Creation

enjoyment is only the tip of the iceberg

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I think I was dimly aware that an entire theology of creation (and a theological anthropology as part of that) was lurking beneath the surface of my previous post.

But — a bit like rubbing detergent or saliva on the inside of your snorkelling mask — it took this dazzling gem from the Church Dogmatics III/4 to bring things into sharp focus for me:

[God] takes man so seriously in his vocation to be in covenant with Him that He calls him to freedom in fellowship, i.e., to freedom in fellowship with others. He calls him to find himself by affirming the other, to know joy by comforting the other, and self-expression by honouring the other. (Section 54.1, pages 116-117)

I find this so helpful. For one thing, it traces the same arc I’ve launched myself upon in beginning to flesh out a properly biblical notion of enjoyment (e.g., wrapping it up with other-regarding behaviour like giving and sharing — or, as Barth specifies it here, with affirming, honouring, and comforting).

But it’s the location of this claim within the sweep of the Church Dogmatics that really excites me.

You see, in Sections 52-56 Barth is busy drawing out the ethical implications of the theology of creation he has developed in Book III — which might be better labelled a Christology of creation.

This is exciting because it doesn’t only confirm my hunch that enjoyment is the tip of a much larger iceberg. It also suggests the kind of shape that this submerged theology needs to have in order to yield a distinctively Christian alternative to the reigning ‘ethics of otherness’.

In the ethics of otherness trailblazed by the likes of Immanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, difference is absolute. All we can (ethically) do is tremble before the claim of the other as other — in a kind of mirror image reversal of the revulsion supposedly characterising the sort of ethics Levinas et al rail against. The tyranny of the self — and people like me — is replaced by the tyranny of the other.

What Barth invites us to imagine by contrast is a way of placing the other beside the self.

It is only in doing so that we will find the conceptual freedom to forge well-differentiated connections between ourselves and others. Perhaps even allowing for the full range of ethically justifiable responses to otherness — between the extremes of knee-jerk exclusion and indiscriminate embrace…

gratitude and gratification

I’ve often tripped over this verse from 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

It’s not the warning to the rich that I catch my foot on. I get the idea that having stuff can lead us to haughtiness or an inclination to try to rest the weight of our hope for the future on the illusory solidity of stuff.

What gets me is the exhortation — or rather the reason for the exhortation to set our hope on God: because he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.

I wouldn’t have chosen to dispense this as the remedy for proud, self-sufficient wealth-creation.

Maybe that’s because the leftist bent of my idealistic youth is enjoying something of a revival in my thinking of late.

Or maybe it’s because I need to inwardly digest the message Tim Keller recently got to broadcast on the NY Times website.

But ultimately I suspect it’s because my sense of enjoyment — as in “God richly provides … everything for our enjoyment” — is way too cramped and narrow.

Lingering beneath however I might like to define the word, for me ‘enjoyment’ always connotes something furtive. Stolen. Something I’ve gotten away with. Or jumped through the hoops of respectably delayed gratification to attain.

I guess I could stand to learn a thing or two from my sixteen month-old son, who clasps his hands repeatedly in a prayer of gratitude every meal time — especially when he’s served up his favourite foods (currently grapes, crackers, sultanas, and banana muffins).

For my son, the more he anticipates enjoying something, the more he is moved to express his thankfulness. So much so that it seems like thankfulness enhances his enjoyment of something.

Gratitude isn’t a necessary and more or less unpleasant prelude to gratification. It’s essential to it!

Oh, how I wish I could recapture that…

then I’m too small to wield the key

So I’ve started to realise that the real work of discipleship — changing hearts and shaping our desires and abiding habits — is too massive and demanding for me.

Like Alice after drinking from the bottle labelled “DRINK ME”, I’m left feeling small and inadequate.

The enormity of the task is overwhelming. And I certainly can’t get a handle on the key that opens the all-important door. Only God can break up the stony ground of our hearts and reorder our affections — so we love the right things in the right way.

I’m not sure whether this realisation is deflating or liberating. (Like I said when I invited you to join me on this adventure, things are kind of out of proportion down here!)

But before I let myself — and you — off the hook too quickly, let me remind you that God uses means.

What this means is that in his sovereign and loving freedom God typically chooses to work with and through the ordinary stuff of creation. His Spirit did preside over his ordinary week’s work of making everything in Genesis 1.1-2.3, after all!

And this also means God often chooses to use us — in our inadequacy and insufficiency to the task of changing hearts — and our ordinary human words and actions to achieve his life-realigning purposes.

The theologian John Webster would put this under the heading of the sanctifying work of the Spirit — which he describes as “God’s unceasing, ever-fresh act of bestowing holiness upon the creature by the creature’s consecration” (Holiness, page 77).

But it’s what Webster goes on to say that I find most helpful — and dizzying: “the primary mark of creaturely holiness is … its external orientation, its ordering towards God as its source and the object of its praises”.

If I ‘ve understood this (and there are no guarantees I have), then I think it means that as we — in our stumbling and faltering way — learn to delight in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ as the source of our life and the infinitely-praiseworthy centre of everything, we can be confident God is at work in us — making us holy and, ultimately, fit to achieve his purposes.

And that is a towering responsibility!