Thursday, 10 January 2008

Evil and the God of Love.

Here is a copy of a talk I gave at a quiet day a short while back. It seems a good time of year to say these things.

“ The Apostles said to the Lord: ‘Increase our Faith’” Luke 17 5

In my experience people of faith or indeed of no faith constantly come up against the fundamental questions “Why, apparently, does God allow evil to exist? Why is there so much suffering in the world?

As far back as the book Job, the question has been asked “How can God be good when there is so much evil, suffering and injustice?” However the question has been framed it has troubled men and women of every age, culture and faith …

Those of us who enjoy singing Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn “Love divine, all loves excelling” experience a particular difficulty. For there, in the very first verse is the unequivocal statement “Jesu, thou art all compassion, pure unbounded love thou art …” Not only are we confronted with a God who, by His very nature is good, but also the disclosure of Himself as love incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s usual for the problem to be posed as a dilemma – if God is all-powerful and hence in ultimate control of the world, He cannot be good and loving. If He is good and loving, He cannot be all-powerful and hence in control of a world where there is palpable evidence that all is far from well.

When so expressed the answer is obvious: either God is not all-powerful or else He is not love. If, however, we are to continue to believe in His supreme goodness, then we must do so in the face of undeniable evidence with which we are all too familiar. The result is that our belief in Him as a God of Love remains constantly under threat.

And now we’re confronted with the idea that God is some kind of omnipotent dictator who is the one and only power in the realm. Once termed ‘the master of the Marionettes’, a puppeteer who controls and manipulates what he has created and made.

But have we analysed the situation correctly and expressed the dilemma accurately? I believe we should stay with that question and pursue it to its logical conclusion because there’s no religious reason to assume that God is omnipotent in the sense that He’s completely in control and is the ultimate and final cause for everything that exists.

It may well be the case that God is the chief but not the only cause: that the created order has about it a freedom which enables it to make choices that are contrary to God’s will or purpose. Perhaps God Himself, as the personification of love, is engaged in a struggle against the unlovely, ugly and destructive results of those choices? Does He invite us to join Him in the struggle, which is as much a cause of grief to Him as it is to us?

I find no grounds for assuming that God is unaffected by what happens in the world; nor do I find any sense in the assumption that He could have played His part in creating a world – a world which is evolving – which is, at every stage subject to His immediate and responsible control.

Why should there not be risk, haphazardness and openness in a world with which God, as well as humankind, has to engage?

Such assertions lead us to questions about the appropriate “shape” for God. How best may we think of Him and after what analogy are we to speak of Him? For the Christian, God must surely not be some kind of self-sufficient entity whose relationship with His creation is such that it depends completely on Him while He is in no sense dependent upon it. In terms of humankind, made, we are told in His likeness and image, this creator God Has to be completely open, vulnerable, capable of being affected by them, suffering with them, perplexed like them - but also rejoicing with them, participating fully in their experience, identified with them in every respect.

Now if “love” has any association or meaning then surely it is described in such a relationship. Only by an impossible stretch of the imagination could a self-existent and self-sufficient God be conceived as genuinely loving. Quite to the contrary, He would be the antithesis of love since we have come to learn from experience that love is relationship, sharing and mutuality.
The faith of the Christian is centred on a Man who was so much “the man for others” that he gave of himself to the point of total emptying. He was profoundly affected by the lives with which he came into contact, never coercive but always working persuasively, by love, solicitation and invitation. This man has been described as “a window into God” and so, from the evidence, it’s clear that we must banish from our minds thoughts of God as a kind of ruthless moral governor – a perverse manipulator of human destiny.

God is not omnipotent in the conventional sense, not independent of His world and not in complete control of everything that happens. He can only work in accordance with His nature, that is to say, in love and through love. He chooses to suffer with His world as “one who understands” and if we, His creation, are called to share in His on-going work then we are, in some sense, ‘co-creators’ with Him. Love, then, is the only really powerful thing to be reckoned with.

But what about evil in all its manifold forms? The answer is that such evil is a given condition of a world which is “in the making”. God knows it and suffers it with an anguish deeper and more terrible than anyone of us could conceive or possibly experience. This evil, in all its horror, He uses to bring about new opportunities for more love in more places and in more ways.
The Christian faith points to Calvary, the stage in the story where defeat and dereliction are total. And yet its consequence, Easter and the Resurrection is not the denial or negation of that sacrifice but its vindication and validation, as if God were saying: “This is how I have to work in the world – there is no other way …”

Our faith proclaims that God shares fully in our troubles, in all times and in all places, in the beginning and in the ending.

