The Limitations of God (or, Karma is a Krock)


13 At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5, NRSV)

I was taught in seminary that every sermon should boil down to a single sentence. It's a principle that always worked well for me, especially as I consider the number of overly complicated three-or-more point sermons I've heard and promptly forgotten. Simplicity is far more effective as a preaching tool. I used to like to embellish the idea of the sermon sentence by adding, "and that sentence is 'Wake up and smell the coffee!'" Which would be true if I was always preaching prophetically. Except that I didn't. Sometimes my sermon sentence was this:

Shit happens.

I wish I could have used that expression from the pulpit. It summarizes so much Biblical Truth and, to the practical observer, the reality of how the Universe is structured and functions. It's also the reason so many people lose faith: we want to think that God, the gods, karma, whatever makes the cosmos tick is ultimately concerned with justice, with making things right. Human spirituality has been wrestling with this for millennia, perhaps since the first stirrings of mind within the expanding brains of our simian ancestors. We want to make sense of what happens around us, to us, to the ones we love. There must be a reason, a plan, a principle.

Reading the entire Bible, we can see a struggle between those who believe in a just God who is active in Creation, rewarding the righteous and punishing the unrighteousness; and those hard-headed individuals who need only read the equivalent of their local newspaper to know that wealth and righteousness do not go hand in hand, and that the truly righteous are often the most persecuted. Early on, this resulted in compromise theology: the righteous voices within a city or nation (or, in the case of the Flood, the entire world) are overwhelmed by the wicked, to the point that God rains down destruction on everyone; any righteous who are caught up in the conflagration or deluge are collateral damage. Sometimes this appeared to work: the relatively evil Babylonian Empire, after occupying and largely destroying Israel, was itself conquered by the more enlightened Persians. But such larger movements of nations and peoples, if they were in fact God's way of fixing a global injustice, often came generations after misdeeds. And there was always that collateral damage. Not everyone killed in an invasion or natural disaster deserved that fate; and still, it could be observed, there were greedy, debauched, violent exploiters living full lives and dying at a ripe old age without experiencing any retribution.

The shit storm of inexplicable cosmic injustice comes to a head in the book of Job, the author of which has clearly had it with the very foundations of ancient Judaism. Job posits a man who is so righteous, there is no way he can possibly deserve retribution; in fact, up to the point at which the story begins, he has been enjoying all the traditional blessings of the righteous: wealth, a large estate populated with happy workers, a loving wife, many children who bring him pride and fulfillment; and in response to all these blessings, he is humble, generous, and pious to perfection. It's all working exactly as it should.

Except, it turns out, God is a douche.

God and Satan, it seems, have a running argument going about God's application of justice to the world. What if things didn't work the way they're supposed to? What if Job lost everything? Would he still believe in your goodness, O God, or would he give you the finger?

And God plays along.

Job loses everything: his farms are destroyed by storms, his employees slaughtered by invading armies. He comes down with a skin disease so extreme and disfiguring that no one wants to be around him. And worst of all, his children all die when the building in which they're having a party collapses.

He knows he did nothing to deserve this, that it's all a cosmic mistake or, worse, an injustice visited upon him by God. And yet he keeps his faith. Three "friends" visit him and try to convince him that he must have done something to bring this upon himself, that God is just, and surely would not act in such a perverse way unless there is some terrible skeleton in Job's closet. The debate goes on for pages, until God has finally had enough, and comes down in a whirlwind to shut up Job's friends, but also to properly chasten him: Who are you to question my will? Were you here when I made all this? I brought you into this cosmos, and I can take you out of it! Job repents in dust and ashes, never acknowledging any sin but that of doubting God's intentions. It's the repentenance of the beaten-down domestic abuse victim: "Whatever you say, dear." Contented with this response--and having won his bet with Satan--God gives everything back to Job, including a brand new family to replace the dead one.

Yeah. That's really how it ends.

The shock of this story is that, along with a couple of stories in Genesis and Exodus, it is remarkable for the sheer perverseness of its depiction of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Yahweh is a God of justice and mercy, who calls Israel into special covenantal relationship and whose involvement in Israel's history is always subtle and mysterious in its activity. God keeps promises, blesses those are faithful to the Torah, and grieves when the Chosen people stray from their adherence to the covenant. Except that anyone who knows the story of Israel knows the blessings were few and far between. By the time of the prophets, it was clear that not all just blessings and curses would happen in this world, but still it was deemed important to know that Yahweh sat in judgment of the unrighteous. Toward the end of Israel's existence as an independent nation, apocalyptic writings began to place the ultimate justice of God at the end of time, in a new world that would be created to replace the corrupt old world, which would be utterly destroyed in a final cataclysmic battle between good and evil. This was the theological environment into which Jesus was born.

