Thoughts for the Third Sunday in Lent: Is the LORD among us or not? (Exodus 17.1-7, Ps 95)

“‘Is the LORD among us or not?’”

I’d like to day to spend a few minutes with you looking at the story from Exodus that was our first lesson—the story of that time in the desert when there was no water for the people to drink, and they were so angry with Moses that he thought they were ready to stone him.

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

Thus the storyteller sums up the Israelite’s fury.

“Is the LORD among us or not?”

Now of course the dominant testimony of Exodus and indeed, of the Bible as a whole, is that God was among them: always in Israel’s midst, guiding her and delivering her. But it is a part of the honesty and candour of Israel’s Scriptures that alongside that dominant testimony there runs another testimony—what Walter Brueggemann has taught us to call a countertestimony. And the countertestimony, simply put, is this: that it didn’t always seem like that.

One of the most disappointing moments for me in Brevard Childs’ always learned and sometimes wise commentary on the Book of Exodus is his discussion of this particular story. The whole point of it, he tells us, “turns on the gracious and surprising provision of God who provided water for his people when none was available.”[1] Really? The whole point? That certainly wasn’t how the Psalmist saw it in Psalm 95. The Psalmist saw it as a story about Israel’s heart being hardened, about rebellion. And although the Psalmist exhorts us to avoid such rebellion, even he doesn’t say there was no reason for it. And surely even a child listening to this story could see—and perhaps see better than a learned and pious biblical scholar determined at all costs (even at the cost of common sense) to defend God’s honour—surely even a child could see that one point of this story has to be that if God was guiding Israel through the wilderness—and let us note that the biblical text is very careful to tell us that it was “at the LORD’s command” that the people moved on “by stages” and so came to Rephidim where there was no water—then it was God who had got Israel into this mess, this situation where the children and the animals were dying of thirst. And it was that—not the provision of water from the rock, but the lack of water—that had led to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

Certainly there was much in Israel’s life and history that was congruous with the lofty claims she made for her God. But there were also moments in her life as in ours when it looked as if God was letting her down, moments when life was inscrutable, moments when there seemed to be no connection, no match, between faith’s claim that God is faithful and God cares, and our actual experience. And it is one of the glories of our Scriptures that they make no attempt to hide this fact.  “O God, why have you utterly cast us off?” the Psalmist asks bitterly, “And why is your wrath so hot against the sheep of your pasture?” (Ps. 74.1). The prophet Jeremiah cries out: “Ah, Lord GOD, how utterly you have deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ even while the sword is at the throat!” (Jer. 4:10). And Our Lord himself upon the cross seems to despair: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

So my response to Brevard Childs’ commentary on this passage is this—Yes, it is in a sense true that the point of the story is the gracious and surprising provision of God, just as it is true that the point of the passion narratives in the gospels is the resurrection of Our Lord. But just as it is false and unfaithful to imagine that we, or even our Lord Himself, could come to Easter Day without going through Good Friday, so it is false and therefore unfaithful to deny the real experience of loss, confusion, and uncertainty that are expressed in this morning’s story as a whole, and in particular in the question that the narrator himself apparently sees as summing up the whole affair, “Is the LORD among us or not?” And it is equally false, and therefore unfaithful, however well or piously intended, to deny that there are times when we too share those feelings.

Lent—the spring season, the season of renewal and rethinking—is surely the right time to remember this. And perhaps never more so than this Lent, when so much seems to have changed for the worse from what we hoped for or even took for granted in Lent of 2016. I speak not merely of our personal lives and journeys, which inevitably have their downs and ups, their moments of darkness as well as of light. I speak rather of the world around us, of the state of society at large. Many among us are troubled and anxious by the way in which in this country and in Europe institutions and progress that twelve months ago we regarded as secure are suddenly under threat. Structures designed to prevent another European war are being recklessly undone; progress in bringing justice to the disadvantaged and in protecting our fragile environment is being reversed; honourable purveyors of real information and honest critique are openly reviled and insulted, while manifest liars are honoured, and our leaders openly rejoice not in truth but in “post-truth”—that is, in lies—plainly wanting us to forget that it is only the truth that can set us free. And all while spineless politicians who surely know better simply acquiesce. More than once in the last few weeks someone has quoted to me W. B. Yeats’ prophetic poem “The Second Coming,”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

So—“Is the LORD among us or not?”

