Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What God Does

It's hard to believe that my time in the Netherlands has come to a close. I count the last two weeks as a profoundly grace-filled time of learning and questioning with some of the great expositors of the thought of Rene Girard. At some point in the future, I'll try to say something more of the "mimetic insight" Girard so powerfully - and controversially - articulates. Let it be said that, while I might not mention it explicitly, you can be assured that many of the concepts we thought-through these last two weeks will be percolating in my mind and will, no doubt, surface in these posts.

Commenting on an earlier post, someone wrote:

God, as the author of all that exists, is how I myself understand God. But where I have difficulty, a fact that became apparent during a conversation with an atheist, is simply, if God is not concerned with the "how', what then does God do in the real world? If God does not meddle with physical constants, the continuity of cause and effect, putting it rather bluntly, why would we even pray? I pray for grace, for myself and others. But beyond that, in terms of God's involvement with the concrete, I could not say what God does with any conviction, and so had no clear answer for my acquaintance. Any comments would be very welcome.
This, I think, is an integral question in the debate between atheists and theists: What is God's Job? What is it that God is supposed to do?

The poster quoted above has, to my mind, the right intuition: God is the author of all that exists. Think about this for just a moment. As you stare out into the heavens, probe the deepest recesses of the sea, the belief of the theist is that God makes this entire universe to exist, makes it to be at all. As I am fond of saying to my students, I cannot make a glass of vodka to be (so I'm out of the running for the job of God). God, on the other hand, is responsible for making the whole bloody thing to exist. That's a tall order to fill, in my mind.

Ok, so God is the 'author' of creation. The problem with this image is that by the time we have the work of an author in hand, the text has been written for quite some time and the author is now off working on a new project. This, however, is a false picture for the theist: we believe, not the God created the world and then walked away but, rather, that God is actively creating the world as we speak. All of creation is a work-in-progress, an ongoing narrative of God's creative activity.

We err when we think of creation as some sort of thing God does to something else. When my niece molds a Play-doh image of my head, she 'creates' the image out of the clay. She acts on something else. God is very different in this respect, because God is not acting on something else. It's not like God came along a pile of matter and said, "Geez, what can I create out of this?" Instead, there's any matter at all because God makes it to be.

To my mind, the poster is dead right in saying that it is unknown how God is involved in the concrete order. There is a concrete order at all because there is a God who makes it to be. Hence, in this capacity, God stands totally outside of the picture of creation: God is not some being in the universe who, in addition to creating the whole show, also tinkers with the set from time to time. When we pray, we are praying not to change God's mind but, rather, to come to know more deeply just what it is that God is doing. We try to hitch ourselves to God's act of creation so that we, too, may become agents of creation in the world.

This last part may sound abstract or silly, so let me share a quick anecdote. Last year, I had a student who was a royal pain in my behind. In fact, many days I dreaded having to face him. Each morning, I would hold this kid in prayer. I would say, "Lord, you created the little monster. I'll leave it to you to re-create him!" Obviously, this prayer didn't have much effect. What did have an effect, however, is that by praying for him I gradually grew to love the student; I became more and more sensitive to him and his needs and I found that I had a growing capacity to give him the loving support that he seemed to need. By the end of the semester, he had become one of my favorite students.

So did my fervent prayers change God's mind? Did they force God's hand? Emphatically, I say no! What my prayer did was to bring me into alignment with God's creative plan. My heart grew in its ability to love a student who I thought it was impossible even to like. Prayer doesn't change God's mind about us, but it does change our minds about God and all of creation. As I prayed, I "plugged into" God's act of creation and learned to love more freely and more creatively. 

Very often it is that we have to resist the temptation to make God into one of the gods. I think that Creationism and Intelligent Design are both guilty of making God into one of the gods, and I applaud persons like Richard Dawkins for railing against such idolatry: while he is a terrible philosopher with little nutritional value for the mind, Dawkins acts like an intellectual laxative in clearing out the false gods many people fall prey to in their lives. But in the rubble of Dawkins' critique (there are, to be sure MANY better critiques out there), a sense of the infinity of the true God can be experienced. The God of Israel and the God of Jesus Christ is not some thing that does other things in the created order. God, as I understand it, makes the whole thing to be at all.

So, in my long-winded way, I hope this is a start to a conversation. Is involved in the concrete order? NO, if you mean to say that God is acting within the drama of creation. The gods might do that, the regional gods we create out of money or sex or power. For the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is one thing we believe that God does: God is the reason why there is anything at all, why there is a concrete order for us to investigate and marvel at.

This will, of course, lead us to questions about the role of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, questions I'm happy to think through at another time if folks are interested. I hope this post isn't too long for my readers, but it's been a few weeks and I'm excited to get my blogging voice back!

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