Turning God into a disaster area

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
3 Nov 2006

Nearly two years ago the tsunami in the Indian Ocean caused catastrophic damage to a major part of the world. Fourteen months ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged the US Gulf coast.

In recent months 'natural disasters' - all aided by human failings and grotesque inequalities - have also hit Guatemala, Bangladesh and a number of other areas, bringing devastation and heartache in their wake.

In everyday parlance and on some insurance policies (for those lucky enough to have them), such incidents are often referred to as 'acts of God'. The term is derived from ancient convictions that nature's ways must somehow reflect divine wrath or blessing.

To grow in reasoned understanding, spiritual perception and theological wisdom is to learn, of course, that things are never that simple, and therefore (thankfully) cannot be that deliberately cruel either.

It is axiomatic for mature theology that God, being God (and not some 'entity' that fits into our human frame of calculation), can never to be straightforwardly identified with nature, nor indeed with any kind of thing, personal interest, community, agency or event in our world of cause-and-effect.

Rather, it is precisely because God defies all our controlling concepts, categories and rhetorical tricks that what gets termed 'the divine' is experienced by many of us to be the unconditioned and un-manipulateable core of our lives. Living in the expectation (but never the certainty) of God, the invitational beyond-in-our-midst, proves to be about gift without reserve, and therefore without the protection of a 'domineering potentate'.

For Christians, this truth is decisively pictured for us in the vulnerable flesh of Jesus, who in refusing the expected path of power and compulsion embodies the depth of a human life fully sustained and elevated by God's unrestricted, unforced presence - and whose last earthly cry is one of abandonment. (1)

Though not without its attendant problems (unsurprisingly), this is as far away as you could possibly get from the childish idea of God as a big school bully sanctioning his gang - the kind of image which, as Richard Dawkins is keen to remind us in The God Delusion and elsewhere, has all-too-often colonised the ill-disciplined imagination of many 'religious' people.

Of course, as Terry Eagleton and others have pointed out, while Dawkins is a great scientific communicator, he soon becomes an unsubtle and unreliable observer of that unwieldy collection of things dubbed 'religion'. He allows a totalising and rather blatantly evangelising atheism to overwhelm more careful or measured judgement. His a priori is that nuance and reason are impossible in this area - so he refuses to countenance them.

For example, while readily accusing others of 'mindless dogmatism', Dawkins appears (like Sam Harris) to think in the direction that all religion, without remainder or meaningful distinction, is finally deranged; so that someone like the former Bishop of Oxford (a card-carrying liberal) may rather implausibly be thought of as having more in common with a murderous jihadist than with his [Dawkins'] urbane self. So much for evidential reasoning, we might say.

But in spite of his invective and shortcomings, the good professor is still absolutely right to point to the alarming levels of harm and self-harm which 'faith' can produce, and to demand that religious people take this reality with utter seriousness.

The response of some Christian groups to natural and human disasters like AIDS, the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina provides ample evidence of the disturbingly dark and irrational side of faith to which Dawkins refers.

Indeed their talk of God using such occurrences to punish those they do not like serves to remind us just how vindictive, superficial, confused and facile our presumptions about God can be.

The difficulty is compounded by widespread public ignorance of even the basic categories of religious language (that it is inescapably metaphorical, for example), by the prominence of forms of religion that justify themselves through narrow zeal, and by the struggle of more thoughtful theologians to communicate in a sound-bite media culture.

This was well illustrated when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, ventured into 'the God quagmire' a few days after the 2004 Boxing Day tidal wave that killed some 300,000 and left millions destitute across Asia.

In a much-publicised (and misrepresented) article for the Sunday Telegraph, Dr Williams sought to offer unsentimentalised consolation (compassion) towards those impacted by the scale of suffering involved.

He did not do this by turning straight to intellectual arguments about what kind of God (or world!) we might really be believing in if we expected the natural order to be suspended in such circumstances, reasonable though that would have been to ask. He did it by seeking first to enter into the confusion people were feeling, and in that human context to point towards some resources of practical hope.

