“.. what the Christian should see.. is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deists, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent God and the intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor certainly ‘nature’ in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that word. Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply ‘nature’ but ‘creation,’ an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed trough the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.
Christians sometimes find it exceedingly difficult to adopt the cosmological idiom of the New Testament, and while this is understandable in many respects, it can also yield extremely unfortunate results. It is strange enough that the skeptic demands of Christians that they account for evil – physical and moral – in a way that draws a perfectly immediate connection between the will of God for his creatures and the conditions of earthly life; it is stranger still when Christians attempt to oblige…
Perhaps no doctrine strikes non-Christians as more insufferably fabulous than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness, and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God…”
– David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea
Hart’s book is a response to the devastating 2004 tsunami and his words are as important now as they were then. The so-called “problem of evil” is difficult especially in response to natural disasters with which one cannot run to the earnest but doomed free-will defense. There’s much to reflect on from the above selection, but I want to focus on the crescendo. Hart believes that the eschatological vision of the New Testament has been lost or reinterpreted. This reinterpretation of the “insufferably fabulous” is not merely by the likes of Bultmann and his heirs, but by most who would call themselves Christian. While many have heard sermons claiming that the ongoing drama has two actors (God and sinful humanity), the New Testament tells a different story.
“I have been talking about the un-free will for thirty years and have never had a single person agree with me on my first attempt. People instinctively rise up against the idea. I repeat, I have not experienced a single instance, in thirty years, of anyone immediately agreeing with me that the human will is not free. (In fact, the only people who display any receptivity at all to the idea are alcoholics and criminals. And even criminals behind bars want to go back to “free-will” once they are settled into prison existence.) When I speak of the un-free will, most people wish to have a duel with me and leave me, like Alexander Hamilton at Weehawken, inert on the ground.
Often when the subject of the un-free will comes up, people jump ahead of my claim. They think I am talking about predestination. They think I mean Pavlov and little dogs with bells and shocks. They think I am trying to corner them into some kind of idea that makes people into puppets. To this I say, ‘you’re ahead of the game. I am talking about one thing, and one thing only: how people actually act and whether they are under compulsion in certain situations. Please don’t talk to me about puppets until you have answered me about addicts.’”
-Paul F.M. Zahl Grace in Practice: A Theology for Everyday Life
Despite the question of human freedom and the will normally taking place in the context of conversations about predestination, Zahl rightly argues that the un-free will is the precondition for having compassion for humanity. A theology of everyday life that is faced by the desperate bondage people are subject to (bondage not only to flesh and blood but also to the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this present age Eph. 6:12) must begin with the irrepressible cry of “Help me!” The un-free will rightly understood doesn’t lead to disgust and contempt for others or myself but an utter dependence on the good and loving God who rescues.
Ernst Käsemann, in Jesus Means Freedom,writes:
“God’s will is no secret, at least in so far as it concerns love and one’s brother. The creator whom one can play off against the creature is a fake god, and false gods rob even pious people of their humanity, as is shown times without number in the church’s history. We need to keep this very firmly fixed in our minds today. There are Christians who cry down others in the name of a theology of the resurrection, and yet at the same time – with certain reservations, of course – feel able to justify the use of the atomic bomb. It sounds plausible: a bit of genocide and word-wide destruction contrived by men is no great matter to those who are looking only to the new world. But with all their hope of resurrection, such Christians blaspheme against God who, in Jesus, sought man for the purpose of helping him not merely in the next world, but here and now. It is in this context, if anywhere, that we ought to hear, reflect on, and preach, ‘No one can serve two masters’. We cannot serve God if we are no longer concerned for our fellow men.”
Käsemann is not being dramatic. He writes in the wake of German Christianity’s overwhelming support of the Nazi regime. It is simply not enough to have orthodox theology on your side. A Nazi can recite the Nicene Creed before pledging allegiance to Hitler. We now look at Germany’s endorsement of genocide with bewilderment, but do we find ourselves worshiping a god of caprice? We forget our idols are often elusive when we (and those who surround us) frequent their temples.
This deceased New Testament scholar is clear: the god who supports dehumanization of others is an idol. Who will you serve today, God or Mammon?
Hey, thanks for checking out Dogmatic Work. This is a blog run by Ethan Taylor and Elliot VanHoy. We’re two theology students in Anderson, South Carolina. We wanted a place for us to work out the thoughts and conversations we’ve been having. Nothing here is original. It will all be thoughts about thoughts from thinkers that far surpass anything we are capable of on our own. This will be a place where we interact with books we’ve read and occasionally make constructive thoughts alongside them.
We think what you believe about God is of the utmost importance. These beliefs affect the way we speak about God, the texts we read about God, and the communities in which we worship God. This is why it is Dogmatic Work. We want to bring different strands of theology into critical conversation. We’re looking forward to getting some content up soon.