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The Small Ways

The first weeks of January are often times full of big plans, big promises, big expectations, and big dreams.  It was good to be reminded by Walter Brueggemann this morning of the significance of “smallness” in God’s economy.  This is from Prayers for a Privileged People:

We ponder you in your greatness

We magnify you for your miracles of deliverance.

We relish the news of your gift of newness given us in Jesus of Nazareth.

We make our doxology as large as we can, in order to match your massive presence in the world.

But then, in slow times and in lesser venues, we know you to be the God of small things; one widow and one orphan, one touch of healing, one lunch turned to much food, one small temple for a small people in a small city, one small scroll to power the small city.

On good days we are among those, who do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous.

It is enough that short of glory and magnificence, you hang in to make small places your venue for governance.  We are grateful for your “tidbits” that bespeak life among us.

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It is nice to be reminded of the significance of smallness – in all the dimensions of that significance.

    Does God govern the small things in life and the large things?

    Does God govern the evolution of species or does God leave that to natural selection, which means, in the language of biology, to chance and necessity? Natural selection operates at such a small level and so slowly it is nearly invisible – one could live a whole life and never notice that is was there. Some say that God uses natural selection to govern the evolution of the species. Do you say that? If so, are you able to say what that means? Does God use chance and necessity?

    Brueggeman said, “On good days we are among those, who do not occupy ourselves with things too great and too marvelous.”

    What makes those the good days? It sounds like he is saying we should not occupy ourselves with great and marvelous things.

    Charles Taylor describes how we have mainly come to believe that God is not involved in the small things, and not even in the big things since creation (Chapter 6, A Secular Age.) Instead we believe those things are left up to us and to the automatic workings of the universe and living organisms. And then in the end God will assess how we have done. What do you think about that? It is consistent with the belief that what matters here is how we live.

    January 8, 2010
    • Does God govern the small things in life and the large things?

      Yes, I believe he does. I think this is part of what it means to say that God is the one “in whom we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

      Some say that God uses natural selection to govern the evolution of the species. Do you say that? If so, are you able to say what that means? Does God use chance and necessity?

      I think that God establishes the parameters for the origins of life and for its ongoing existence and its yet-to-be-realized potential. I tend not to think about these questions in terms of “does it happen because of God or because of natural selection.” I think that this already sets up an adversarial understanding of the two terms that isn’t necessary. The fact that some feature of human existence can be demonstrated to have enhanced our evolutionary fitness does not thereby rule out the possibility that God set it up to be that way. Indeed, I think we have good theological reasons to expect that there should be overlap in these areas.

      What makes those the good days? It sounds like he is saying we should not occupy ourselves with great and marvelous things.

      I think Brueggemann is just referring to Psalm 131 here. I read him as simply advocating a hope in God that is characterized by humility and a recognition of our limitations as opposed to keeping our thoughts from getting too lofty.

      Instead we believe those things are left up to us and to the automatic workings of the universe and living organisms. And then in the end God will assess how we have done. What do you think about that? It is consistent with the belief that what matters here is how we live.

      Questions about the mechanics of providence are obviously tricky ones. I certainly don’t claim an exhaustive understanding of how God might operate in/interact with the world he has made. I do think that God has given a spectacular amount of freedom to his image-bearers—perhaps even an unwarranted amount, given how we use and abuse it. God seems content to allow history to take a meandering course to its ultimate telos. At times, it certainly does seem like he has taken his hand off the wheel, so to speak.

      Perhaps one of the points Brueggemann is gesturing towards is that God’s presence/activity seems to be the kind of thing that can only be seen by those with eyes to see and ears to hear (to borrow the language of the prophets). We tend to expect to see God to show himself in extraordinary ways—intervening in evolution, turning water into wine, or some other spectacular manifestation. But if God really is responsible for the big picture—the picture that makes the causal regularities that our theorizing depends upon even possible—then we should expect to see traces of him in all things, great and small.

      January 8, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Thank you for explaining how you think about this.

    Re: I tend not to think about these questions in terms of “does it happen because of God or because of natural selection.”

    In Chapter 4 of Origin of the Species, Darwin introduces the metaphor “natural selection.” He calls it a metaphor. And he explains, “It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or deity; … It is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us.” The difference is between Nature personified, or God, and Nature as aggregate action and product of a sequence of events is the difference between teleology and teleonomy. When you wrote, “”God seems content to allow history to take a meandering course to its ultimate telos,” I think you are referring to telos as understood in teleology rather than teleonomy. This distinction matters because natural selection represents a metaphor for the idea that life and history have no telos. Darwin was not only making an argument against theistic versions of creation or evolution, he was arguing against materialist versions of evolution towards a telos, such as those proposed by other scientists of his era.

    I can see that you are not concerned that life seems to meander. My impression is that you are nevertheless reluctant to surrender the idea of telos.

    Many Christians who believe that we have evolved from single-celled creatures and even from inanimate matter before that also believe that we have souls that God placed in us. Something like this is the official Roman Cathollic position. Do you believe we have souls? If so, what are they, or what does that word “soul” mean? At what stage of history did God give souls to humanity, or all of life? Do animals, insects, fish and plants have them too, or only us?

    Do you think of yourself as believing in theistic evolution? Do you believe it differs in any important way from the scientific view of evolution, the teleonomic view?

    I think Phillip Clayton probably (based on his academic position and reputation) holds a view that is at least to some extent teleonomic, but works God in by metaphor through process theology. In this view, God is something like a metaphor for a force of life providing opportunities, but having and providing no control. How do you feel about process theology?

    Is there a place for God in a universe or cosmos that does not have a telos?

    January 8, 2010
    • I’m familiar with the distinction between teleology and teleonomy. I also realize that Darwin understood natural selection in teleonomic rather than teleological terms. I just don’t feel constrained to adopt that interpretation. The natural world and the processes discovered therein do not interpret themselves. To rule out the possibility of a telos is to make a metaphysical not a scientific judgment.

      I can see that you are not concerned that life seems to meander. My impression is that you are nevertheless reluctant to surrender the idea of telos.

      Actually, I am concerned. At times I find it frustrating, baffling, annoying, etc. I often wish things were otherwise. But you are right, I am extremely reluctant to surrender the idea of telos.

      Do you believe we have souls? If so, what are they, or what does that word “soul” mean? At what stage of history did God give souls to humanity, or all of life? Do animals, insects, fish and plants have them too, or only us?

      I do believe that we have souls, but not in the “ghost in the machine” sense that has often been set forth. I think that human beings are psychosomatic wholes—in other words the “soul” is not the “real” part of us that just happens to inhabit a physical body. Whatever the soul is, I think it is the part of us that is the essence of what it means to be a human being as distinct from a plant or an insect or an animal (so no, I don’t think non-human life forms have souls). When did God give us souls? I have no idea. Perhaps with the arrival of consciousness?

      Do you think of yourself as believing in theistic evolution? Do you believe it differs in any important way from the scientific view of evolution, the teleonomic view?

      Yes, I suppose so. The obvious difference between this and the naturalistic view of evolution (again, I’m reluctant to call this view “scientific” because it is a specific metaphysical interpretation of science) is that it is open to the possibility of telos—that God is guiding the cosmos to a specific and good end.

      Is there a place for God in a universe or cosmos that does not have a telos?

      No, I don’t think there is. At least not one that would be significant from a human perspective. I suppose it’s possible that a god might exist who just started the whole thing off and let it run its own, but that is not a god that I would have much interest in.

      January 9, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: “I suppose it’s possible that a god might exist who just started the whole thing off and let it run its own, but that is not a god that I would have much interest in.”

        Nor a God that would have much, if any, interest in us, I suppose we might add.

        With a few exceptions on details, I think the two of us largely look at things the same way here regarding evolution or science and theology.

        I imagine animals have souls – a belief not as widely held perhaps as yours, but not a completely unbiblical idea. They too have the nephesh. In Job, they too know God, perhaps better than us. I suppose I think of souls as something like the presence of the life force or urge in us that pantheists also sense or that something of God in us and in all of life. Evangelical theologian Simon Chan writes in Spiritual Theology about the way of knowing God through nature – he calls it sacramental. I think that description fits what hiking, really exploration of nature, is to me.

        I think I may imagine more possibilities for teleonomy being true and reconcilable with the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, although I am terrified that it is not and although exploring these possibilities seems to push me, against my will, and ultimately unsuccessfully, towards atheism.

        It has been many years since I read Chardin, but I remember finding his version of process theology appealing. I don’t find the Whitehead version, the one of Clayton and his seminary plausible or appealing. It has been so long since I read Chardin I would need to reread him to figure out why I have a different reaction to these two versions of a similar theology. At the same time, I don’t think process theology is a strong answer to the problem of reconciling teleonomy, or the meandering of life, and theism – I don’t think it is as strong as the one you offer. The one you describe is the boat that keeps me afloat, in spite of its leaks.

        January 9, 2010
  3. “I think I may imagine more possibilities for teleonomy being true and reconcilable with the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, although I am terrified that it is not and although exploring these possibilities seems to push me, against my will, and ultimately unsuccessfully, towards atheism.”

