Wednesday, April 22, 2020

On divine judgement in history, part 2

There is a wonderful book in the Old Testament named for its central character, Job. It is set in the ancient near east, at a time when our ancestors had domesticated livestock, established settlements, and formed alliances with neighbouring settlements. A world of networks and interdependency, in which life was no longer terrifying, nor survival all-consuming, and yet lived experience extended significantly beyond human control. A world in which some, at least, had the luxury of telling stories around the campfire; and in which receiving such stories was, if no-longer a necessity of survival, a prerequisite for flourishing. A world that, while far-removed from many of our lives, is not entirely unfamiliar nor consigned to the past.

Within this world, Job stands out as a man committed to being in rightly ordered relationship with others. This approach has served him well, and he is held in respect, by humans and gods alike.

Within this world, but on another level, we meet the gods, beings who are at once active in the world and, to a significant degree, veiled. Over all else is Yahweh. This God is not distant, but takes an active interest in (his) creation, in the experience and wellbeing of every creature. Yahweh exercises this concern both directly and, befitting one who delights in relationship and engaging others, through the gods who proceed from him. As the story unfolds, we are drawn into conversation between Yahweh and the satan, a restless god who is out of sorts. Like Yahweh himself, the satan explores the earth; but, in contrast, seems to find nothing in which to delight. Yahweh invites him to consider Job, in whom Yahweh delights; Job is known to the satan, who remains unimpressed. They enter into something of an experiment, in which Job is an unwitting player, but not, I would suggest, a plaything. At all times, Job retains agency.

As Job’s world collapses around him, his friends gather. And the first thing that they do is brilliant. For seven days, they simply sit with Job, in silence, in solidarity with him in the experience of which he cannot make sense, in solidarity with his suffering. These are the very best of friends. But after seven days, they break; entering, tentatively at first and with increasing boldness, into speculative problem-solving—in which they are further wrong-footed by the counsel of the satan by night. Meanwhile, Yahweh alone, present but in the shadows, keeps silence.

Eventually, when everyone else comes to an end of words, Yahweh rouses himself to speak; an act that stirs up a whirlwind, in whose wake job and his friends receive revelation. Yahweh’s speech is primarily a list of the wonder of creation, and his particular delight in and concern for all that he has made. Again, this is not a distant God who already knows all that can be known, but a person who seeks personal knowledge, shared experience, relationship. And who longs for creation, even rebellious gods, to enter into peace and joy.

Within his list of examples, Yahweh cites two famously untameable beasts, the Behemoth and the Leviathan. Some have sought to explain these as the hippopotamus and crocodile, but these are beings of cosmic mythic proportions, not simply zoological ones. They cannot be stilled with nets and spears, but only by one who is willing to hear their pain, their suffering, their turmoil, until it is spent and calm returns. Such is the wisdom and the love of this God.

In the end, and to the dis-satisfaction of many who read but do not listen, Yahweh restores Job’s lost fortune; and also calls on him to intercede on behalf of his tone-deaf friends, who were not attuned to pain.

What relevance might this have to the current novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, to God’s loving attention to his creation, and the exercising of divine judgement?

Firstly, this outbreak might be understood, theologically, as the cry of creation, against humanity, in the face of broken-down relationship. The creatures charged with exercising delegated divine rule, to bring the natural environment back into harmonious balance whenever its equilibrium is threatened by too much chaos, have not acted in good faith. Moreover, their technology will not prevail in subduing this cry, but only loving attention and patient listening. Viruses, like humans, have their place and part to play in the created order. But beneath the shrill notes of the novel coronavirus, we are called to hear the deeper parts of earth and sea and skies.

Secondly, then, we might speak of God’s judgement as being, ‘I will listen; I will hear your petition, and decide justly.’ This includes upholding the cause of the wider creation as a whole, but also the individual personal laments of humanity caught up in the bigger picture of suffering. That the earth has a legitimate plea in regard to exploitation at the hands of humans does not rule out the possibility that, satan-like or even satanically provoked, a virus should not overstep its bounds. All pain, including all human pain, matters to this God, who alone is capable of the eternal listening, active, attentive, that can draw all things into reconciliation.

If, then, the world is more mysterious, and more interconnected, than we imagine, might this present moment be a summons to appear in court, to come face-to-face with a merciful and breathtakingly daring judge?

And if so, might that have a baring on the restoration that will follow?

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