here are not many things that bother me more than being taken in…having the wool pulled over my eyes. Who wants to be the one who believes something without question, just because it sounds good? Who wants to fall for that sales pitch…the one that seems good at the time, but that ends with credit card debt and embarrassment? This feeling is good and important of course, and more needed than ever in the world we currently live in. Yet I have also come to realize that this attitude can quickly turn into cynicism, and cynicism can quickly drain away our appreciation for the goodness and beauty that we see all around us. So it is good to be skeptical and to think about the ultimate results of the actions that we take. But we need a view of the world that also allows us to appreciate and enjoy the good things in life, to fully immerse ourselves in the things that we experience. We need a story to live into that helps us place things in their proper context, and helps us assign meaning and purpose to them.
Let’s say we take a walk through the woods. It is a sunny day and the light is coming down through the leaves of the trees. We are surrounded by beauty in both sight and sound. We see and hear birds, squirrels, and perhaps a deer if we are lucky.
All this seems good to us, and many theologians have pontificated about how this goodness points to a creator with a love for beauty. Yet even in these beautiful woods, if we look closer, we see that not everything is beautiful or good. That nice cute little bird may be torn to pieces and eaten, leaving her chicks to die of starvation. The squirrel may be tortured to death by a cat that doesn’t even really need food. Nature is, on the one hand, very beautiful – but on the other hand, it is actually quite shocking. I am sure most of you have had some kind of traumatic experience with nature. I won’t ever forget my daughter holding a tiny little baby rabbit, which had been mauled by our dog. This sort of experience is shocking to us as insulated westerners, but of course we know it is actually quite normal in the world we live in. So then as we walk through the forest and enjoy the beauty, my mind often goes to the dark side of nature. I think: “don’t let this surface appearance fool you…” Now of course this is probably not a good way to think about a beautiful forest, but we must admit that both of these perspectives are true. It just depends on what you choose to focus your mind on.
Something similar happens to me as I observe human society. So much seems so good. So much is good. Especially where I live here in the Pacific Northwest, it is easy to take a drive or a walk and see beautiful neighborhoods with well-kept lawns, kids laughing and playing in the yard or riding bikes, horses out in the fields, someone out on a pleasure drive…all of this seems so right.
Yet as we drive by any particular neighborhood, we know those houses conceal conflict and pain…even evil. So many tragedies are happening. Divorce. Child abuse. Loneliness. Drug abuse. Hopelessness…all of those things. Even some of the most “successful” people can end up lost and hopeless as they come to the end of themselves. It is easy to become cynical to the point that you look at those beautiful houses and right away think of all the ugliness they may cover up.
I am constantly amazed as I observe human beings as well. I really love people in general. People are amazing! The variety, the creativity, the amazing capacity for love and care for others. Yet, once again, similar to the wood and the neighborhoods, people have a dark side. We are capable of incredible meanness which can grow into cruelty and unspeakable evil. As I write this, I am drinking coffee from a mug I purchased at the Holocaust museum. I do not ever want to forget what I saw there. As Aleksander Solzhenitsyn put it: “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
In our hyper-pseudo-rationalist society, we also have a strange tendency to think that because we understand the physical explanation for something, that this explanation is all that is real about an experience. This can also lead to cynicism. Yes, when we feel love toward someone, we can see that particular parts of our brain are active. When we feel fear, we can see other parts of our brain active. We can observe these things from a third person perspective and analyze them. However, we must understand that while it is true in one sense that our feelings of love are chemical reactions, it is also true that they are so much more than that. If we are not careful, we can reason ourselves right out of existence. We can look at our own thoughts, explain them away as well, leaving us with no basis to believe anything at all. CS Lewis puts it brilliantly:
“It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the colour of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left.” – CS Lewis
The point of the optic nerve, of course, is to allow a human being to “see the rose”. So of course there is incredible value in science, as it allows us to understand how things work, and to even repair the body in many ways. But this physical foundation to sight does not explain beauty. It does not explain virtue. Many of the most important things that we care about as human beings are not physical. Love. Courage. Bravery. Friendship. Compassion. All of these things involve our bodies, but they can’t really be measured by science.