Yet even this proved surprisingly controversial. The Archbishop's necessary observation that prayer (seeking the re-valuation of things in the light of God) was not a magic wand, and that God was not - in Giles Fraser's apt paraphrase - 'a cosmic puppet-master', was greeted with indignity and incomprehension in some Christian quarters.

An influential US evangelical magazine accused Dr Williams of "selling short the faith" because he declined to repeat the superficial, pre-prepared slogans employed by routine apologists - which the writer assumed (wrongly) were what the dutiful Christian was supposed to offer back.

Meanwhile the London Evening Standard's Tim Lott spoke on behalf of many 'cultured despisers' who take it for granted that faith and logic are antonyms, when he asked, incredulously, what other kind of God there could possibly be apart from the one religious people improbably believe to be at their beck and call?

The answer, he declared, somewhat limiting the range of possibilities, was a God of transcendence and mystery who is therefore callously indifferent to humanity and creation. At least this fatally remote 'god' is a bit more believable, given the evidence of the world, Lott reckoned. And who could blame him, since he clearly thought these were the only choices?

However, the upshot of this kind of standoff between thought-free piety and under-resourced scepticism is that the God-question looks to be straightforwardly about either choosing to play with a child's comforter or opting instead for heroic despair. That, of course, is exactly how certain rigid believers and fervent anti-believers want it to be.

But for many others, this is a horribly misleading account. To us, the adult possibilities involved in the Christian narrative, and the extraordinary challenges it entails, seem so much greater than such superficial characterisations allow - basically, the reduction of God to a mere projection of our own yearnings, or the abandonment of God to an abstract, listless transcendentalism.

If the Gospel is to be believed - that is, construed thoughtfully as it asks us to consider something greater than can be definitively expressed within the world of object relations (2) - God is neither a metaphysical proposition competing for space within the human domain, nor a tribal deity who sponsors our religious fantasies and bolsters our egos.

Rather, as I have already suggested, God is better thought of as the kind of inviting, companionable, non-coercive and costly love that we encounter in Jesus; one who shows us in word and deed what it means to experience the world as a gift rather than a possession.

The life of Jesus, interpreted within the life of a self-giving community, proposes an 'answer' to the immense destruction brought on both by human malignity, and by the frightening contingency involved in the kind of universe where we are free to develop as persons rather than automatons. But it is not a theoretical one. It is the practical embracing of defeat in the direction of renewed life.

This is what the Cross is about. Not the sick sanctioning of violence, suffering, sacrifice and scapegoating - as Mel Gibson's film might falsely lead us to believe - but its confrontation, absorption and transformation by something more powerful. Divine love.

What makes this possible, reflective Christian experience tells us, is that the living God who is beyond our manufacture and manipulation nevertheless comes closer to us than breath, and signals hope beyond both life and death in what is spoken of as 'the raising of Jesus'.

We need to be very careful here, lest childish ways reassert themselves with a 'happy ending'. The resurrection, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out from the confines of his Nazi prison cell, is not the 'antidote' to death. It is not the resuscitation of a corpse or the reclamation of a disincarnate soul, but a glimpse of what it means for personal identity to be restored by and in God's sheer unrestrictedness.

An indication that this may be taken as other than mere projection lies in the poignant imagery of the New Testament, where the Risen One continues to bear the wounds inflicted on him. He embodies in a continuing presence, performed in the communities that gather to share his broken life, the unfathomable depth of divine resourcefulness in the face of non-negotiable tragedy.

Of course in trying to express this, I am already stretching language and imagination to breaking point, as some will be eager to retort. And inevitably, if what the Gospel is saying is true, our language will certainly fail us. It will demonstrate its corrigibility.

