the truth about us

I know what self-justification and self-protection looks like, because like all of us, I do it far too often.  Into a world of self-justifiers (like me) where we defend ourselves from any responsibility for any specific wrongdoing, the words of Jesus by the hand of John’s gospel cut through to the basic motivations behind such self-protection:

19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:19-21)

My simple observation here (which I don’t want to clutter up the sermon for this Sunday night) is that Jesus is not contrasting ‘evil’ people with ‘good’ people, as if life were so simple.  Instead, the one who “knew what was in humans” (John 2:25) contrasts those who do “evil” and those who live “by the truth”.  The words used to describe their actions are also contrasted.  Those who do evil stay in the darkness not wanting their “deeds” to be exposed, while those who life by the truth can cope with “what they have done” being in the light of day, as well as the sight of God.

So the point of difference Jesus is making between these two kinds of people seems not to be that some have been naughty and others have been nice.  Some seem to see God as a God who is out to condemn the world, while others seem to trust that God, as Jesus says a few verses earlier (3:17), did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Fear drives some to hide their sin, while faith/trust (Greek: pistis) enables others to confess it. Johannine material elsewhere in the New Testament agrees.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)

tsunamis and life building

In a reflection that is most certainly to be categorised firmly on the side of what is understandably seen as the impersonal, cold, logic-chopping philosophical problem of evil (rather than more humane existential or pastoral problem of evil), it occurs to me that the feeling of unjustness we almost universally feel when, say, a massive tsunami wipes out thousands of poor ‘innocent’ people ((though a thoroughgoing Christian anthropology knows no such thing, mind you – we’re a mixed bag – wretched and radiant – always both – never just one…)) is almost entirely an affair of emotion rather than reason.

Notice that I said it was the feeling of unjustness, rather than the sense that we ought to have compassion on the victims, which was driven chiefly by emotion rather than reason.  For what just alternative do we imagine?  That earth should be free of tectonic activity and water – both of which are fundamentally necessary for the existence and flourishing of all life?

The complaint seems to be that God is somehow unjust for making a world where tsunamis happen, or for not intervening each time they are in places that wipe out thousands of people… or hundreds of people… or dozens of people… or any single human life… or animal life… yes, God should stop those tsunamis too… matter of fact, God should stop sudden gusts of wind that cause people to lose their balance, fall and hurt themselves…  God should intervene to stop my paper cut…

From the perspective of a Martian, all of these human dramas played out on our ‘pale blue dot’ are not so different.  Certainly the point at which the ratio of deaths-saved to degree-of-divine-interference becomes an offense ((by whose standards though?)) seems utterly arbitrary.  What’s more, Nature certainly doesn’t care for either tsunami or paper-cut victims.  Nature is neither grieved at evil nor glad at good, for the ‘dumb witch‘, needs not either of those adjectives – or any qualitative value-judgments.

Experience teaches us that when we build our house on a beach, we risk possible devastation by wind and waves.  Handle papers quickly and carelessly, and expect paper-cuts.  The ‘natural evil’ is worsened by the human evils of things like impatience and inattention (behind the paper-cut) and things like the greedy, indifferent and dehumanising failure to share knowledge and technology that would see the poor, vulnerable coastal communities having stronger buildings and better and faster tsunami warning systems.

The God-who-is-Love is not there to remove all pain and suffering, but to be trusted in the midst of, and to Love us into, through and out the other side of all pain and suffering – great and small.

It’s not the reality of tsunamis that raise hairy theological questions, but rather when people claim that God sent it on the homosexuals or the lone survivor claims God singled them out for survival over the others. ((I’m opposed to those who would rob such a survivor of their gratitude to God for their survival – it’s just that I’m also highly doubtful that it is appropriate or sensible for this gratitude to be accompanied by a sense that God didn’t want the others to survive  – or want them to survive as much…))

I’m not fond of the habit of attaching direct, one-for-one, tit-for-tat theological purpose and meaning to every single phenomena (i.e. this mouse made it to the mouse trap before that other mouse because it had been very, very naughty in the eyes of the Lord…).  Though equally, I’m committed to seeing all phenomena as known by and sustained by God, so God has at least something to do with literally everything that happens.

It does seem that we tend to thank God for pleasing events, but not critique God for unpleasant ones.  So, the simplistic complaint, ‘all of the credit, but none of the blame’, is very intuitive, but only to a point.  Despite that many Christians actually do only thank God for nice events and are not sure what to say of un-nice ones, the Christian faith relates to pain and suffering in a unique way.  One (certainly not the only) way it does is by taking everything from tsunamis to paper-cuts as an opportunity to be reminded that one must not put their trust in anything other than God, the Rock of Salvation.

Calling a Spirit such as God a ‘rock’ is both a delicious juxtaposition and an utterly appropriate metaphor, especially if God actually is who Christians (and monotheists) believe God to be – the very source and sustainer of all (created) being or existence.  The single, sole ‘capital-T-Thing-transcending-all-lower-case-t-things’, who does not change in essence, character or nature.  The lone Locus of faith that cannot be shaken.