At which point on a Sunday morning one’s natural desire is to offer some word of consolation, to point to some sign that things are not really so bad as they seem. “Look here! Look there! See! God is working his purpose out, after all!” Or alternatively to offer some word of explanation, such as the hymn writer’s,

The flame shall not hurt thee. I only design

Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

—a thought that I suppose just about might seem satisfactory in connection with such ordinary trials and tribulations as come to all of us from time to time, but which when considered in light of the thousands of children who are at this very moment being killed, maimed, and traumatized in Syria, simply will not do.

All of which is a way of saying that the desire to console or to explain may actually in this particular case be a temptation to apostasy. Let us remember that according to Jeremiah it is false priests and false prophets who cry, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jer. 6.14, 8.12). So perhaps our Lenten call in 2017 is precisely to live with the enigma, with the silence, with the hiddenness of God. That is what the Israelites were called on to do in the wilderness when there was no water. That is what Our Lord was called on to do on Good Friday when it seemed that God had forsaken him. That is what thousands of Christians in Syria and Iraq and Africa are called on to do at this very moment in the face of persecution, violence, and lawlessness.

Of course we must continue to try to do our duty: to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God, in whatever ways those general duties may present themselves to us in the ordinary course of our lives—but perhaps we must be willing to do so for no other evident reason and with no greater encouragement or consolation than this: that despite everything, these still seem to be the right things to do. And perhaps it is true, as C. S. Lewis claimed, that God is never more glorified, nor are we ever in this life closer to the divine glory, than when we look around us at a universe where the heavens are as brass and from which every trace of God’s grace seems to have vanished, and still obey.

In which conviction, like Abraham as St Paul described him, “hoping against hope” (Rom. 4:18), let us then confess our faith as the church has taught us.

We believe in One God…

 

[1] Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus (Louisville, Kentucky: WestminsterJohnKnox, 1974) 308.

 

 

 

THE UNIVERSE AND GOD: MISTAKES OLD AND NEW

 

A Medieval Picture of the Universe: humanity at the fringes looking in.

People in the Middle Ages* assumed that the sun went round the earth. Given what they saw every day, that was a perfectly reasonable assumption. Because we no longer share that assumption, we believe that our view of things is not nearly so limited as theirs was. Their universe, we say, was small and anthropocentric, whereas we now know how vast and complex things really are.

Actually, the medieval view of the universe was by no means anthropocentric. Quite the contrary! It was theocentric, and our planet earth was on the rim. When our forebears looked at the stars, the thoughtful among them did not regard themselves as looking toward “outer space,” but rather as looking inward toward the divine glory, of which they and their world were merely on the margins, “the outside edge where being fades away on the border of nonentity.”[1]

Nor was their universe small. It was indeed as vast as it could be: which is to say, the thoughtful were perfectly well aware that they were surrounded by a creation that in its complexity and size transcended anything they could comprehend. If we do not believe that, we need only to read Dante, especially the Paradiso. It is true that the dimensions they envisaged for this universe turn out to be tiny in comparison with what we have learned about the reality in succeeding generations, but still those dimensions were vast—inestimably vast—by the standards of everything that they knew.

To say all this is not to say that we don’t know more about the universe’s vastness and complexity than did Dante and his contemporaries, it is merely a matter of setting the record straight. And indeed our greater knowledge is a truly an exciting difference between them and us. Such knowledge can lead us to new and renewed awareness of God’s grandeur and glory—as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin[2] and, among our contemporaries, Arnold Benz,[3] continue to show us.

That is the good news. The bad news is that for some, this new knowledge leads not to fresh appreciation of the creator’s greatness and glory, but rather to a view of the world around us that does not even rise to the dignity of being anthropocentric. For so long as we are content to exploit our planet and everything on it for our immediate comfort—or rather the immediate comfort of a privileged few—and in the process to jeopardize the wellbeing of every future generation, it can hardly be said with any accuracy that we are being anthropocentric. We are merely being selfish.

