23 May 2012

The wild will be wild

[A text originally written for and published by spectrummagazine.org in February 2011]

Terence Fretheim's Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Baker Academic, 2010) is the vulgate, abbreviated version of several decades of theological research and reflection. The author of such classics as the older The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, and the still recent God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation, distills his academic knowledge and pastoral wisdom in two sets of conferences included in this opening volume of the new series Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic, proposed by Nazarene Theological Seminary. 

Those acquainted with Fretheim's thought won't find much that is new in this book. However, the straightforward, lucid approach, the theological breadth and depth of the discourse, the surprising exegetical insight, the limpid style make for an excellent introduction to a still fresh perspective on the perennial topics of human suffering and theodicy. For the Adventist reader, there is much to love and much to be challenged by. 

The first three conferences, i.e. the first three chapters of the book, focus on key passages of the Old Testament - the Creation account, the Flood narrative, and the legend of Job. Each of these is brought to bear on a sensible theology of creation in an attempt to make sense of human suffering. The fourth chapter deals with the general theme of God's image in the Old Testament as it relates to the experience of evil. Finally, the fifth conference addresses practical issues, especially the meaning of prayer and the possibility of a meaningful relationship with God. 

Christians have often held on to a theological fatalism when it comes to the world we live in: “it used to be perfect, but not anymore, therefore all we can do is hope it shall pass sooner rather than later". This mode of thinking encourages “a theology of demolition" - creation is seen as a rotten fruit that needs to be done away with. In contradistinction, Fretheim proposes that “creation is a process" that “moves toward ‘good'". That it was never perfect, but rather “a dynamic reality... a long-term project, ever in the process of becoming". 

Thus, creation is not only the beginning of the world, but the very nature of the world. It is a collaborative process that does not exclude disorder. On the one hand, “God cannot be removed from some kind of complicity" in everything that is going on. And on the other, “the godness of God cannot be bought at the expense of creaturely diminishment". We are in this together. Suffering is not the exclusive experience of humanity, just as creativity is not the exclusive attribute of God. 

The fundamental feature of reality is its interrelatedness. “Relationship is integral to the identity of God, prior to and independent of God's relationship to the world." Therefore, God's interactions with creation are governed by a profound kenotic principle - a divine self-limitation that lets the world “create itself", by “making room" and “letting-be" (a Moltmannian thread here). Ultimately, “human beings are called not to passivity but to genuine engagement, and the decisions that we make will have significant implications for the future of the earth and the nature of the future of God". 

The basic lesson of the flood is not that humans can change, but that God does. He gracefully adapts, as he is painfully entangled in his own creation. The world is dependent on divine suffering; and there are no danger-free zones in God's creation, not even for the Creator. The Biblical God acts more like a father, deeply, actively, riskily interested in the unstunted development of healthy personalities. Randomness, play, ambiguity, disorder, unpredictability are part of a good creation. “No necessary relationship exists between human suffering and human sin." Just as there is free will for us, there is “free process" in the nonhuman world. 

The moral order is an agent of God. He is responsible for creating the potential for suffering. But even the moral order allows for disorder, for failure, for randomness - no tight control. We are blighted with “systemic evils" and “plain old dysfunctionality". Yet, God as “a good medicine", works from within to make things better. And, impressively, “the Old Testament shows that God did not suffer for the first time in the Christ event, and even more, God did not suffer for the sins of the world for the first time on the cross". Christ only brings finality and universality. 

An Adventist reader will enjoy Fretheim's portrayal of God's engagement with human history (as in his noticing the divine prayer of Isaiah 65:2), especially if she has found Richard Rice or Fernando Canale convicing. But she would probably take exception to the remark that, in Genesis, only God rests on the Sabbath, while humans launch in their creative endeavors. Or, more significantly, to the idea that the satan of Job 1 and 2 is an inherent condition of creation, a personification, not a personal agent. Yet, she should be able to appreciate the power of Fretheim's reading of Job as a natural theology. God is, after all, in the whirlwind. 

I personally appreciated, among many things, the author's implicit deconstruction of the usual, deeply useless dichotomy of “natural vs. super-natural" and “moral vs. natural". But Fretheim's presentation is not without problems: if God is a “genuine agent", how comes he only mediates consequences? And is he a moral agent or a natural agent? This ambiguous framing of causality, dubious as it is philosophically, may exculpate God of any legal liability, but most certainly not of his relational responsibility. And, paradoxically, it also makes it hard to salvage any notion of God's personhood. 

Fretheim does a beautiful job at describing a certain quantum uncertainty in matters of faith, a fundamental humility in our theological formulations. “Heightened rhetoric and undisciplined certainty" make for bad, obnoxious believers. Most definitely, Fretheim's book is not for the faint of heart: “What we do and say makes a difference in the shape that the future will take. Indeed, they make a difference in the future of God."