What are our sources for our knowledge of God? An immediate answer to this question is: The Bible. But those who wrote the Bible did not have the Bible as a source (except for the bits that had been written already). So we, like they, can look to God’s handiwork, what he has made and how he has made it to gain insights into the mind of God. The psalmist writes:
When I consider your handiwork,
all that you have made,
what is humankind that you are mindful of us,
sons of Adam and daughter of Eve, that you care for us? (Psalm 8.3-4)
We are part of your creation, part of what you have made. We’re made of the same stuff as everything else. Yet:
Yet you have made us a little lower than gods,
and crowned us with glory and honour. (v.5)
The same but different
You have made us of the same stuff as everything else, and yet we are more. We are the same, but different. The difference is that we are made in God’s own image, God’s own triune image. And he set us over all the rest of his handiwork, to take care of it and to develop it.
Since God has commissioned us he also communicates with us: he doesn’t just leave us floundering, but gives us the resources and instructions so as to thrive and enable the rest of creation to thrive. His first commission was to go and have babies and fill the earth. We’ve done that. It didn’t require any particular kind of special instructions from God: his communication is wired into who we are. His second instruction was to subdue, look after, tend the earth. Again, for those with eyes to see, it comes naturally. Both these commands – to multiply and fill the earth, and to tend and subdue the earth – were given to the entire human race, not to us individually.
Are these end goals or part of a wider purpose? Let’s address this question with another question: Why does this world matter so much to God that he a) created it, and b) appointed special stewards of it? Perhaps it was to do with his self-expression, his desire or need for creative self-expression. Therefore it’s not unlikely that the incarnation was Plan A. As Sergei Bulgakov has written, ‘One can even say that God created the world in order to become incarnate in it, that he created it for the sake of his Incarnation.’ (cited by Rommen in Ott 2016, p.72)
If this creation is all to do with God’s creative self-expression, why did he create this world, with all its suffering, wanton violence, cruelty and death, tended by stewards – made in God’s image, no less – who are selfish, proud, greedy, abusive, exploiting, scheming, plotting and killing?
Is it because this a ‘work in progress’? It is very good, but it is not perfected. If it were perfected why would God tell us to subdue it? Was one aspect of God’s intention for humankind to improve his handiwork, to continue the process of creation? We’ve certainly done that – but used it for evil as much as for good.
The story is not over. Based on the beginning and the plot so far, how is the story likely to continue? How is it likely to end? As biblical writers and Jewish and Christian thinkers down the ages have reflected on this question, their response has indeed been that this is a work in progress, and we can look forward to a renewed heaven and earth where sorrow and mourning are no more.
The psalmists lament at the cruelty and injustice round about them. How long, I Lord, how long? they cry out. It’s often personal for the psalmist: he is the oppressed and downtrodden. Today’s oppressed and downtrodden can take his words as theirs…
Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me…
They do not speak peace, they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land…
You have seen, O Lord, do not be silent!
Wake up! Defend me!
Let those who rejoice at my calamity be put to shame and confusion… (Ps. 35.19-26)
This is the prayer of the dispossessed, the refugee, the trafficked, the victim, those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit.
God is on your side
It is such people whom Jesus is addressing in Matthew 5:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek…
Theirs in the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth.
God is on your side. How this is, Jesus doesn’t say, but it seem to be part of the notion that this world is a work in progress. It is not finished. Justice will reign, God’s justice.
Therefore justice isn’t simply a good and right thing for the here and now, but it is a sign of, a harbinger of the future. When Jesus says, ‘Blessed are the downtrodden, etc,’ he is looking into the future. His perspective is bigger than just this current era:
May your kingdom come!
Garrard S. (2017) Words from the Hill: An Invitation to the Unexpected