    How could telenomy and a Abrahamic faith ever be reconcilable? Telenomy is just apparent direction… where a teleology is a distinct direction or purpose. In an Abrahamic context this seems to be an impossibility… and intended to be so.

    I think to a certain extent these ideas can meet, in a very basic sense, outside of abrahamic faiths. But, this is not the discussion going on here.

    January 9, 2010
    • Ken #

      I can’t answer the question.

      I think that some theologians have offered solutions to the problem. Paul Tillich is an example. Chardin is another. And yet, the solutions seem to leave some things out, or leave us feeling not quite settled. They just don’t quite deliver on their promises – for many of us, at least.

      Some Christians who find at least some peace with the idea of theistic evolution think of chance and necessity functioning as natural selection as appearance that is ultimately not real, an illusion, while atheists who find truth in teleonomy say that the appearance of design or purpose is illusion. It is ironic and comical to think about from either side.

      A theologian like Tillich tries to find peace in teleonomy. In his theology, God is the name for the ground of being, meaning nothing supernatural at all. Nature writers sometimes refer the same idea but they don’t name it God. It is not an idea that is foreign to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, although it would have been anachronistic for them to have used such expression.

      January 9, 2010
  4. Paul Johnston #

    For me, it is better to see Mr Brueggemann’s work (as you present it), as prose, not prayer. I am coming to understand prayer as the voice of God within, to the heart of God without. By this criteria, I cannot understand how God would speak to himself in the manner indicated here.

    I assume the “voice” is mostly that of the author.

    January 10, 2010
    • Ken #

      Like you, I have some difficulty relating to Brueggeman’s prayer. (I don’t know why.) In addition, I agree with you that the highest prayer is the “voice of God within, to the heart of God without.” This is the testimony of the saints and great mystics. It is something one is bound to discover in lectio divina and other spiritual disciplines.

      I think the second highest prayer is one of praise and thanksgiving, and it is this that I believe is Brueggeman’s aim in this and in other prayers he has written as well. They are easier to put into words than the voice of God, but much harder than petitionary prayer. What I think Brueggeman tries to do is to find authentic ways to express the praise in his heart. It is very hard. I too have tried to do what he does, and I am never satisfied with my efforts. I see in his expression the heart of a man who loves the Psalms and who has spent many years studying and admiring the Old Testament.

      I remember seeing him on Bill Moyer’s show many years ago, the series of discussions with Bible scholars. Brueggeman was one of the few that I could tell had heard the voice of God. I imagine he does know that highest prayer.

      January 10, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the qualifications, Ken. They help. I certainly don’t mean to impugn Mr. Brueggeman and appreciate the testimony.

    With regard to levels of prayer, perhaps it is as you describe, authenticity in praise is hard to come by. This has certainly been my experience also when it comes to the written word. I am thankful for my Charismatic community in this regard. Even in the more obviously discursive realm of prayers of praise, spontainious, dare I say Spirit led responses, seem more authentic and fullfilling than considered, written ones.

    Even petitonary prayers, at least in my life, seem more real and sincere to me when I first ask the Spirit to guide me as to what my right petition should be. I seem to find the older I get the more comfortable I am with knowing that I don’t know and asking for help.

    God never seems annoyed or tired of my requests for help. In fact if my spiritual intuits are correct he loves them and instills in me an even greater love of Himself, myself and others as a consequence.

    It’s good to be alive, isn’t it!

    PS. I tend to believe that every person who teaches the word and does not avail himself or herself of a Lectio Divina type meditation is less than fully prepared for the task at hand.

    No “stuffstorm” intended and I’m always open to being wrong but it is what I think.

    January 10, 2010
  6. Living things are said to be teleonomic. Basically ‘teleonomy’ refers to processes that seem to be purposeful. They behave as-if they are future-directed. The word ‘teleonomy’ derives from the Greek: ‘afar seeing’ (telos), and ‘regulate’ (nomos). The basic idea being that teleonomic things are goal directed, or at least seemingly so.

    A short bibliography:

    De Laguna, Grace A. 1962. The Role of Teleonomy in Evolution. Philosophy of Science. 29 (2): 117-131.

    Lifson, S. 1987, Chemical Selection, Diversity, Teleonomy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Biophysical Chemistry. 26, 303–311.

    Monod, J and Jacob 1961. Teleonomic mechanisms in cellular metabolism, growth, and differentiation. Cold Spring Harbor symposia on quantitative biology. 26: 389–401.

    Pross, Addy. 2005. On the Chemical Nature and Origin of Teleonomy. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 35: 383-394.

    March 10, 2010

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