Sermon: God creates in freedom
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
GOD CREATES IN FREEDOM Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Cyclones, Typhoons …
Psalm 103, Isaiah 61:1-6; Colossians 4:7-18
Dr. Raymond Pelly, Priest Associate
Recent events – the Tsunami in Samoa, the deadly earthquake in Sumatra, the flooding in the Philippines and South East Asia – have reminded us (if we needed reminding) that Mother Nature can be cruel and destructive – as well as benign and nourishing.
‘So be it’, we might say. There is then the added question: although extreme weather events cannot be directly attributed to Global Warming, it is a fact that such events have increased markedly in recent times.
Faced with this we might simply concede that the physical processes of the universe are random and meaningless; that all we can do in face of them is to avoid natural disasters (wherever possible) and do our best to mitigate their effects.
In a nutshell, that is the accepted wisdom of our times. For Christians (and other believers), however, the occurrence of random and highly destructive natural disasters poses an acute problem. How can a God who is supposed to be omnipotent, loving and just allow such things to happen?
Let me concede straightaway that I don’t have THE ANSWER – perhaps there is no such thing. Nevertheless, I do want to suggest an approach that others – whether believers or not – may find helpful.
My approach begins by saying GOD CREATES IN FREEDOM; or, more precisely, the creation of our universe – and perhaps other universes – and the emergence of sentient life (wherever this may occur) is a grand experiment (or exploration of) freedom and its infinite realizations. This statement of principle has several corollaries.
About God: The God who creates in freedom must allow real autonomy and independence not only to people but also to the physical processes that make up the universe. This means that God forgoes the power to intervene (or interfere) in what is developing in the universe in general and in human life in particular. Of God therefore we could say: that God has faith in the creation, is faithful to it, cares for it and, when push comes to shove, enters it with a view to suffering its horrors or sharing its joys. In this way, God transforms it from within. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the story (or parable) of how that takes place.
About the Universe: Of the universe we should have to say that IT’S FOR REAL. For how else could real life come into being with all its miseries and splendours? That means, as already said, that the processes that go to make up the universe have their own autonomy whether this be the Big Bang at its origin, the birth and death of stars, the fiery core of our planet, its tectonic plates, oceans, or the emergence of life in all its complexity and beauty. Christians call this universe – the universe as it actually is – CREATION. That means that whether we’re talking about origins, evolution or the future we have to keep saying GOD. Why? Because if we don’t, we miss the point: why there is a universe at all; why there is something rather than nothing; what in moral and spiritual terms the universe has the potential to deliver – in partnership with God, that is.
Here we have to prick the Dawkins bubble: that only an inadequate, Sunday School idea of God can fail to see that the God who creates in freedom is the ONE who can relate to the creation as an evolving exploration in freedom be this in evolution itself or as inclusive of naturally caused events – for humans, disasters.
About us: We, we might say, have to learn to grow up, get hold of the fact that LIFE IS FOR REAL: that we live in a world – part of a larger universe – where there are earthquakes and tsunamis, where some people are afflicted with disease or misfortunes and die. If, by our piety, we think we can avoid this, we are kidding ourselves – as has been proved over and over again. God is not some kind of cosmic protection service or insurance cover.
So where does this leave us? For myself – in relation to the horror of natural disasters or even historical events like wars or the Holocaust – I have two questions for God (or claims on God).
1. What has God to do with the victims, the dead? 2. What has God to do with the living, the victim-survivors?
In relation to the dead, I would say this: that the God who creates in freedom is the God of FAITHFUL LOVE, the one who takes full responsibility for the creation and all that happens within it, including the horrors. We can go further: that God’s peculiar empathy for the victims (and the dead generally) is borne out of what one theologian has called God’s own ‘horror participation’. (1) In the cross God discovered with fullest intensity and in a way that God alone can know, WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A VICTIM. This then is the SPIRIT in which God shares their suffering and the compassion with which God gathers them to Godself. For the God who creates in freedom and shares suffering is also the God who is free – perhaps under an obligation – to do justice to those who suffer the terrible injustice of having their life cut short by natural disasters, disease or malign human agency. In love and in care, God is the one who – in the end – will always have the last word.
In relation to the living, simply this: that in the global world we now inhabit NOBODY NEED DIE ALONE OR SUFFER ALONE. Perhaps for the first time we are in a position to comprehend Paul’s word:
We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose again, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. Romans 14:7-9
Paul is referring to the Christ who, in his Passion, whatever his sufferings, cared for and reached out to all around him – as he does to us today. What this says, then, is that the universe is set in the mode (or key) of CARE; care, that is, in the mode of the God who cares passionately for life, this great experiment in freedom of which we are a part; and care, finally, as the invitation to all of us – whether by our actions or by our prayers – to make all the realities we experience – be they natural disasters or the gross injustices of suffering or disease – the occasions where, with renewed intensity and in a perspective of HOPE, we care passionately for each other with all the passion with which God cares for us. For is not this freedom to love the very freedom that God intended for the creation all along?
But having said that, and lest it should sound cheap, we have to remind ourselves what we are talking about:
Walls of water washing people and villages away Huge mudslides burying whole communities Cities reduced to rubble with high loss of life Floods inundating cities and whole landscapes
And much more.
(1) Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors. The Coherence of Christology, Cambridge University Press, 2006.