27 January 2014

God as Master Storyteller: Picking up the Narrative Threads of an Unfinished and Broken World. . .

Reading through the book of 1 Samuel has left me feeling a bit like Alice falling through the rabbit hole. I mean really! There are stories of lies and deception, murderous intent, jealousy, ambiguous motives, secret anointings, etc., and so long as these help David achieve Kingship they are identified as the will of God! David, as much as we might like to idealize him as a beautiful young shepherd, gifted musician, healer, and noble King, and as often as the Scriptures tell us he has a "good heart," also has some pretty dark aspects to him and sometimes I find him profoundly unlikeable! But somehow all of this, including the machinations, deceptions, lying, etc, "is the will of God." How can this be??? Do the ends justify the means? Do we simply accuse Israel of a primitive and simplistic faith? Do we want to be accused of being naive and credulous ourselves?

Add to all this a really marvelous homily my pastor gave on Sunday in which the affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason" was a central point and refrain and you have something of a snapshot of what I have been meditating on and grappling with this last week.

I believe two things profoundly: 1) not everything that happens is the will of God, and 2) everything happens for a reason. I know these statements seem contradictory but they are actually coherent. How can that be? They come together in a third statement --- the statement Dietrich Bonhoeffer made to complete the first affirmation, namely, "but inevitably, nothing that does happen happens outside the will of God." It is this truth, that nothing happens outside the will of God that allows me to understand and accept the second affirmation, "Everything happens for a reason". However, for me this is not an affirmation that rules out senselessness, absurdity, evil and the powers of sin and death that are NOT of God. Instead it is a statement of faith in God's ultimate capacity as creator and redeemer. It is an affirmation of my belief in God's identity as a Master storyteller and that the unfinished cosmos (including every detail of our own relatively little but infinitely precious lives) are part of  his story and are encompassed by his providence.

I have long believed in the wisdom of Bonhoeffer's position but it was difficult to make clear what it actually meant; certainly it was not identical to the affirmation "everything happens for a reason" --- until last week.

Theologians speak of God telling the story of creation where his "telling" is a creative act of course. Usually we think of God standing "behind the story" and it spreading out before him, but because we are dealing with an evolutionary and "unfinished universe" tending toward the day when God will be all in all, a number of theologians today speak instead of God standing "in front of the story" drawing the story towards its future and completion in him. In other words God creates first of all by summoning something out of nothing and then he summons reality to greater and greater levels of complexity and relatedness in himself. In this perspective God is identified as absolute futurity. Even with this perspective it was very difficult for me to agree with the refrain of my pastor's homily, "Everything happens for a reason!" Again --- until last week.

Staff Lunch and a Halloween Game:

What happened was that as I was meditating on some of this I remembered a game the parish staff had played at the end of a lunch at my pastor's last Halloween; because of this image and along with the theology I had been reading regarding evolution and the unfinished universe, everything fell into place for me. Even more, it added exciting dimensions to my image of God as creator, as Master Storyteller, and as a lover who protects our freedom even as he works to do justice in mercy. The game went like this: every place setting had a slip of paper with a number on one side and a Halloween-related item on the other. The person who was #1 had to begin a narrative and weave their item into it at which point a bell was rung and the person who was #2 had to pick up the threads of the narrative and weave their own item into all of that --- and so on through all 9 or 10 of us.

Now some of the staff were diligent and creative and did as required. They listened, respected the story told by those who had gone before, and tried hard to build on it in a unified and unifying way --- even when their own loosely-planned narrative was now made impossible and had to be sacrificed because of what had come before. Others essentially said to heck with the larger story and used the clue in whatever way they could think of. Some resisted playing altogether. In all cases (except that of the first person's narrative!) threads were dropped and the narrative was fractured into uncounted pieces while each person, limited as we were, muddled through --- managing to link only a few things as we wove our clues into a more or less (usually less!) coherent narrative. To call this challenging, especially after someone had gone their own way in an unrelated story is an understatement. (I was #9 in the queue and my own attempt was a complete and utter failure! However, it etched the game in my mind and is now a failure for which I will always be grateful.)  On the whole our game was more like herding cats than weaving a tapestry or telling a unified story. But it was also reminiscent of a microcosm of sinful, finite humanity trying to "tell" our own stories both with and in spite of the overarching story God is trying to weave together with and through us.

As I thought about the ways we each struggled in this game what I also finally saw clearly was God standing in front of the story working to weave all the threads of all of our lives, and indeed of the entire cosmos together into a coherent whole bringing  it forward into the future of his life and love. The weaving God does is vastly more complex and incomprehensible than the little game we played but he is intelligent, creative and above all, loving enough not to allow anything to get lost or to remain absurd, senseless, ultimately destructive, or unredeemed.

And here is the essence of faith. We trust that God is truly the Master Storyteller who will drop no threads, leave nothing disconnected or senseless, treat nothing as insignificant or forgettable, and will redeem even the darkest threads by providing a context and future for them and all they touch, We trust that eventually all of these will glorify (reveal) God in the overarching story of creation's fulfillment which we call the Kingdom. It is in this way --- and I believe, only in this way --- that we can confidently and critically say everything happens for a reason. Something may be truly senseless or downright evil when it first occurs --- we do not naively deny this nor do we say it was God's will, but, for Christians there is an implicit promise in even these events that God will supply a "reason" for their having happened; God will make them meaningful and bring life out of them. Even the very worst and most godless reality that befalls us participates in this promise.

I think this is an illustration of what Bonhoeffer was saying of course --- inevitably nothing that happens happens outside the will of God. It's also exactly what happens with Jesus' passion and resurrection when God brings life out of death, meaning out of the senseless, and good out of evil, but it was the first time I could see it as the same affirmation I have rejected so often: everything happens for a reason. To be honest, I don't know if this is the way Israel saw creation or the history of its People and the story of David, but I do know that ours is the creator/redeemer God who stands "in front" of the story of our unfinished lives and our unfinished universe constantly summoning things into being even as he also weaves together disparate and broken threads with a love great enough to encompass every darkness and failure along with every bit of light. And we are covenant partners in this affirmation of promise and all-encompassing providence; at every moment we are called to trust in and cooperate with God's unceasing weaving, with, that is, his determined and loving bringing of the story of creation not only into existence but to completion and fullness in Himself.

cf also, John Haught and a Metaphysics of Future and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bearing our Crosses

Postscript, 2/1/14. Tonight as I reflected more on this I was reminded of an old and wonderful folksong by Peter, Paul, and Mary: Weave me the Sunshine. Though not the source of my theology it is an apt bit of punctuation: