Characters of God – A Work in Progress

I have been debating about sharing work in progress on the blog. A group of us discussed it at this year’s SBL (podcast here) and most seemed to feel that publishers wouldn’t mind at that it would be a good way to get feedback from others in the field. So today I will take the plunge. I think my plan will be to publish a portion each weekend, not too long to be onerous on the reading, but long enough to give you a sense of what it is about. Later this spring I hope to also share some of my academic writing (I am presenting a paper at the IOTS).

Today I will begin with a portion from the first chapter of a devotional work I am preparing. It is still being considered by the editors, so I will not say too much about that, but the audience is “educated Christian laity.” Here is the “catalogue copy” from the proposal.

Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were not just the first family of the Bible; they were the first “dysfunctional” family. Rebekah guided her youngest son Jacob’s scheme to steal his father’s blessing from their eldest son Esau. For Christians accustomed to reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ perfect life the stories of the flawed and yet revered figures in the Old Testament raise many questions. Genesis is a book that seems so familiar and yet, like much of the OT narrative, it requires careful reading and thoughtful reflection. The reward of such study is the realization that in these stories we can find ourselves: people who struggle with family problems and relationship issues, all the while trying to live out the life to which God has called them.

So, let’s begin at the beginning. The portion I would like to share today follows an introduction and comes from my considering the nature of humanity from the perspective of the Episcopal Church’s catechism.

Who were we in the beginning? (And why is it really all that important?)

In Gen. 1 humanity is presented as the pinnacle of creation. We are the last things created, the culmination of all creative activity. But we are more than just the last (or first) among equals. We are significantly different than the rest of creation; we were created in God’s image. But what does that mean? For millennia many people better than I have struggled to understand what exactly it means to be made “in the image of God.” This does not absolve us from the wrestling with the question since it is a struggle that we must participate in if we are to be God’s people. Like many challenges, we grow stronger and better through the process of the inquiry even if we never come to a complete answer to the question.

One example of a concise answer can be found in the Episcopal Church’s catechism.

Human Nature:
Q. What does it mean to be created in the image of God?
A. It means that we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God.

There are many fruitful ways that we could look at this question and this catechism provides us with a useful framework for our brief discussion. In the formulation above the “freedom to make choices” is the primary description of God’s character. Indeed it is a fundamental truth that we were created with free will and the ability to exercise our free will lives in tension with God’s sovereign call. God could have, of course, created us as some sort of automatons, incapable of not obeying him, yet being “in his image” we do have the ability to decide when and how to act. This means that we may freely love and obey God. The opposite is true as well and in the case of Gen. 3.6 both Eve and Adam exercised their freedom of choice and disobeyed God. The result was a breach in our relationship with God that can only be fully healed through Christ and the choice he made to become our sacrifice.

To Love

The catechism rightly implies that all other actions, to love, to create, etc., flow from our ability to make choices. As I noted above, God could have created us so that we had no choice but to love and obey him, but we might rightly wonder if it would be love at all if it were not freely given. With love the volition is critical to its character. If we give a beggar on the street some food so that he stops calling after us we have done a good thing, providing him with food, but we have not loved him since our motivation was to achieve our comfort. Without love our actions are at best good deeds, worthy of doing, but not acts of love. We love others when we take action to benefit them out of choice; we act because they need our action and we do it even when it is of no advantage to us. Consider the famous list of love’s actions that Paul gives us in 1 Cor. 13.4-8.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

In all these things love is choice made for the benefit and good of the other. Notice that Paul does not say that love is to like one another. In fact, I think most of us would admit that we often find we do not like those whom we know we are to love. Love is not about affection instead it is about serving others. In short, love is the choice to place the well being of others before own needs and desires. Christ’s sacrifice represents the ultimate in love and servanthood, not only in his obedience to the Father in becoming incarnate, but also in giving up his life in order to repair the damage that our own acts of choice created.

To Create

Dorothy L. Sayers, famous mystery novelist, friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkein and as fine a theological thinker as any of them, wrote a brilliant slim volume called The Mind of the Maker. Her basic premise is that since God is the primary maker, creator, and artist the sort of person who could best understand God should actually be an artist. She goes on to examine the nature of God from the perspective of an author and artist and offers a number of important observations.
Sayers points out that when we first read that humanity is created in God’s image the author has not yet told us much about God.

