Thursday, September 1, 2011

How God Acts

Shane Claiborne, who is usually one of my spiritual guides, posted a cute story the other day in which a child asked him whether God sent Hurricane Irene. The gist is this: No, Virginia, God does not cause hurricanes.

And while the basic sentiment is important--God does not cause disasters--there is more to be said. God does not cause disasters, but what does God do? We often talk about God's action in terms of what God does not do, but speaking about what God is not only takes you so far. I am very sensitive to the notion that God stands above language, and thus ascribing qualities to God is dangerous business; in some ways, the more we describe God in human terms, the more we get away from who God actually is.

I also believe that we must be very, very careful about talking about what God does, because it is not such a far leap to start assuming that God is in control of everything, or to ascribing characteristics to God that are more about our understanding of the world than of God's understanding of the world. As the writer Anne Lamott says, you can be sure you've created God in your own image when God starts hating all the same people that you do.

So a spirit of humility is called for in all of this, but a spirit of humility is called for in most things. Such concerns should not keep us from speaking about how God acts

I do not care to pen a lengthy excursus on the myriad ways in which God works in the world. There are far more ways that God works than I am able to list, and besides, any such list is by its definition inadequate to describe God.

What I do want to do, though, is affirm the historically Christian notion that God works through people. As Claiborne says, it is God who saves the world, not humans, but to stop there is to do a great disservice to God's call to faithfulness, not to mention Wesley's call to acts of mercy.

So let me bracket the issue of God's saving act and simply assume that God's action in the world is understood. God is at work in the world. God is interested in saving the world. This is well and good.

But to stop the conversation after this, to say only "God does not send hurricanes" is to miss an essential part of the equation: that is, the end result. It is good to say that God does not send hurricanes, but hurricanes exist, so what should we do about it? How do humans react in the face of something like a hurricane? Ignore this part of the equation, and you'll find yourself only looking up--not out, but only up--and it will not be long before you trip on your shoelaces.

I have a hard time understanding why, in the doing of theology, we are only concerned with that which comes "down" from God? Why is a simple "no" sufficient to end the conversation about God sending hurricanes? Why are we only concerned about what God does?

I must admit that when I hear these kinds of answers, I cannot help but feel that we focus on what God does so that we do not have to worry about what we are doing.

We worry about whether God creates hurricanes so that we can get away with living as we always have, pretending that there is nothing to be done about problems here and now.

If the focus is on how God acts--and this is an important question, do not get me wrong--but if the entire focus is on how God acts, then there is no room to evaluate how we act, to think about the ways in which God works through us. After all, God working through us does not take the pressure off. It is not as if God, when needing to use me for some divine purpose, pushes a button, turns off my brain and puts me on autopilot, until the purpose is finished. I have initiative, and a brain, and emotions of my own, and until I am receptive to God's calling for my life--until I make a conscious decision to live as if God's purpose of Love might just be made manifest in me--I am not fully participating in God's plan for the world.

For as much as we talk about free will--for as much as we talk about the ways in which we are responsible for ourselves--we neglect the part about how free will requires something of us beyond simply agreeing to "accept" Christ. Even the language of acceptance means more than simply saying the words. Accepting Christ means accepting our great role in creation, accepting that God's love works through us when we serve, accepting that there is work to be done.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is much more than "No." The answer is even much more than "God came to save the world," though this part is vital.

The answer to "Does God send hurricanes?" is this: "God came to save the world, and while God does not send hurricanes, God does send us. Let us go."

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