Interestingly enough, at this point, the debate becomes not a “science versus religion” argument, but rather a process in which those bent only on immediate profit resist not only religion’s command that God’s creation be respected but also the findings of science, claiming that the conclusions of the international scientific community and such groups as the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris are “as yet unproven,” and at times even attempting to account for those conclusions by invoking conspiracy theories of breathtaking unlikelihood and absurdity.[4]

Is it to comfort and sustain ourselves in this nonsense that we pretend that the idea of a divine creator is itself no longer sustainable? One contemporary writer dismisses belief in God simply by declaring that “the idea of a divine super-Self outside of or beyond the universe… boggles the mind”[5]—a declaration that he appears to think constitutes an argument. Of course the declaration itself is correct, as the psalmist noted millennia ago: “such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me: I cannot attain unto it” (Ps. 139.5). The psalmist, however, was not so foolish or so arrogant as to think that because he could not conceive of something, therefore it could not exist. Looked at from another angle, what we have here is a classic example – even a caricature – of what Walter Ong has identified as “the tendency of the past few centuries to overspatialize the universe so that everything is reduced to models picturable in space, and what is unpicturable (‘unimagineable’ is often the term invoked) is discarded as impossible or unreal.”[6] Exactly.

In reflecting on the phenomenon of contemporary atheism I am frequently struck not only by a repeated failure of logic even in clever people (I think, for example, of the dismal muddle – by virtually any standards – that constitutes Richard Dawkins’ key fourth chapter in The God Delusion) but by something deeper – a disastrous failure of imagination, a destructive (destructive because inimical to thought) lack of any ability to deal in metaphor. I note, for example, that Dawkins’ overall approach to the Bible is virtually that of a fundamentalist – save, of course, that he holds the Bible to be wrong about matters of science.

To some extent, no doubt, Dawkins’ own upbringing and education must be held responsible for this. But we cannot hold religion itself – in which category I certainly include Christianity in its various forms – guiltless in the matter. Those who write about their experience of God invariably speak of that experience as enlightening, as freeing, and as a way to new truth. Those who write from an opposite viewpoint are, by definition, not writing of their experience of God (since they deny God’s existence) but of their experience of religion, which they have found oppressive, obfuscating, and untruthful. And alas, their critique always has some validity, since religion – and again, I must emphasize that I include Christianity, insofar as it manifests itself as a religion – religion, as a human phenomenon, frequently has been and is all these things. Hence the paradox: that religion is at once precious to God, for religion hands on the traditions, tells the stories, and says the prayers, yet it is also the enemy of God, for it also and often distorts all these things. If it is not our best that we do in God’s name, then quite often it is our worst. The synoptic narrative of Peter’s confession –

you are the Messiah…

blessed are you, Simon…

far be this from you Lord…

Get behind me, Satan! (Matt. 16.17, 23)

– is only too representative of both these aspects of religion as human phenomenon.

Here, certainly, is food for further thought.

In the mean time, at least we should say this: that it is not enough for us to encourage respect for creation and creatures simply on the grounds of good stewardship and the wise use of resources, although of course there is sense in that. It is not even enough to encourage such respect on the grounds of common decency: that we are surrounded by sentient creatures who are capable of suffering and we have no right to augment that suffering for our amusement, although that also is true.[7] But here we are faced with something deeper. And the Scriptures make that clear, if we will listen to them.

To be sure, the Scriptures were written by human beings and tell in particular a story of God’s relationship with humanity. To that extent therefore their narrative is centered on humanity. But again and again they remind us that this narrative is only part of a much greater narrative that involves all being. The Word, St. John tells us in his opening and definitive statement, “became flesh” (1:14). He does not say that the Word became Jewish, which would have been true. Nor does he say that the Word became human, which would also have been true. But he says, “the Word became flesh (sarx)”—and thereby indicates that it is not only Israel nor even humankind that is consecrated by the fullness of divine indwelling, but flesh—matter, dust, dirt, the stuff of earth and solar systems and galaxies and the universe.[8] “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 cf. Heb. 1:3a): in the consecration of an atom, the universe is consecrated. So St. Paul, who sees God in Christ “reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5.19), is also clear that he envisages that reconciliation for the entire created order: “for the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21, cf. Col. 1.20). Hence the church, according to the Letter to the Ephesians, while it is the new Temple, Christ’s body, is not to be understood as being those things apart from or in contra distinction to God’s good pleasure “to sum up all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (1:10).[9]

“As for me,” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin says to God in his prayer The Hymn of the Universe, “if I could not believe that your real Presence animates and makes tractable and enkindles even the very least of the energies which invade me or brush past me, would I not die of cold?”[10] Someone says to me, “What a marvelous sensitivity to God’s presence this man had!” Had he? Or is it not rather the case that we are marvelously insensitive?

