Divine Presence, Absence, and Violence
A friend recommended I read How to Read the Bible & Still be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis Through Revelation by John Dominic Crossan. So I read it, and found it thought provoking. Perhaps you will, too.
The book makes the case that God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament deliver a message and embody the concept of nonviolence, and that the kingdom of God is based on distributive justice, rather than retributive justice. In a universe of distributive justice, sin is remedied by restitution not punishment, and in fact a fundamentally nonviolent God would only work through non-retributive means. The author acknowledges many examples of divine violence/retribution in scripture, saying that divine assertions of nonviolence are always subverted by the violent normalcy of civilization.
For example, Deuteronomy and Leviticus are based on Assyrian-style treaties (the normalcy of the contemporary civilization), and that is why they are so full of curses and sanctions. This rhetoric of divine punishment persists throughout scripture and is very much with us in current scriptural exegesis.
Another of Crossan’s examples is the violence of the book of Revelation compared with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. If I understand Crossan correctly, he is saying the author of Revelation is subverting Jesus’ radical message of nonviolence. As a Mormon, I can’t help but ask myself, if scripture is full of this kind of subversion, is a good deal of it therefore not inspired, and not true? Interestingly, Crossan doesn’t seem too concerned with the question of whether a text is prophetically authoritative, or “of God.” He points out assertions and subversions as he sees them, but usually refrains from making value judgments about them. He doesn’t label things as true or not true.
The book left me asking myself, if one were to take out all the subversions from scripture, and keep only the assertions, what would be left? I’ve always thought of scripture as one of the most important means of knowing God, but if the parts that depict God as violent (and there are many) are untrue (and I believe they are untrue, or in other words that God is inherently and utterly nonviolent), is there enough truth left in scripture for it to be a useful tool for finding God? I feel like joining Rainer Maria Rilke in his lament,
I read it here in your very word,
in the story of the gestures
with which your hands cupped themselves
around our becoming – limiting, warm.
You said live out loud, and die you said lightly,
and over and over again you said be.
But before the first death came murder.
A fracture broke across the rings you’d ripened.
A scream shattered the voices
that had just come together to speak you,
to make of you a bridge
over the chasm of everything.
And what they have stammered ever since
of your ancient name.
I used to feel pretty sure I knew what God was like, at least enough to be able to worship and pray properly, but I’ve experienced and noticed too many contradictions in what I was taught about the nature of God, that I no longer believe he is who I thought he was. The trouble is, I don’t quite know what God I’m looking for anymore, or where to find him/her/it/them. I miss God as I used to know him, though I can’t go back. I don’t miss the God who would let me fail a test if I studied on Sunday, but I do miss the one who would help me find my calculator. It’s lonely without the God I used to know, which is why I relate to the terrible loneliness and longing with which Rilke writes about God:
You, God, who live next door –
If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking –
this is why: I hear you so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sign!
I’m right here.
As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble
it would barely make a sound.
And not only has God chosen to remain hidden from view, but humankind has done its part in obscuring God:
We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.
Both Crossan and Rilke start with the assumption that God is real, but they struggle with different questions about God’s nature. Crossan asks if scriptural violence tells us anything about God’s nature, or if that violence is just the creep of fallen civilization. Rilke wonders if there is any way to really know that silent neighbor who is sitting obscured from view.
Another of the subversions Crossan writes about is what has happened to the Book of Wisdom (which is generally not canonized by Christians). Wisdom is the personified process of creation, and is female. It has been pretty much subverted out of existence. If the Wisdom tradition is all but lost, I wonder what other manifestations of God have also been subverted away by history?
This is a bit of an aside, but Crossan asks if Wisdom is a personified process, is God not also a personified process (not a person, whatever that means)? We may ask the opposite question, which is if God is a person, is Wisdom not also a person? God as a personified process often makes more sense to me than some discrete, corporeal being. But I wonder if I hadn’t been taught God as a loving parent with whom I should have a personal relationship, would I have taken the concept of God seriously enough to wrestle with it and fight to keep it?
Ultimately, Crossan’s answer on how to retain a belief in the Christian God is this: Jesus’ central message is that while people are waiting for God, God is waiting for them. They await intervention while God awaits collaboration. Indeed, how could distributive justice ever happen without humankind participating in God’s work on earth? We find God in community.
For Rilke, the answer of how to find God is also independent of divine intervention. I find it really, exquisitely, beautiful:
All who seek you
And those who find you
bind you to image and gesture.
I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you.
In my ripening
what you are.
I need from you no tricks
to prove you exist.
Time, I know,
is other than you.
No miracles, please.
Just let your laws
from generation to generation.