Wednesday, May 21, 2008

May 21, 2008 - And It Was... Good?

Last Sunday, I had occasion to read Genesis 1:1-2:4a in our worship service. Joanne, our seminary assistant, was preaching, and had chosen that passage from out of the Revised Common Lectionary selections for the day.

Not often do I have the opportunity to read that famous passage – the first of Genesis’ two creation stories – aloud, in its entirety. “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) I was struck by the sheer majesty of those ancient words.

Funny that today I should see those very same words pop up in a comment posted on my blog. A reader named Christine referred to Genesis as she commented on the May 18th entry, “The Imperfect Is Our Paradise.” Here’s what she has to say:

“Dear Carl, can you really see God in the immense suffering as a result of the China earthquake or the Myanmar cyclone or in any other tragedies? I truly would like to but how does one begin? Does the answer lie in finding a purpose in the imperfection? I thought the Bible says that when God created the world, he saw that all was good. Perhaps I am missing the point.”


Ordinarily, I respond to comments in the Comments section, but Christine’s remarks set me to thinking. The more I think about it, the more I realize that her objection, and my response, belong not just among the comments, but here in prime time.

The theological issue Christine raises is a big one – perhaps the biggest. I’m speaking, of course, about the question theologians call theodicy: the problem of evil.

Christine puts it bluntly: “Can YOU really see God in the immense suffering as a result of the China earthquake or the Myanmar cyclone...?” It’s kind of like Jesus’ question to Peter at Caesarea Philippi: “But who do YOU say that I am?” (Christine has a way of putting a preacher on the spot. Which is OK with me. It goes with the territory.)

Well, Christine, let me attempt an answer. Please understand, before I begin, that any answer I attempt can hardly break new ground. This question has both preoccupied and baffled the sharpest theological minds down through the centuries.

Archibald MacLeish put it colorfully, in J.B., his play in verse based on the book of Job. There, the poet has the devil taunt the long-suffering Job, saying,

“If God is God, he is not good,
if God is good, he is not God,
take the even, take the odd.”


The writer of Genesis punctuates his narrrative of creation with the repeated mantra, “And it was good.” But was it? That’s really what Christine is asking. She wants to know if it was good through and through, if there were any seeds of evil in that idealized, primordial realm. In other words, was creation perfect? And, if so, what happened to it? How could the loving, omnipotent, “and it was good” God tolerate a world with earthquakes and cyclones in it, let alone Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma?

I’ve spent a fair amount of time wondering about that question myself, over the last several years. As I’ve pondered it, I’ve come to the conviction that creation need not be perfect to be good – at least, not as we commonly understand the word, “perfect.”

Anyone who takes a hard, unblinking look at creation quickly realizes it’s far from perfect. I’m no creationist; I firmly believe God used – and still uses – random processes like Darwin’s natural selection to fashion the universe. Think of the wild profusion of seeds that never make it to fertile soil. Think of the billions of animals gobbled up by larger, fiercer beasts. Think of humans who are blessed with free will, but who turn around and misuse that gift to create everything from Mein Kampf to child pornography to “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.” Yes, indeed, creation is a messy business. Sometimes it seems the creator God operates more like Jackson Pollock than Andrew Wyeth: sending shiny strings of paint swirling through the air, spattering as much color upon the floor and walls as ends up on the canvas. Yet, somehow God loves the wild imperfection of it all. And it was good.

It’s an imperfect world, no doubt about it. One strain of thinking within Christianity posits that creation began with perfection, but then something called the Fall intervened, as a saltshaker lid comes unscrewed over a bowl of soup. It blames human sin for the mess. I don’t buy that. There in the Garden, Adam and Eve have free will. The serpent may croon to them seductively, but at the end of the day they choose the forbidden fruit on their own. Adam and Eve have that capacity for choosing wrongly within them, all along – and isn’t it true that God created them, including their capacity to choose evil?

There’s another meaning to the word “perfect,” and this one I can affirm with respect to the creation story. “Perfect” doesn’t only mean “without flaw.” It can also mean “finished.” Like the grammarians’ “perfect tense,” this sort of perfection means just what Genesis 1 asserts: that God created, then God rested. When God rested n the seventh day, the work of creation was finished: flaws and all. And it was good.

When the author of Genesis says it was good, I think he’s using that word the way parents use it of their children: “He’s a good boy, she’s a good girl.” In saying such a thing, parents never mean their offspring are free from errors or flaws. They mean, “They are who they are. What they are is mine, and I love them.”

Yet, this world God created – good as it was, and still is – is far from static. It’s a living, growing thing. God may have perfected it eons ago, speaking a word of love into chaos, but the divine work of creation continues to unfold, through spouting volcanoes, shuddering earthquakes and swirling cyclones. Evolution continues, in its glorious profusion of species – some destined to become ancestors of species yet unborn, others bound only for the scrap heap of extinction. It’s all God’s, and it’s all good.

