2014 Lent 30


I Corinthians 14:20-33a; 39-40

“God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (v. 33).

I have a Jewish friend named Shay.  I met him one winter day on top of a mountain in southern California.  I had taken my family sledding for the day, a fun Saturday activity for a February southern California day.  So there we were, running up the slope and sliding down, time and again, when my forward-thinking wife thought it would be a good idea to take a family photo.  I then turned to the man next to me, to ask if he’d take our picture, when I heard him speaking to his six year-old son in a foreign tongue.

“Excuse me,” I said; “could you take a picture of us?”

“Yes,” he smiled, “I’d love to.  And would you do the same for my family?”

“Certainly.  By the way, were you just speaking in Hebrew?”

“Yes!  How did you know?”

So I recited Genesis 1:1 to him in Hebrew, which I’d memorized once upon a time, and we began a dear friendship.  Shay and his wife, Yael, and their two sons attended my daughters’ baptisms, in fact, eleven years ago on Pentecost.  We were now Presbyterians, having recently left a Baptist Church; and we lined the girls up for the sacrament, stair-step style, ages two, four, six, and eight.

“I’m Jewish by heritage,” Shay told me later that day as we picnicked, “but not by belief.  We keep the festivals: the holy days and all that.  It’s our heritage.  But it’s really hard for me to believe in God–or at least in ideas like providence–when we, God’s so-called chosen people, have been mistreated for so long.  Especially in the twentieth century!  Could there really be an almighty God who allows this kind of evil to happen?”

So that’s one side of the coin.  The other is seen in what the apostle Paul says here, writing with certainty that God is a God of peace, not disorder.

How do we reconcile this problem of evil in a world created and governed by a good God?

Yesterday I mentioned John Cage, the twentieth-century American composer (see “2014 Lent 29″).  In his composition 4’33”, he suggested a possible answer to this riddle.  There is apparent chaos all around us.  But after the chaos has had a time to do its chaotic thing, a sort of settling occurs.  A certain peace, in other words, or order.  It’s not perhaps as orderly or as peaceful or as settled as we would like, but there is nevertheless more order, peace, and settlement than before, when the chaos was running its course.

That Cage was able to convey this idea through musical examples is brilliant.  But what I have been wrestling with since yesterday (and indeed for many years) is the connection between chaos, determinism, and providence, not just in music but in the wider world we live in.

How are these three related?  Are providence and determinism just two different words to describe the same thing–but one sounds religious and the other does not?  Or, if they are not the same thing, how do they differ from one another?  And to what degree does chaos–or dynamical instabilities–affect providence and/or determinism?

We get so caught up in wanting God to answer our prayers just as we’d like.  But determinism says that if a butterfly were to flap its wings just once in just a certain way on one side of the world, the result would be a hurricane on the other side of the world a year later.  This idea has in fact been proven mathematically.  So with respect to providence, perhaps if God were to answer a specific prayer just the way I wanted, it would result in a catastrophe at a different time and in a different place.  And I most definitely wouldn’t want that!

Kind of makes me rethink how I pray, or at least how I want God to answer my prayers.

Well, this is not a definitive answer for my friend Shay, I know.  But with seven billion humans walking the planet, we’ve got to make room for dynamical instabilities in our worldviews, whether we believe in providence, determinism, anarchy, fatalism, or anything else.

At least Paul’s view–and mine–sees peace as a destination to which we’re headed.  Come to think of it, so does John Cage’s.


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