly felt the freedom to express himself, and he rejected the doctrine. On the other hand, when he finally began graduate studies under Brightman, he commended the doctrine (albeit with qualification). One can imagine the sense of awe that he must have felt to be studying with the chief interpreter of personalism, who, by all accounts was bigger than life. The difficulty of disagreeing with Brightman was compounded by the fact that a major component of personalistic method is that one readily subject to critical reason all viewpoints, evidence, and facts. Brightman insisted on this critical method (as did his students, e.g., Bertocci and Muelder, who were my teachers in graduate school in the mid-1970s). No doubt it was easier for King to be critical of Brightman before he became his student. More than this, I find it interesting that King agrees with Brightman’s theory in a qualified sense in a major paper that he wrote for him, while in the final examination for the same course he wrote of his unqualified agreement with Brightman’s concept of the finite-infinite God. What we really need in order to establish King’s sympathy with Brightman’s concept of God is a statement to this effect after the completion of course work done under Brightman. Short of this, we are left with indirect evidence of King’s appreciation for a God whose power is sufficient but not perfect in every sense.

King chose to write his dissertation on God because of the central place of God in religion and his own life, as well as the ongoing need for reexamination and reinterpretation of the concept of God. He chose to write on Tillich and Wieman because they were two giants in the academy, and because they represented two different philosophical theologies that were gaining in popularity. King rejected both what he perceived as Wieman’s minimization of God’s power and Tillich’s minimization of God’s goodness. Both men, according to King, overemphasized one of these divine attributes to the detriment of the other. King believed that a balance was needed between divine goodness and divine power. “God is not either powerful or good; he is both powerful and good,” said King. In this regard he quoted Matthew Arnold approvingly. “God is a power, not ourselves, making for righteousness. Not power alone, nor righteousness alone, but a combination of the two constitutes the meaning of God.” King liked this idea. It is significant that Arnold’s reference was not to the absolute, perfect, or infinite power of God. The reference is to “power alone.” Not an absolutely perfect power, but a power not our own that makes for righteousness. The need is for a power that is adequate or sufficient to God’s purpose of achieving justice, righteousness, and the beloved community in the world. Because King’s was the God of the Hebrew prophets, it may be said that he thought of God as relentlessly compassionate and faithful in every moment. Such a God does not want evil to destroy persons and communities. King’s God was defined more by goodness and compassion than by sheer power. What was King really getting at?

Wieman’s and Tillich’s conceptions of God would have been more acceptable to King had each of them viewed God as both a power not ourselves and one making for goodness. Moreover, each man needed to affirm God as Person—not a person. As Person, God is the ground of all things. Tillich’s notion of God as the ground of being would not do because it was not a personal being. Not only did the idea of God as the ground of being contradict King’s religious heritage and experience, but it did not make sense to him how an impersonal ground of being could be the cause of the personal. This was a basic criticism shared by personalists.

King said that Wieman boasted the goodness of God at the expense of God’s power, while Tillich stressed the power of God while minimizing God’s goodness. King rejected outright the idea that God was either a power (Tillich) or a good (Wieman), rather than both at once. In fact, when he finally discussed divine omnipotence in the dissertation, King made it clear that he did not accept the traditional idea that the term meant that God could do absolutely anything, even that which is not doable.

Hence a God devoid of power is ultimately inacapable [sic] of actualizing the good. But if God is truly God and warrants man’s ultimate devotion, he must have not only an infinite concern for the good but an infinite power to actualize the good. This is the truth expressed in the somewhat misleading doctrine of the divine omnipotence. It does not mean that God can do the nondoable; neither does it mean that God has the power to act contrary to his own nature. It means, rather, that God has the power to actualize the good and realize his purpose. Moral perfection would be an empty possession apart from a corresponding and sustaining power. It is power that gives reality to the divine being.

