In the first part of this series introducing Christopher Alexander’s concept of “wholeness” to certain distinctive values of the Reformed tradition in which I was raised, I suggested that, while the phrase “every square inch of the world belongs to God” (which is the confession of the Christian Reformed Church, at least) is generally understood to be saying something about God’s absolute sovereignty, I was much more interested in understanding it as trying to grasp something about the nature of belonging – what it means to be children of God and working, living heirs of creation.
I would like to show the meaningfulness of this shift, for me, by thinking a little about what it is people expect from gods, and what it is that makes the revelation of the One Holy God truly distinctive. In the next part, I hope to explore a little more the nature of belonging “in depth.”
It seems to be clearly the case that if there is one thing all people who have believed in gods have expected or assumed about them, it is that the gods are in control. In particular, they are in control of those things which we cannot control. (If there were no surprises, and if we knew everything about how everything worked, we would not need a god to be the answer for anything.)
So as far as this matter of control goes, there appears to be nothing very distinctive about the Reformed claim about the sovereignty of God, if it is in fact about God being in control of the things we don’t understand and cannot control ourselves. (Everybody wants that, more or less, and the Reformed, in that case, have simply invented the most efficient “Control God” you could find – he is in control of every single thing, all the time!)
But I am Reformed (I feel I had as little choice in the matter as I had in being born!) and yet this issue of control has never made much sense to me. It feels like something twisted inside out. I am sympathetic, very much so, to fears about the future, and to feeling overwhelmed by everything going on in the world. Perhaps this exceptionally deep fear of having so little control came with the Reformed milk as well, and is the reason for the All-Powerful Antidote. I don’t know. But it is becoming clearer to me that, notwithstanding any and all insistence to the contrary, there can be nothing gracious or creatively free about a Control God. How can grace or freedom mean anything if God is the Micro-Manager of all micro-managers? In my view, it simply can’t.
I know this is a far too efficient way of trying to put the old Control God to rest, but I am far more interested in trying to discover what makes the Living God distinct from every other god people have ever invented out of the necessity of calming their fears.
What I find in scripture is, in fact, the emergence of a God who is absolutely trustworthy. God is trustworthy because God is making God’s will known, and this will, we are learning, does not involve sacrifice, or chaos, or any violence whatsoever. What can it mean to say, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God” (Romans 12:2), if not, at least, that humans throughout history have not trusted God, and therefore have not been able to know what God’s will is?
And if we have not known what God’s will is, how can we claim to know what God did or did not do before this transformation of our perception?
So, then, if all people at all times have blamed or praised the gods for all the inscrutable happenings in the world, we can treat this blaming and this praising, and its precondition – namely, the inscrutability of these happenings – as highly suspect evidence for the power or will of God.
After all, we are not told, “You were right to believe that all these things happen for reasons which you do not understand, but your problem is you were just praising or blaming the wrong guy.” Instead, we are told, “the makers of idols…are put to shame and confounded…but [we] shall not be put to shame or confounded” (Isaiah 45:16-17). And why is this? The following verses are, for me, a bulwark against the inscrutable omnipotence of the Control God:
Because: “thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it: he did not create a chaos, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other. I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, “Seek me in chaos.” I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right’ ” (Isaiah 45:18-19).
The children of God are called to pursue the knowledge of the will of God, and with this knowledge to work with our living and trustworthy God to continue to create the inhabitability of the world. As Jesus said, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17).
And here is the rub for the Reformed: It is simply not possible to work with the Living God if you are dependent at the same time on your Control God, whose presence you feel obliged to confess in the inscrutable chaos of a fragmented and futile world. The Control God is an invention, based on bad information, because reliant on the superstitious needs of confused humans for their gods to calm (and therefore uphold) their fears and their confounded minds.
The Living God does not speak in secret, demanding that we blindly trust that God wills chaos. Instead, our whole being is enabled to participate in the discernment of God’s ongoing work of creation. This is a positive and creatively constructive faith, in which the one, living God does not micro-manage, merely allowing us the illusion of participation, like a parent allowing a child to pretend to cook. God really, fully, graciously, and freely allows us to become active, clear-headed, sensitive and compassionate participants in the discernment of what creation is really intended to be. The fact of our (as yet) not-knowing fully this intention is only temporary, and finally, therefore, contingent on our (lack of) willingness to cling to what is good, and to hate what is evil. That is quite a contingency, obviously! But we only make it worse by pretending that God keeps God’s intentions a secret and that our faith is a blind faith. So long as we insist on our sinfulness, we are holding back, being “lukewarm” so to speak, and are left to wonder, incredulous, at all the chaos that our god “allows.”