18 March 2011

distance and freedom

"True human life is possible only if the vision of God is of such a nature that disbelief remains possible. The concern is not to keep people ignorant, but to preserve them."
(T. Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 92)

At the base of Sinai there are instructions not to allow the people to see God, or else they will die. Typically we assume that this is because the divine presence (holiness) is too intense for humanity to gaze upon, and thus would be our destruction. Old Testament scholar, Terence Fretheim, thinks that a more careful reading of the text demonstrates otherwise. And I think that he is more right than wrong here.

“The intensity associated with certain theophanies does not happen because God stands in some fundamental disjunction with the world, requiring much ‘sound and fury’ to occur in God’s wake. Some of the most ‘face to face’ comings of God are very quiet, it should be remembered, even childlike. There is a certain ‘nexus’ here that cannot be denied. Although God and world are categorically different, they are not as irreconcilable as repelling magnets or oil in water" (Ibid.).

Simultaneously we suppose that God cannot reveal himself to us and pray that God would be ever-present in our lives. We ask for the glory of God to be made known to us, but our mouths often testify to the 'fact' that God's glory is too great for us to handle. Yet one more unmatched theological rendering in modern evangelicalism, where our words about God and our words to God are not consistent.

Fretheim's assertion here is that God's distancing from humanity is for the purpose of preserving the whole of Creation as he made it - that it should have the relational freedom to act on its own, even to the point of denying the very existence (or the inherent glory of) its Creator. In a sense Christian thought has already run ahead to this point and arrived there. We confess, along with Paul and the early church, that the moment of parousia and the triumphant return of Christ will be the moment when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). Thus, there will be no *choice* in accepting the sovereignty of God or his agent.

So, if God desires freedom in the world before the moment of Christ's second coming, is it possible for him to show his glory before that point? Not if the system of his creation - and the plan of his creation-activity - is to be preserved.

This also means that the presence of God hasn't been as far off as we've allowed our own minds to convince. It takes work to make a relationship flourish, and God will no more give us every blessing without the commitment of our own hearts engaged with him. Any time humans are given blessing too quickly and too easily it typically ends in some sort of disaster. Hence, we are free and we are given the opportunity to grow because of the distance of God's glory, and the nearness of his Spirit.

Pentecost seems to fit into all of this quite nicely, for it is now that our Creator is revealed in a more profound way . . . to bridge the gap for those who are willing to travel the road.

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