More than a story about God

December 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

Whenever there is a catastrophe, there is always someone who will want to step forward to assert that ‘this was God’s will.’ I would wish, sometimes, that my fellow-clergy were less confident of interpreting God’s will as a sound-bite for the media.

It is entirely too easy to step into the breach and declare that we had not been faithful enough, that we had somehow done something wrong, that we are at fault.

The advantage of this approach, of course, is that it takes things that were chaotic, difficult, and scary, and tames them into something we can control. If we observe the commandments, then all will go well. This is the theology of Deuteronomy; this is the theology of those who would declare with confidence that God would punish us because God does not like how we vote.

It is easy to dismiss theology – and to dismiss God – on this basis. You know, leave God to the loonies and the wild-eyed among us.

And there is also the position, much less confident, that God is missing-in-action. Did we not have a covenant of protection with this Being, a statement of belief that tragedy would not happen to us, that the forces of chaos, the dangers of the wilderness, the demons of destruction, would all stay clear of us if we were to ‘observe these commandments that I enjoin you on this day.’

We had a deal. And yet it was not observed. Perhaps God is not all-powerful after all.

In that case, God plays the role of symbolic placeholder in our prayers. A placeholder the same sense that a ‘zero’ is a placeholder: it holds the space open but is not filled with real content.

Why should we care about theology?

What difference, really, does it make if we were to think of God as a bearded gentleman or as an invisible force? Why should it matter whether someone thinks this event or that event is the will of God? Why should we care about theology, especially at a time like this?

Theology defines what is possible in our lives.

To give an example, one rooted in simple logic: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they do not.

This is not a form of magical thinking. Rather, your decision as to whether or not miracles are possible defines whether or not events will qualify or not qualify as miracles in your life.

So, the question becomes: what kind of life do you want to live?

In our portion last week, Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was falsely accused and imprisoned. His early life was a series of tribulations, most of which arise on account of jealousy and ill feelings regarding his capabilities and his virtues. Some of it was his own doing: by all accounts, he was one seriously annoying kid. But his brothers’ reaction was well out of proportion to the reality.

But he is not one to despair. A natural leader, he is able to rise up to a high position though his wits and foresight. When his brothers arrive in Egypt, he is second only to Pharaoh.

He could have them killed, of course, or imprisoned. Instead, he decides to test them, to determine whether they have any regret for their earlier actions. After a couple of ruses, he is satisfied that they would not leave his youngest brother behind, and he reveals himself to them, weeping:

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come forward to me.’ And when they came forward, he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.’”

So, when Joseph says, ‘God sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth,’ I always wonder, how does he know? This is Torah, of course, so of course he knows. But if he were your brother or neighbor, would you not wonder: how does he know?

Perhaps he cannot prove it one way or another, but his optimism seems to be a useful choice.

But there’s still a problem here: we are still left with that canard, ‘it was God’s will.’ If we accept that the good things that happen are God’s will, do we not have to accept the bad as well? Otherwise, we start creating a dualism in God: this part is the ‘good’ god and this part is the ‘bad’ god.

So let’s return to the Joseph story: as it happens, his understanding of God changes as he grows older, and his theology improves.

In next week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years later. And we see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust. After their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. He is, after all, still that powerful. And did he not test them before they reunited? They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

And what is Joseph’s reaction?

He tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

This is a more nuanced theology than what we saw earlier. Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

So, ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in, one in which these things do happen, or one in which they do not? Ask yourself: do we know the reasons why such things occur? Ask yourself: is there something we can do about it?

I will leave it to you to decide whether more or less guns are needed, whether better access to mental health care is needed, whether first-person games like ‘Call of Duty’ create obsessive fantasies or not. Those are social and political questions; they have entered our national debate, as well they should.

Rather, I am here to talk about theology.

Theology is more than a story about God; rather, it is an explanation of our expectations. Should these things happen or not?

Theology defines what is possible in your life: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.

A world where these things happen, or a world in which we have the obligation to see to it that they do not.

What we do not need at this juncture is bad theology.

We do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild. We do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. We do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook.

Rather, if we respond by making it a world where these things do not happen, then we might be able to say: what he had intended for evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.

Copyright 2012 Kari Hofmaister Tuling

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