Day Three - What's Your Story?
This post in a tweet:
To live within the story is to live both with faith and with frustration. But the story gives us a world in which we can keep living.
Previously, on Post Modern:
- A Graduate-Level Class Called “Providence and Suffering”
- Day One: Evil and Theodicy in Modern Thought
- Day Two: Providence
Humans have been doing theodicy for a long time. That is, in the face of evil, humans have been trying to find meaning to help them face despair. On day three Dr. Hicks suggested that identifying the bigger story of which you are a part is one way to find hope in the context of suffering and despair. Here’s my attempt to recount the story.
Claiming the Biblical Narrative
God created a good world. Good, but not perfect—at least not in the sense that there is no evil, death, or chaos. But still very good. There is darkness as well as light. There is chaotic “sea” and there is ordered land. Chaos is restrained, managed, “separated,” but still present. This is the creation God provides. Human vocation is to live and work in the context of this creation in such a way that we do good and bring order out of chaos. The point of being made in the image of God is to be like the Creator and do things like the Creator does. For example, computer programmers, civil engineers, medical doctors, scientists, garbage collectors—all are participating in the mission of God to bring order out of chaos.
Then, God rests.
Rest isn’t about God withdrawing from creation. Rest is about enjoying it, dwelling in it, and deciding to participate with God’s creatures in the ongoing task of creation. In one sense, God resting provides the opportunity for humans to become more fully human. That is, if part of what it means to be human is to have dominion over creation, to work order out of chaos, God must provide the opportunity for that to happen. The opportunity is, of course, a double-edged sword. While it allows for humans to reflect the image of God, it also allows humanity to reject the image of God, doing non-God things, and so diminishing their humanity. It’s clear that God’s creation project is a risky project. So it’s fair to question whether the project is worth it.
To What End, God?
God creates intending a shared creation in which God dwells with humanity. The entire story serves the end of including humanity in the orbit of God’s love. God is, by nature, a loving community in Godself (think, the Trinity) and wants to include humans in that community. A good picture of this is Jesus’s prayer that his followers would be one with God, just as Jesus is (see John 17:20-26). The final chapters of the Bible paint the picture of a renewed creation, in which God dwells with humanity. In the new heaven and new earth there is no longer any suffering, mourning, or death. There is no night. There is no chaos. God makes all things new. The project was worth it.
The Story Continues with a Human Cast
Instead of bringing order out of chaos as God intends, human activity intensifies chaos. Both human chaos and natural chaos swell. Yet even from the beginning of the story, it’s clear that God stays present in the midst of the chaos. God is active in such a way as to give the moment meaning, whether that helps humans to mature, to love, to redeem, or to become more fully human.
Chaos escalates to such an extent that God alters God’s strategy. While God will still work with humans to bring about completion to creation, God chooses one family in particular to be the vehicle for God’s blessing. God blesses Abraham with God’s presence, in order to share that presence with all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3). Israel is to do the same thing as a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6). That is, the whole nation should carry God’s presence to the rest of the world. The presence of God comes to dwell in Israel’s tent (Exodus 40) and temple (2 Chronicles 7). When Israel is exiled, God’s presence abandons the temple (Ezekiel 10).
Jesus’s coming about six centuries later is interpreted as God’s presence among the people in human form (i.e. Incarnation). It’s God filling the temple (that is, Earth) in a new way. Jesus is a walking holy of holies. The “full image of God” (Colossians 1:15). He’s a new temple.
God always worked to be present in the world in redemptive ways. God always spent time transforming people into royal priests to communicate God to the world. In the Incarnation, God empathizes with humanity like never before. God comes in the flesh to share the human experience. God knows what it’s like to be hungry, thirsty, tempted, betrayed, mocked, and tortured. God knows what it’s like to weep. God knows what it’s like to die. Not just as an outsider watching someone else, but as an insider, experiencing it in God’s own life.
In the midst of brokenness, corruption, suffering, and death God works something new. Experiencing all of it, God brings about the first signs of New Creation in the resurrected Jesus. Followers of Jesus suffer, but now they do so in community. The suffering in community isn’t meaningless because of a shared hope for justice. And resurrection is the sign that in Jesus God has begun to put things right. Just as it has been from the beginning, so now God invites humanity to participate with the Divine in the process of putting things right. So the suffering community suffers with hope, working justice with God.
So What? Hope.
The narrative gives hope. The suffering community prays to the God of hope to fill it with joy and peace even as they try to trust that this has really happened. Paul gauged how hope affected the Christian community in the empire’s biggest city:
I pray that the God who gives hope will fill you with much joy and peace as you trust in him. Then you will have more and more hope, and it will flow out of you by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).
The presence of hope is grounded in the fact that God has poured love into human hearts by the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of hope is also rooted in the formation of character. The presence of love in our hearts yields endurance, perseverance, character, and hope. It’s the experiential dimension of presence of the Spirit that energizes and propels our endurance, movement, character formation, so that we have authentic hope. Authentic hope gives way to life. (Romans 5:1-5 connects the dots).
We won’t always feel the hope. It’s something that is forged over time, which is why the story is so important to rehearse. Hope sprouts from a cognitive expectation and grows into a heart-felt experience.
It’s the story of God in which we find ourselves. To live within the narrative is to live with faith, and still to live with frustration, anger, and bitterness because enduring life is not easy. But the story gives us a framework in which one can work through suffering. It’s a story that gives us a world in which to keep living: Living with hope in the midst of despair.
I Bet You Disagree with Parts of my Take on the Story
I’d love to read and re-read the biblical narrative with you. I know we’ll disagree on pieces of it. Genesis, especially, was written with this sort of constant rereading in mind. Genesis 1-11 is a theological masterpiece. Depth of insight. Beautiful poetry. Literal commentary on the most profound mysteries. Theological truth.
The point is not just to get the story right. Having the “right theology” is not only an improbable goal, getting it right doesn’t in and of itself comfort a sufferer. What is able to comfort is to claim the story and then to lament in the context of that story. This is why it is of utmost importance that faith communities practice identifying the narrative they’re a part of and create space for lament in the context of the narrative (more on this on Day Four).
An Example: Psalm 104
Psalm 104 is a poetic rendition of the creation story and what it means to be alive in a good creation filled also with chaos. Read Psalm 104, and pay special attention to verses 27-35. I suggest reading it in a version you might not usually read from, like the ERV.
God creates. God provides food and shelter, both for utility and for joy. Life has a natural rhythm. Life depends on the death of something else. Inhale leads to exhale. Life gives way to death. And out of death God breathes renewed life. God, whose name is Yahweh, is responsible for this.
The psalmist recognizes his own mortality at 104:33 with “as long as I live” and “all my life.” Those words are an acknowledgement of death. But in the creation in which he finds himself, he decides to rejoice in Yahweh. Just as he prays that Yahweh will accept his meditation, so also he prays that human chaos will be consumed. In a sense, by praying this prayer the psalmist is acting with God to rein chaos in and live with purpose. That is the function of the narrative.
We recognize we are mortal, thus acknowledging death. But within the narrative, creation is still a good, purpose-filled place to live.