December 16, 2017

Relational God, relational creation

angels

Avraham welcoming the three angels, Nachson

For your contemplation today, here is more from Terence Fretheim on the “fundamental relational character” of God and the creation.

• • •

A basic claim I wish to make about the Old Testament understanding of creation is that it has a fundamental relational character.

…Crucial in thinking through biblical texts regarding creation is the reader’s understanding of the God portrayed therein. The imaging of the God of the Bible has tended toward extremes. On the one hand, in a kind of deistic move, God is imaged as a sovereign and aloof landlord, removed from too close a brush with the world; on the other hand, God is imaged as being in absolute control of the world, even to the point of micromanagement. If one or the other image is the primary way in which we portray the biblical God, then we human beings, created in the image of God, are encouraged to be either a passive overseer or a dominating subject in control of the created order. Our most basic images of God will shape our lives, willy-nilly, including how we think about the larger environment in which we live.

…Biblical metaphors for God, with few if any exceptions, have relatedness at their very core (e.g., husband-wife; parent-child; teacherstudent). 79 Even nonpersonal metaphors are understood in relational terms (e.g., Deut 32: 18; Ps 31: 2-3; Exod 19: 4, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself “). To characterize these metaphors generally, they are usually personal rather than impersonal, ordinary rather than extraordinary, concrete rather than abstract, everyday rather than dramatic, earthly rather than “heavenly,” and secular rather than religious. This earthy type of language used for God ties God closely to the creation and its everyday affairs. These kinds of images for God were believed to be most revealing of a God who had entered deeply into the life of the world and was present and active in the common life of individuals and communities. To use Brueggemann’s language, “the human person is a person in relation to Yahweh, who lives in an intense mutuality with Yahweh.”

…The world of the Hebrew Bible is a spiderweb of a world. Interrelatedness is basic to this community of God’s creatures. Each created entity is in symbiotic relationship with every other and in such a way that any act reverberates out and affects the whole, shaking this web with varying degrees of intensity. Being the gifted creatures that they are, human beings have the capacity to affect the web in ways more intense and pervasive than any other creature, positively and negatively, as we know very well in our own time.

This point may be illustrated by the way in which the Old Testament speaks of the effect of the moral order upon the cosmic order. That is, human and nonhuman orders are so deeply interconnected that human sin may have devastating effects on other creatures. The ground puts forth thorns and thistles for Adam (Gen 3: 17); the flood is a violent convulsing of the creation that is explicitly linked to cosmic and human violence (Gen 6: 11-13); the story of Sodom and Gomorrah tells of an ecological disaster because of human wickedness (see Gen 13: 10-13; 19: 24-28); the plagues are adverse ecological effects because of the anticreational behavior of Pharaoh and his minions (Exodus 7– 11); and the prophets again and again link human sin and adverse cosmic effects (e.g., Jer 4: 22-26; Hos 4: 1-3).

It is important to recognize that such an understanding of interrelatedness stands over against any notion of a static or mechanistic world, as we will note. Given the genuineness of these relationships, there is a degree of open-endedness in the created order, which makes room for novelty and surprise, irregularities and randomness. To be sure, there are the great rhythms of Gen 8: 22 (see Jer 31: 35-37): seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night. But, there is no little play in the system; one might speak of a complex, loose causal weave. The God speeches in the book of Job, with their witness to the complexity and ambiguity of the creation, are exemplary illustrations of this kind of world.

That the world is so interrelated makes our attempt to understand how God faithfully relates to its creatures more complex. To speak very generally, God so relates to this interrelated world that every movement in the web affects God as well; God will get caught up in these interconnections and work within them for the sake of the future of all creatures. Or, in other terms, we might say that God honors this interrelatedness and, in acting, takes into account both the order and the play of the creation. God works from within a committed relationship with the world and not on the world from without in total freedom. God’s faithfulness to promises made always entails the limiting of divine options. Indeed, such is the nature of this divine commitment that the relationship with Israel (and, in a somewhat different way, the world) is now constitutive of the divine identity. The life of God will forever include the life of the people of God as well as the life of the world more generally.