Could God intervene to prevent a shoddily-constructed Chinese school building from collapsing on the unsuspecting heads of its students? Could God send a cyclone spinning out into the open ocean, rather than letting it careen into a heavily-populated river delta, dotted with fragile bamboo huts?

In theory, God could. But, in practice, God typically won’t. That’s because God values one aspect of creation as especially good, so good it needs to be left alone: creation’s freedom. Were God to begin censoring creation’s every impulse to randomness, then it would cease to be the starkly beautiful place it is. It would become, instead, a wasteland of dreary predictability. The Pollock canvas would be transformed into a Stalinist propaganda poster. The lumpy, fresh-off-the vine tomato would become the perfectly-spherical but tasteless hothouse variety.

Did God create cancer? Maybe not directly, but God did bestow upon creation the gift of freedom. God stepped back and said, “I’m finished. Let it be.” Then there began a wild profusion of changes and mutations, continuing through the eons, even unto our own day. As in all living cells, the DNA in certain cells of the human body eventually mutates, changing the intricate pattern of chemical switches. One of these chemical switches controls the cells’ programmed instructions to die on schedule, making room for new cells. In their wild freedom, the newly-immortal cancer cells grow in size and number, squeezing out their healthier neighbors. Repeat this process millions of times, and the complex creature of which those cells are an essential part falls ill, even dies prematurely. Such a turn of events causes God to weep. Yet, through the tears, God keeps loving creation – enough to refrain from laying hands on it, robbing it of its precious freedom. God continues to call it good.

Ultimately, it’s love that’s at the center of creation. Out of love God fashioned the whole thing in the first place. Out of love God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” Out of love, God allows the human prodigal to run free, even if that one is squandering the family fortune. The child’s got to fall before it can walk.

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10)

The poet Isaiah promises that, one day, God will roll up the whole cosmic burrito, leveling earth’s mountains and raising up the valleys to make a grand processional highway of celebration. Then, there shall be no more weeping, nor crying, nor pain. They shall not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain.

I’m coming to believe Philip Simmons – the ALS survivor whom I quoted, in the blog entry to which Christine took exception – is right. Because of his experience of suffering, he of all people is worthy to be our guide in such matters. The world is imperfect, as we normally define the term. Yet, the world is good, all the same. That good, but imperfect, world can even be our paradise.

It’s the only world we’ve got. Until the day. Until the day...

9 comments:

Vance said...

Carl,

As you probably know, the Hebrew word for "good" in Genesis is "tov" which can also mean "fine" or "pleasant" or myriad other nuances. It is not so black and white as to imply the absence of evil. After all, the "nachash" (serpent or poisoner) was there in the Garden, too!

In addition, the Hebrew concept of creation is not that it was a one-time event. To the Hebrew, God is still creating!

God is the one who pronounced His creation as "good" at that point in time. Who knows what He meant? Whatever it was, "good" was and is defined by Him, not by us. We do not -- and often cannot -- interpret things correctly because we do not have His perspective.

Add to that the fact that life is fluid, and things change. How many of us have thought circumstances or events were bad, only to have them become some of life's greatest blessings? The pain of childbirth, for example, can yield the joy of parenthood.

Christine's question is a very human question, but there is probably not an easy human-satisfying answer.

The trick, I think, is to realize that whether things seem to be "good" or "bad", the key to coping is to realize that God loves us.

The world is what it is -- regardless of how we label it. God works within the circumstances and within our relationship with Him to create good out of bad.

It may not always be so evident, but that is where faith comes in.

I'm not saying it as well as you did, but I think we agree fully.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested in this online commentary "Putting God on Trial: The Biblical Book of Job" (http://www.bookofjob.org) as supplementary or background material for your study of theodicy. It is written by a Canadian criminal defense lawyer, now a Crown prosecutor, and it explores the legal and moral dynamics of the Book of Job with particular emphasis on the distinction between causal responsibility and moral blameworthiness embedded in Job’s Oath of Innocence. It is highly praised by Job scholars (Clines, Janzen, Habel) and the Review of Biblical Literature, all of whose reviews are on the website. The author is an evangelical Christian, denominationally Anglican. He is also the Canadian Director for the Mortimer J. Adler Centre for the Study of the Great Ideas, a Chicago-based think tank.

Robert Sutherland

Anonymous said...

