Collapse … and the Love of God
David R. Weiss – August 29
Dark Hope: a hope that is fully alongside us in the unpredictable tumult ahead. Indeed,
not a hope that “shines in the darkness,” but a hope that abides as darkness itself.
In my Dark Hope series earlier this month I allowed myself to stare into the abyss—the likelihood, the near certainty, that our civilization is heading toward a tumultuous collapse. The opening acts of climate breakdown are already with us in the forms of record heat and drought, hurricane and flood, ice melt and sea level rise, wildfires and species loss—from insects to mammals. And societal breakdown is also at the door in the dismissal of science, frenzied xenophobia, extremism, rising violent rhetoric—and outright violence. Moreover, the collective unwillingness of so many to respond to a pandemic with civility, common sense, or compassion, foreshadows a descent into barbarism when conditions worsen—which they will.
It’s a lot to carry. And never really set down. Margaret notices how I sigh—often and deeply—some days, as if I am winded and trying to catch my breath. It’s not physical weariness per se, although I certainly feel it in my body. Some days I’m just emotionally out of breath. All. Day. Long.
Recently one of my grandchildren recounted with dramatic dismay the lack of good cell phone reception at one place they stayed while visiting family in Mexico. In back-to-back sentences he described easy access to a cell signal as a “necessity” and “convenience”—as though the two terms meant the same thing. When I pointed out the gap between their meanings, he admitted that “convenience” was more accurate, but immediately claimed that—for his generation—it was a “necessary convenience.” I did not point out that “convenience” will go extinct for his generation.
One of my most faithful readers, after reading my Dark Hope essays, remarked about how deeply they challenged her understanding of God. “Do you really think God would allow things to so completely unravel?” she asked. It was not some naïve question. She is a wise woman, older than me, and has wrestled with theological questions that have carried her quite “outside the box” for plenty of years herself. But, like me, she is a parent and a grandparent, and to contemplate a future that goes so far sideways is a very different prospect when you feel so deeply connected through those you love to days you don’t expect to see yourself.
It is a real question. What does the prospect of worldwide ecological and societal collapse say about God?
The question is a version of many others. What does 9/11 … or the Holocaust … or slavery (say about God? Or any number of other instantaneous or generational calamities that inflict suffering on the innocent. All such questions challenge the righteousness or at least the omnipotence (the all-powerfulness) of God.
I remember reading Elie Wiesel’s Night sometime in college. There is a scene where he recounts the hanging of three prisoners, one of them a young boy. Mounted on chairs, with nooses around their necks, the other prisoners were ordered to attend the killing. One man cried out from the crowd, “Where is God?!” Then the chairs were kicked away. The two men died instantly, but the boy, too light, hung for thirty minutes, his life ebbing away in slow agony. Again, the voice from the crowd, “Where is God now?!” And Wiesel heard the answer, unspoken but fully formed, rise within him: “Where is God? Here God is—God is hanging here on this gallows …” (Night, Bantam Books, 1960, pp. 61-62)
Wiesel’s witness runs along a razor’s edge. It might mean, God is as good as dead—helpless, abandoned, just like us. It might be a cry of abject despair. And he admits that this declaration, painful as it is, resonates. And yet, this is a razor’s edge: there is a second, quieter, even more challenging claim.
That claim, which Wiesel allows, even if he never fully embraces it himself, is that in some inscrutable way, here, at the very focal point of our suffering—our seeming abandonment to the forces of chaos and worse—right here, God somehow is alongside us.
This shadowy wisdom, kindred to Dark Hope, bears a daring, audacious, paradoxical witness to God’s presence under conditions that appear to deny it. This is the same impulse behind Martin Luther’s theology of the cross, Jürgen Moltman’s crucified God, the seed of Central American Liberation Theology, and Sharon Welch’s feminist liberatory vision. To be clear, these varied expressions are hardly identical with each other—or with Wiesel, but they express the apprehension of a common mystery: that sacred presence is not limited to what we might count as “victory.”
It would take a book to unpack all of this. But I will suggest a couple core insights that are at once troubling and reassuring. I think it is fair to say that God is not omnipotent—at least not in the way we have measured power since the predominance of patriarchy. God is not omnipotent via power-over or having final control. That measure of omnipotence is the human reaction to the radical insecurity that marks our lives: it is the desire to foreclose any option not to our liking … projected from us onto God.
Rather, God’s commitment to offering-and-fostering-love is the defining feature of divinity. I say this in theological language, but I mean as much cosmically as supernaturally. God, which I think of as the energy that pervades and shapes the cosmos, is fundamentally focused on relating everything to everything else. At the sheer physical level, that’s gravity: the cosmic force of mutual attraction. But as consciousness rises, that longing for relationship becomes collaborative: our wills participate in furthering —or twisting—God’s longing for mutuality as the crowning pattern of creation. This is the mystery of agency in a cause-and-effect cosmos. (And the topic for a whole other essay!)
But this is the unexpected consequence of God’s “choice” to prioritize love (the possibility of mutual relationship) over power (the assertion of control): it means there is always an exposed soft underbelly to the sacred. God is not all-powerful, but all-vulnerable. God’s “super-power” is not the ability to protect us but the promise to accompany us no matter what. This is a whole different axis of power.
This is NOT an argument for a God who is infinitely weak (unless you are bound only to a notion of power as control—a notion that might appear compelling in the short-term, but which is ultimately a foolish affront to and at times an evil distortion of the soft sacred hum of the universe). But it is a truth we rarely encounter. God’s power rests unequivocally in love and vulnerability—and the power these forces have to (potentially) effect transformation in the beings with whom God longs to collaborate.
Here is the holy mystery of God in its most terrifying truth. At every moment of cosmic history (for our concern here—at every moment of human history) God’s longing for mutual relationship is sufficient to effect it … but can never guarantee it. There is no moment in which hope is utterly lost, because so long as the universe is, God is willing mutuality into all that is. And God never stops.
But neither does God control the future. God invites and persists and accompanies and encourages and strengthens and holds us unendingly in love. Still, in our corner of the universe, the fate of life on this small blue planet rests on the collaborative energy between human beings and God—and on the host of biophysical systems that have evolved around us. Earth history is improvisation.
We are deep into a cacophonous improvisation right now, one that portends catastrophe and collapse. Even if it comes to that, God’s longing to foment love will go there with us. Even in this maelstrom, God’s presence will be sufficient to transform those of us who choose to collaborate into partners with God in caring for a shattered planet and a shattered society. Whether such work will carry the day—who knows. But that it will be holy work, of this I am sure. And that, my friends, is cause for joy.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at email@example.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.