The whole world contributes to God’s life in love – through joy and through pain. In faith and in trust we’re called to recognise and accept that all the evil in the world, however inexplicable and grim, can be and is, transmuted by God to serve the cause of love. God does not will it but He does transfigure it, turning it to a positive purpose.

Such a faith doesn’t make life any easier or more comfortable, nor does it spare us from pain and suffering. But it does enable those who live in the world to have confidence, to bear-up bravely, to persevere, knowing that God is with them, no matter what the occasion or the circumstance.
The agony.

Have you ever sat down to write a really difficult letter, and then found yourself pacing round the room, wanting to burst into tears, ready to beat your fists on the wall, then sitting down and writing another paragraph, wondering how you’re ever going to get your point across?
Maybe you haven’t. We don’t write so many letters these days, and we don’t seem to invest quite such emotional intensity into emails. But some of you will have had to do it; and we can all imagine the situation where a relationship has been strained almost to breaking point and where we have to make a supreme effort both to confront the things that have gone wrong and to do so in such a way as to bring about reconciliation.

That is the task St Paul faced as he wrote the letter we call Second Corinthians. All sorts of things had gone wrong in the Corinthian church after he’d left them; immorality, lawsuits against each other, doctrinal muddles on a grand scale; and, to make matters worse, other teachers had come in, pouring scorn on Paul’s ideas and methods. Simultaneously, in his own life back in Ephesus where he was then staying, everything went horribly wrong, with riots and imprisonments and such suffering that, when he refers to it, it sounds like what today we would call not just burnout but breakdown. And out of his personal agony and his near-despair over his muddled but still beloved church in Corinth, Paul writes this letter, whose very grammar is stiff and choked with emotional intensity, to achieve reconciliation. And from what we know of what happened next, from Acts and Paul’s other letters, it looks as though it worked.

Now Paul has many tricks of style, but one of his most regular features is that at the beginning and end of his letters he often sums up, in a single sentence, something close to the heart of what he’s trying to get across. And in today’s epistle, which is the conclusion of Second Corinthians, there are two sentences which do exactly that. First, a string of short commands, with a promise attached: celebrate; put things in order; encourage one another; agree amongst yourselves; live at peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you. Interesting phrase, that: the God of love and peace. Not just any old God; there are too many gods in Corinth already, and that’s part of the problem. No: this specific God, the God of love and peace. But who is this God, and how do we know him? Paul ends the letter with the second sentence, which has become so well known that many Christians may have forgotten where it originally came from: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Out of the despair and confrontation; out of the agony that throbs between rejection and reconciliation; out of the struggles to bring the gospel of Jesus to birth in the pagan world of Greece; from the depths of Paul’s heart and mind there comes a sentence so simple and clear, so uncluttered and untechnical, that if we’re not careful we might fail to see its breathtaking significance. Within twenty-five years of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a way of speaking about God has emerged in which Jesus himself, and the creator God himself, and the Holy Spirit, are put in the same sentence, in the same breath, in the same prayer. Paul does not use the later language of developed trinitarian theology, of ‘persons’ and ‘natures’. But in the light of this passage and several others in his writings, we may confidently say that if the doctrine of the Trinity hadn’t existed, Paul’s letters would force us to invent it.
And the context of Second Corinthians makes it clear that this emerging picture of God – the one God, the creator God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now made known in this threefold, kaleidescopic way as Father, Son and Spirit – this emerging picture of God does not emerge from, and is not meant to fuel, mere intellectual speculation, cool philosophical reflection on the nature of Being or the structure of the cosmos. It is born out of the heat of the gospel, as the healing, reconciling message of the death and resurrection of Jesus does its work in individual lives and communities. It is born out of the struggles of the apostle, his own horrible personal sufferings and his insistence on reconciliation and hope. It is born out of the clash between the power of the true God and the powers of the world; between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Caesar; between the power of love and the love of power. The Trinity does not begin with abstract thought, though it will stretch the minds of anyone who reflects on it. It begins with passion: the passion of Jesus, the passion of the apostles, the passion for reconciliation, God’s passion for the world. It is not, to begin with, a thinking person’s doctrine. It is a passionate person’s doctrine.