As Bonhoeffer rightly comments: "The 'beyond' of God is not the 'beyond' of our cognitive capacity. Epistemological transcendence has nothing to do with God's transcendence. God is 'beyond' [in] our lives. The church [should therefore be] found not where human capacity fails, at the limits, but rather in the middle of the village" (Letter from Tegel, 30 April 1944).

It is this rupture between human capacities and divine reality that marks the difference between the true God and enslaving idols in biblical thought. And the comprehensive failure of our 'god-concepts' is, indeed, what has happened in recent times, too.

From Ludwig Wittgenstein to Friedrich Nietzsche and from Martin Heidegger to Jacques Derrida, recent philosophy declares the death of the 'god of metaphysics', the one who can 'solve' our problems with the world and its lesions through some calculable meta-theory. In that sense, the atheists are right. This god is nothing more than a product of our misguided mental endeavours.

The god of the philosophers, however, the god of what to our minds are 'perfect' attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, impassibility, and so on) is not, and never has been, an adequate exposition of the unruly God of biblical hope - who remains continually 'ahead' of us.

As classical Christian theology at its best has long tried to say, the God of Jesus - always other, never overwhelming - cannot be reduced to some super-being who is just a version of ourselves writ large; a god-figure who fulfils our wishes and spares us reality.

In the famous Hebrew text, God's identity is declared as 'I am that I am' and 'I will be as I will be'. In these infuriating verbal paradoxes all attempts to circumscribe God within the language of 'being' fall apart, something that post-Enlightenment theologians over-responding to Descartes, Kant, Hume, Feuerbach and Russell miss out on.

So a large part of our intellectual confusion when we ask 'how can God allow this?' in the face of tragedy and contingency, is that we are speculating about God in precisely this mistaken way - as a super-being who becomes a projection of our own human will and action.

Such a god is bound to fail us and is rightly to be abandoned.

Instead of thinking of God as some additional entity or fact in (or about) the world, we need to receive God as the unfolding mystery of love who can, as the Eastern Orthodox say, only be spoken about indirectly - in adoration (liturgy and sacrament), testimony, story and human service.

God, the Orthodox theologians remind us, is not available as 'essence' but only as 'energy', the resonance of a disarming and un-bargainable love within the frailty of human story and experience. Scottish theologian Ruth Page has framed this more technically in terms of 'potentiality' as the expression of God's relation to the world's - and our - freedom. (3)

In an essay about Bonhoeffer's theology understood through the poetry of W. H. Auden, Jack Clemo and Geoffrey Hill [Travelling With Resilience, ed. Elizabeth Templeton, Scottish Episcopal Church, 2002], Rowan Williams puts the situation like this:

"The childish religious mind tends to conceive the freedom bestowed on us by God as something provisional and temporary, undergirded by a safety net in the assurance that 'Paternal Love' still reserves the power to bring about its will by force."

"But what if [as in Auden's poem, Friday's Child] the divine renunciation of violence is completely serious? In that case, there is no point in wondering whether it is in anger or pity that God stands back from the world or reacts to what the world does; [God] has elected powerlessness in terms of the world."

So God resists our worldly fantasies of control and escape. But, at the same time, in Christ the wounded healer, God promises to meet us in the presence of pain and abandonment, and to be with those excluded and tortured in a way that the comfortable religious mind can barely imagine.

This, again, is Bonhoeffer's testimony. It is a different logic and an alternative witness pointing to a God who is so much greater, more puzzling and more creatively dispossessing (loving) than we can comprehend in our theoretical selves.

Yet, as Rowan Williams adds, the power of the modern mind - with its projected autonomy, instrumental reason, lack of specific loyalties and instinctive disdain of traditional commitments - makes the God of Jesus increasingly a stranger. Not just unseen but displaced, homeless.

Meanwhile, in the face of tragedy, loss, rage and injustice, the calling to be part of Christ's Body is not an invitation to cajole, worry, rationalise, excuse, blame or babble in the name of God. Rather, it is to be the kind of people, and to issue the type of response, that requires just this sort of 'displaced hope'.