By “infinite power” King did not mean all, absolute, or perfect power in the traditional sense. Nor does infinite power mean that God does not also share power throughout creation. What King meant is that God is the source or ground of all being and possesses sufficient power to achieve the good in concrete terms. Accordingly, God, by definition, must possess not only infinite concern for the good but power sufficient to actualize it. It is worth reiterating that (in the above quote) King himself explicitly refers to “the somewhat misleading doctrine of the divine omnipotence.” This is a clue, if ever there was one that King was aware of the problematic meaning of omnipotence in the traditional sense, and thus was mindful of the need to redefine it so that it was more intelligible. Therefore, to consider God to be omnipotent did not mean, for King, that God can do the impossible or the ridiculous (e.g., act out of character). This was also the stance of Bowne, who held that God is the infinite or the absolute only in the sense that God alone is the self-sufficient source or cause of all finite being. God is the independent foundation of all existence, and in God, all things live and move and have their being. This is the only reasonable sense in which it can be said that God is absolute. Similarly, King’s reinterpretation of omnipotence is in line with Tillich’s rejection of traditional meanings of the term. Interpreting Tillich, King said: “The omnipotence of God does not mean that God has the power to do anything he wishes. Nor does it mean omni-activity in terms of physical causality. Such conceptions of omnipotence, asserts Tillich, are absurd and irreligious.” King was in basic agreement with this and similar claims, which should be borne in mind whenever we see references to terms like omnipotence in King’s postgraduate school sermons, speeches, and writings.

But it is also the case that Brightman, even after the formulation of his doctrine of the finite-infinite God, characterized divine omnipotence in a way that King would approve. Brightman said that in the strictest sense his view is not that of a finite God, but of a God whose will is finite. He said that it remains the case that the finite-infinite God is “absolute in the sense of being the ultimate source of all creation.” As we just saw, this was also Bowne’s description of God. God as infinite or absolute means only that God is the independent ground of all being. What is important to remember, however, is that Bowne, unlike Brightman, considered himself to be an absolutist, notwithstanding his redefinition of omnipotence. Brightman maintains that while the power of God’s will is limited by the non-rational Given, God is unlimited in many significant ways. In this regard he wrote: “. . . arguments for the objectivity of ideals give ground for the postulate that his will for goodness and love is unlimited; likewise he is infinite in time and space, by his unbegun and unending duration and by his inclusion of all nature within his experience; such a God must also be unlimited in his knowledge of all that is, although human freedom and the nature of The Given probably limit his knowledge of the precise details of the future.”

For King, divine omnipotence did not mean that God could do the impossible or the ridiculous. “It means, rather, that God has the power to actualize the good and realize his purpose,” said King. Not sheer, raw power as such, which is worthy of worship, but the power to achieve moral purpose, for God is fundamentally love. King grappled with this issue in a paper written during the second semester of Davis’s course on the philosophy of religion.

We are never to think of God’s power in terms of what he could conceivably do by the exercise of what we may call sheer omnipotence which crushes all obstacles in its path. We are always to think of God’s power in terms of his purpose. If what he did by sheer omnipotence defeated his purpose, then, however startling and impressive, it would be an expression of weakness, not of power. . . .

We must realize that God’s power is not put forward to get certain things done, but to get them done in a certain way, and with certain results in the lives of those who do them.

King struggled with the relation between divine power and divine purpose. However, the response he gave is similar to Brightman’s treatment of the subject. In a chapter on “The Power of God,” Brightman wrote:

Not through power alone, but through the goal of power and the adequacy of power to attain the goal, is God to be defined. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” In its deepest moments, religion has always scorned mere power. Any power which our theories ascribe to God beyond the power to achieve his purposes is a superfluous theological luxury; and any power for good which theory ascribes to him and experience shows he does not exercise is a moral embarrassment. . . . the goal of divine power is a universe in which all persons through freedom and pain may achieve ever nobler forms of goodness and beauty, joy and love.

Power, in this sense, is not simply the ability to get things done. It is the ability to get things done in a particular way, one that is consistent with the highest and noblest ideals or purpose. Power as such is not the most defining trait of God. Rather the idea of sufficient power to accomplish the most noble ends or purposes in cooperation with created persons is the view closest to King’s.

Nowhere does King repudiate or contradict either Brightman’s statement or what he himself wrote in the paper for Davis. From seminary onward, King seemed to recognize the unavoidable problem that arises for traditional theism when divine power is exalted out of all proportion and relation to divine moral perfection. Different from this tendency, Brightman’s conception of God “exalts God’s moral perfection, denies his omnipotence (as traditionally understood), but ascribes to him sufficient power to solve all problems and to bring good out of all evil; this gives both his character and his power a basis in experience and supplies a more intelligible faith than does the older view.”

