Sunday, December 5, 2010

Divine Justice, Human Tyranny

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it; but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. John 3:8

Is God sovereign over history, or not? Is he sovereign over nature, or not?

It is common for people to cite the horrific events of history as reason either to doubt God's goodness or to doubt his sovereignty, with the result either way that we doubt his existence. It is now also fashionable these days to cite the very mechanism by which human beings came into existence--biological evolution--as evidence that God doesn't exist.

Christians, in response, are prone to answering with theological excuses connecting the fall of Adam with the taint of nature. I won't argue the biblical merits of these excuses one way or another. What I'm interested in is the underlying principle behind such arguments. The complaint is that God doesn't share a basic sense of justice with humans; the defense is that, "Well, yes he does, it's just hard to see it at first."

I question whether this is the proper response to such complaints. Not only does it undermine God's power, but it feeds the human presumption that his own sense of justice is necessarily correct. Yet the same experiences which cause us to question God's justice should perhaps more often cause us to question our own.

Was it not at the height of optimism about our future that humans in recent history caused two world wars? To a large extent, we are still in denial about the fact that it wasn't our constant overt hatred of one another that led to the horror of the holocaust--that is, it wasn't because we weren't civilized. On the contrary, it was precisely because human beings presumed to take control of progress, to take civilization into our own hands and mold it according to a human vision of social justice, that we arrived at Hitler and Stalin. We are still in denial about this, because we are all too convinced that our sense of justice is basically right--why would anything go wrong if not for those few exceptionally evil people who destroy all of our good efforts?

Christians are apt to emphasize God's personal nature. But we do no better than the culture around us if we lose all sense that God's justice is quite distinct from ours. It's worth bearing in mind the experience of Job, who complained against God, only to receive a remarkably austere response from God. Often when we tell ourselves that "God works in mysterious ways" we imagine that in the end we will get some explanation of how, in a complicated by still basically comprehensible way, all of these distressing circumstances somehow work in our favor. God, after all, cares about each of us personally, so perhaps there is an explanation that will satisfy each of us individually in the end. This implicit belief rests on the assumption that our sense of justice needs no fundamental corrections, since it is only lack of information that makes us doubt God's goodness.

If the world around us appears harsh, it is perhaps because we have progressed enough as a civilization to largely evade the harshness of it, so that our encounters with natural difficulties become more intolerable the more we progress. I for one hope this progress continues, but it is not without its frustrations. The temptation that comes with this progress is to think that we are progressing in the only logical direction there is, and that insofar as the world doesn't naturally correspond to the ideal toward which we are progressing, it is therefore evil. Yet the lessons of history and theology ought to give us pause. Are we so certain that the world as it exists prior to the order imposed upon it by humans is evil?

Most of what makes this world so harsh to us is precisely the fact that it is governed by laws, and yet this is simultaneously one of the very things that gives it such beauty. There is a pattern to the way everything in the universe behaves. The world is not unpredictable for lack of order; its unpredictability is a result of its astonishing complexity. This very fact should remind us that, whatever evil we may suffer in this world, things are not fundamentally chaotic, but precisely ordered. I don't think this can be separated from divine justice. Einstein's "cosmic religious feeling" ought to have some weight for all of us, even those of us who (unlike Einstein) believe in a personal God.

But laws imply certain inescapable truths. Play with fire, and you get burned. Get in the path of a disease or natural disaster and you will face the consequences--even if you are unable to see it coming or to do anything about it. The forces of nature are relentless. They are not, however, arbitrary. All that we face can in theory be well understood. Yet when we don't understand it, we feel that it is unjust. In such a world in which there are fixed rules but we don't have all the information which could help us to predict what the results will be, suffering is inevitable. Even death is inevitable, so long as we have no fountain of life which will continually renew us (and apart from religious claims, I know of no one who claims to have something like this).

It is common for most of us to question why God would subject us humans to the suffering which is inevitable in a world such as the one we live in. But, can we not legitimately ask, why wouldn't he? There may be answers to this that even we humans can understand, though we might not like them. Is there not dignity in learning through pain and suffering? Is there not virtue in dying in order to be part of the cycle of life? When living things die, they do not merely fade out of existence. They become food for other organisms. They give their lives that others may live. This order of things may seem awful from the perspective of humans whose expectations have been formed by religious institutions--especially Christianity!--but some part of us does realize that there is a certain justice in it. And certainly not all religious thought denies this.

The fact that Christianity claims that God offers eternal life doesn't necessarily mean that the Christian must place all of his attempts to justify God in explaining our hope of resurrection. If God is just in ordering the universe as he has, then he is surely just even if humans never receive the gift of eternal life offered by Christ. There are, of course, many questions to be asked about what value our lives have even if we are but mortal (many of which are dealt with in Scripture itself, particularly Ecclesiastes). But the basic point is just this: it is theologically disastrous to assume that God's act of creation ultimately finds justification in satisfying human desires or conforming to human wisdom.

But it is also politically disastrous, and that is the point I find so interesting and troubling. It would be one thing if Christians were to maintain that God is just in spite of all evidence to the contrary, without any evidence that man himself is not the source of all justice. Reality is quite different. Not only are we imperfect--that is forgivable, even if it must be acknowledged--but we are in fact of such a nature that the more we grab control of progress and seek to enact our own vision of justice, the more we destroy ourselves and one another. It is not in seeking what is evil that humans have done the most harm, but in seeking good.

The Christian Left has an insightful critique of the dualism implicit in the economic and social policies of the Christian Right. If you listen to Right-wingers like Jerry Falwell, you will come to believe that because heaven is our true aim, therefore it does not matter whether we have poverty here on earth or whether we put poisonous gases into the air. The world is passing away; we must look to the heavenly kingdom. In response, the Left has rightly insisted that God loves this world, that he is its Creator, and wants to redeem it. We should be filled with a sense of calling to bear witness to God's redemption on this earth through deeds of justice and mercy--and indeed our politics ought to enact God's justice.

Yet this must in turn be resisted by a healthy sense of the utterly distinct character of God's justice. We are not so wise as to ever fully grasp what God is doing with this world. We do not know where the Spirit comes from or where he is going. Our desire to direct God's justice, or to act on his behalf, in order to bring about some preconceived notion of social justice, will lead not to divine justice but to human tyranny.

The simple reason for this is that, quite apart from any questions about how good we are or how much we know, we are simply not God. Christianity often tends to undermine this distinction by focusing on God's personal nature. Yet the more we lose this distinction in our religious life, the more we will lose it in general; and this will have painful consequences.

It is for this reason that we must be vigilant in resisting the modern impulse to control the progress of civilization. It is not because this world is unimportant, but because it is far too important to leave in the hands of frail human beings--even (or especially) those with good intentions.

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