How is the God of creation related to the storms of global climate change?
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“Who then is this,” the disciples ask “with great awe, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). The God of Israel, formerly worshiped exclusively in the Temple in Jerusalem, is now manifest in the person and story of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead. The gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost in Year B, from Mark 4:35-41, reaffirms that this God is the Creator of the cosmos, present from the beginning of the world, who amidst the wind and sea of chaos brings into being all creation. The narrative occasion of this theophany is the crossing of the “Sea” of Galilee—Mark is apparently the first to call the “inland, freshwater lake (limne) as a ‘sea’ (thalassa)”—“by Jesus and his disciples, going from Jewish to gentile territory, a crucial departure in Jesus' mission,” as Ched Myers writes, “to 'bridge' the deeply alienated world of Jew and gentile.” This is a “symbolic transit to a symbolic locale, a journey to the unknown, the foreign, the ‘other side’ of humanity.” In the real life situation of the young Christian community to whom Mark wrote, as the “community struggles to make the passage” to integration of Jews and gentiles, “all the powers of the established ‘symbolic universe’ oppose this journey.” The “real-life social hostility to such a project of integration [no doubt] threatens to ‘drown’ the community” (Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1988, pp.189-90, 195). But Jesus stills the wind with a word and quiets the disciples’ fears the same way. This unlikely itinerant, who is asleep during the storm on a cushion in the stern of the boat, rises up to still the threatening forces of the cosmos.
In our setting, Gordon Lathrop suggests, the story of the stilling of the storm proclaims “into the present assembly how God has come among our chaos and death in Jesus Christ, and how we are invited to trust God’s active intention for peace and life and salvation in the world.” In other words, the story remains metaphorical: the preacher, Lathrop admonishes, needs “to be honest about all of our deathly chaos and to trust the presence of God’s intention for life in the story of Jesus Christ proclaimed here” (“Second Sunday after Pentecost,” New Proclamation Year B, 2000. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000, p. 93). That being true, one can nonetheless easily imagine a setting for the story, not too far in the future, in which real wind and sea threaten to overwhelm communities seeking their own passage to sustainable, non-violent and inclusive community. Among the signal changes predicted for Earth as a consequence of global warming are massive storms of increased frequency and devastating severity. Indeed, a growing number of climatologists maintain that we are already experiencing this threat in the gradual “changes of the weather” that produce widespread damage from wind and flooding waters world-wide. Catastrophe is clearly upon us, a short generation away, a blink in cosmic time. The degree of threat hinges on our ability to come together as a global community to build the structures for limitation of release of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere, which is proving to be an exceedingly daunting diplomatic and political task (on the difficulty of the challenge, see James Gustave Speth's discussion in Red Sky at Morning; America and the Crisis of the Gobal Environment, New Haven and London, Yale university Press, 2004, pp. 117-148; and for the danger we currently face, see Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 2011, pp.47-101).
Will the God of all creation who is manifest in the narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus be with us as we make this passage? Christians are divided on this question. Some feel that these mere “changes in the weather” cannot matter to people of faith, because it is hubris to suppose that human beings can cause such changes to God's creation. Others appear willing to contemplate an apocalyptic judgment by drowning. Yet others simply take God out of the natural equation, because a loving God would not inflict such devastation and terror on the earth. The church's choice of Job 38: 1-11 as the accompanying reading for the Gospel thus serves us well to present the actual relevance of faith in God to our situation. We follow here the interpretation of Job 38 by Terry Fretheim, in his God and World in the Old Testament: A Relational Theology of Creation (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2005, pp. 233-247); his discussion refers, we note, to the whole of God's speeches in chapters 38 through 42, which provides us with a much richer perspective than is possible on the basis of the appointed verses only.
In response to Job's suffering, Fretheim provocatively notes, “God takes him to the zoo, or better, out to ‘where the wild things are.’” Wildness as well as goodness is characteristic of the creation, Fretheim insists; the whirlwind itself “constitutes an example of creation’s chaotic elements” and is thus instructive for Job, particularly with respect to his suffering:
God appears, “clothed” by elements of God’s good creation. God “wears” a creaturely form in order to be as concretely, persuasively, and intensely present to Job as possible. God assumes this mode so that Job may be moved to discover God and God’s ways embodied within the world itself. Job should understand the focus on creation as revealing of God’s ways in the world more generally (Fretheim, pp. 232-33).
And if readers commonly doubt that this instruction could be truly helpful to Job in his suffering—it easily strikes one as “insensitive,” evasive and even failing to “own up” to the divine complicity in that suffering—Fretheim views the speeches in much different light (Fretheim, pp. 232-233).