24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods [even tsunamis!] came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’ – Matthew 7:24-27

good creator

The world is a dance in which good, descending from God, is disturbed by evil arising from the creatures, and the resulting conflict is resolved by God’s own assumption of the suffering nature which evil produces.  C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 72

Evil as the absence of Good is a suitable description, but better to say, with Lewis, that Evil is a disturbance of Good.  The surgeon’s scalpel used to murder, etc.  Evil as the fault of humans is a suitable analysis, but better to use the more general term ‘creation’, so as to include non-human agency as well.  Christian faith (like Lewis – i.e. Screwtape Letters) avoids both extremes of either disbelief in evil spirits or obsession with them.

But for theodicy, the salient point is that God is not the author of evil.  God, however, as both Creator and Redeemer, is ‘responsible’ for both a) the creation of the world, which was always going to spoil itself, and b) the redemption of the world, which was always going to require the unspoiled Creator to unite to (and thus ‘drag up’ with him) the spoiled creation.

night

I’m probably the only worship song leaders who, during a Christmas day worship service, introduced the song “O Holy Night” by way of a reference to the book “Night” by Elie Wiesel, which recounts his experiences in the death camps Auschwitz (which I’ve visited and will never forget) and Buchenwald.

The juxtaposition is too profound to ignore.  On the one hand, one of the best (if not the best) Christmas carols, singing about that great night when the Light of the World entered our world through the womb of a young woman.  On the other, one of the most hideously horrific glimpses into one of the worst (if not the worst) seasons in human history, when darkness in its blackest hue was manifest through human indifference, racism and genocidal hatred.  Two very different nights indeed.

For me, this serves as a necessary and unnerving reminder of yet another aspect of the doctrine (and more so the Event!) of the Incarnation.  Divinity did not only ‘come near’ to our world, it entered and united to it.  God did not unite to the best and most beautiful bits of creation, but to all of it, warts and all.  The Light of the World descended into the darkest pitch.  For the Early Church Fathers who debated vigorously how to understand the dual nature of Christ, he must be fully divine in order to save us, and fully human in order to effect the salvation.  The slogan they developed was, “What is not assumed cannot be saved.”  Thus, Christ fully descended into humanity.

It occurs to me that there is no place on earth, no hospice, no church, no home, no garden, that is so pure and righteous that evil does not touch it with its corrupting finger at least in part.  And conversely, there is no place on earth, no brothel, no wall street, no hard drive, and yes, no death camp, that is so stained and putrid that good does not scatter at least some small dots of light within it.

Reading “Night” was hard going, to be sure.  One cannot have a beating heart and not grimace at times.  But I was struck by the faint glimmers of light within such darkness.  The SS soldier who was kinder than the rest.  The fellow prisoners who sacrificed their own food, safety and lives for the sake of others.  The boy who played his violin for all he was worth in a room full of frozen, dying bodies.

There are few more faith-challenging realities than suffering on this scale.  For Elie Wiesel, this Night murdered his God and his faith forever.  One must not glibly respond with easy theological justifications, however sound they may be.  But suffice to say, for me, among other things, these little dots of light are whispers of hope, audible for those who listen for them among the cacophony of white (and yet black) noise which can be so loud at times.  In Christ, God is with us, crying with us, praying with us, shivering with us, sweating, bleeding, and yes, dying with us.

technology

Listening today to the NewstalkZB discussion of youth vandalism (which relate to my recent post) and the Pike River mining incident (29 miners trapped in a complex and multi-faceted situation).

Yet again, we see that technology is neither good nor bad.

If it’s good things we’re aiming to do, technology aids and strengthens our efforts.  If it is best to send in human rescuers (or sacrificial, courageous fathers), then what a blessing to have breathing apparatuses & other gear to help them.  If it’s best to send in a robot instead (as was decided – controversially), then what a blessing to have such technology to even give us the choice (and even better if it is able to withstand watery conditions – which it unfortunately was not).

If it is bad things we’re aiming to do, technology aids and strengthens these efforts as well.  If it is not good to send in a less-than-robust robot to do a human’s job, then what a distraction the whole idea turned out to be.  If it is not good for every opinion to be broadcast, then what a pain to have a mechanism like talk-back radio.

One caller was grateful for the discretion of the police, who kept people from taking the situation into ‘their own hands’ – as if it wasn’t in human hands anyway?  Humans are responsible for doing what they can.  More technology gives us more ‘can do’ options (can-do doesn’t equal should-do.), but is there a point when we have too many options?  More power, but too much power?  Does it make us hesitate to act courageously, or make us too dependent on technology?

A parallel scenario was the months before and weeks after Thomas was born, two years ago.  We found the ante-natal classes generally helpful, and were grateful that we live in a time/place where such things are freely available to all.  But we also noted that the sheer amount of information can be at times suffocating.  You are given so many options and told about so many scenarios to be prepared for.  There is being prepared on one hand, and on the other being so aware of the 74,000 things that ‘could’ happen that you worry they ‘will’ happen.  Other parents we talked to related to this.  At some point, we all have to trust those that know – even if we don’t.

power, complexity & ethics

Two things (neither good/evil of themselves) which will not make humans more moral are technology & science.

  • Technology gives us ever-increasing levels of power; and this power can be used to do both good and evil.  Spiderman, anyone ((“With great power comes great responsibility.”))?
  • Science gives us an ever-increasing amount of data/facts; which make ethical choices more complex/detailed/varied – but which do not help us in the slightest bit to either know or do the right thing.