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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

He Who Made the Sea



Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.
- Revelation 21:1

Still fresh from thinking of Hart's The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, I came across a 2005 article by N.T. Wright - God, 9/11, the Tsunami, and the New Problem of Evil - that spoke of some of the same issues. It begins with the surprising (to me) information that in Revelation's new world, there will be no more sea and continues on to an atonement solution to evil which I must admit I don't really find very satisfactory ... perhaps I'm not understanding it? The article is very long and dense, so I've just pasted bits from it below ...

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In the new heaven and new earth, according to Revelation 21, there will be no more sea. Many people feel disappointed by this.

The sea is a perennial delight, at least for those who don’t have to make a living on it. What is going on? The sea is part of the original creation, part of the world of which God says that it is “very good.” But already by the story of Noah the flood poses a threat to the creation, with Noah and his floating zoo rescued by God’s grace. From within the good creation itself come forces of chaos, harnessed to enact God’s judgment ... This sets the biblical context for any reflection on what happened on December 26 last year ....

1. The Inadequate Old View of Evil
The older ways of talking about evil tended to pose the puzzle as a metaphysical or theological conundrum. If there is a god, and if he is a good, wise and supremely powerful god, why is there such a thing as evil? Even if you’re an atheist, you face the problem: Is this world a sick joke, which contains some things that make us think it’s a wonderful place, and other things which make us think it’s an awful place, or what? You could of course call this the problem of good, rather than the problem of evil: If the world is the chance assembly of accidental phenomena, why is there so much that we want to praise and celebrate? Why is there beauty, love, and laughter?

The problem of evil in its present metaphysical form has been around for at least two and a half centuries. The Lisbon earthquake on All Saints’ Day 1755 shattered the easy optimism, the straightforward natural theology, of the previous generation. The wrestlings of the great enlightenment thinkers — Voltaire, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel — can be understood as ways of coping with evil. And when we come further forward to Marx and Nietzsche, and to the 20-century thinkers, not least Jewish thinkers, who have wrestled with the question of meaning following the Holocaust, we find a continuous thread of philosophical attempts to say what has to be said about the world as a whole and about evil within it.

Unfortunately the line of thought which has emerged from this at a popular level is least satisfactory. I refer to the doctrine of progress .... Humans themselves deconstruct; you can’t escape evil, in postmodernity, but there is nobody to take the blame. There is no moral dignity left. To shoulder responsibility is the last virtue left open to those who have forsworn all other kinds; to have even that disallowed is to reduce human beings to mere ciphers; and most of us, not least the genuine victims of crime and abuse, find that both counterintuitive and disgusting. Furthermore, postmodernity’s analysis of evil allows for no redemption .... This sends us back to the Bible itself. What has it got to say about all this?

2. The Biblical Analysis of Evil, and of God’s Answer
There are three things to say by way of introduction to this sketch of a biblical response to the new problem of evil.

First, there are no easy answers, in Scripture or elsewhere. If we think we’ve “solved” the problem of evil, that just shows that we haven’t understood it. We cannot say, with that dreadful hymn, that “all our pain is good.” That induces a moral chaos worse than that offered by Job’s comforters. Nor can we say that evil is good after all because it provides a context for moral effort and even heroism, as though we could get God off the hook by making the world a theatre where God sets up little plays to give his characters a chance to show how virtuous they really are. That is trivializing to the point of blasphemy. So, first, no easy answers.

Second, the line between good and evil does not lie between “us” and “them,” between the West and the rest, between left and right, between rich and poor. That fateful line runs down the middle of each of us, every human society, every individual ...

...Third ... What help then can we find in the Bible? We have already seen that the sea, both in itself and in its symbolic significance, is simultaneously part of God’s good creation and part of the continuing source of chaos and terror. We should also note, to glance ahead to the very end of the story, that God declares throughout Scripture that he is going to put the world to rights at the last ...The biblical imagery of judgment insists over and over again that God will put the world to rights and wipe away every tear from every eye.

But how is this to come about? .... that leads us to the heart of this lecture. The moment when the sinfulness of humankind grieved God to his heart, the moment when the Servant was despised and rejected, the moment when Job asked God why it had to be that way, all came together when the Son of Man knelt, lonely and afraid, before going to face the might of the beasts that had come up out of the sea ...

3. Jesus
... we need to re-read the Gospels as what they are. People often observe that there is not that much “atonement-theology” in the Gospels. Mark’s “theology of the cross” often seemed to be reduced to one key verse, 10:45, which speaks of the Son of Man coming “to give his life a ransom for many.” ....

But when we read the Gospels in a more holistic fashion ... They tell the story of how the evil in the world — political, social, personal, moral, emotional — reached its height; and they tell how God’s long-term plan for Israel — and for himself! — finally came to its climax. And they tell both of these stories in and as the story of how Jesus of Nazareth announced God’s kingdom and went to his violent death .... What the Gospels offer is not a philosophical explanation of evil, what it is or why it’s there, but the story of an event in which the living God deals with it ...

