Possible Worlds

Passing judgement is taboo in many circles these days, with many denying that we have the right or the ability to tell others what they ought to do or think. Two thousand year old wisdom lends some (limited) support to this view, saying ‘Judge not lest you be judged’.

The reason for this perspective is not hard to understand. Someone is only equipped to be a judge if they have sufficient knowledge and experience to know what are the relevant facts, and if they have keen enough insight / foresight to know what is the correct verdict. We allow judges to preside over courtrooms because they know the law better than anyone else, they have served with distinction for a long enough period, and because we don’t have a better alternative. Judgement requires superior knowledge and perspective, and while professional judges may do well enough in their limited field, most people do not possess these qualities about most things. So we rightly give them flak when they presume to try.

It is all the more remarkable to me, therefore, that the same species that produces Jerry Springer and MacDonald’s and automatically flushing toilets feels capable of judging God. I don’t mean that we’re always critical of God—sometimes we pass judgement with the best of intentions—I just mean that we somehow imagine that we have the brain-power to crunch the numbers involved in such a judgement, or the platform from which to gain the proper perspective.

God Should Choose Everyone
For example—and those who don’t know or care about Calvinism can skip ahead here—I was having a discussion with my wife earlier in the week about the age-old complaint that if God is the one who chooses whom He will save (rather than we being the ones who decisively choose Him), then why doesn’t He just save everyone (the implication being that God should save everyone if it’s just up Him).

Romans 9 has some answers to that objection that I’m not going to go into here, but that chapter also includes the following line, which seems at first blush to be the desperate retort of an authoritarian who doesn’t like the way that the conversation is going:

You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? (Romans 9:19f)

However, Paul’s response is not a dismissive ‘because I said so’. He’s merely pointing out that the things under discussion require from us a capacity that we can never possess. So consider the objection that God should save everyone if He is able. This requires of us the ability to correctly imagine a world history in which everyone becomes a genuine believer. What are the implications for freedom, faith, discipleship? Would there be adversity? Would testing be experienced as genuine? Would we become the kind of creatures that we should? Would we learn to know the things about God that are most important (‘mercy’ in Romans 9 thinking)? We may guess at the answers to such questions, but we simply cannot construct a world in our minds in which we can fully grasp and correctly judge the effect of changing so crucial a variable. Even time travellers in the stories only find out the effect of their changes on history once they go back to the future; who has the power to predict such things? Who are we to answer back indeed?

Universe-sized Number-crunching
I find this sort of judgement to be especially prevalent in atheist rhetoric. I’ve heard it argued on many occasions that a world presided over by Zeus or Ra or Yahweh would look markedly different from our own. I have no quibble with the idea that ruling powers of different character would produce worlds of different kinds, but I have significant problems with the idea that people are able to imagine these worlds in any sort of helpful way. The idea that anyone is capable of fully capturing in their minds a picture of the ‘world as it is’ and another picture of ‘the world as it would be’ if there were an interventionist God (or whatever) in charge is absurd (not forgetting that these pictures also require a complete comprehension of the deity in question). Satisfying yourself that God doesn’t exist because you know how things would be if He did is a self-deceit that would be best abandoned sooner rather than later.

Show Thyself
If you do insist upon trying to reimagine the universe in this way, turning the ‘god variables’ on and off to see what happens, I would humbly suggest the following for your consideration, as I believe that this is one misunderstanding of how God (if He exists) operates / ought to operate in our world (if He does). People object that if God is there, why does He hide himself? Why not schedule coffee with me next Tuesday, God, and settle this existence thing once and for all? Perhaps make a TV appearance on Jerry Springer? [That show has to be cancelled by now, but I’m not going to check].

Of course there’s a sense in which this is a valid complaint, and must be partially true. If the Bible is in any way historical, then God has made some miraculous shows of power to people in the past, and could do so for the cameras (although would we really believe our eyes?). On the other hand, maybe He’s not so much hidden as we are blind to his presence. Or let me put it another way.

We conceive of the world as ‘natural’ and God as ‘supernatural’. The world gets on with things by itself, and God is somewhere nearby looking in, tinkering now and then, and just generally keeping out of sight to see what we’ll do. We conceive of the ‘natural world’ as an environment in which we (for the sake of argument) demand that God appears. I do not think that this is remotely correct. The world is more like a tool than an environment. The universe is not a stage on which God should appear; theologically, God is the environment in which the universe exists.

What this means practically is that the ordinary, day-to-day operation of the ‘natural world’ is the normal tool that God uses to get His work done; the miraculous is not. Miracles serve a significant purpose of their own, but God gets His work done without them. The book of Esther is dominated by this theme, that ordinary schemes and coincidences produce a remarkable deliverance—God’s bidding is done even though His name, His voice, and His supernature are never once invoked in Esther’s pages.

Likewise, today we call the conversion of an unbeliever to Christianity a ‘miracle’ and it is, but it rarely comes about through means other than ordinary people talking to each other and one of them changing his mind. In my childhood we had many occasions in which we had no food, and our prayers were answered by friends giving us some of theirs. It was an amazing answer to prayer on one hand, but as ordinary as you like on the other.

So perhaps God is disinclined to make a miraculous show of His existence to every skeptic, and His reasons for that are known to Him. But perhaps the search for God is being undertaken by people who are expecting to find Him hidden in the environment, rather than seeing His daily use of the ‘ordinary world’ as a tool. It’s not that He’s hard to see; it’s just that the blind are pretty bad at spotting much of anything.

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