Waterlogged Theology

This is not a review.

I haven't seen Noah, the just-released blockbuster about the Flood, nor do I plan to see it. Between previews and word-of-mouth, I'm 98% certain I'd spend the entire two hours and eighteen minutes critiquing both the liberties it takes with the Biblical narrative and the ways in which it chickens out on the real scandal at the heart of that story.

I've already written about that scandal, calling it "The Worst Story in the Bible," and I don't intend to repeat much of that argument here. What I do want to do is just zoom in on the key aspect of it, which Noah almost certainly glosses over, as does every popular interpretation of the story I've ever encountered. (Case in point, this: )

Simply put, the central character in the story of the Flood is not an old man with a big boat; it's the bloodthirsty God who, on a whim, destroys all life that won't fit on that boat. This is genocide on a cosmic scale. When the commander of the Death Star commits a similar atrocity in Star Wars: A New Hope, using the battle station's super laser to destroy the entire planet of Alderaan, there's no question but that the perpetrator is a cold-blooded mass murderer who should, and will, be judged and punished for what he has done. And yet, when God drowns an entire army in the Red Sea, causes the ground to open up and swallow misbehaving Israelites, strikes dead two early Christians who cheated on their tithe, or, in the visions of John of Patmos, promises to cast all unbelievers into a lake of eternal fire, Bible-believing Christians look the other way or, worse, embrace the violence as well-deserved.

But wait, there's more: natural disasters--hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, wildfires and, of course, floods--are typically ascribed to God, rather than nature, by people of even marginal faith. Churches pray for people to be spared from these "acts of God," give thanks to God for those who are spared, yet somehow manage to ignore the fact that the same God who spared Cousin Ralph must be responsible for drowning Mrs. Willoughby next door.

That's how churches have always handled the Flood, focusing on God's act of sparing Noah, his family, and their hastily gathered menagerie rather than on the massacre of every other land-dwelling creature. We give Noah toys to babies. I remember enjoying an ark play set when I was a toddler, and I gave one to my children, too. Praise be to God for sparing every person who escapes a natural disaster! And we just won't mention that, if God could save these people, God could also have stepped in and saved all the victims who didn't make it, perhaps by not letting that tornado happen in the first place.

Of course, this is not the world we live in. Nature is a harsh mistress, killing and sparing without regard to the righteousness of persons. It's natural to long for an explanation, to seek deeper meaning in random events of feast and famine, but that there is a longing for such meaning does not mean it is there to be found. And the meaning most often found--that there is a deity handing out blessings and curses based on clearly identifiable criteria--lays the groundwork for atrocity. Suppose a village on one side of a valley is destroyed by a mudslide, while others escape unscathed. It's tempting to think there must be something about the people of that village that brought this disaster upon them. Perhaps it's their faith: they worship a different incarnation of the deity than that favored by most of the rest of the inhabitants of the valley. Perhaps God was punishing them for their heretical faith. And look, there's an enclave of people practicing that heresy in our own village! For our own safety, we'd better do something about them, at the very least exile them from our community, before another disaster strikes, and some of our family is collateral damage.

This is the kind of thinking that has generated persecution from generation to generation throughout the history of the human race. In 2001, following the destruction of the World Trade Center by radical Islamists, Sikhs, adherents of an Indian religion completely unrelated to Islam, were targeted by American bigots simply for wearing turbans.

It strikes me that we may be hard-wired to explain tragedies in this way, just as we retain the fight-or-flight instincts of our ancestors long after such reactions ceased to lose their effectiveness for the modern risks we face. There was a time when finding spiritual meaning in tragedy made it more bearable, especially one the concept of appeasing God was added to the mix. If God can be coaxed into reversing a harsh judgment through sacrifices, then humans have gained some semblance of control over their situation. If, more than that, God occasionally sets someone aside for rescue from one of these righteous disasters, then God is much more than an all-powerful judge: God is savior.

This is a fundamentally insane notion. Being saved by God from a disaster caused by God, then worshiping God for the salvation, but never holding God accountable for the disaster, is nuts. And yet that is precisely how people of faith practice their religion in every part of the world.

Not all of them do, mind you;r but it takes considerably more effort to develop a nuanced theistic faith, to believe in a God who is all-loving but not all-powerful. And it's almost impossible to derive such a God simply from study of the Bible. There are inklings of such developments in Biblical theology--the prophets wrestling with the Exile, Paul struggling with questions of theodicy, sayings of Jesus that challenge simplistic notions of righteousness and divine reward--but as a whole, the book skews toward an omnipotent God and never really addresses the contradictions of ascribing infinite love to this same God. Of course, since it's more an anthology than a single piece of work, it doesn't really have to. The real problem is with those who insist on treating the book as if it always says what it means and means what it says, and every thing it says, however contradictory or abominable, is literally the word of God.

If I were to profess faith in a God, it could not be the God of the Flood, the Exodus, or any of the other great and terrible events depicted in the Bible. No, I'd be looking for a kinder, gentler, weaker God, one who could be trusted to listen, to comfort, to encourage. There are many, I expect, who worship this God, and find the basis for their faith in the Bible; but to do so, they must set aside large portions of the book.

If you are a theist, I encourage you to be a thoughtful believer, to acknowledge that your holy book is, first and last, a book; and to ask yourself which of the great works you attribute to God are truly compatible with your understanding of who God is.


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