In my last post on Andy Goldsworthy, I suggested that his art might be a metaphor for how a Christian (or any agent of grace) might move in the world. The root metaphor of Goldsworthy's art is "a collaboration with nature," and I think we can do something similar as we move within our social worlds. We move, following Goldsworthy's method, by first becoming a part of the environment, noticing its rhythms and materials. A Christian doesn't force others, we work from the inside, as friends and collaborators. It's an idea very similar to the one sent by Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon after they had been set free. Rather than calling the exiles back home to Jerusalem, Jeremiah asks them to stay, to live and work alongside the people of Babylon collaborating to seek the good of the city:
This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."As I thought about Christian mission in these Goldsworthian terms I couldn't help but think about how God moves in the world. Might Goldsworthy's art also be a metaphor for God's providential working in our lives? A way to visualize his love? An illustration of how his Spirit moves in our daily affairs?
The idea, here, would be that God acts in the world collaboratively and non-coercively. God doesn't bring grace by forcing it upon people. Rather, God works from the inside, helping us pick of the pieces and finding grace from within the brokenness.
This notion is very similar to the work of Arthur McGill in his book Suffering: A Test of Theological Method. In Suffering McGill tries to understand the work of Christ in the face of a world full of violence.
McGill begins with the observation that violence exists because humans are needy and vulnerable. To live we require constant nourishment. Violence occurs when we traumatically damage each other or cut each other off from sources of nourishment and replenishment. McGill:
But as long as men find their identities in the life which the world nourishes, they must open themselves to the world and thus leave themselves exposed to whatever abuses the world may inflict. For instance, if they involve themselves with other people, they may be violated by the greed or demands of their friends. The needs in human nature provide specific points of weakness which may be easily lacerated. But more important, this basic neediness requires man to adopt a posture of openness to the world which in turn makes them ready victims of every convulsive power.The unfortunate upshot of this primary neediness is that humans come to define "power" as an inherently destructive force. Those who control the mechanisms of nourishment (e.g., the means of production, food, money, access to jobs or citizenship) are those who have "power." Those who can hurt or destroy you have "power." Power, thus, becomes defined as the power to destroy. If I have a gun, I have power. If I control your food or job, I have power. If I can torture you, I have power. If I can kick you out of this country, I have power. In short, power doesn't nourish, it cuts us off from nourishment.
Given the inherently destructive nature of power, McGill associates it with the demonic:
Demons are not specific things at all, and are certainly not human. They represent, rather, that peculiar energy of destruction which is met in an infected wound, say, or in a conflict between brothers...Its essence is to twist and break apart the forms of other things, to stunt human growth, to disrupt social order, to misshape animals and trees, to obstruct the fruitfulness of the earth. The demonic is only known by virtue of the destruction it causes.In short, when Goldsworthy wanders out into nature he's walking into a landscape ravaged by the demonic, a world where the forces of entropy and decay are "Lord." We, in a similar way, see these same demonic forces--people wielding power against each other--hurting the social world around us.
And all this presents the Christian with a problem. McGill puts it this way: "If our world is subject to these terribly destructive forces, how can the good God of Christianity be said to be Lord of this world? What confidence can we have in him if he is not able--or not willing--to obstruct these demonic forces?"
For McGill the answer goes back to how we understand power. If demonic power cuts the world off from nourishment, then redemptive power must be nourishment itself. God, then, is all that brings life, flourishing, and harmony. If this is true, then God's way in the world will not be the wielding of demonic power. God, in short, won't behave coercively or violently. God, to echo 1 John, is love. The power of God, thus, is fully revealed in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus does not wield demonic power against those who seek to kill him. Rather, Jesus lays down his life for the very people who torture and kill him. This, following Paul, is the power of God. Giving. Sacrificing. Loving. The cross is the power of God. McGill:
...the power of God reveals itself in and as Jesus. In that man's concrete, empirical existence, which is to say, in those acts of, and commands for, loving self-expenditure which are recorded in the four Gospels, we have exhibited the power by which God rules the world...In his teachings and in his life Jesus stands completely opposed to all powers that victimize, to all energies of violence that rage through this world. He allows no ground for treating these forces as really good, to be affirmed as agents of God's will and expressions of God's power and, therefore, to be allowed to run their course. He sets himself against all those persons and realities which use their power to cause suffering.If this is so then many Christians might be fundamentally confused about God's "power" and what it means that God is "Lord." Because if the cross is the demonstration of God's power then we aren't talking about a God that will use coercive force. Nor are we talking about a Lord or King in any conventional sense. Jesus' crown is one of thorns. No, the power of God is something very, very different than what we typically take it to be. A last word from McGill:
By his life and teachings, Jesus makes perfectly clear that the divinity active through him is not Absolute Power. That divinity is not a potentially tyrannical force that might do just anything at all, such as produce square circles or smash the world to pieces...To conclude, through all this I see in Goldsworthy's art a metaphor for understanding the power of God. God's power isn't a domination of his creation. Nor does God force the pieces back together. We may want God to do this from time to time (i.e., force it), but that would be calling upon a demon, essentially trying to grab coercive power for this good or that goal. And perhaps these are even worthy goals or goods. But do we really want to go down this road? Allowing people, even with the best of intentions, to call from heaven the coercive power of God to accomplish something for us? Hasn't that been the problem with religion from the start? The belief that God is a coercive power that is for us and against them? That God is a power we can use against each other?
Thus, when God moves toward his creature, he does not exercise his powerfulness by subjecting them to his domination, or by shattering them with his superior force so as to demonstrate their helplessness before him. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is not brute power raised to the nth degree. This God exercises his powerfulness by his giving, by how much he nourishes his creatures...
But if McGill is to be believed, all of this rests upon a confusion about who God is and what God's power really looks like. If the cross is the power of God you can't use it coercively. The cross indicts coercive power. And it is in the power of the cross where we find God working to bring the world back together again.
So if we think God is absent from the world, abandoning us to violence, then we are likely looking for the Lord of Creation in all the wrong places. We are probably seeking a demon, not God. We are often looking for a dominating Mega-Power--the Big Stick in the Sky--when, in fact, the power of God is already amongst us. The power of God is here, hanging on the cross, his crown firmly in place.