“God's world does indeed have significant ‘chaotic’ elements,” he grants, “but Job's negative interpretation of that disorder needs to be challenged and re-characterized.” First, God brings forward evidence from the animal world of his bountiful care for the creation. Then, more significantly, he shows that the disorderly, chaotic world is actually “precisely the kind of world God intended.” With creatures like Behemoth and Leviathan, humans are reminded that they live in a diverse and wonderful world in which humans can nonetheless “be hurt and suffer, not least because [such creatures] are certainly beyond any human control.” Nor, for that matter, are they to be considered “fully within divine control; God has set creational limits (e.g., 38:8-11), but within those limits there is no sense of divine micromanagement” (Fretheim, p. 235). The point is extremely important, both for Job and for us:
To say that the creation is good, . . .is not to say that it is perfect; at the same time, to say that creation is not perfect is not to say that evil makes it so. For Job to understand his suffering, then, would be to recognize that God neither created a risk-free world nor provided danger-free zones for the pious to be kept free from harm . . . . Such a world is necessary for there to be genuine novelty and new creative ventures on the part of both God and creatures. And so God will sustain such an ordered and open-ended creation even in the face of the suffering ones who wish that God would have created a world wherein human beings could be free from suffering. That is a price, sometimes a horrendous price, which creatures pay for the sake of having such a world; but it is also a price that God pays, for God will not remove the divine self from that suffering and will enter deeply into it for the sake of the future of just such a world (Fretheim, p. 237).
Such an understanding of God’s intention for creation, we would add, is deeply consonant with the story of the un-fearful itinerant sleeping in the stern of a storm tossed boat, who on the one hand stills the storm with a word, but who on the other hand succumbs later to forces that would secure for themselves by whatever violence necessary precisely such a danger-free zone where they are kept free from harm.
A fascinating aspect of Fretheim’s interpretation is that he thinks that God’s questions come not in judgment, but to “challenge Job to probe the creation more deeply than he has already, but this time with a greater appreciation for the grand design.” “Who are you? Where are you? What do you know? Are you able?”—and in answering these questions, Job might learn some of what humans have learned by intense exploration of the natural world in recent centuries:
If God were to appear in the early part of the twenty-first century and ask these questions, a scientifically sophisticated Job could answer many of them. Job, have you walked on the floor of the ocean? Yes, parts of it. Job, have you any idea how big the world is? Yes, I've got a sense of that, but I'm learning more every day. Job, do you know where the light comes from? As a matter of fact, I do. Job, who is the mother of the ice and frost, which turn the waters to stone and freeze the face of the earth? God, I live in Minnesota; it runs something like this. Job, who is wise enough to count the clouds and tilt them over to pour out the rain? Well, we're working on that one; there are some lively possibilities. Job, do you know when the mountain goats are born? Yes. Have you watched wild deer give birth? Yes. Do you know how long they carry their young? Yes, God, I do (Fretheim, p. 243).
Our own generation of Job’s descendants, accordingly, ought to be able to appreciate quite fully how suffering fits into this “dynamic and interconnected world in the process of becoming,” a world to which God relates “not as one ‘who intervenes or reacts, but one who modulates and constrains’” (Fretheim, p. 244; the quotation is from Norman Habel). In the interconnected world of this God’s creation, all the creatures “in God's review provide a community that can surround the suffering one and help to absorb his sorrow. With this God, there are no alien creatures, no outsiders.” Not even the sea is finally an enemy: “God has created the sea, and it is not tightly controlled, but its raging has boundaries (Job 38:8-11)” (Fretheim, pp.245-46).
Could such an understanding of God contribute significantly to the building of a global community that is willing to discipline itself in the face of the coming suffering due to global warming, so as to forestall and mitigate its worst consequences? “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” asked the man in the stern of the boat. These, too, are questions to be taken very seriously by those who care for God's creation. As we heard in reading the Scriptures for the Second Sunday after Pentecost, faith counters the anxiety that leads us to forsake our vocation of care for Earth. In answering such questions honestly, we may yet find ourselves sustained in courage to become part of “the redeemed of the Lord, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south,” even those who going “down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” see the deeds of the Lord, “his wondrous works in the deep.” For as the Psalmist writes, “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad because they had quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven” (Psalm 107:2-3, 23, 28-30). Joined with all the servants of God, we can persevere through great adversity and even hostility, knowing that for God in Christ, not tomorrow but already “now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation” when God will help us restore the beloved community of all creation (2 Corinthians 6:2-4).