Saturday, 2 August 2008

What on earth is God doing?

I found myself musing on this thought recently as not only foundational in itself but important to the present problems of the Anglican Communion.

Everyone more or less agrees (rightly, I’m sure) that the Church’s principle role is mission. Everyone furthermore agrees that the Church’s mission and God’s mission should be one and the same. The sticking point is the nature of God’s mission, which brings us back to the question, ‘What on earth is God doing?’

And here, as Bishop Tom Wright highlighted in his recent talk to the Lambeth Conference, answers divide broadly into two categories. One, representing an ancient strand of Christian theology, sees God’s work ‘in terms of being rescued from this earth for a “salvation” somewhere else’, although contra Wright’s exaggerated dichotomy (which is as false here as it often is elsewhere), that ‘somewhere else’ was not always ‘somewhere other than the recombined new heavens and new earth’.

The other, with which Wright clearly has rather more sympathy, understands God’s work primarily as bringing about his rule ‘on earth as in heaven’. Unfortunately, with the shift from an emphasis on ‘rescue’ there is an accompanying overemphasis, in Wright’s position and others, on ‘this earth’. The result is a focus on, for example, the Millennium Development Goals, or on what Wright describes (mistakenly) as the ‘marriage’ of heaven and earth. (Mistaken because it replaces the church in the divine marriage by creation generally.)

In fairness to Wright’s presentation, he attempts to combine the ‘transformation’ aspect of God’s work with the ‘personal-salvation’ aspect. But as the balance, or rather the imbalance, of the second half of his talk shows, it is half-hearted and unconvincing.

But in any case, both the transformational and the personal-salvific understandings of God’s work can still leave unanswered the question, ‘What on earth is God doing?’, in that neither necessarily engages with the underlying question, ‘Why is God doing what God is doing?’

Taking the transformational model first: why would God be desirous of achieving the Millennium Development Goals? That might seem a stupid question. Why would anyone not want to see the world become a better place? But we are not talking about ‘anyone’ here, we are talking about God, who is widely acknowledge, even amongst the most liberal of ‘Liberals’, as the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer. Yet if that is a reasonable description of God, and whilst it may then seem obvious why the Redeemer should want to redeem our present world, it is fair to ask why the Creator should create such a world in the first place.

When I was a child, I used to enjoy building sandcastles on the beach perilously close to the incoming tide. The fun was then trying to shore up the castle defences against the incoming waters — in short, to ‘redeem’ what I had ‘created’ from the encroaching forces of destruction. But would it not seem odd to suggest that God had similarly created the world merely so that he could enjoy redeeming it?

Yet here we are in a world agreed by all to be in need of redemption. So if it God’s doing, why has he done it?

Although it may not seem obvious, however, the same question applies to the personal-salvific model: why would God be in the business of rescuing people from this earth for a future elsewhere? Once again, it might seem a stupid question. Why would a loving God not want to rescue people from Hell and bring them to Heaven (whatever those two terms may properly indicate)? But again we come back to the question of creation preceding redemption. We can easily see why God would want to make things better, but why would he want to make them at all — and make them in such a way that they would need to be ‘made better’?

It would be easy to dismiss this line of questioning as ‘abstract theologizing’. One of the precepts of Marxism with which we might have some sympathy is that the important thing is not merely to understand the world but to change it. And certainly, confronted with the starving it is more immediately important to feed them than to understand why they are hungry. Yet change is more effectively achieved where there is understanding than where there are merely ad hoc reactions to crisis situations.

Thus, whether our goal is social transformation or personal salvation, we may reasonably hope to benefit from being able to say why God is calling us to do what we are doing.

Yet are things as complicated as I seem to be suggesting? Isn’t it just the case that the world contains many evils, that human beings commit many sins, and that both need redemption?

Undoubtedly that is true. But still we should be asking why. So often we seem to be approaching the Church’s task as if the problem were obvious (things and people are in a mess) and the solution must mean bringing about the opposite situation (‘unmess’ the things and the people). And this is then seen as God’s mission because it ‘obviously’ must be God’s purpose.

Yet if God is the creator of the situation which has then become messed up, is it so ‘obvious’ that merely ‘unmessing’ the situation achieves God’s purposes? Must it not be the case that God has a purpose for the ‘mess’? And should we therefore be so focussed on sorting the ‘mess’ out?

Ultimately what it comes down to is the place of evil. Surely one of the hardest things for our theology to embrace is the fact that God brought into existence that which can be evil. It is hard to understand how he could do it, even harder to understand why. Yet the one thing that surely demands our acknowledgement is that he did do it. And therefore we must presume he did it both on purpose and for a purpose.

That being the case, then, we should surely go back and reflect on our understanding of the Church’s mission and the way in which it flows out of God’s mission. Clearly that mission cannot be merely to ‘put the world to rights’, if by that we mean to bring the world to a state it would have been in if there hadn’t been any evil in the first place. (If it were that simple, why would he have not created such a world straight off?)

Equally, though it cannot just be ‘to save us from coming judgement’. Why all the rigamarole of world in which human beings can ‘fall’ and sin? Why, above all, do the words of God in Genesis 3:22 agree with those of the Serpent in Genesis 3:5?

Behold, the man has become like one of us ...

For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God ...

Once again, salvation, in this case for individuals, cannot mean bringing about a state that would have existed if there hadn’t been any evil in the first place, for humanity has already become what it was not, and in doing so has become ‘like God’.

God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year. But what on earth is he really doing?

John Richardson
2 August 2008

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    As always you ask good questions. But you miss one important point in your attempt at answering them, that humanity has been put on earth to take care of it and all that is in it, as a steward, Genesis 1:28 etc. This is not the mission of the church but of the whole human race, but it is clearly God's will.

    It is of course an issue for Christians individually and for the church as a whole to find the right balance between this general responsibility to care for the earth and the more specific mission of the church. But the right balance will not be found by neglecting one half of what God wills.

  2. Hi Peter. As J V Fesko has indicated, I think the fulfilment of Genesis 1:28 must be seen Christologically. That is to say, it is Christ who ultimately 'fills the world (Heb: ha aretz) and subjects it to his rule' (compare Eph 4:10 and Gen 1:28 LXX).

    The point of this is to observe that humanity's fulfilment of Gen 1:28 is to be identified with Christ's fulfilment of redemption. "Care for the earth" cannot be thus separated from "the mission of the Church", but the mission of the Church must be understood as Christ's redemptive mission towards humanity, and thence to creation as a whole.

  3. It has been awhile since I have read Jonathan Edwards' Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and it certainly bears repeated reading, but I am still persuaded by his answer: "that a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fullness, was what excited him to create the world; and so, that the emanation itself was aimed at by him as a last end of the creation."

    Warren Dodson
    Dallas, Texas

  4. Fair enough, John. I don't want to create an artificial division between general human responsibility and the mission of the church. The latter surely includes the former and especially those aspects of it which have been ignored by fallen humanity. The earth has been damaged by human neglect, and will only be restored fully when God brings a new earth. But I would be worried if anyone took the implication from this that the church's mission is only to save souls and should exclude taking proper care of the earth.

  5. "Everyone more or less agrees (rightly, I’m sure) that the Church’s principle role is mission."

    What bothers me is when people hide from "issues" behind the shield of "mission." I heard this the other day when someone reminded me that our Bishop wants us to be "mission driven" and not "issue driven." And that to be on the Executive Council one should not be an "issue" person.

    The Church has always had to deal with "issues," that is part of it's "mission."

    Rock Hill, SC