During his formal academic training, King aimed for a reconceptualization of omnipotence and its relation to divine purpose. And yet, when he preached during his postdoctoral period, he had no real interest in actually redefining divine omnipotence before audiences of (especially) black Christians. King knew how tenaciously many black Christians tended to cling to the idea of God as perfectly powerful and able to do anything whatever. This notwithstanding, King learned from firsthand experience in the civil and human rights movements that if meaningful progress is to be made it would take the cooperative efforts of persons of good will of all races and God. After all, God creates persons in freedom, for freedom, to be free in their relations with each other, with God, and the rest of creation. Minimally this means that persons have the capacity to choose to cooperate with each other and God, or not. Implicit in this idea is the assumption that God cannot do it all and that God in fact needs persons—not causally but morally—to help in the accomplishment of God’s purpose in the world. It is virtually impossible to make sense of why a perfectly powerful God who ostensibly possesses all power would need you and me for anything at all. This is one of the reasons I try to show later that while King never explicitly contended for a version of theistic finitism, his frequent references to the need for cooperative endeavor between persons and God implies an openness to the concept.

It is true that as a student, King did not think of himself as a theistic finitist. He rejected what he perceived to be the theistic finitism of Wieman as well as Tillich’s absolutism devoid of goodness. In addition, in papers he wrote in seminary and graduate school, King rejected the theistic finitism of McTaggart, Montague, and at times Brightman.

King was an acute and careful thinker in his own right, and therefore did not just uncritically accept all that his own religious heritage said about divine omnipotence. King was able to come to the conclusion, as Brightman did, that if God were truly omnipotent beyond humans’ ability to conceive, then God could do even the unintelligible. Brightman said that such a God

could have created a race of free beings who would always choose righteously (as he himself, being also free, always chooses righteously), even though in theory they were free to sin (as he also is). There must be something in “the nature of things” to render impossible the creation of a race of free beings who would never sin, even though they were free to. The impossibility must lie in the very nature of God, for if it lay merely in the created world, we should have to ask why God created such a world. There would have to be something in him which rendered such a creation the best possible.

Brightman argued that the facts of experience reveal the existence of a God who is “powerful” and “unconquerable,” but not perfectly and absolutely powerful according to traditional theism. King was in essential agreement with this aspect of Brightman’s doctrine of God and the idea of God as relentlessly faithful and compassionate.

King’s Doctrine of God

The type of personalism that appealed most to King stressed the sacredness of persons and was thoroughly theistic. King’s deepest faith was in a personal God of love and reason who is the creator and sustainer of all life. In theistic personalism we find a metaphysical grounding for the biblical claim that in God we live and move and have our being, a theme that frequently appears in Bowne’s writings. King perceived such a God to be infinitely loving, caring, responsive, active, righteous, just, and on occasion, wrathful. Because many will cringe at the idea of the wrath of God, it should be understood that this was unquestionably the stance of King, who was, after all, influenced by ancient ethical prophets, most especially Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. King considered the Hebrew prophets to be the greatest prophets on justice and righteousness. Divine wrath is an important element in understanding their sense of divine justice. In addition, King was the descendant of three generations of preachers who preached God’s hatred of injustice as passionately as did the eighth-century prophets. They also preached God’s promise to punish evildoers. King himself was deeply influenced by this tradition. In his first speech as the newly elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) on December 5, 1955, he made it clear that God is not merely the God of love and justice. King said: “He’s also the God that standeth before the nations and says, ‘Be still and know that I am God—and if you don’t obey me I’m gonna break the backbone of your power— and cast you out of the arms of your international and national relationships.’” This would not be the only time King would use such language to characterize God’s distaste for and actions against the unjust. He also used the language of the wrath of God in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, in which he essentially preached his own eulogy two months before he was assassinated. No study on King’s theological ethics would be complete without consideration of the place of divine wrath.

We get a sense of the thoroughgoing nature of theistic personalism in Bowne’s contention that God is the foundation of truth, knowledge, and morals. The study of any of these, Bowne maintained, ultimately results in questions about the existence and nature of God. Although he argued that it is impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, Bowne was, nevertheless, eager to show that the problems of the world and life cannot be solved without God as the fundamental assumption. This was King’s basic stance as well. God is the ultimate source of, and key to, the solution to human problems, including sin. Human problems and sin exist because of autonomous moral agents who are called into existence by God, and who choose to behave contrary to God’s expectations.

