13 July 2015

on that which is natural

Over the course of the last ten years or so, I have come to think that one of the major problems with modern Christian theology is that we lack in our understanding of creation. For many, especially American evangelicals, the opening chapters of Genesis are intended to show little more (perhaps no more) than a proof that God made this world and did not rely on evolution. But that is not only a wholesale misrepresentation of the text as it stands, it fails to open up the message to the depth of understanding of God's creation. In short reminder: creation is not a scientific proposition, it is a theological statement.

Goldingay asserts, "'The beginning' of Israel's story was not David, or Joshua, or Moses, or Abraham (or Jesus), but creation" (Israel's Gospel, 76). The Jewish scripture demonstrate this high view of creation, a developed understanding that permeates their entire understanding of the world and its Creator God. This will be the basis for understanding the idea of covenant, for it is God's act as Creator which gives him ownership and right over the cosmos – he is the one who has ordered it and shaped it to operate by his will. "The foundations of Judah's life have collapsed, but each day people still see day and night alternating, and this actually provides a basis for believing that the foundations of their life remain intact. Things are still the way they were at the beginning" (Israel's Gospel, 92, emphasis mine).

Within this framework of understanding the fuller theology of creation is presented. The theological statement of God's activity in creation is seen in the purpose that is infused with his work. Walton points to the notion of God giving functionality to the world (Lost World, 47–71), and voices such as Fretheim unpack the relational quality of the creation narrative (God and World, 29–68). These, amidst other perspectives that could be listed here, serve to demonstrate the richness of God's character in creation. This is the story about the one Creator God establishing his one created universe – the specifics of how he accomplishes this are not drawn out in this text, the account of Genesis is unconcerned with such questions as our modern minds wish to impose.

The world which God makes is declared good, once he has set it in its proper place and motion. The final piece of this is the creation of humanity, where God first sees its incompleteness and remedies the situation in the creation of both woman and man. "In underlying structure and fleshly covering, man and woman are the same" (Israel's Gospel, 107). That is to say, there is commonality in humanity that bears the image of God, and this is what Adam recognizes in the woman, even as he recognizes that she is also different from him. In the singular universe that God has made, the world that has been brought forth, it is the complimentary nature of creation that makes a complete whole. It is, as The Bishop will often remind us, that "heaven and earth were never intended to be far apart" – indeed, they are to overlap one another in God's design.

A day is made complete by both light and darkness, the earth by both land and water. Humanity is completed in that there is both man and woman, instinctively drawn together by divine design and intention. This is the embedded story of creation, and it underlies the story of Israel from beginning to end, with the culmination of God's work to be the restoration of heaven and earth the way he intended it to be.

So when we reference Paul's words on the exchanging of natural relations for unnatural ones (Romans 1:28), there is more at stake than simple cultural engagement. He makes reference to the deeply embedded theology that reflects the Creator's intention for the universe. Paul speaks of the 'mystery' of this union – man and woman as reflective of Christ and the church – because it is a reflection of the way God made the world (Ephesians 5).

It is important that we keep in mind that Paul was not a modern American speaking to modern Americans. His world was different than ours – sometimes dramatically, other times overlapping, but all in its own context that ought not be ignored. The attempts by some to reread his language fall short because of the larger narrative from which he speaks. Some will suggest that Paul's language of natural relations is referring to the freedom to live out the desires that have been placed within the individual – 'natural heterosexuality' in contrast to 'natural homosexuality,' and the two should not be confused. Such a reading tries to read Paul through the lens of postmodern politically-corrected speech, but fails to understand Paul's theology. He speaks from the grand narrative that began with creation, to which the Creator will bring to its rightful fulfillment – a world that exists naturally according to its intended creation. In short, Paul is not talking genetically, but ethically and theologically.

Paul's context was made up of many overt sexual images and practices – such was the life of ancient Greece and Rome. It was prevalent and inescapable, and undoubtedly found itself coming through the doors of the church. The early believers thought this was a good thing, however, because they knew that whatever was dragged into the community of faith could be met with the overwhelming love of God through Christ Jesus. The alternative was disaster – the kind that could be described as the wrath of God being experienced upon a culture that had so distorted those things natural and unnatural – and this went far beyond the singular issue of homosexuality.

Missing a right understanding of God's creation has brought about a society in which all sorts of ungodly behavior occurs, according to Paul. Removing the important foundation of creation has dramatic effects, for both church and culture. Perhaps evangelicalism's apparent obsession with pseudo-scientific discussions about evolution have made its own contribution to the lack of understanding of what is natural in our world today. The church has forgotten to tell the gospel that begins with creation and culminates with a renewed heaven and earth being restored at long last. It is a story that gives us the foundation for what is natural and unnatural – right and wrong. For we must remember that everything that we do against the natural ordering of God's creation will be judged and made right as he makes his restored creation a reality.

The people of God fail to be ministers of the gospel if we do not explain God's grand narrative and design, for we allow the world to continue on a path which has been given dire warnings. This is why Paul's language can be so difficult for our ears to hear – these are words that we have been told by our culture are not 'loving' and caring and graceful. In reality they are loving, for in the story to which he invites all humanity, regardless of their struggles, shortcomings, or sins, it is God's story of creation which begins to explain what a life more abundant – a life of blessing – truly is.

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