Monday, March 28, 2011

The Wrath of God?

[Based on sermons given at St John's, Toorak, Lent 3 2011]

Psalm 95, the Venite of liturgical tradition, tells of the rebellion against God at Massah and Meribah by the Israelites, who had been led out of Egypt but complained (Exod 17). The Psalmist boldly speaks for God:
For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways." Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."
Does God get angry? In some parts of the Church the answer is more than simply “yes”; rather it seems essential to God’s being. The 18th century New England preacher Jonathan Edwards famously discoursed on the fate of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:
God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
This picture of a sadistic cosmic dictator remains influential, however distant it is from biblical tradition or basic morality. There are forms of Christianity which teach (to parody John 3:16) that God hates the world so much that he gave his only son so that an arbitrary-chosen few who believe in him might avoid eternal agony. Or, more commonly but equally perniciously, it may be suggested that a loving Christ was sacrificed to “satisfy” the wrath of an angry Father. Such divinities would seem to need time on the heavenly psychotherapist's couch.

Rightly, other theologians have sought to distance the authentic Christian message from this position. But the alternatives are not always adequate, and can fail to acknowledge adequately why we needed a Gospel in the first place. The notion that things are fine and that Jesus is a well-integrated person or wise moral teacher who offers optional maxims for self-fulfilment is an equally unsatisfactory view. In the 1950s, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr spoke acidly of some forms of Christianity which narrated a sort of Gospel the opposite of Edwards’, in which “a God without wrath brought men [sic] without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Some of the most influential talk of divine wrath appears in the Letter of Paul to the Romans:
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath [of God].
The New Revised Standard Version just cited takes a risk in deliberately mistranslating Romans 5:9, when it says that “we will be saved through him from the wrath of God”. The original text says merely “wrath”.

This is an important distinction, obviously. Paul speaks relatively often of “wrath” in this absolute way – for him “wrath” has an objective reality, like the elements or gravity. The translators are probably seeking to avoid the impression that we are saved from our own or each others’ wrath, rather than something outside ourselves, adding "of God". But Paul's omission is hardly accidental.

Only once, earlier in the Letter to the Romans, does Paul attribute this wrath to God: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth”.

Paul does mean that there is such a thing as a “wrath” linked to God, which is a real consequence of sin; but he also makes it clear in this same passage that this is not the essential character of God’s relationship to us; “God proves his love for us” by saving us from this. Paul does assert clearly the reality and difficulty of that “wrath”. It is an inescapable aspect of human life as we know it, that Paul does not seek to attribute to any lesser force than God. But God has “wrath”, as you and I understand it, in the same sense that God has eyes or ears – not at all, strictly speaking, but more profoundly than we do, in another sense.

So it will not do to suggest that the affirmation of God’s love has to be balanced or qualified by affirmation of God’s justice or wrath. God’s character is love, not wrath; but we must also acknowledge how distant the world’s present reality is from God’s loving purpose. This is what that “wrath” is about. Just as we experience frustration and anger when what we know to be right and true does not immediately or fully appear in lived reality, so too we acknowledge the difference between how we are and how we live and God’s purpose. This painful and destructive distance, and its consequences, are what Paul calls “wrath”.

In their respective ways, Paul, the Psalmist, and even Jonathan Edwards, are grappling with this gap between God’s loving desire for us and our welfare, and the world’s and our failure to respond to God as we are called to do. But this "wrath" is not the mark of a God bent on doing us harm, but the characteristic of God who is love, and who wills an end to all that is false and unjust. Wrath and justice are not principles that qualify or balance the affirmation that God is love (a biblical idea, unlike any assertion of “essential” wrath), but its corollaries. Any idea of “wrath” that cannot be derived from and compatible with that God whose first and last reality is love must be opposed and exposed for its falsity and danger.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Last Temptation

One of the more interesting moments at last year’s Synod for our Anglican Diocese of Melbourne came when a motion concerning Lenten observance was proposed by members including delegates from a prominent evangelical parish. In part it requested that Synod:

[ask] parishes and other agencies to encourage their parishioners and members to abstain from the consumption of alcohol during the Lenten season, as together we acknowledge and deeply reflect on the harm being inflicted on individuals and our society through alcohol abuse.

