“…who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse…they are futile in their thinking (vain in their imaginations).” Romans 1:18b–21
The question of the last essay was how do we sharpen our senses to perceive this world as God’s world. The stars are singing, the psalms tell us, the world is speaking, so how, I asked, do we develop the sensibilities of the psalmists who hear the singing of creation and then sing back to the world the song they have heard. One way, as my friend Seth pointed out to me, is to write psalms. And he’s right. The sensibility I’m talking about is a poetic sensibility, and part of what I’m trying to do with these essays is write theology in a poetic/literary way. But maybe that isn’t far enough. Maybe I should write poetry instead.
And yet here is another essay because as I reflected on that last essay and on this project as a whole, I realized that what I am ultimately after is an account, at least for myself, of how to become the sort of person who rightly perceives and responds to God and his revelation in the world. Another way to put it is that I want to work through what difference theology makes, if it makes any difference at all. As I have said again and again, theology at its most basic level is our accounting of and response to revelation. Writing in the mode of the essay is one way to make such an account, one way to fumble towards answers. So here you are, reading, fumbling along with me.
Such much for the goals. Now for the problems. The last essay left us standing in front of a looming obstacle, a behemoth that blocks our way, a colossus so large it seems to blot out the sun. It is an obstacle Paul sums up in the words quoted above. He says, in effect, “Oh, you can experience God in the world all right. The trouble is you don’t really want to. Look, God is not hidden. You can find him. You simply don’t want to because you aren’t willing to pay the price that such knowledge costs.”
In these verses from Romans and the ones that follow, Paul lays human experience bare to ask and attempt to answer that most vexing question—what can account, really, for human behavior? Where does the madness come from? What is the glitch in the code, the chink in our universal armor? Why the buzz of anxiety? What about the torpor of depression, the sometimes crushing inertia of being human? How is it that we have become millstones tied around our necks? And he says, in effect, we are pulled inward by a gravity so powerful that we eventually implode and become black hole versions of ourselves. We become, as he says, futile in our thinking. We have become, as the KJV has it, vain in our imaginations, which means, among other things, that the way we receive and then process the world has become distorted in some significant way.
Now, there are any number of questions we might have of Paul at this moment, but here is mine—how does he know this? What is his evidence? Admittedly, Paul doesn’t have any longitudinal studies or double-blind experiments. He doesn’t reference brain scans or discuss things in terms of family dynamics, or in terms of evolution by natural selection, but he is nonetheless an incisive observer of the human condition. I’d have to imagine that if he were alive today, Paul would read such studies, that he would acquaint himself with their inward logic and acknowledge both their truth and their limits and then he would leverage their rhetorical power. And he would, in the end, say this of our scientific, psychological, socially conscious and therapeutic means of discussing the human person, “These all are fine as far as they go, but does appealing to the lizard brain really explain your anger? Does your lack of healthy attachment really explain why you can’t love or be loved? Are just-so stories about the natural selection of beneficial human traits satisfying explanations for the highs and lows of human experience ? Does all this data account for our frivolous disregard of each other, for the disposable way we treat ourselves and others?”
On one level, Paul knows what he knows because he has looked at the way we treat ourselves, others, and the world God has given us and finds all the evidence he needs. But on another level (and this all brings us back to the thing we can’t escape if we are going to take the Christian faith or theology seriously at all), Paul knows what he knows because of revelation. These are things he knows because God has made them known, and he wouldn’t have and we couldn’t have known them otherwise. Romans as a whole is Paul’s account of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, what he refers to in shorthand as the gospel. And Paul begins this letter by announcing that something definitive has happened. The axis has shifted because of Jesus. History has a new centerpiece because of his resurrection from the dead. This is not exaggeration. There is no hyperbole in Paul’s notion that the whole world has been remade in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This Jesus, this one who is both son of David and son of God, has been raised from the dead. In his rising is our healing, and there is now a new king of the world. Paul says, Let us marvel. Let us not be ashamed of this good news but rather let our faces shine with its light. Let us reassess what we know or what we think we know about human nature in light of Christ.
And then he says but. But let us not forget the real darkness. There is the definitive act of God in time and space. There is the creation of the world. The redemption of his people. Yet we deny it. It’s not that we don’t see it. It’s that we do see it and then we turn away. We make, as Paul says, a trade, an exchange. There is truth, but we trade it for a lie. There is the creator, but we trade him for his creation. There is light, but we trade it for darkness. And there is glory, but we trade it for a kind of weightless existence, preferring to be untethered rather than acknowledge the weighty giftedness of life and the world.
The language of trade and exchange is key here. Because there is something transactional taking place, there is therefore something willful taking place. And this is one way I know Paul is telling the truth because, if I am honest, I know that I make such exchanges every day and the truly sinister thing is not simply the exchange but the denial that it is happening at all. The darkness, the denial, the vanity that Paul describes, is my own darkness and denial. This is about me. It is my heart that traffics in darkness. My heart that is a dark web, flooded with encrypted communications, bustling with illegal commerce. The battleground is not out there. It is in me. That is where you, where I, tussle over boundaries of constraint, where we fight to push what is barbarian in us back to the hinterlands.
This, of course, is Paul’s point. He’s at pains to show how everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, fall short. This passage is not intended to and should not be used to rank specific sins or specific acts. It is rather universal diagnostic tool, a heuristic for the human heart. We all make the exchange. The way you make the exchange and the way I make the exchange might look different but they are both rooted, as Paul says, in a fundamental denial of the truth that as creatures we owe our ultimate allegiance, and more than that our love and worship, to the one who created us. God’s created world sings back to God is that he is the blessed creator, and so often we will not join the chorus.
Learning to hear and then sing again the song of creation means that we must remember that before we are called anything else, we are called creature. We are created beings who inhabit a world of other created beings and things. And this identity of creature is primary and expresses our fundamental relationship to God. He is creator and we are creatures. And this is what we are most likely to forget. The darkness of our thinking, the vanity of our imaginations, the very things Paul is at pains to point out, compel us to exchange our relationship with the Creator for a relationship with creation. So we must remember our first name. Creature.
Beware though. Answering to the name creature requires our allegiance, our lives, our worship of the one who created us, and part of what we call salvation is relearning our name as creatures. Beware because there is a kind of magic in names, as so much ancient literature and so much contemporary fantasy literature shows us. In The Tombs of Atuan, the second book of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, a girl is taken from her family to serve as high priestess of a group of gods called only the nameless ones. In service of these nameless gods, she is stripped of her own given name and renamed Arha, which means the eaten one. Her entire identity is consumed by these dark powers that she serves. That is until she meets the wizard known as Sparrowhawk who reminds her of her true name, Tenar. He speaks that name over her and in that moment the dark hold of her dark masters begins to break over her.
When we hear our true name of creature, the dark hold of our own dark hearts begins to break too.
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