Though it is incomprehensibly popular, the idea that the Christian God is a God who ensures that all that happens on earth fits into a divine plan and is according to God’s will is also unaccountably stupid. Such a view, briefly, makes a mockery of the immense amount of senseless tragedy and suffering that this earth experiences far, far too often. It robs us of any sort of agency. And it also denies the reality of any sort of evil or sin (all events actions must be perfectly good because they are exactly as God intends them to be). And such a view is alien to Scripture, which continually emphasizes the importance of human choice, the reality of corruption and evil, and presents a God who is often quite dissatisfied with events as they are. Not all that happens on earth is just (obviously!); and there is no plan that everything fits into.
Of course, I am far from the first to see many of the gaping pitfalls in the image of God. Many church members, leaders and laity alike, frequently denounce it, and it has never had any currency in any academic theology that I am aware of. However, what surprises me is the consistency with which the only alternative view offered (in the church and on TV – academic theology here tends to have a greater degree of nuance and options) is one in which God becomes a God who does not interfere in human affairs or natural events. This God tends to manifest in the acts of community and in the kindness and services of friends and strangers. Undoubtedly, this framework has much to commend to it. For one, it is not manifestly untrue to the bulk of human experience. There is, also, a great deal of truth to its claims that God works and is present through the church, through other communities, and through individuals. When I look back on my sermons, faith stories, and teachings, these are the sort of stories I have told to point to God’s presence and workings in the world.
And yet, I remain uneasy with the claim that God does not interfere with human affairs or natural events. For one, this view is hard to reconcile with Christian Scripture: with the God of Israel who directly intercedes as a deliverer time and time again, with Jesus the miracle worker, healer, and exorcist, with the God of Jesus who raises him from the dead, and with the Holy Spirit who works various miracles in the lives of the apostles. I also start to wonder why we bother to keep talking about God if we have this view; if what we do (and feel) is the sum of God’s activity, then it would seem that God is, in fact, dead and that we have killed him. What does God-talk add to the fact that it is often profound when people are kind?
So what are we left with? I do not want to attempt a (sure to fail) theodicy here. But, just as the Spirit works in varied and often tumultuous ways, perhaps a list of ways in which we might, at times, be able to talk about God can weave a way through the alternatives of a determinate God and an immanent world with no room for God.
- Practice confession not explanation. We confess allegiance to Christ, and in doing so proclaim that at the end of the day Christ is the world’s true ruler. This is often confused with explaining the world away, as if such a confession gives us license to pretend to understand what is by definition senseless. Confession is often grieving, defiant, desperate, baffled, and furious, even as it clings to a certain celebration of and hope in Christ’s victory; explanation cannot be any of these things. So confess and celebrate Christ’s ongoing presence and victory, and take a step back from the explanations, remembering that “God does not interfere in the world” counts as an explanation.
- Keep the God who is redeemer, sustainer, and creator of this world together with the God who intervenes in lives, causing miracles and wonders. Any apocalyptic interventions are the same thing as God’s redemption/sustaining/creating of the world; to borrow a well-used phrase, salvation is “with the grain of the universe” not against it. Jesus’s miracles and exorcisms were apocalyptic acts, inextricable from his proclamation of the political reality “Kingdom of God,” itself inextricable from visions of the prophets and the coming of God’s most-natural reign. In Tokens of Trust, Rowan Williams gives one of the best accounts of miracles that I have encountered, noting that given God’s ongoing redemption and creation of the world, a miracle is not so much God interfering the natural processes, but some resistance to the way of love in which this universe is conceived giving way; Grace breaking through that which distorts nature.
- Get rid of some cynicism and come to see that God-talk can add quite a bit to the fact that “people are kind.” This is the case for at least two reasons. First, throughout Scripture, perhaps the most significant way in which God “intervenes” in the world is through the call and guidance of an assortment of individuals and communities. Without God there is no Moses, Jeremiah, or Paul. And today Jesus calls to all. We should not, therefore, be surprised or dismissive when contemporary and past saints say that they only do what they do because of God’s empowering call. Second, as I read the Scriptures, the miraculous events done in the name of the Holy Spirit are small game; the real deal for the Holy Spirit is the calling together and sustaining of that impossible community called church. Put another way, if it is not always clear how kindness benefits from God-talk, perhaps we should also question the confidence of those who believe that we can so easily achieve kindness on our own. Of course, when we phrase it in these terms we find that God is actually doing quite a lot of “interfering.”
- Remember God suffers with us. I don’t believe that Moltmann’s suffering-God holds all the answers, as some people seem to think, but there is also something truthful to the fact that in suffering God grieves with us and, in that grief, works to bring glimpses of grace into and out of even the worst of situations.
- Practice a degree of openness when told stories by those who have seen God at work in their lives, especially when told by the marginalized and oppressed. And so, when Bishop John Yambasu calls us in Canada to pray for them in Sierra Leone, I will do so, and in doing so will not tell God what God might do and how God might bring grace to that terrible situation. Likewise, if fellow believers tell me that they have seen God at work in my life, then I need to take that seriously.
So here are some ways that I think we can take about God at work in the world without everything immediately falling apart. I don’t think that any one works perfectly or fits well into all situations, but some speech along this line will further allow for glimpses of the living God. I’d love for your feedback. What ways did I miss? In what ways do my suggestions, in fact, fall apart immediately?