That is why 'post-tsunami theology' is not about engineering our dreaded 'apologetics', polishing our metaphysical speculations, or getting angry about Richard Dawkins' theological and philosophical shortcomings. It is about responding to the impossible possibility of God's vulnerable love through concrete deeds, personally and politically.

The point is not that followers of Jesus are thereby seen to be divinely right (a spiritually toxic place to be), but that we are seeking to be humanly faithful. In this way the immense, lengthy, difficult and patient effort of understanding which is genuine theology can be rooted in the example of hopeful living. (4)

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Notes:

(1) Those who appreciate what I am saying in noting that God is inherently 'beyond description' may wonder how the obviously human ('anthropomorphic') Gospel story can thereby be allowable. The brief answer is that narrative is not a pinning-down of what it refers to, but a signpost - one whose never-quite-finished character is (unlike totalizing theory) consistent with the unconditioned giving-ness God is necessarily held to be. Rightly understood for what it is, figurative language (biblical imagery, for instance) does not claim to 'grasp' its subject, but to recognise the ineluctable 'otherness' of God, even as it seeks to speak of the impact of that otherness on the pattern of our living, in relational (and therefore personalist) terms. Incidentally, abstract categories are just as anthropomorphic as figurative ones [albeit with a different kind of function] - because they are produced within the nexus of human language. There is no 'other place' to speak from, even when we speak of what is other. If we do not appreciate the practical significance of this, our attempts at God-talk become hopelessly disordered, as in the case of Richard Dawkins' old-fashioned positivism, or the different - but parallel - kind of imprisoning objectification practiced by religious fundamentalism.

(2) Dawkins defines 'faith' as a blind rejection of evidence. Some things that pass for faith may be just that, but to suggest (as he does) that this is all it can be is at best miscomprehension and at worst misrepresentation. Alister McGrath (in his St Edmund's Cambridge lecture, 'Has science eliminated God? Richard Dawkins and the meaning of life') writes: "A perfectly good definition of Christian theology is 'taking rational trouble over a mystery' - recognising that there may be limits to what can be achieved, but believing that this intellectual grappling is both worthwhile and necessary. It just means being confronted with something so great that we cannot fully comprehend it, and so must do the best that we can with the analytical and descriptive tools at our disposal." And, I would add, narrative, linguistic and phenomenological logics (when the analytic runs its course, as it surely will in relation to God).

(3) To speak of 'essence' and 'energy' in relation to the divine is, we need to remind ourselves once more, to speak figuratively of that which exceeds categorisation. It is not to posit some kind of metaphysical vitalism. See also Ruth Page, God and the web of creation, SCM Press, 1997. Page seeks to give a better account of how we might conceive the relation between God and the natural world, one which takes the non-human and the non-animate with real evolutionary and theological seriousness.

(4) To those inclined to demand more 'definite' statements than the ones I have made, or to dismiss them as 'waffle' (using language to avoid reality), I can only demur, asking them to read and think again. I also offer Nicholas Lash's observation, to myself as well as others: "Learning to tell the truth takes time, attentiveness, and patience. Good learning calls no less than teaching does, for courtesy, respect, a kind of reverence; reverence for facts and people, evidence and argument, for climates of speech and patterns of behaviour different from our own. There are, I think, affinities between the courtesy, the attentiveness, required for friendship; the passionate disinterestedness without which no good scholarly or scientific work is done; and the contemplativity which strains, without credulity, to listen for the voice of God - who speaks the Word (s)he is, but does not shout."

Those wanting to explore the theological approach of this article in greater depth are recommended to consult the following recent books: Nicholas Lash, Holiness, Speech and Silence - The Question of God Today (Ashgate, 2005) and The Beginning and the End of 'Religion' (Cambridge University Press, 1996). Also: John D Caputo, Philosophy and Theology, (Abingdon Press, 2006) and The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Indiana University Press, 2006).

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