Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Psalm 65; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23
The other day someone posted this on Facebook: “I’m just wondering why none of these televangelists have been showing up at hospitals and performing miracles on all these Coronavirus patients.”
It really struck me, and I want to think aloud about it for a while, because I think it both raises a really important theological question and at the same reduces that question to something magical and absurd.
There’s a much more profound way of thinking about this: that even quarks have free will.
I first came across this different way of thinking in the work of the great contemporary Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson, who summarizes the thinking of what she calls the new “ecological theologians”:
They shun an explicitly interventionist model of divine activity. They seek to make intelligible the idea that the Creator Spirit, as ground, sustaining power, and goal of the evolving world, acts by empowering the process from within. They see divine creativity active in, with, and under cosmic processes. God makes the world, in other words, by empowering the world to make itself.
(All these quotes are from Quest for the Living God.)
It’s not magic, it’s love. God isn’t some wish-granter and favor-giver, Johnson is saying, but a loving creator who so loves his creation he dies into it and rises with it, every second.
Ecological theology proposes that as boundless love at work in the ongoing evolution of the universe, divine creativity is the source not just of cosmic order but also of the chance that allows novelty to appear. . . Unpredictable upheavals might be destructive, but they have the potential to lead to richer forms of order.
I find this really exciting. It’s not that God is a clockmaker God who winds things up and just walks away. He’s present in every moment and in every thing, but with tremendous tact. He allows things to happen, to take their own way, and doesn’t intervene to change them—though he certainly could—he is omnipotent—but he stays out of it, he restricts his own power, and he does this out of a desire to share in the day-to-day vulnerabilities of the creatures he’s created, right down to rocks and birds and trees.
This really isn’t a new idea. It’s classic Thomism, which teaches that there are primary causes and secondary causes. God is the primary cause. He makes everything happen. But he also allows all kinds of secondary causes to cause all kinds of things: wind, rain, the shifting of tectonic plates–whatever we choose to do any given morning: to do this or to do that.
It’s in this sense that the new ecological theologians suggest that even subatomic particles have a kind of free will, at least infinitesimally, that even quarks have a kind of subatomic choice. It’s as if God’s relationship to the whole of creation, to all matter and energy and living things, is exactly like his relationship with human beings. God gives we human beings free will so that we can choose to freely love him. In the same way
the ever-faithful God is graciously courteous toward the freedom of the natural order. Rather than intervening from the outside, the Creator Spirit enables ongoing creation from within by endowing the universe with the capacity to transcend itself toward ever greater forms.
With nature, with forces, with particles, this power of “choice” is really more a matter of randomness or chance. A particle could have moved there, or there, or somewhere else. It could have moved anywhere. But it didn’t. It moved here.
And here’s the really exciting thing to me, the thing that makes me trust this and think of it as fundamentally Christian: all of this flows from and is the inevitable consequence of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. As with human beings, God gives himself away. He is the all-powerful God who chooses, out of love, an infinite and purely gratuitous love, to give that power up:
Rather than acting like Caesar writ large, Jesus did not cling to godly dignity but “emptied himself out,” foolishly, thereby opening up new life for others (Phil 2:5-11). This enacts a kenotic form of divine power. . . . [“Kenosis”: self-emptying]
[In other words] As on the cross, so too in the universe: ecological theology proposes that divine kenosis did not happen only once at Jesus’ death but instead is typical of God’s gracious action in the world from the beginning. Allowing the Christic pattern of self-giving to interpret the Spirit’s creative action within the evolving universe means that divine agency does not have the character of determining, even dictating, all occurrences. Rather, divine kenosis opens up space for the genuine integrity of finite systems, allowing chance its truly random appearance.
I’m not sure I understand all of this—how, for example, we can account for miracles in this framework, for the specific interventions of God into our lives; or how, in the same way, we can account for the validity of personal prayer, for the clear invitation in scripture to pray for what we need. But intuitively at least, I find this really exciting and freeing.
It exactly solves the problem that the Facebook post both raises and reduces, which is the central problem in all of religious thought: if there is a God, why does he allow suffering and death?
If you’ve stayed with me this far, let me make the final connection I have to make, because all of this—the Facebook post, Elizabeth Johnson, the new ecological theology—all of this flashed through my mind as I was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans last Sunday. I thought: Paul is talking about exactly the same thing the ecological theologians are talking about, but in his own, first-century terms. He’s intuited exactly this insight.
Paul says that “the sufferings of this present time are nothing compared with the glory to be revealed to us”—that there is some larger purpose to what we’re experiencing now, that our suffering and dying and even our experience of Covid-19 are part of some larger evolution towards Christ.
And, Paul says, this isn’t just a question for us as human beings but even for nature, for the created world: “for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.” This a puzzling, knotty, difficult sentence, but I think the Christian ecologists may give us a way to understand it.
Isn’t Paul saying, when he says that creation was “made subject to futility,” that God in his love lets all things live and die without interfering in that process but at the same time participating in it, being present to it, from within? That he lets “corruption” happen, for some larger purpose, so that we can “share in the glorious freedom of the children of God”? And note especially the word “freedom” here: that it seems to apply to creation itself, not just to us as human beings.
Stars live and die so that other stars may live and die. Flowers live and die so that other flowers may live. Labradoodles. Whales.
Why does God allow the virus? Because he loves us.
I know this a long and abstract post, but maybe that’s another way of saying that Christian faith is much more interesting and complex than a bumpersticker or a meme.
Although in another sense it’s really very simple, and foolish, and wonderful. It’s what Psalm 65 proclaimed last Sunday: “rejoicing clothes the hills.” The fields and the valleys “shout and sing for joy.” They really do.
Or it’s what the gospel for last Sunday implies, this wonderful gospel from Matthew, the Parable of the Sower. The sower goes out and broadcasts the seeds, wildly, indiscriminately—it’s a terrible agricultural practice—and the seeds fall wherever they will, on all kinds of different rocks and soil. Some are choked and some thrive, and the sower doesn’t intervene. He could. He could plant in straight rows. He could tend the seeds every hour. But he doesn’t. In his great graciousness and courtesy and goodwill he gives even the seeds the dignity of growing as they will or dying as they will, and all for a greater, glorious end—for, in the end, some of that seed falls on rich soil, and produces fruit, “a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”
All praise to you, Lord, Psalm 65 sings, for “you have crowned the year with your bounty.”