A couple of weeks ago we elected a new provincial government in the province of Alberta, and the new cabinet was sworn in on Sunday afternoon. They lean to the left, which is rather unusual, given that their predecessors, the Progressive Conservatives, had been in power for forty-four years. Here in Alberta, we don’t exactly have a history of favouring socialism. All sort of jokes about flying pigs and the climate of hell were making the rounds of social media for a few days.
The new government, of course, wants to make income taxes more progressive, to increase the corporate tax rate, and to put the minimum wage up from ten to fifteen dollars an hour over a three year period. It can point to economic studies showing the benefits of these ideas. Of course, conservative-minded people can also point to studies backing up their opposition to these ideas. Economics, it turns out, is not an exact science. Equally intelligent people can take diametrically opposed positions on what will work and what won’t. People who disagree with me are not being malicious (much as I would like to think they are!); they look at things differently, that’s all. Their points of view seem self-evident to them – just as my point of view seems self-evident to me!
It’s the same in the field of medicine. I, as a layman, would like to think that every illness has a prescribed course of treatment that will always, infallibly, produce a good result, but of course, reality is far more messy than that. There are many illnesses for which we do not yet have a satisfactory cure. And many of the cures that we do have work some of the time, but not always. People are different; drugs or surgical procedures will not always produce the same results in different bodies.
This seems to be the way it is on planet earth; we like to think that knowledge is cut and dried, black and white, clear for all to see, but in fact, it’s not. Scientists will tell you that human beings and human societies – not to mention wider ecosystems – are incredibly complex. Climate, ecological systems, economic principles, family structures, human personality – they all seem to be far more complicated than we had ever imagined.
People sometimes get impatient with complexity in the area of religion. “Surely, if there’s a God, he’s simple and straightforward”, they say. “All these complex theological ideas can’t really have anything to do with God, can they?”
Why not? If God invented matter – if he dreamed up DNA – if he designed all the millions of different species currently existing on earth – if he created the vast distances of inter-stellar space – and, for that matter, if he knows every single human being he has ever created on this pin-prick of a planet, and even knows our thoughts – well, he must be far more complex than we can ever imagine. For from making him too complicated, theology is probably erring on the side of being overly simplistic.
If there is a loving and powerful God, how does he balance his desire to see his good and wise plan for his world come to fruition, with his complimentary desire to honour the free will he has given to his creatures?
Where did evil come from? Was it somehow created by God? If not, is it possible that something else exists that was not created by the Creator of everything? And if evil was created by another creator, why did that other creator want to create evil? Was that other creator made by the one true God, and if so… well, you get the problem!
If God is a God of love, why does the world appear to have been set up in such a way that life forms prey upon each other, and the stronger and more savage usually win the day? ‘Nature is red in tooth and claw’; if nature is our guide to ideal existence, why do we think it’s good and honourable to care for the weak and the old rather than put them out of their misery, as nature does? So in what sense are God’s ‘eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are…understood and seen through the things he has made’? (Romans 1:20).
These are complex questions, and the God we believe in must be bigger and more complex than anything we can imagine if he has the answers to them. But then, as one of my teachers used to say, “God being the almighty creator of the universe, and you being one of his creatures, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are a few things in the mind of Almighty God that you can’t understand!”
Isaiah expressed it long ago when he spoke on God’s behalf:
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8-9 NRSV).
Or, as a very wise Christian theologian once said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God”.
Nonetheless, we are called to try our best to understand it. Jesus told us that we ought to love the Lord our God, not just with all our heart, but also with all our mind. We are thinking beings, and often we get ourselves into trouble by not thinking things through carefully enough before we act. “Measure twice, cut once” is the carpenter’s rule. “Think carefully before you speak or act” ought to be ours.
But there is a limit to our thoughts, and all thoughts of God will run off into mystery sooner or later. At the end of the day, there comes a time to close the theology books and say our evening prayers to the God we will never fully understand – because, if we did, we would be equal with him, which is obviously impossible. And so we bow before him and pray as the psalmist taught us:
‘O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
my soul is like a weaned child that is with me.
‘O Israel, hope in the LORD
from this time forth and forevermore’ (Psalm 131 NRSV).