Dear Carl,
Thank you for attempting to answer my question. Your response has put my mind into a quandary. I have have been inclined towards the notion that where I am today is where I am supposed to be, implying that there is a divine plan or purpose for every human being through life's challenges.
Following from your proposition, by allowing "creation's freedom", God has inadvertently (or not) introduced randomness of events/tragedies into the human realm. If this is so, then where I am today (with cancer) might possibly be the result of a random event. So essentially it boils down to the luck of the draw. And as such, there can be no purpose to life or life's struggles.
It is pretty obvious that there can never be an answer.
The only thing left is perhaps to have faith in God. I am not really sure what that means. So maybe someday you can write about what it means and how to maintain one's faith. Christine

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Carl, this is an important point. I don't think that you can reach the answer from a conventional point of view. What happened in the Garden of Eden was not that we chose "evil". The choice was to eat the fruit of the "knowledge of good and evil." Maybe it is a mistake to think of this as a conscious choice -- but the world we live in since Eden is a world of extremes -- this and that, me and you, good and evil, night and day.

It is possible to think of a god that is the opposite of evil, but it would be a narrow, pinched vision of a god. What is harder to understand is the God that is greater than good and evil. I think that it is possible to know this God.

When you have a pure act of charity and feel warmth and joy for someone else without thought of yourself, I think that that experience approaches the experience of God. Of course, because we are human, we immediately and habitually try to own that experience and we say "Aren't I a good person." But that second thought (which you could say is selfish or evil) is not the opposite of the pure experience of charity. I don't think that it is necessary to even call the second thought evil -- it is more like a mistake.

It is very hard to relax into this experience of God. It's particularly hard to understand in the midst of suffering. But I don't think that it is impossible. I think that you can work through to it with prayer. For example, instead of thinking "why me?" it is possible to pray "may I through this suffering understand better the suffering of others." Or you could even pray "thank you that I experience this and not another." It is a little artificial to do this -- but I think that if you pray this way with a good heart it can very gradually over time loosen the orientation toward putting self first.

I think that one thing that it's important to remember is that the first thought (the experience of God) is not the thought that needs to be created. It is the second thought that needs to be let go.

These are just my thoughts -- in Christian terms (I apologize if I've used them in a wrong way). I think it is worthwhile to try to figure this out.

Anonymous said...

I like your previous blog entry - affirming that imperfect life (life with cancer, stress, financial woes, etc.) is still life that is good . . . you note that you're picking up Ania (implying it's all worth living).

And in today's blog, your metaphors and explanations are helpful in understanding how we use the word "good". I can say, for instance, that my daughters are "good people", but that doesn't imply they are flawless!

Yet I was struck by your elevation of "freedom" in a way I'm not sure I've seen elsewhere. (Tho I'm not that well-read to assume it's not out there!)

Romans 8:28, as it's often paraphrased (that "God [can] bring good out of any circumstances") kept popping into my mind. That's probably where I would have gone to answer Christine. But your "resting" in the good of life, as you described God resting, seems to be a place where 8:28 isn't really needed. That's a peaceful place . . . more rooted in the present than in the future, or in the need to find meaning in every misfortune.

A state that is worth pondering . . . even striving for. -Robin

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Yes, Vance, tov - like many Hebrew words - has a range of meanings.

The philosophical concept of absolute good, which excludes any sort of evil, is probably more of a Greek concept than a Hebrew one.

Carl

Carlos ("Carl") said...

Christine,

Once again, I've responded by writing a new blog entry.

Thanks for your responses, which surely have set me to thinking.

Carl

Carlos ("Carl") said...

What a wonderful array of responses this topic has evoked! Thanks to the anonymous writer who posted the comment describing God as greater than good and evil.

Now, there's a thought. I've long seen it a fruitful direction, in addressing theological problems related to the nature of God, to interject that God created time and the universe, and is therefore outside of time and the universe.

You suggest that God, who is "greater than good and evil," is outside of good and evil as well. I'm not sure that works for me in quite the same way as saying God is outside of time and the universe. Unlike time, good arises out of the very nature of God. I'd prefer to see the good in the universe as coming directly from God. I'll have to give that one some more thought.

Good point, BTW, about "the knowledge of good and evil" in Genesis. In observing that Adam and Eve chose evil, I was summarizing a prevailing historical interpretation, not describing what the text actually says. It does make a huge difference to emphasize the literal meaning ("the KNOWLEDGE of good and evil"). What this means, I think, is the divine capacity to judge - for, what does a judge do (or, in the ancient world, a divinely-ordained king) but render judgment in cases that call for the judge or king to decide what is really good or evil? In taking the fruit, Adam and Eve were not so much opening the door to some esoteric, forbidden knowledge, but were rather attempting to play God in making themselves into independent moral agents. That's how the earliest listeners to this story would have understood it, I think. Later commentators missed that point.

I love the image of "relaxing into the experience of God."

Carl