Looking at man, [the author of Genesis] sees something essentially divine, but when we turn back to see what he says about the original upon which the “image” of God was modeled, we find only the single assertion, “God created.” The characteristic common to God and man is apparently that: the desire and the ability to make things.1

If free will, the ability to make choices and act upon them, is the most fundamental trait of God that we reflect it is also important to recognize with Sayers that God’s will is first expressed through the act of creating. The fist expression of God’s volition is to create the heavens and the earth, to bring order out of the chaos that is before him. It is important to remember that God’s creative acts of Gen. 1 are not simply or even primarily to create “something out of nothing” but rather to bring order to the substances already present.

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” This is the second verse of the Bible and holds within itself an important fact often overlooked. While God is preexistent so to is the earth, darkness, and the deep. This does not mean that God did not also create these things, but that their creation is irrelevant to the story of Gen. 1 and is therefore not recounted. Instead Genesis tells the story of how God not only created ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” such things as the birds, fish, and humans, but that before all of that God brought order to a disordered and unruly cosmos. God’s first act is of course to create light and then he immediately begins to take the formless and void and provide it with form and function. The water is separated vertically and horizontally; the “firmament” is established to separate the water in the heavens from those covering the earth and then they are separated again to reveal dry land upon which vegetation can grow.

Before God creates the plants, the fish, the beasts of the field or even the stars of heaven, he brings order to that which is disordered. The water and darkness that covered everything were given places and functions that in turn provided the environment needed for later inhabitants and offered the sustenance needed for their life and growth. Why is this long exposition relevant? Because these are all things that we too can do! We cannot call into being fish to swarm in the seas or birds to fly in the air, but we can cultivate a garden to provide food for a family, whether or own or a family of blue jays. We can channel raging rivers to provide cultivation for fields and protect homes. On a more intimate setting we can create environments in our homes, churches, and work place that are loving and supportive and that allow others to flourish and grow. In all of this we are reflecting the God’s creative abilities. It is part of our nature and character and calling to bring order and life to places that are chaotic and dead.

The opposite is of course true as well. We have the ability to destroy the order that is already present, causing pain and confusion and even devastation. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, our intentions are good and right. For example, those of us who live near the mouth of the Mississippi River have learned all too well that our efforts at controlling the flow of this powerful river in order to develop farm land, aid navigation of the river to increase commerce, and protect homes has actually exacerbated the destruction that occurs with flooding that is a normal and natural occurrence. We reflect God most clearly then when our actions are truly for the benefit of all, when we are truly setting something in a right condition rather than merely changing it to meet our desires. This brings us directly to God’s first commands unique to humanity.

“And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’” (Gen. 1.28). In Chapter 1 after God creates each group of animals he commands them to “be fruitful and multiply” but to humans he gives the added charge that they are to “fill the earth and subdue it.” This means, among many other things that we will return later in this chapter, that humans are to control and to train or tame the earth and all its creatures that God just made. This new world will require, God knows, the effort of human will to bring it to its full realization. What God has created is perfect, it is “very good,” but it is not done. The creative work of subduing, caring, and, in the words of Gen. 2.15, tilling and keeping the earth and its creatures belongs to humanity. We are partners with God in the ongoing creation of this world.

Our creating is thus more than just meeting our needs and here again we find that we are separated from other creatures. Some may claim that birds can build nests and beavers construct dams and so we create homes and cars; we are no different than the beasts of the field or the birds of the air. Yet animals create out of a necessity, as sometimes do humans as well, but rarely if ever do animals create for the joy of the making of the thing. And while we are unable, like God, to create something out of nothing, we are able to take and transform the matter of this universe into astounding objects and artifacts. Often these objects are primarily for survival, ploughs, shoes, homes, and yet as soon as our basic needs are met some amongst us turn our thoughts and talents to the beauty of the thing. The plough becomes more efficient or perhaps a moving Calder-like mobile. The shoes gain impossibly high heels in colors not seen in nature and the homes, well we know all too well that homes in the United States can grow far beyond the needs of any who might dwell in them.

The challenge for Christians is to take seriously the call to create and bring order to this world without destroying what God has given us or making it the object of our worship. Our God-given creative ability leads us to embellish and delight in form, color, and shape, but we must shun the idolatry of beauty for its own sake. Often, as Paul argues with regard to meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor. 8), the perception of the individual will determine when the line has been crossed from an expression of divinely inspired creation to indulgence of the eyes. As someone who grew up in a church with a very bare, Celtic cross on a single stain glass window and one relatively small Celtic cross on a table the iconoclast came out in me when I first viewed the detailed stain glass windows of a Catholic church and the highly descriptive crucifix over the altar. But when I spoke with parishioners and priests and found that when they knelt in prayer before the cross they had no illusions of worshiping the wood or even admiring the craftsmanship I realized that for them these objects were gateways to worship and portals to prayer. The objects that had been created in devotion to God were being used as aids in the worshippers devotion to God.