The conviction that the universe is grounded in morality says something quite significant regarding the way King thought about God. The most obvious implication of the claim is that the Creator God must be nothing short of perfectly personal, loving, good, and reasonable. To have infused reality with value implies not only God’s infinite love for created existence and the expectation that persons behave in ways that exhibit their respect and appreciation for all life, but it also says something about God’s intention to accomplish the divine purposes in ways that are respectful of life, especially human life. Moreover, since King also believed God to be a God of infinite reason, the conclusion must be drawn that God has a plan for the world and works toward its fulfillment in logical rather than illogical ways. This means, for example, that since God has created persons in freedom to make choices (within limits), God does not then try to force persons to do what is good and just in the world. The reasonable thing for God to do is to seek persuasive means to urge them to choose alternatives that may be pleasing to God. Because God is love, God respects persons’ right to choose, even when they make choices that frustrate the accomplishment of God’s purposes. But this also means that when people see the devastating effects of moral evil in the world, they should not accuse God of either being absent or as the perpetrator in some way. Because God creates persons with the capacity to be self-determining, and because God loves and respects them, reason suggests that God cannot then force them to behave in ways that are pleasing to God.

Without question, King believed the universe to be under the guidance of a personal and loving God, who is its creator and sustainer. Nowhere did he express this more poignantly and movingly than when he reflected on some of the hardships and threats made against him and his family during the civil rights movement. “I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship. Behind the harsh appearances of the world there is a benign power. To say that this God is personal is not to make him a finite object besides other objects or attribute to him the limitations of human personality; it is to take what is finest and noblest in our consciousness and affirm its perfect existence in him.”

King agreed with his personalist forebears that the metaphysical attributes of person—including self-consciousness, self-determining, intelligence, and worth— are not in themselves limiting factors. The limiting factors, we have seen, are the corporeal elements characteristic of human beings. In any case, King also was in agreement with the personalist thesis that people are but imperfect images of what it truly means to be persons. After all, people depend on the Supreme Person for their very being.

From the time he was a boy, King believed God to be personal, although as an adult, especially during the Montgomery struggle, he did not know from a personal, existential standpoint what this really meant. He knew as well as anybody what it meant intellectually or academically. But he recalled a time when he had not been as conscious of the personal character of the God of his faith and of his ancestors. At times, he thought of God in a more abstract and academic sense. But his struggle alongside his people for freedom and dignity helped to reestablish and anchor his belief and trust in a personal God who hears, is affected by, and responds to prayer and other human endeavor. Reflecting on his own personal sufferings and persecutions reminded King of his earlier dependence on the personal and loving God of Jesus Christ, the God of his parents and grandparents. This was the same God who had so often been present with him during the most difficult, frightening, and uncertain moments of the struggle for freedom and dignity. In 1963 King said:

The agonizing moments through which I have passed during the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in the past the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category that I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outward dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, “Lo I will be with you.” When the chains of fear and the manacles of frustration have all but stymied my efforts, I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.

The use of such language can only be attributed to a personal God, a being capable of hearing, understanding, feeling compassion, and responding to human beings.

Indeed, by the time the Montgomery bus boycott was half over, King had discovered firsthand that the metaphysical conceptions of God he studied and mastered in seminary and graduate school could not in themselves provide for him the comfort, strength, and companionship he needed to sustain him and the movement. At no point was this more evident than the night—early in the Montgomery struggle when—he received one of numerous similar calls from an angry white voice that threatened to kill him and blow up his house. Things were not going well in the boycott, and that particular night King was affected by the threatening phone call in a way he had not experienced before. He could not sleep, and therefore went to the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee. It was there that he had what he referred to years later as “a vision in the kitchen.” At his kitchen table he bowed down before the God of his parents and ancestors and sought divine guidance, comfort, and assurance. For the first time, he acknowledged that he needed to experience for himself the God that his parents and maternal grandmother taught him about. The problem was not that King was not religious, for he had more than demonstrated that in his studies and his acceptance of the “call” to preach. Although the church and religion had long been important to him, King said that before that night in the kitchen he “had never felt an experience with God in the way that you must have it if you’re going to walk the lonely paths of this life.” Prior to bowing in prayer he tried to find comfort in the theologies and philosophies he had not long ago studied in school, “trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there.” King wrote about the kitchen experience in Stride Toward Freedom.

