Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21
Once upon a time, oh, maybe twenty some years ago, I was a creationist. The Old Earth variety made more sense to me than the Young Earth kind. I had no problem with the six days being metaphorical, and it seemed silly (and deceptive) to imagine God creating things with the appearance of great age, including fake fossils. My acceptance of scientific consensus and various aspects of the two creation accounts in Genesis brought me to a version of theistic evolution in which Adam and Eve were specially created in the midst of the stream of hominid evolution. Then a Christian friend shared his coming to think that there is good reason to suspect there was not a literal historical Adam and Eve. His idea seemed to hold up and to make sense of even more of the data, while opening up some new problems. Then another Christian friend — perhaps a year ago — shared that in reading and thinking over these things, he found one must let go also of a literal historical Fall from perfection into sin. Sin must arise from the increasing complexity involved in human evolution; something having to do with increasing self-awareness and thus the ability to even think of evil, which leads to the ability to choose to do evil.
My thinking has similarly been in transition on a number of other issues relating to Christian faith, theology, and the Bible. It is uncomfortable and threatening. It is also immensely appealing — what if new ideas make it more possible to be faithful both to God (and his revelation in Scripture) and to what new information we have about reality beyond the Scriptures, in an integrated way?
It was jarring this week to read one sentence in particular from Paul’s sermon before the Areopagus. He is commending the Athenians for their devout concern with religion (note he is commending religious thought and practice that is not at all Christian at this point). He had noticed an altar dedicated to an unknown God, and he proceeds to explain to them that our God is that God, and to share with them God’s call to rethink everything in light of the resurrection of Jesus. The sentence that particularly struck me says this:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him–though indeed he is not far from each one of us (emphasis mine).
Leaving aside the “one ancestor” bit, notice the italicized portion. It seems to speak directly to the possibility that much of the revelation given through the Old Testament is a matter of finite and flawed human beings trying to make sense of their experience of God. Some people have argued that God can only speak to us in terms we can understand where we are right now, even if it means the images and analogies are partial, imperfect, imprecise. Or what if God revealed himself completely and in fullness, but people were unable to comprehend the full revelation, because we never receive anything whole and unchanged but only through the filters of our culture, personal history, psychological capacity, senses, and so on? Whether God gave his revelation to the OT writers in partial form, or whether they were only able to grasp his revelation partially, the end result is that their writing gives us a partial revelation.
Does it mean the whole thing is just made up? That God has hidden himself, if he exists at all? No, I don’t think so. But I admit it is uncomfortable to consider the OT a partial revelation. It is easier to accept the whole thing as a unit. Except that approach has its problems, too, which is what has led me down this road. What is more uncomfortable — to think that God really did, for example, command Israel to destroy Canaanite men, women, and children? Or to have to wrestle with what parts of the OT are historical narrative, which parts have been subject to legendary accretions, which are stories never meant to be taken as history but meant to reveal truth in the same way that an excellent novel or poem does?
It’s not just things ascribed to God that seem utterly unlike the Jesus who best reveals God’s nature to us, either. It’s also textual problems, like the several conflicting accounts of how David came to be king, or the differing chronologies and details of the exodus. Or the many “and that’s why X is the way it is” declarations in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Or how about the temple sacrifices, allegedly commanded by God in great detail, while the Psalmist says in Psalm 40 (and 51) that God has revealed to him that God has not required or desired these sacrifices.
This week’s Psalm seems to reveal some similar issues of partial understanding:
For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place. (Psalm 66:10-12)
Doesn’t it sound like anyone trying to make sense of painful experiences and the presence and activity and purpose of God at such times? Does God deliberately cause our sufferings, each carefully orchestrated to most effectively refine us? Does it make more sense to think God uses and redeems our sufferings in his work of bringing us into greater and truer and deeper life with him? I wonder how he does his work, how exactly he is sovereign over all things AND allows all things to be exactly themselves, how he does anything with or in or for me at all. But even with many questions and many gaps in my understanding, I in faith echo the Psalmist’s conclusion:
If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the words of my prayer. Blessed be God, because he has not rejected my prayer or removed his steadfast love from me.
(Brief note on cherishing iniquity; I think the Psalmist is not claiming to be sinless, nor even to only sin unwillingly. To cherish iniquity is to make it a habit, a deliberate pursuit, a chosen value.)
The Epistle reading is from 1 Peter, admonishing readers to be ready and able to explain gently and reverently their faith, without fear, trusting Christ their Lord, to accusers or persecutors. They may suffer; let them take care not to provoke suffering by doing what is wrong, and when they suffer despite doing good, let them take comfort in knowing that Jesus suffered likewise. There’s a difficult bit following that discusses Noah and baptism. Maybe, just as in baptism we die to sin as Christ bore sin in his death, and we rise to life in him just as he was resurrected, perhaps in the same way those who died sinful in the flood will be raised to new life. Maybe the few persons who were then saved through the ark are a picture of the Church now — those whom God has chosen not to be his apart from all others, but to be his in such a way as to bring life to all others. (Yes; the flood story is another one that reads to me more like a great novel than like a historical narrative.)
Interestingly enough, my poem of last night is a little related to the topic of this reading. It is possible to be too careful about not provoking your own suffering through doing wrong. It is possible to adopt a scrupulosity that has an appearance of holiness but serves more to defend oneself from the pain of being wrong, causing harm, needing to repent and seek forgiveness, receiving correction, being scorned or held in contempt. Scrupulosity, however persistent and sensitive, cannot help anyone avoid all possibility of sin, sorrow, suffering, or other problems. Scrupulosity is driven by fear and / or pride; it is defensive and avoidant. The letter writer encourages the scrupulous, along with other readers, to not be afraid or intimidated, but “in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord.” However partial my understanding of revelation, however much I may be suffering, whatever I may fear, whatever information I may lack, I need not fear, because Jesus is my Lord and Good Shepherd.
The Gospel reading confirms all that. We have the Spirit abiding in us. One way to read “if you love me, you will obey my commandments” is that if we really love Jesus, we will want to follow his teaching because it is wise and good and practicing what he taught will please him. Another way is that it is through loving him that we come to be the kind of people who find it natural to live as he taught. I think both are true. I love the part that says “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20b). What a multiplicity of enfolding.