Many of you will have heard of this initiative, and I am sure some are participating in it, directly or indirectly, as part of your Lenten discipline. Although it is commendable, it raises some questions about the forms and the motives for Lenten discipline.

Jesus’ own extraordinary fast, which is held up to us in the Gospel as the model for our Lenten discipline, is a preparation for his ministry which was for us all, but not in itself something for anyone else but him. He doesn't go around Nazareth signing up sponsors. And the immediate results of his fast are ambiguous at best. His temptations actually follow his fast, brought on by his heroic discipline, not avoided through it.

In T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral, Archbishop Thomas à Becket faces temptations like those of Jesus. Pleasure and power in various forms are predictably offered. The last however is the temptation to do precisely what he must – accept a martyr’s death - but to do so seeking glory and power, even past death. “The last temptation”, Eliot's Thomas reflects, “is the greatest treason; to do the right thing for the wrong reason”.

Despite the lack of acknowledged values deeper than material prosperity in our public discourse (and the tragi-comic seasonal sensitivities that have Easter Eggs and Hot Cross Buns in the stores before Lent has even begun) Australians do have our secular equivalents to Christian spiritual discipline. Recently many participated in FebFast, a secular program whose name makes an obvious reference to the idea of “fasting”, and in which participants give up alcohol for the shortest month of the year “for your waistline, your wallet and your liver!” as the website puts it, but also clearly with a view to raising funds for programs supporting those with alcohol and drug dependency problems.

Intriguingly, the motion to encourage Melbourne Anglicans to give up alcohol for Lent looks as though it was inspired at least in part by FebFast; and now the Anglican initiative is even listed under the FebFast website, under the odd and redundant title of “LentFast”(!). So ironically the secular recognition of the value of seasonal restraint seems to have been what inspired some Anglicans to consider the value of this discipline.

A sense of our responsibility to others is part of spiritual discipline; fasting and other practices of self-denial do need a broader context than just interiority. Fasting also does have many potential meanings, some of them unhelpful, and we need to think hard about what we use it for; but we cannot limit it to any single issue. "LentFast" could just as easily have focussed on (say) the symbolic connection between giving up certain foods and the reality of world hunger, or many other equivalents. "LentFast" risks turning an ancient and abiding tradition into another here-today-gone-tomorrow program wherein the Church desperately chases after secular cultural relevance. Yet it deserves to be taken seriously and thankfully; and who knows, perhaps we may hope it will eventually lead to the observance of...Lent?

Fasting will not in itself bring us closer to God, but may bring other forces and choices closer too. Fasting creates a space, a physical and spiritual pause from consumption, in which body and mind can be redirected, reshaped. How we reshape them, and for what purpose, is another question.

What Lent always raises, as it raises for Jesus, is the issue: who we are, what we are here for, and what choices we will make going forward with our own lives. We can train ourselves for secular virtue, or physical fitness; we can seek to shape ourselves inwardly or outwardly for self-focussed or narcissistic ends; or we can seek to open ourselves to the way God’s spirit might reshape us to accompany Jesus on the way of the cross.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

After the Earthquake

[Sermon given at Evensong in the Chapel of Trinity College, March 6 2011.]

On All Saints Day, November 1st 1755, the city of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake. Tens of thousands of people died in the tremor and the following tsunami and fires. The impression the Lisbon earthquake made on European intellectual history was parallel to its physical impact. Philosopher Susan Neiman suggests that the history of western thought took much of its subsequent shape from reflection on these events and on the problem of evil and suffering they raised; as she says, “the eighteenth century used the word Lisbon much as we use the word Auschwitz.”

Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant were all deeply influenced by the horror of the Lisbon earthquake, and wrote at length on what it said about the nature of the world. At a time when there was no existing conception of seismology, and an earthquake might well have been regarded as the result of divine intervention rather than of the makeup of the earth itself, the questions ranged across what we would now regard as quite different ways of thinking about the event; so Kant, for instance, began not only to develop his thoughts about the mystery of discerning any divine purpose, but speculated on the natural causes of earthquakes, making in the process a real contribution to the emergence of seismology.

These two strands of enquiry, of the meaning of things and of the mechanisms behind them, have become more and more separate realms of reflection. In the recent past the Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould defended this separation, speaking of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”. He was right to insist that religion is not what its most vociferous current critics suggest in dismissing it; that is, it is not a form of or alternative to scientific explanation, although in pre-modern times and in some contemporary settings it has functioned as that as well. Rather religion is a way of seeking meaning in events, persons and objects; and meaning cannot be reduced to knowledge of the way things have happened.

Yet Gould may overstate the point; for while science and religion have distinct concerns, their interests do at least intersect. Religion and science are both concerned with the lives we lead as embodied beings. If we cannot bring awe as well as curiosity to the natural world, we are the poorer; and on the other hand if we cannot subject the intellectual and ethical dimensions of faith to scrutiny as we learn more about the world in which we seek to craft our lives faithfully, we are also impoverished.

Lisbon is far away, but Christchurch is not. These events are particularly disruptive to our peace of mind, not merely because of their geographical proximity and cultural affinity, but because the victims are members of our own world, a world that we are meant to be able to control. But this control is an illusion; 200 people may have died in New Zealand, but last year 316,000 died in the earthquake in Haiti. The natural sciences have shed more light on seismology, but not yet enough to prevent a Christchurch earthquake; they have probed more intimate mysteries of the human person such as were involved in the discovery of penicillin, but not so as to remove the fundamental question of suffering and mortality.

And our dilemma as embodied beings who live in a world where earthquakes and floods take place has taken on an additional dimension; for while we may still be shaken by the threat of natural disaster, at this point in history nature may have more to fear from us than we from her.

So, more than in the past there is a deep affinity and parallelism between the ambiguity of human life, with the inescapable reality of suffering and mortality that accompanies seamlessly the indescribable joys of live and love, and the state of nature itself, where beauty and terror exist, and which is vulnerable as well as threatening to us. These questions are not merely those of a quest for meaning, but also of a quest for survival.

The biblical story of the great flood, whose end is told in the first reading tonight, assumes the pre-Kantian view of disasters as the direct result of divine intervention, cosmologically speaking. It offers a happy ending of sorts, more poignant today perhaps in Kerang or Toowoomba than in some other places, assuring the reader of an ultimately benign creator. Yet scripture itself offers other perspectives; the Book of Job famously considers suffering as mysterious, and counsels a wisdom of acceptance, rather than untoward optimism.

In the Letter to the Romans from which we also heard this evening, St Paul depicts the created order itself as experiencing a yearning or struggle for redemption and fulfilment parallel to that in human life. “The creation waits with eager longing…groaning in labour pains until now…” Paul does not view the world as a contained system in which God occasionally intervenes as for Genesis, nor even as mysteriously reflecting the will of an inscrutable creator to whose good purposes we should resign ourselves, like Job; rather he acknowledges the reality of a world in which suffering takes its place with joy, but puts that ambiguity in the perspective of hope. For Paul, God is not the answer to the question of cosmic origins, but to the question of the cosmic future; God is not offered as explanation of our state of being, but offers us a view of life lived in hope. Although it is not Paul's subject in the few lines quoted, it is the cross of Jesus, God’s willingness to enter into this ambiguity and to undergo death, which serves to offer us the key to living and believing this hope.

Faith is, then, not refusing a scientific world-view in favour of a pre-modern one. It is in essence a lived attitude to the world; a world whose workings are revealed to us by science, but whose beauty and terror, power and fragility, must be apprehended by faith and confronted in hope.