God has created us to be able to continue the ordering and tending of his creation and in our reflecting of his nature we also add to its beauty through our own objects of creation. Yet we have not even mentioned procreation. God’s first command to humanity is “to be fruitful and multiply” and often the discussion of our creative nature tends to focus upon our ability to procreate, for a man and a woman to come together and produce a child. This is certainly the closest we humans come to creating something ex nihilo, but there are two reasons why I have given a very few comments to the matter. First, it is a gift we share with all living things. It is true that we are some of the few, if not the only, species that can choose when and if to procreate. Yet in this matter we are closer to the animals that to God. God clearly did not produce this world or us through coitus nor did he produce his Son in such a manner. I do not mean to denigrate this most intimate of human gifts in the least, but I think that this is an aspect of our creaturely nature that is more flesh than spirit, as Paul might say, and as such no more of a reflection of God than is our physical shape of two legs and two arms.

Second, not everyone is blessed with the ability to have children or even the calling to be in a physical and marital relationship that might lead to children. These people do not reflect God’s image any less or less perfectly than those of us who have been able to conceive and produce children. They are still made in the image of God and as such possess the potential and traits that all humans have to mirror our creator. When we make procreation or even the ability to create works of fine art central to our understanding of the image of God we deny many of the realization that they too are made in his image and are responsible to fulfill our calling as such. This is the challenge of being creatures and creators: that we bring order without creating disorder; that we create beauty without idolatry; and that we be fruitful as well as nurturing.

To Reason

Our intellect, our ability to do more than problem solve, but also to ruminate, contemplate, and meditate further sets us apart from the animals and is a result of our being created in the very image of God. Humans alone consider and propose theories as to how we came to be and, more importantly, why we are here. This is the heart of reason, to seek the explanation, the why of this, that, and everything. God is reason. He is the explanation of all questions. To put it another way, God is the reason (noun) and by creating us in his image he enables us to reason (verb) therefore whenever we exercise the faculty of reason we are in fact seeking God. Newton, Darwin, Einstein, were each reflecting and seeking God’s image as they considered not just how but why things happen as they do. When Christians debate the mechanics of Creation, asking did God use evolution as a means to bring about life or did he simply speak and the life instantly appeared, we know that whatever our conclusions the answer is God. No matter how he did it, it was God who created this world.

We have the faculty, the ability to reason and yet all too often we choose to employ it without recourse to God, the source of reason. Once again we find that the story of Adam and Eve provide our primary example. When Eve looked at the fruit she saw that it was “a delight to the eyes.” She then concluded, guided by her own experience of “seeing it with her own eyes,” that the serpent was correct, that the eating the fruit would open her eyes and make her like God. Her reasoning should have brought her back to God. “Yes the fruit is pleasing to the eyes,” she might have thought. “After all God had made it, but why did God say we shouldn’t eat it?” The questioning of God’s commands is not sinful or wrong. Quite the contrary, in asking why God has ordered this world in such a way we are led back to contemplating the nature and character of God, a truly holy pursuit. But when we do not recognize God in this process we, like Eve, can come to erroneous conclusions and choose to reject God’s will in place of our own.

Just as with our ability to create we must exercise our ability to reason in a productive and holy manner. Our contemplations of science, politics, theology, all things must return in some way to a contemplation of God and his order if we are to come to any truly rational conclusions. When left to our own abilities we are all too adept at justifying whatever conclusions we desire. For example, while lecturing on the Ten Commandments I once asked a room full of lawyers to define “apodictic” (absolute) law. None of them could provide a definition. I was shocked until one, the dean of a local law school, offered the explanation that “any good lawyer can tell you there is no such thing as an absolute law.” If we bring our ability to reason to bear on a situation without placing it within the proper framework of God’s law and love the conclusions at which we arrive will be at best incomplete and at worst disastrous as one wrong deduction leads us to a chain of errors, moving ever farther away from God.

1) Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 22. Originally published in 1941.

The rest of this chapter continues in a similar vein, following the catechism and asking what it means to live in harmony with creation and with God.Please let me know what you think.This sort of writing is somewhat new to me and I am not sure I have the hang of it. I have learned from my wife, however, that the only way to become a better writer is to write more.

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