What happens when thinking persons create doctrine? When human beings have tried to reflect unaided on the sense of the divine that most have felt (atheism is very much a minority option in the history of the world) they have come up with two main alternative types. Some have seen the divine, the sacred, God, as infinitely transcendent, utterly other than the world, to be acknowledged at a distance. That picture rescues God from the problem of evil: God is not involved in the mess we’ve made of the world; but it does so at the cost of any solution to that problem, and also of any intimacy with God, except in certain rather recherché kinds of mysticism. Others have seen the divine, the sacred, God, as strangely present within the world, within the forces of nature, surrounding and encompassing creation as we know it, bubbling up from below. That picture gives us a sense of God’s presence, but hugely accentuates the problem of evil: if God is present in and with the world, why do so many awful things happen? That way, you end up either saying evil isn’t so very bad after all, or you end up saying that God is simply part of the process of it all.

The truly extraordinary thing about the emergence of the early Christian belief in the one God who is known as Father, Son and Spirit is that this belief doesn’t seem to have emerged, or been hammered out, as the intellectual answer to those two options. It was born, as I said, out of the passionate and compassionate white heat of the gospel, as it changed lives and effected costly reconciliation. But it nevertheless answers completely the major questions the world has come up with. The Trinity speaks of a God who is at the same time utterly other than the world and richly present in the world; of the creator who, having created the drama that we call world history, has himself come to play the leading part in the play; of the passionate God who has placed his own warm, life-giving breath in the innermost beings of all who will trust him and follow him.

And if you say that this sounds as though Christianity wants to have its cake and eat it too, the apostles let their picture of God explain that God has his cross and loves them too. Because at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity, which we celebrate today, is the answer, from deep within the Jewish monotheism of the Old Testament, born afresh in Jesus of Nazareth, to the age-old problem of evil. It isn’t a philosophical answer, though it has huge philosophical implications. It is a personal answer, a passionate answer, God’s passionate answer. The crucifixion of Jesus stands at the centre of the doctrine of the Trinity, and says, in the language of St John, ‘That’s how much God loved the world;’ or, in the language of St Paul, ‘Through the death of his Son we are reconciled to God.’

You would never have got to that point by intellectual reflection on the two major options. They are like pillars, curving inwards but without any means of joining up. But the stone which the builders refused became the head of the corner; what Athens never dreamed of, Jerusalem supplied. When God takes flesh and dies for the sins of the world, the problems of abstract thought fall into place. And, just down the road from Athens, a struggling and muddled little community in Corinth were the first to hear those words we now know so well, words of reconciliation and healing and hope, words which emerge from passion and compassion, which complete what logic alone could not complete: the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.

Come forward two millennia. You hardly need to open the newspapers to see that the greatest need of our day is reconciliation. It seems impossible; our best hope, we usually think, is that we can persuade India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, East Belfast and West Belfast, to back off and sulk in silence. We live today with the social and political equivalents of those two great systems of thought.

On the one hand, there are those who have tried to organise the whole world under one roof: the dream of empire and world domination. That’s where we were a century ago; that’s where America is now. But, as we discovered, and as America is now discovering, however much empires declare that they are bringing justice, freedom and peace to the world, the rest of the world for some strange reason doesn’t see it that way. The god of empire is too high-and-dry to solve the problems of the world.

On the other hand, there are those who today want to celebrate diversity, to rediscover local and tribal identity, to come out from under the large oppressive regimes that had crushed them and find out again who they, uniquely, really are. But the gods from below quickly discover that they are competing for space: for land, as in the Balkans; for land and water, as in the Middle East; for ethnic purity, as in Rwanda.

And the only place I know where the crushing dream of imperial supremacy has met the rising tide of local differentiation with anything other than disastrous results is South Africa; and the reason for that is that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, were invoked and put into practice, at enormous human cost, in an unheard-of, previously unimaginable struggle for reconciliation, truth and peace. That is what the doctrine of the Trinity is all about. It is not about offering abstract answers to abstract questions. How could it be, since its whole point is that the human being Jesus, and his violent death and glorious resurrection, are the revelation in person of the one true and living God? The doctrine of the Trinity is about the passion and compassion of the one true God for his battered and divided world: about the cross of Jesus Christ, not as a messy accident of history, but as the place where the great stories of empire did their worst, and the little, local dreams of freedom reached their climax; about the warm, life-giving breath of God going out to change hearts and minds, that through the tears and prayers and preaching and persuasion of those grasped by this grace and love, and sustained by this fellowship, reconciliation may come to the world that still waits for it. We’ve tried everything else; why don’t we try taking God seriously? Not just any old god, either, but the one spoken of in the gospel.

One of the lesser-known poets of the first world war, Edmund Sillito, put it like this:

The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak.
They rode, but thou didst stumble, to a throne.
But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak;
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

The doctrine of the Trinity speaks to us of the wounded God of Calvary. As today we come to his table, let us taste and see that he is good; and may the God of love and peace be with you – and, through you, with his world. Amen.