Monday, October 8, 2012

musings on suffering and redemption, part 1

When many of us think about suffering and God in the same breath we look for explanations that can make some sense of why God permits suffering to exist in the world he made. However, there really isn’t one that satisfies our intellectual appetite for rational answers and puzzle solving. Scripture tells us in Genesis that evil intruded into the goodness of God’s creation through the free cooperation of our first parents, Adam and Eve, with the evil one. But that story begs the question, why couldn’t God have created in such a way as to preclude the possibility of a Lucifer bent on destroying what God made; so, we come back to mystery.

Notwithstanding the intellectual frustration and skepticism that sometimes makes us want to avert our eyes from the mythic portrayal of humanity’s fall from grace, Genesis 3 does give us a story with which we resonate as human beings. Whether its Yo Yo Ma playing Ennio Morricone, U2 singing Where The Streets Have No Name, the feeling you have when you hold a newborn baby, or that joyful feeling when everything comes together just right at your dinner party - there are moments when we taste a bit of God’s beauty and imagine that there can be more of it, that there should be more of it! Moreover, we feel deep in our bones that it is wrong that there is not more of it. But we also all know in our more honest and humble moments that none of us has clean hands when it comes to our own participation in acts that find their root in that first evil temptation that came to Eve that caused her to doubt God’s goodness and love for her. We all know that we have hurt others and done our part to turn towards selfishness and away from God and what makes for human flourishing.

Since the beginning of Christian theology this acknowledgment that we all have participated in acts that resemble Adam’s and Eve’s fall from grace has been referred to as original sin. Rowan WIlliams’ little summary of what we mean by original sin is really quite helpful: “this is a tangle that goes back to the very roots of humanity.... In humanity's history, the ingrained habit of turning inwards, turning in upon ourselves, is passed on. We learn what we want.... by watching someone else wanting it and competing for it. Before we begin to make choices, our options have been silently reduced in this way.... Something needs to reverse the flow, to break the cycle..... Only a human word, a human act will heal the process of human history; it isn't ideas and ideals that will do this, but some moment in history when relations are changed for good and all, when new things concretely become possible.”

The tangle, as Williams calls it, a painful cycle of suffering and longing for redemption, is just what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:18-30. In vs. 19-23, Paul picks up on the theme of the tragedy of the fall (Genesis 3:16-19), as he evokes the metaphors of that story in a new way that transposes them from local events in the distant past to the universal experience of everyone everywhere. The images of Adam’s and Eve’s suffering (frustration with the soil, pain in childbirth, human to human strife) are transposed into language that describes the universal experience of all of humanity and the whole of creation; the creation itself is in labor pains, and it, along with all of humanity, experiences a painful desire for redemption. However, in this retelling of Genesis 3, the theme of hope that is only hinted at in Genesis 3:15, takes on flesh and blood in Romans 8. Creation’s longing is answered by God, as he remakes the human family after the image of the new Adam and Eve, his son. Jesus is the new character on the stage of re-creation, the firstborn in a large family (Romans 8:29). Jesus is the “human word, human act will heal the process of human history.” This must be, in part, what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.”

So, God’s answer to the problem of evil is a historical one, an existential one. Jesus has come in history to set the human race in a new context, a context of redemption, a large family. In the next of this three part series we will consider what redemptive difference Jesus makes in the here and now.

Questions for reflection:

1.If someone were to ask you how you could possibly believe in the existence of a good God when the world is so messed up how would you respond?

2. Do you resonate with Williams' description of original sin above? Do you think this is a helpful way to talk about the presence of evil and sin in the world?

3. What do we mean when we say that God's response to evil is historical and existential?