Most basically, the Hebrew Bible urges us to think of God as being in a genuine relationship with every aspect of the creation and intimately involved with every creature. In short, we need an understanding of the God-world relationship in the Hebrew Bible that takes the word relationship seriously, which will in turn necessitate some recharacterization of traditional portrayals of the God of the Old Testament.

…God’s relationship with the world is comprehensive in scope: God is present and active wherever there is world. God does not create the world and then leave it, but God creates the world and enters into it, lives within it, as God. Inasmuch as God fills heaven and earth (Jer 23: 24), God is a part of the map of reality and is relational to all that is not God, that is, to every creature. In other terms, God is present on every occasion and active in every event. From the macrocosmic to the microcosmic, there is no getting beyond the presence of God. God cannot be evicted from the world or from any creature’s life. At the same time, God’s presence does not mean either divine micromanagement or a divine will that is irresistible, and this is so because of the kind of relationship of which we have spoken. To claim that “the world is full of God” also means that the world, though filled with God, does not cease to be the world— or there would be nothing left for God to fill. The world retains its integrity as creature even while filled with the presence of the Creator. Nor, as noted, does God cease to be transcendent by becoming so involved in the life of the world. God is creator, not creation, but God is deeply caught up in the life of creatures for purposes, finally, of a new creation.

• Terence Fretheim
God and World in the Old Testament (Chapter One)

Comments

  1. Phil Dickens says:

    A very interesting excerpt. I especially the balance this perspective gives between immanence and transcendence, free will and predistion.

  2. Phil Dickens says:

    Please insert “like” after especially. It got eaten by the computer gremlins, lol.

  3. Hmmm, I guess everybody’s worn out from yesterday’s conversation, which was great, by the way. Chaplain Mike, you and the others do a great job of consistently putting forth interesting topics and diverse points of view to ponder; you are the spark that ignites the discussions and this site is fortunate to have such a variety of commentators that are able to voice their respective opinions in an articulate and irenic manner–for the most part 😉 I have learned so much from those who comment here. Thank you all.

    I think I’m going to have to order this book. The relational aspect he emphasizes seems to make a great deal of sense both from what we see in the Bible and in life. This phrase rings true:

    “God works from within a committed relationship with the world and not on the world from without in total freedom. God’s faithfulness to promises made always entails the limiting of divine options.”

    “Limiting of divine options” is exactly what Christ did in the kenosis and, therefore, is in keeping with God’s character.

  4. Robert F says:

    Do we really want to call the divine fire-bombing of Sodom and Gomorrah an “ecological disaster”? Were the plagues visited on Egypt “adverse ecological effects”? I think typifying those Biblical accounts of divine judgment in this way distorts the meanings and concerns driving the stories by anachronistically retrojecting our own preoccupations on them. That’s a bridge too far.

    • You may be reading your own ideas about ecology into Fretheim’s words. I say “may” because I own the book and did not understand it this way. The way I understood Fretheim, separating “Divine judgment” from “ecological disaster” is a meaningless distinction. While the plagues may be God’s “direct hand” (or some other clunky language), they are no less judgment and the effects of sin than, say, dumping oil in your ground water which ends up poisoning the well. But it has been half a decade already since I read the book, so I may be remembering incorrectly.

      • I agree. His point, expressed in the excerpt, is that the moral world of human behavior is interrelated to the physical world of creation and that it can have profound effects upon it. He’s not using “ecological” in its limited contemporary sense.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          “Ecological” in the sense of you pick up a pebble and find it is in some way connected to everything else in the Cosmos.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    To characterize these metaphors generally, they are usually personal rather than impersonal, ordinary rather than extraordinary, concrete rather than abstract, everyday rather than dramatic, earthly rather than “heavenly,” and secular rather than religious. This earthy type of language used for God ties God closely to the creation and its everyday affairs.

    Again, this ties in with the sheer “earthiness” I’ve come to expect from Jewish theology.

    And the extreme contrast with today’s American Evangelical beliefs, with its Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation, like nothing exists except to Be Personally Saved and Go To Heaven, with as much interrelatedness as a statue standing in a void staring at the smartphone in his hand. (Because “others” outside individual self de facto do not exist.)