Moral Restlessness and the God Who is … Not Yet
David R. Weiss – August 24, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #38 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
There may be no more essential “growing edge” in Christian faith than to embrace a theology of moral restlessness. To be sure, I am fully convinced that nonreligious persons can hold (and ought to cultivate) a posture of moral restlessness as well. But as I’m writing these pieces foremost for persons of religious faith, for these persons, the way we imagine God (often at a level deeper than words and creeds) is the foundation of our moral vision.
In response to the climate emergency (have you been following the news this past week … month … year?!) I say we need to find a deep well of moral restlessness within us. By moral restlessness I mean that we need to be “on our toes,” ready to shift both the impulses and the long-standing habits of our lives (think beef, gas stoves, and air flight—for God’s sakes!—among other things) if we wish to have any chance of preserving a future for those we love. And yet we seem to find this so difficult. It’s only one steak—how could that make a difference? Gas cooks so much nicer than electric—why would I want to change? And Sun Country just announced $79 fares from the Twin Cities to Florida this winter—who could resist that?
It’s true that the scope—and the roots—of the climate crisis are such that only structural change will make much of a difference. Those corporations and individuals with the most money have the loudest voices in shaping public policy and they have clearly rigged the system to benefit their interests. And their interests are driven by a genocidal addiction to profit, power, wealth, status, and privilege. They will threaten everything—that’s us, animals, eco-systems, and the entire planet’s stability—in order to satisfy their genocidal urges. And they will buy influence to game the system to prevent change for as long as possible. That’s the stark truth.
Although it’s possible that political campaigns and grassroots efforts can make a difference. We see instances of that in the twentieth century (civil rights, women’s rights, apartheid, same-sex marriage, etc.), although we also see how fragile those gains can be. I’m not arguing for social-political indifference; from city and town to state and nation, we need to be engaged.
But there is also an inner engagement we must make. It is essential for the sense of integrity and personal empowerment that can not only fuel our social-political work, but can also undergird the quality of inner calm that will be in short supply as the climate crisis deepens. That inner engagement is most lively when supported by moral restlessness, which for Christians, might be defined as faith leaning into the life of God.
Moral restlessness is the persistent hunger to foster wholeness in the world. It is the readiness, not simply to rearrange the furniture but to remake the entire home if needed to ensure the flourishing of all. Of course, our moral choices are framed by the bounds of our moral community. To whom are we accountable? For whom will we exercise restraint? Upon whom will we lavish our care? With whom will we share our joy? And whose sorrows, joys, needs do we embrace without hesitation? The challenge of moral restlessness—even in a finite world where conflicting values are inevitable—is to refuse to make firm boundaries about our moral community. Ever … restless, it should be ever-widening, ever-extending itself one ring further. Ever listening for the voiced and unvoiced aspirations of the others with whom we share this planet.
Thus, moral restlessness regards the grandeur of mountains, prairies, wetlands, and such as partners in a whispered dialogue of awe. It regards the intricacies of microbes, the inner lives of plants, and the beyond-our-ken cultures of our fellow creatures as invitations to community. Moral restlessness underlies the viewpoint Henry Beston (naturalist, 1888-1968) so hauntingly offered:
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. … We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by the human. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. Neither siblings nor underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, bound up in the splendor and travail of the earth. (The Outermost House, 1928)
That viewpoint—whether sparked by profoundly human awe or religious faith—might be sufficient to check the impulses and re-fashion the habits that presently threaten all that moves on this awe-full orb. We must choose to press ourselves uncomfortably at the level of personal choice, individual habit, and communal/cultural presumption. We must choose vastly different lives—and starting now—if we wish to leave anything other than a smoldering wasteland for those who come next.
For Christians (and Jews) that viewpoint has ancient seeds in the Exodus narrative. In the famous scene at the burning bush, Moses hears a voice commissioning him to assist in liberating the children of Israel from their bondage to Egypt. Moses is understandably intimidated by the task and he wants to know just WHO he’s supposed to be representing. So he asks God for a name. God responds with a self-declaration that claims a form of the verb “to be” as the way to name this Holy Presence. Some scholars have regarded this as an evasion of a name—a roundabout way of saying “none-of-your-business,” but this fails to plumb the depth of the exchange.
In Hebraic culture names establish the ground of relationship. So when God tells Moses (as it’s often translated), “I am That I am,” God sets the terms of the relationship as these: “I will burst every box you seek to contain me in. I will defy every limiting definition you devise for me. I will imagine possibilities for you—for us together—beyond your wildest dreams. Whatever you choose to think of me, I will be who I will be. I am freedom.” Well.
But there is a yet more evocative angle here. Hebrew has no distinct future tense; context determines when to cast a verb as future. And the context here (Exodus 3:13-22) calls for future tense. As though God’s very divinity rests on fulfilling the liberatory promises to free the people from their oppression and establish them in a place they can flourish. Liberation theologians have made this argument in regard to this very passage: that God is so wholly committed to the full flourishing of all as to make the proof—the truth—of God contingent on the promise of liberation.
From this radically evocative perspective, God, eternally and infinitely yearning to consummate liberation, justice, and flourishing … is not yet, pending our response, like Moses, to join in God’s holy work. Moral restlessness, then—faith leaning into the life of God—is the very womb of God. In the determination to alter our impulses and habits for the well-being of all—this is where Holy Presence begins.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 “Faith” itself is its own type of complicated. To the extent that “faith” names the “gut disposition/frame of meaning” that all of us hold toward life, every human being is a person of faith (except perhaps those who are simply pathological or nihilist in their worldview). For nearly all of human history our frames of meaning have used religious/sacred language, but there is nothing intrinsically religious about faith. It is the innate human response to finding-fashioning-living-in-accord-with meaning in our lives.