Reading Chapter 6

God and the World



Who is God?
God is not a being or an object, but the reality that is always with us and for us. 

The classical view of God in the Hebrew and Christian traditions is that God is both transcendent to all reality and totally immanent in all reality.  At times our Biblical tradition stresses God’s transcendence – beyond the world we live in – and then God seems very distant from ordinary life.  At other times our Biblical tradition tells us that God is also immanent – dwelling beyond us but also within our world.

In the neo-classical economic model, God is mostly absent from the world – God is an otherworldly being who designed and set the world in motion, but who acts only occasionally in it. In this model, people are discrete individuals, seeking their own happiness.  In the ecological economic model,  God is present in the world. In this model, people are individuals-in-community; every creature’s breath depends on others.  Which of these models of God best fits reality as we experience it?

God is love:
The many ways theologians say it.

No model for God will ever be an adequate description of God; any model is merely an attempt to express something of God’s being and nature.  But models for God can be seen on a continuum: 

The deistic model sees God as radically transcendent over the world – so transcendent that God and the world are only externally and occasionally related.  This God fits best with the secularized, consumer-oriented economic worldview, which does not need a God who is in, with, and through everything that is. 

The monarchical model sees God as King and Lord and Father – a transcendent God who cares for his people on earth.  This God is an imperial, patriarchal figure whose immanence is shown by divine sacrifice for the sins of the world. 

The dialogic model is more personal. This God is close to human beings, but God’s concern is limited to the inner joys and fears of individual human beings, not to other created beings. 

The organic model sees God as so radically immanent in the world that it is difficult to say how this God is separate from creation. The organic model is an example of pantheism (identifying God and the world). 

The world as the body of God:  The world as God’s body is a form of panentheism, which sees God as greater than the universe, but including and interpenetrating it.  If we see the world as the body of God, we can speak of God as both transcendent and  immanent: God’s Spirit gives life to the universe, and everything in the universe has value because it is a part of God’s body. 

The traditional model of God as a supernatural being is still powerful in American society, and it fits the neo-classical world view, where individuals are free to pursue their own happiness.  But when we image the world as God’s body, we are pointing to a God who is radically present in and to the world – and this God cares about the entire planetary household. 

God as Trinity:
Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer

Human beings are relational: that is, we are not solitary individuals, but individuals-in-community. When we speak about God as Trinity – God as creator, God as liberator, God as sustainer – we are saying that God is also relational.  So the Christian doctrine of the ‘Trinity’ is also a model; it tries to define how God loves the world: by creating, liberating, and sustaining.  Understanding God as creator/liberator/sustainer is especially important if we want to function within an ecological economic worldview.  This economic model envisions human societies, and even a planet, where  justice and sustainability are priorities.  In this model God – the creator/liberator/sustainer – is a down-to-earth householder, and whole universe is God’s household.

God the creator is protective of his/her creation.  Just as human parents would give their lives for their children (and sometimes do), so God’s love for creation is particular, boundless, and total.  Just as artists feel that they are embodied in their work, that who they are is expressed in their creations, so also God’s glory is reflected in each and every creature.

God the liberator continues the work of God as creator; in God the liberator, nothing can separate the world from God’s love.  Since the creation is always meeting all sorts of natural, historical (and increasingly human) forces that would destroy it, the creator God continues to work as liberator.  

God the sustainer is another way the creator/liberator God operates to ensure planetary well-being.  The sustenance – breath and food and all needful things – that creation needs to survive are provided daily and concretely by God. 

And this brings us back to the neo-classical economic worldview.  Does it fit the model of God as creator/liberator/sustainer?  This economic model focuses on individuals and their personal desires; individuality, not relationality, is basic in this worldview. This economic model also divides reality into mind and body, spirit and flesh, humanity and nature.  In this worldview each creature and thing is alone, independent, and whatever has ‘mind’ is superior to all bodily functions and needs. 

What kind of God fits neo-classical economics? In this model God is a super-individual, the utterly transcendent designer of the world, and the mind/spirit who is external to the world but still in charge of it.  In the neo-classical model God is most present just once: in Jesus of Nazareth; and since this God is not continuously in and with the world, this God is only marginally a sustainer.

How is God present in the world?
Different worldviews, different visions

In the neo-classical economic worldview everything, or almost everything, gets along just fine without God.   God is pushed to the margins of the world, and especially into the inner person. 

In the ecological economic worldview, God is never absent.  If this God were absent, nothing else could be present; everything would collapse or disappear, for God is being-itself.  Are we saying that God and the world are identical?  No, but we are suggesting that we need ‘double vision’ to distinguish them.  We need ‘double vision’ because God is always present in mediated form, appearing through something or someone else. 

The world as the ‘body’ of God:  If the world is seen as God’s body, then it is ‘inspirited’ by God and kept alive by the breath of God.   The ecological economic model fits this image of God and the world, because this God is present wherever and whenever creatures are helped to flourish.

This places a special responsibility on human beings.  Liberation theologies insist that God cannot do all the work of salvation; we humans are the hands and feet of God.   This means, of course, that we love God by loving the world.  The well-being of the planet is not just a private or ‘religious’ matter; it has to do with public debate, political laws, and economic policies.  

Is reality good?
If so, how can an all-powerful, all-good God permit evil to exist?  

This classic question gives rise to theodicy, or the defense of God’s goodness and justice in the face of evil.  Over the centuries, theodicy has taken two basic positions: either that the magnificent panorama of the entire world justifies the spots of evil here and there; or that the evil we experience makes us into better persons.

In the neo-classical economic worldview, the relationship between God and evil is basically one of ‘management’.  In this model evil is certainly part of life, but it is not insurmountable: technology can limit destruction from natural disasters, and charity can narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots.  But this view does not take evil seriously enough. It does not see the depth of pain and suffering that most people experience, and it does not acknowledge the widening gap between wealthy and poor. Nor does it take human participation in evil seriously enough.  It tends to put the burden for evil on God, asking, ‘How can God permit bad things to happen?’ rather than asking, ‘How can we permit evil to happen?’

Insurance companies still label ‘natural disasters’ as ‘acts of God’ (one of the few places where God-talk still emerges in contemporary society).  Increasingly, however, some ‘natural’ disasters are actually human-generated disasters; the line between natural and moral evil, between what we cannot help and what we can, is getting fuzzier all the time.

So, is reality good?

First, we have to ask, “Good for whom?”  If we want a world in which nothing bad happens to any person, tree, or elephant, then nothing could happen at all.  The price of our infinitely complex, changing, beautiful and diverse world is that events that are good for some will be experienced as evil by others. For this very reason, the ecological worldview insists that we stand in the shoes  of those who suffer most.   

Second, “Reality is good” if we help it to become so.  This is an acknowledgement that God is not the supernatural being who can control what happens, either at a natural or a personal level, but rather God gives the direction toward flourishing for all creatures. 

Sallie McFague ends chapter 6 by writing,

Finally, we can say that ‘God’ is the belief that hope and not despair, life not death, laughter not tears, are deep in the nature of things.

‘God’ is the belief that while despair, death, and tears are a necessary part of reality they are not the dominant part.

We claim this belief in spite of the facts.  The reason, however, why some people hold to it is because of the glimmers, partial incarnations, theophanies, flashes of goodness and love and beauty in the earth and in each other.

If we are to say that reality is good, we must help those glimmers and glimpses become stronger.

Do these concluding statements about God and the world
say enough for you?

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