But let's get back to Job first. It's a fairly late book, as books in the original Hebrew Bible go, very likely post-exilic. It addresses an issue that many were wrestling with in the wake of the Babylonian Exile: If God really is all-powerful, all-loving, and just, why did this happen? Why was the temple destroyed, Jerusalem torn down, the people hauled off to captivity in a foreign land? Why would God permit this to happen?

One solution was to put all these events in the context of a greater, mysterious plan, that would ultimately culminate in the salvation of the entire world through the covenant faithfulness of Israel. This Salvation History was worked into all the old stories of the founding of Israel, the Egyptian period, the Exodus, the time of the Judges, and ultimately the Succession Narrative that begins with King David. All of Israel's history, from Abraham through the Exile, was worked into this epic of narrative theology--which, once coopted by Christians, laid the groundwork for their own supercessionist belief that Jesus was the culmination of God's covenant witih Israel, which was now transfered to the church.

The more radical solution, though, was to take the story of Job, a folk tale present in many cultures of the time--a righteous man becomes the pawn of cosmic pranksters--and use it as the framework to call all of this into question. The text of Job has been radically altered, most likely because, at some point in its early existence, it was deemed too radical, even blasphemous. The unsatisfying ending might have been viewed as a way to fix all that was wrong with it; of course, what it really does is make matters worse. The God of Job is every bit as mercurial and capricious as the Greco-Roman pantheon, sadistically abandoning a righteous man to hell on earth just to see what happens. The infuriating voice from the whirlwind, telling all who dare read this book that the One with the power can do whatever that One damn well pleases to do, even to the point of destroying innocents to prove a point, puts us in the uncomfortable position of knowing this is exactly the God we invoke whenever we offer thanksgiving that our house just missed being destroyed by a tornado--while our neighbors were not so lucky, and died.

The choice we must face is this: either God is all-powerful, or all-loving. We can't have it both ways. God the powerful causes everything to happen, which puts innocents in the path of destruction every minute of every day. God the loving can't be all-powerful, or those innocents would never die.

There are two other choices, of course: we got it wrong when we decided God was either just or loving, and God is in fact a sadistic monster playing a cosmic version of Sim City, manipulating the forces of nature and history to see what happens; or that there simply is no God, and Chaos runs the show. Or--just in case you were wondering when I'd get to the parenthetical alternate title--there's a much slower force for justice at work, a principle that gradually moves souls toward Paradise, called Karma.

I have been known to evoke Chaos to explain many an unjust situation, but it can only go so far. Experience has taught me that there really are laws at work in my world, laws that function with ruthless consistency. Drop a fragile object over a hard surface, and gravity will get you every time. Mix some viable sperm and an egg, and there will be a baby. Threaten someone with harm, and he or she will become angry or frightened. Actions have consequences, often spurring reactions that have their own set of consequences; hence my allusion to Chaos Theory.

If you are a believer in any kind of cosmic force, whether you call it Adonai, Allah, Krishna, Karma, Spirit, the Force, whatever you choose to call your faith that all things work for good in the end, at some point you are going to have to contend with the uncomfortable reality posed by Jesus at the beginning of this essay: sometimes the innocent get caught in the crossfire. Bad things happen to good people. The wrong people win lawsuits, win custody, get the corner office, make the varsity squad, qualify for the mortgage, get elected, get to live long, comfortable lives of contentment; meanwhile, the wrong people get sick, lose their homes, their jobs, their children, their lives. It has always been thus. Not universally--the unrighteous do suffer consequences of their misdeeds in many instances--but often enough that we know, in our heart of hearts, that Karma is a crock, that the whole notion of a God who is both all-powerful and all-loving is founded on a fundamental ignorance of how things really work.

It is tempting, in the face of this knowledge, to do as Job's wife wants him to do, to "curse God and die," and I have done my share of fist-shaking. It is also tempting to take the atheist exit, to say that, if the whole system of divine justice I've built my faith on is, in fact, a lie, than God must be, too; and I have teetered on the brink of that path, as well.

Ultimately, though, I have to admit that this world I live in--the people I love, the incredible diversity and beauty of all that is around me, the cycle of seasons, the rhythm of nature, the power of art--is far too intricately made for it to be simply a product of fractals. There is something greater than Chaos, a creative, fundamental force underlying existence. It's no wonder that so many religions ultimately evolve their concept of the Almighty to the embodiment of love, the most creative force humans know. I suspect that's an extremely limiting, anthropocentric way to frame theology, but it has its virtues.

So yes, God has limitations. God is, after all, a frame of reference imposed on the awesome ineffable wonder of the cosmos by our tiny, limited minds. It may be that God, as conceived by limited human reason for the last three millennia, must die for us to move into a truer sense of how the force that makes and binds together the cosmos can still permit shit to happen, of what such a force really is. Perhaps, as Job suggests, a whirlwind is just a better image for such a God than any white-bearded heavenly Santa could ever be.

For my part, I believe in love.

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