Posted by: dacalu | 24 January 2010

Changing the World

This week I’d like to say a thing or two about changing the world. It is a rather complex subject and one that has vexed philosophers and theologians throughout the centuries. So let us begin with two very simple statements.

Jesus changed the world.
You have the power to change the world.

Each of those two statements may seem self-evidently true to a Christian, but placed together, they create a certain tension. We know that God has the power to change the world, and did so pretty dramatically in Jesus Christ. God became human, and in life, death, and resurrection, made the whole world new. That in itself is worthy of a few thousand-page treatises, but let us say for the moment that Jesus:

1) In the incarnation, broke the barriers between humans and God, making God accessible to all people in all places at all times. Communicated God’s love for us, suffered with us, and truly understands us, not solely as creator, but also as fellow human. Opened the way to everlasting life for all who believe in him. In Late Antique language, “God became human that humans might become divine.”

2) In the resurrection, showed himself to be “the first fruits of the dead.” Life as we had understood it was not the end of existence, but only a chrysalis through which we pass on our way to true birth. That new birth will be in the form and substance of this life (still human, still in flesh) and yet made incorruptible.

So when I say Jesus changed the world, I really mean Jesus CHANGED the world. Things are profoundly, incontrovertibly, and permanently different.

You may be a bit anxious then when I tell you that you too can change the world. What is our power compared to that of God? In more formal philosophical language, one might speak of agency, the ability to initiate an action in the world–as opposed to being driven by something else.

This whole question of agency gets tied up in free will, fate, and predetermination (do I control my own destiny?); justification, sanctification, and predestination (do I affect my own salvation?); and eschatology, teleology, and omnipotence (would my agency in some way limit God’s agency and plan for the universe?). Lots of stuff there and lots of fancy theological language, but it all comes down to the simple question

Who’s in control–us or God?

And there is no simple answer to this question. We live in tension. We cannot deny that humans have agency because…well because it’s just sort of silly. We experience making choices every day. One of my primary reasons for turning to religion–for turning to Christianity–is help in making choices. Free will is, at the very least, a persistent illusion. To tell a man he has no control over his own actions is to encourage him to do nothing (an action). Worse yet, the idea of predestination (right and good and biblical) encourages immorality.

Tell a woman she is saved and she will be content with the world as it is (sloth) or content with herself in opposition to the world (pride). Tell a man he is damned and he will be resigned to his fate (despair) or delight in it by being intentionally immoral (licentiousness).

Conceivably, one might think that knowledge of salvation was a blessing. No longer worrying about her own end, a saved woman might turn her attention to others. Only if she truly wills to act well in the world and believes in her own power to effect change, does this work. (And I think this is what Luther and Calvin were going for.) So we have a stark contrast. A lack of eternal agency (people have no control over their salvation) only makes sense in light of earthly agency (people have profound control over their environment).

And perhaps that all sounds abstract. More simply put, predestination, while true, seems less than useful. In this life we are tasked with acknowledging Jesus (Mt. 10:32), doing as he did (Jo. 13), and choosing life (Deut. 30). Each requires a belief in our own human will and agency. >I< have power.

So far, so good. One might (and many have) then assert human agency at the expense of Divine agency. God gave us free will and lives with the consequences. How else can you explain the great evil that humans perform. God must be powerless (or at least unwilling) to escape the consequences. Alas, such a position seems to me unscriptural (Jer. 1:5, Mk. 4:10-12, Jn. 15:16, Ro. 8, Eph. 2, …), untraditional (Augustine, Calvin, …), and unreasonable. We put our faith in a God who promises that "all will be well." If God has abdicated that responsibility–given up the authority to make a new heaven and a new earth–then we are surely in trouble. Not because the responsibility falls to us (it always has) but because we are no longer worshiping God, the ruler of the universe. Rather we are only worshiping some sort of supernatural parent, responsible for our beginnings, but not our endings. The very real possibility arises that some adversary (if not The Adversary) will take God's place at the helm. How can we place our trust in Christ in that universe? Worse still is the possibility that God, being less than the only agent in the universe is "God" only by dint of superior power. That sets a horrendous precedent. It seems completely unreasonable to me that God might be less than Almighty, less than in complete control.

So where does that leave us? Right in the middle. We believe in human agency, because it is necessary to our daily lives. We believe in Divine agency because it is necessary to our eternal hope.

But this need not be paralyzing. We have the option of thinking that God and humans exercise agency at the same time. Events come to be only when God wills them, but generally–if not always–when we also will them. Thus when we are asked to will as God wills, it is more than simple assent or imitation; it is a recognition that we make reality with God and within God’s plan. God accounts for our will in eternity, but does not predetermine it. Thus we are not only children, but heirs also. We step into creation, not to replace God, but to create with God. We must open our minds to the possibility that God can give us agency without losing any.

Step out and make the world a more beautiful place. Create. Shape justice, forge peace, grow community, instill faith, nurture hope, and share love. God wills it in you.

You have the power to change the world because God is changing it (has changed it, will change it) through you. It may not be as dramatic as Jesus (and let us pray it won’t be), but it is equally real.

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