So as we look at a sunset, we could on the one hand say “Well, all we are really seeing is dust in the atmosphere.” Or, we can marvel at the transcendent beauty and be thankful for the wonders of creation.
So how are we to hold all of this together? Must we be naive and close our eyes to the ugliness of the world to prevent ourselves from becoming cynical? Is there a way that we can engage with the world that allows us to hold all of this in balance? Is there a paradigm that allows us to hold to the reality of goodness and beauty as something beyond a cultural construct? I think there is. I am slowly learning to view the world through a different lens. No one can say it better than the great George MacDonald:
“There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. One of the latter sort comes at length to know at once whether a thing is true the moment it comes before him; one of the former class grows more and more afraid of being taken in, so afraid that he takes himself in altogether, and comes at length to believe in nothing but his dinner: to be sure of a thing is to have it between his teeth.”
― George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie
At the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures we have one of the most profound and impactful pieces of writing ever created.
You don’t need to be a Christian to appreciate this. The writing is so compacted with meaning that one could spend years unpacking and meditating on it. Every single word is carefully and strategically placed. It really is quite remarkable, even just from a literary perspective. One thing that is often missed by modern english readers is that the initial state of the world, the state from which God ordered the universe, is called “formless and void” or “wild and waste”. The Hebrew word here is “tohu-va-bohu”. Nine times out of ten this word is used in the Hebrew scriptures to describe a desert, a place uninhabitable by humans. The narrative also talks about the spirit of God hovering over “the deep”….the dark murky chaos of the ocean, from the perspective of an ancient (non sea-fairing) Hebrew mind. The point is that the earth is a disordered, raw, and dangerous place. The narrative describes God carving out of this disordered place, order. Out of this inhospitable and uninhabitable place, a garden. A place where human beings can thrive. This is what God calls “good”.
“The ‘good’ which the author has in view has a very specific range of meaning in Chapter 1. The ‘good’ is that which is beneficial for humankind. Note, for example, how in the description of the work of the second day (1:6-8) the narrative does not say that ‘God saw that it was good.’ The reason is that on that day nothing was created or made that was, in fact, ‘good’ or beneficial for humanity. The heavens were made and the waters divided, but the land, where human beings were to dwell, still remained hidden under the ‘deep’ The land was still ‘formless’ (tohu); it was not yet a place where a human being could dwell. Only on the third day, when the sea was parted and the dry land appeared, could the text say, ‘God saw that it was good’.”
-John Sailhammer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch
So the point is that we are not to see everything in the world as good. Instead, we are to see that the rawness of creation holds the potential for good. We see in the narrative that God created order out of the chaos, a habitable Garden out of the tohu-va-bohu. Yet this Garden, this place where heaven and earth overlap, where God’s effective will is done, did not extend out to the whole world. God placed humans in the garden, creations made in his very image, and he instructed them to continue to “fill the earth and subdue it”. It is very clear that God wants to partner with humans in extending this goodness out to the rest of the world. We also see that when God created the animals, he brought them before the human “to see what he would name them”. Think about these ideas carefully. What does this mean about God? What does it mean about what God wants from us?
God isn’t content to simply make a statue or a robot or a wind-up toy. He created a situation where human beings can thrive and create. Human beings are able to create so many things – art, music, technology, all of that…yet we cannot create an independent mind, capable of making meaningful choices between good and evil. Only God can do that. So it seems that what God thinks is “good” is not simple and static. It is complex, alive, and interactive. God placed us in an environment where adventure can be experienced and his creative project may be pushed forward. I think intuitively we know as humans that this is where beauty comes from.