Saint Francis treated animals and even rocks more or less as he treated people. “How odd!” we say. Or are we not odd, in that we so often treat people and animals more or less as we treat rocks?

People in the Middle Ages were mistaken in supposing that the sun went round the earth.

We are mistaken in supposing that the heavens do not display the glory of God, and that the firmament does not show His handiwork.

Which mistake will ultimately have the more serious consequences?

 

* A version of this paper was originally published in the Sewanee Theological Review; it remains the © of the University of the South and the author.

[1] Lewis 116.

[2] See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Milieu Divin (Paris: Editions du Seuill, 1957); ET Le Milieu Divin / The Divine Milieu (London: Collins / New York: Harper, 1960).

[3] See Arnold Benz, Die Zukunft des Universums: Zufall, Chaos, Gott? (Dusseldorf: Patmos Verlag, 1997); ET The Future of the Universe: Chance, Chaos, God? (London: Continuum International / New York: Continuum, 2000).

[4] I am reminded of the tobacco companies’ endlessly repeated “it isn’t proved” refusal in the 1960s and ‘70s to admit the deleterious effects of smoking, although those effects and the connection of smoking to lung cancer were already obvious not only to unbiased observers but even, it now emerges, to their own research, and had been for decades. In the matter of theories, moreover, much of the demand for “proof” is a demand for a level of demonstration that is hardly possible or feasible. That does not mean that that a particular theory should not be taken seriously, and even acted upon. “In spite of inadequate data, a majority of researchers can often consent to endorse one theory. They do so not because they have colluded in the making of some secret deal, but rather because they perceive an overwhelming force of evidence in the observed findings. One should not underestimate theories because of their provisional nature” (Arnold Benz, Astrophysics and Creation: Perceiving the Universe through Science and Participation [New York: Herder and Herder, 2016]) 29-30.

[5] Roy W. Hoover in Gerd Lüdemann, William Lane Graig, et al. Jesus’ Resurrection, Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and Gerd Lüdemann, Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 127.

[6] Walter Ong S.J., The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota), 7.

[7] A friend of mine, a hunter, says, “There are only two justifiable reasons to kill an animal: one is that you are going to eat it, and the other is that you have good reason to suppose it is planning to eat you.” On all of which see further my post, “Firsts from a Couple of Small Islands,” published 24 June 2016.

[8] The “physical or natural order of things, as opposed to the spiritual or supernatural” (LS, σάρξ, cf. BDAG σάρξ, 2b, c, and 5).

[9] Let the reader note that while for the sake of convenience I indulge the present widespread prejudice against supposing Paul to be the author of Ephesians, I do not therefore endorse it. Ernest Best, at the end of a careful discussion of the question, admits (in a curiously tortured sentence) that “many of the objections to Pauline authorship are not individually capable of disproving it, but it is their cumulative effect which suggests another author.” In Best’s view, “the argument resembles… the successive blows of a forester felling a tree; the first few blows of his axe appear to make no impression but as he continues striking, the tree weakens and eventually falls” (Ephesians, [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998], 36). The forester analogy is striking as a description of Best’s feelings in the matter: but it is not an argument. The fact, as Best has himself just shown us (Ephesians, 6-36), is that none of the alleged objections to Pauline authorship of Ephesians is actually conclusive. Contrast the scholarly caution of G. H. P. Thompson, The Letters of Paul to the Ephesians to the Colossians and to Philemon (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1967) 4-15; see also more recently, N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (London: S.P.C.K. / Minneapolis: Fortress, 2013), 56-61, 556-62.

[10] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymne de l’Universe (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961); ET Hymn of the Universe, Gerald Vann, O.P., transl. (London: Collins / New York: Harper and Row, 1965).