A couple of Sundays back we returned to some of the ideas Thomas Jay Oord shared at Cafe Theologique back in March. I very digilently took notes and then very clumsily lost them, so I’m afraid I will be reflecting on what I can remember, rather than faithfully recording what Simon shared and we discussed.
The first thing Oord says is that God is spirit and so cannot directly effect the material world. I have never really thought of God having a corpereal form except in Christ, so on one level this doesn’t come as any kind of surprise, but saying that spirit cannot interact with matter has all sort of consequences for how we understand and live out our faith. It is a powerful reminder of our responsibility to be good stewards and good neighbours – if “Christ has no body now on earth but yours” (Tereas de Avila) then we must act in the world on his behalf – but it is not clear what it means for miracles.
How can an eye or a leg grow back if God cannot work with that tissue? Do our cells have a kind of consciousness that God can speak to? Or do all miracles have a rational physical explanation that has nothing to do with God at all? I have absolutely no idea [EDIT: not quite true, I have a very definite idea that miracles are of God, even if I don’t know exactly how] but I do wonder if saying that God is spirit might not be the same as saying that God cannot interact with matter. We take our body/soul dualism from Greek philosophy, but Jewish thought seems to have a more integrated view, and so perhaps spirit and matter are more interconnected than we know.
In case the picture wasn’t enough of a clue, the second thing Oord says is that God is love and that love is always uncontrolling. That God is love is unarguably one of the central tenets of our faith, and that love is uncontrolling seems to capture something we instinctively know about love, but together these statements add further challenge to the idea that divine sovereignty means that God is in control. That may feel uncomfortable and disorientating, like taking away a safety net or leaving everything open to chaos, but I was interested to find that when I looked for verses from scripture about God being in control, what I got were verses about God being faithful and holding authority. God can still be engaged and working out divine purposes, without acting like the Almighty Micromanager.
And surely we must say that God acts (whatever that looks like) in ways that are liberating rather than coercive, or we find ourselves with a Divine Dictator who looks nothing like the Lord who is gracious and compassionate, and nothing like the Christ who washed the feet of his dicsiples and gave himself up to death on a cross. As Bishop Curry reminded us, there is power in love, but it is the power to redeem and to transform, not to control or to manipulate.
[By the way, if you’ve not seen the sermon from the royal wedding yet, go watch it and then put it on repeat and pin it to your fridge.]
So I am totally with Oord on his second point, and I’m most of the way there on his first, but I am still working through everything that it all means, not least for the way I understand prayer. My experience and my reading of scripture tell me that I live in dynamic relationship with God, so that while I can no more coerce God than God can control me, God hears my prayers and is moved by them and can respond to them. That is a wonderful thing, but it does leave me with some tricky questions about what is happening when God doesn’t seem to be responding.
Simon presented one possibility, which suggests that because God works through influence and collaboration and not direct action, God’s will can be thwarted. There is a scriptural basis for this in an odd story from Daniel 10, when the man with a face like lightning who appears to the prophet says that he was delayed by the Prince of Persia, but was able to helped by the chief of princes, who the context suggests is a kind of territorial spirit. This suggests that God may want to speak and act through agents, but these may be prevented by things that are happening in the spiritual realm, and perhaps in the physical realm too, if we can also be agents of God.
I appreciate that there are a whole host of possible repsonses to this idea, and I admit that mine are mixed, but I do think there is something strangely comforting in the idea that God is trying to heal and to comfort and to renew, it just doesn’t always happen because there are things that are stopping it. It doesn’t lessen the pain of disease or depression or disaster, but it does help me to think that those things are the symptoms of a broken world which even God must negotiate, and not the collateral damage left by a God who powers through creation and ignores its cries.