I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”

At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.

King was convinced that the answer that he received came from the very same God that his parents had taught him about when he was a boy. But that night in his kitchen he discovered that to merely know that this was the God of his parents was not enough. Nor was it enough to know this God simply as an intellectual concept. He had to know and experience God for himself. As generations of old black Christians have been known to say: “Honey, you got to know Him for yourself.” There is not a little truth in David Garrow’s contention that the vision in the kitchen experience “was the most important night of [King’s] life, the one he always would think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed to be too great.” That experience was for King “a source of inner strength.”

After uttering that prayer at the kitchen table, King was convinced that the essence of religion is not some impersonal, abstract, metaphysical conception of God’s relationship with human beings. It was not a “process” or “event,” “being-itself,” or “the power of being.” Rather, the kitchen experience and many other experiences thereafter confirmed for King that the essence, the soul of religion is a personal, omnibenevolent, omniscient God of “matchless power.” After the kitchen experience it was clear that God was “that power that can make a way out of no way,” and God would do so precisely because God is personal, loving, and reasonable. This is the God of the Hebrew prophets. This is the God of Jesus Christ. This, King concluded, is the God of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. This was the same God who would see black people to a successful conclusion in the Montgomery bus boycott and in subsequent civil rights campaigns. King put all of his trust and faith in this God. It is what sustained him subsequently when he was faced with particularly difficult times. Even when he became discouraged in the struggle, he now had the assurance of God’s great faithfulness and promise to be with him to the end of his days. This faith sustained him.

In addition, King was periodically encouraged by some elderly black Christian who had been tested in the faith and knew from personal experience that God is always faithful and never reneges on a promise. One of these was old Mother Pollard. Early in the Montgomery bus boycott, when it seemed to her that King was discouraged and not his energetic, passionate self during a speech at a mass meeting, she inquired of him whether he was all right. Not deceived by his claim that all was well, she asked: “Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it that the white folks is bothering you?” She then looked him squarely in the eyes and spoke with the authority of a saint: “I done told you we is with you all the way. But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.” In addition, King must have been much encouraged during the bus boycott when he heard the story of Mother Pollard walking to work. Although she was having a difficult time walking, she refused the offer to ride in a car. She was clearly tired, but waved off the driver. When asked if she was tired, she reportedly said: “I’m not walking for myself. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.” She went on to say: “Yes, my feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”

Therefore, we can see why for King, God was neither Wieman’s cinteraction” or “process” nor Tillich’s “being-itself ” or “power of being,” for neither of these can account adequately for what he believed to be the two fundamental religious values for religious persons: fellowship with God, and trust in God’s goodness. Both of these implied for King a being who is perfectly conscious, self-aware, intelligent, free, just, and loving. Only such a God—not one who is only symbolically personal as we see in Tillich’s theology—is capable of fellowship, love, and goodness. King wrote about this in his dissertation:

No fellowship is possible without freedom and intelligence. There may be interactions between impersonal being, but not fellowship. True fellowship and communion can exist only between beings who know each other and take a volitional attitude toward each other. . . . Fellowship requires an outgoing of will and feeling. This is what the Scripture means when it refers to God as the “living” God. Life as applied to God means that in God there is feeling and will, responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart; this God both evokes and answers prayer.

This is what King meant by a personal God. Such is a God with whom persons can fellowship and commune; a God who cares and is always working on their behalf; a God who knows created persons in the most intimate way, because every person— indeed all life—belongs to God. This is a God who works most effectively when persons open themselves to God’s energy and persuasive love; when persons decide to work cooperatively with God and with each other. This is not a God who simply does everything but rather one who works with persons as they choose to surrender themselves as co-workers in the quest for the beloved community.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from the chapter “King's Conception of God” in God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Martin Luther King Press Conference in 25 March 1964; Source: Wikimedia Commons, Library of Congress, PD.


Rufus Burrow Jr.

Rufus Burrow, Jr. (d. 2021), was Indiana Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and professor of theological social ethics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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