The Gospels then pose the question to us at every level, questions about what we have called the atonement as well as questions about what we have called the problem of evil. Dare we stand in front of the cross and admit that all that was done for us? Dare we take all the meanings of the word “God” and allow them to be re-centered upon, redefined by, this man, this moment, this death? Dare we take the chaos of the dark forces within our own selves and allow Jesus to rebuke them as he rebuked the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee? Dare we address the consequences of what Jesus himself said, that the rulers of the world behave in one way, but that we must not do it like that? Dare we thus put atonement theology and political theology together, with the deeply personal message on one side and the utterly practical and political message on the other, and turn away from the way of James and John, the way of calling down fire from heaven on our enemies, and embrace the way of Jesus himself? Dare we live out the message of God’s restorative justice, claiming the victory of the cross not only over the obvious wickednesses of the world but over the wickednesses of those who want to fight fire with fire, to bring a solution by creating further problems? And dare we stand at the foot of the cross, feeling the storm clouds darken overhead and the earth tremble beneath our feet, and pray once more for God to finish his new creation, to make the wolf and the lamb lie down together, to bid the mighty waves of the sea be still and depart for good, to establish the new heavens and new earth in which justice and joy will dwell for ever? ...

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- N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, at Westminster Abbey


4 Comments:

Anonymous Liam said...

Crystal,

You're certainly posting some heady stuff, and o that I had the time to give the subject the consideration it deserves.

We've talked before about a more optimistic Franciscan view of the Incarnation against an Anselmian view of atonement. I wonder some times if it's possible to combine the two. I think the idea of atonement, like the idea of original sin, is useful, although only if not taken in the most literal of senses. Everything from the Tsumani to our current political leadership leads me to believe that we are living in a world that is, in some sense, fallen.

Still, I don't think that imaging literal wagers between God and the devil, or imagining that we are literally suffering from a sin of disobedience committed by a very distant ancestor is either comforting or helpful -- or even makes sense. I do, however, think that there is meaning there about the existence of evil, we just need to reconsider it in a more imaginative way.

Also, as much as I find the greatest meaning in the coming of Christ in the Incarnation itself, I also don't like feeling that the cross was just a footnote to the Incarnation, or just a local political consequence of Jesus' teachings. I think that to be truly human, God had to suffer. Not in payment for sins, but perhaps in solidarity of suffering.

Do I know why? No.

I am rambling. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

10:50 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Liam,

I agree with you about the integration of those two sides of the issue.

In the beginning of the spiritual exercises, there's a time when you meditate on the sins of the world, throughout history, and then meditate on the sins of your whole life. It's medieval, yes, because we don't now encourage people to dwell on the negative, and for people who already have a damaged sense of self, it helps to have a spiritual director to guide them ...

but that meditation made me think that human nature does seem capable of real badness (real goodness too), and it isn't really getting much better over time, and I'm right in there with the worst of it. So like you I see the world as "fallen".

I do think Jesus' death is meaningful, beyond just his teachings. It seems to me like a committment to us, even in the face of torture and death, to tell the truth, to love until the end, to hold nothing back, as proof of what God is really like.

There's a story I heard once about a guy who fell in a deep hole and couldn't get out. He asked everyone who passed by to help him, but no one really did. A doctor went by and threw down a prescription. A priest went by and threw down a prayer, etc. Finally a friend of his came by ... he jumped down in the hole with the man. The man said - are you crazy, now we're both down here. His friend said - it's ok. I've been down here before and I know the way out.

Maybe Jesus is like the friend who jumped into the hole with us.

I don't really understand it all but I want to more than almost anything. Sorry to go on so long :-)

12:00 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

You have such a gentle way of expressing yourself, Crystal. I enjoy your blog a lot. You are one intelligent young woman.

I do not understand why there is evil when we have a God who is supposed to be all powerful and all good and all loving. I do not understand it and I have decided that I may be wasting my time trying to understand it. It is better for me anyway to accept that the contradiction exists, at least according to my perception, and use my time and energy attempting to eradicate as much evil as I possibly can and repair as much as possible the damage it causes.

I think that God works through human beings in eradicating evil. I think this is our mission as human beings. I count as evil man's inhumanity to man, natural disasters, and disease. I believe over the course of human history we have accomplished a lot toward eradicating these evils. I admit we still have lots of work to do and it seems at times that when we solve one problem we create ten more. But, with God to inspire us, I remain hopeful. I suppose I could be classified as a religious humanist then. I hate labels though. They are too confining.

Thank you, Crystal, for providing such a stimulating blog.

9:30 PM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi SusieQ , thanks for the kind words. I agree with you about God working through people to help others ... I wouldn't mind a few miracles, though :-)

1:12 AM  

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