Is God into quid-pro-quo?

Iain Dale thinks that some Church of England Bishops think so. Shall we do some unwrapping?

Iain Dale says:

The piece says that the Bishop of Carlisle believes that pro-gay legislation has provoked God to send storms to the North and flood people out of their homes. No, seriously. The Bishop of Liverpool agrees. “If we live in a profligate way then there are going to be consequences. God is exposing us to the truth of what we have done”

Iain, I can see how you might think the Bishops were saying that, but if you read carefully what they said you’ll see it’s not that simple. Yes, Dow, Jones et al said that the Government has enacted immoral legislation over the past years and that also the west as a whole is guilty of ignoring it’s stewardship over creation. The Bishops also said that God’s judgement on sin is something we have pushed out of the way whereas it is a real thing. But none of the Bishops actually said that the floods were directly linked to homosexuality. Rather, the tone of the Bishop’s argument is that sin distorts the world into an ever more broken state, environmentally and spiritually, so as we become more broken and rejecting of God, so creation responds. Chartres said:

“We are all part of the problem and part of the solution. Instead of living as if we owned the earth we need to recover a sense of being participants in a web of life with responsibilities to other life forms and to our children.

Do you see the difference Iain?

Cranmer, of course, has a much longer, and highly recommended, exploration of the issue of theodicy:

It may, of course, be modern Britain that is out of touch with God. Never one to cast pearls before swine, Cranmer would like to make his detailed exegesis available to his communicants, not least because divine retribution is rather more complex than simple cause and effect, especially if exegetes take Job into account.

If God is omnipotent (acknowledged in 9:5-7, 8-10, 26:7-14, 12:7-10, 15-25), Job has no hope of establishing his innocence once God has decided to treat him as a sinner (9:20, 29-32), so that when Job speaks of God’s power, the emphasis is on God’s destructive force (9:22-24, 12:13-25). His understanding is therefore limited as God is viewed through the filter of suffering and thereby becomes an enemy (6:4, 16:6ff, 30:19ff), or a persecuting presence from whom respite is desperately sought (7:11-21). Such a hostile response to a deity or ‘fate’ is endemic in victims of trauma. Job is presented with a theological dilemma: If God is good, he cannot be omnipotent, and if he is omnipotent, he cannot be entirely good. We cannot conclude God only has limited control (42:2), because he controls even the satan (42:11). Job may question God’s goodness, but God rejects this (40:8).

It has to follow for Job that God’s unjust treatment of him was always a part of God’s secret plan (10:8-13), like the modern view of those suffering catastrophe that God playing some kind of divine chess game which he is foreordained to win. Job desires to somehow make sense of his trauma, but knows he has done nothing to ‘deserve’ such suffering. Christians have to wrestle with the question of how can we relate to God when the world he made does not make sense, for it often appears that the God of Job is not merely one whose thoughts and ways are simply higher than ours (Isa 55:9), but quite often grotesque and totally alien to them.

Cranmer recalls a song some years ago with the lyric: ‘Why does it always rain on me?’ It was followed with the line: ‘Is it because I lied when I was seventeen?’ – an expression of the pervasive belief in exact retribution (Prov 9:10-12), as prevalent in twenty-first century ‘church’ culture as it was in Job’s. The principal plea of those traumatised is ‘Why me?’ or ‘What have I done to deserve this?’, and the easy and comforting answer is to believe that the suffering is deserved, and that some personal wickedness or ‘sin’ was its cause, because associated guilt places the catastrophe in a comprehensible universal order, namely that suffering is explicable in terms of punishment. Job shares the premise of his friends that because God is just, he rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty, which is why Job can make no sense of his own suffering (10:5-7). ‘I’ve been wronged!… There’s no justice’ (19:7), he cries.

It isn’t easy to square Ps 146 with Job 24:1-12, or Deut 30:15-20 with Eccl 8:14-9:4. The writer of Job clashes directly with the ideology of Proverbs. Proverbs seems to say, ‘Here are the rules for life; try them and find that they will work.’ Job and Ecclesiastes say, ‘We did, and they don’t’. But Job isn’t necessarily a contradiction to Proverbs; more a modification or qualification.

Therein lies the depth and richness of Christian theology. Bishops would be wise to avoid reducing such complex issues to tabloid headlines.

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