This all sounds good. Yet, looking around at the world, it is painfully obvious that we do not live in a “good” garden, joyfully extending God’s goodness out into the world. Instead, we live in a dark world, broken right down to its core. Even our own hearts are compromised. We are all familiar with the story in Genesis 3, how humans listen to the voice of the serpent, and choose to re-define good and evil for themselves, and disobey God…the very source of all goodness. They do not trust that God has in mind what is best for them. Instead, they see the fruit, they listen to a lie about God’s character, and they take and eat. This ends in their expulsion from the garden, out of the realm of God’s goodness, and into the realm of chaos…into the “tohu va-bohu” outside of the garden.
I don’t have time to break down this strange but incredibly powerful passage in more detail here…but we can see that from that point in the story, there is a spiraling downward that happens, as humans again and again “see” and they “take”. Yet we can also see something else…even with this tragedy, we see immediately that God has a plan to liberate humanity and to crush the serpent. And so begins the epic story of the Bible, a story of God bringing about redemption in spite of the many free agents he has created.
This is one of the things that makes the Hebrew scriptures so compelling and real. They do not pretty up the world. They do not pretend that everything is as it should be. Instead, they lay out reality in excruciating and heart wrenching detail, like a Dostoevsky novel, and they end without a final answer, with only a hope pointing forward to something amazing that is about to happen.
16 the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.”
Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of this promise. He was the light that dawned. It is directly into the dark story of human history that Jesus arrived, announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand. It is the launching of the fulfillment of that which had been promised from the very beginning, and again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures.
14 For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
In Jesus, we see a human being exactly as God intended us to be. He lived not by cynicism but by an unwavering trust in his loving father. He was fully engaged. Fully confident in the triumph of good over evil, yet fully immersed in the sorrow and pain that evil has produced. Fully willing to take into himself the consequences of our sin. Instead of destroying evil with a more powerful form of evil, he conquered evil by his love.
2 Corinthians 5:14-17
14 For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. 15 And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
I submit to you that embedded in this incredible passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we have the answer to the question that I started out with. We see the triumph of the compelling love of Jesus. Somehow because of the resurrection of Jesus, we are to look out at the world and see the new creation. All that is in us that is part of the evil of the world has died, and we are being raised to new life. Our very hearts begin to be re-made into the realm of God’s effective will. We become pockets of God’s kingdom. This kingdom grows and spreads out to the rest of the world as we pray the Lord’s prayer that his kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.
So even though all of creation is groaning, waiting for that final day of redemption, we are to look at the world from an entirely different point of view, because of the resurrection of Jesus. We are to see not only the “tohu-va-bohu” of the world. Instead, we are to see the new creation potential bursting out of every part of creation.
This way of viewing the world allows us to “hate what is evil and cling to what is good”, knowing that evil will not triumph forever, and knowing that every good part of everything will be redeemed and made complete. This hope is based on God’s immovable promises. We can see the beginning of its fulfillment in the face of the risen Jesus.
With all wisdom and understanding, 9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.
So we are not to be either naive or cynical. We are to live not as unwise but as wise, because the days are evil. This should in no way surprise us. Even the thick insulation of our modern culture, numbed by facebook and netflix, can’t hold away the reality for very long. Life is hard. Pain is real. Friends and family grow old and die.That is the reality that we currently live in.
Yet for those of us in Christ, “there is a new creation”. We should begin to see with new eyes the coming reality of all things being summed up and made complete in the Messiah. All things are to be transformed and made new.
Every single tear will be wiped away. Nothing will be missed, no matter how small it may seem. No loved one will be left behind or forgotten. In the face of the risen Jesus we see the first fruits of this coming new creation. Everything that is good will be raised up and made complete. Every broken and twisted thing mended. And as we look out at creation and we feel that sense of transcendent beauty, I believe we are feeling a small taste of a coming reality that is just beyond our imagination. Just as in this life a word is only a symbol for a greater reality, just as the word “rose” only points to the reality of a type of flower, in the same way the reality we experience around us is only a symbol or a faint shadow of the coming reality that will be like it but a thousand times more glorious. In every waterfall, every flower, every work of art and technology, every act of kindness, every work of other-centered love, the divine logos abides. Someday this hidden glory will burst out and cover the whole cosmos.
Someday, the earth will be filled with the knowledge and glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.