by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 2, 1987, pp. 1083-1987. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Despite the 20-centuries-wide ditch that separates us from Paul, we would be mistaken to assume that his language about the anguish of the universe would have been more readily comprehensible to his contemporaries than it is to us.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies [Rom. 8:18-23].
When we read the Apostle Paul’s extraordinary claim that the “whole creation has been groaning in travail,” we are likely at first to suppose that our difficulty with such language has to do with the deep, “ugly ditch” (Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s term) that divides Paul’s age from our own. Is it possible for us to think in such virtually animistic terms today? Surely we would not ask the astrophysicists who study the “noise” of the radio signals coming from outer space if it might be interpreted as a cosmic groan. One can imagine the derisive laughter that would greet such a suggestion. Yet do we not in our day-to-day pragmatic encounters with the world around us invariably presuppose, as we seek guidance through nature’s mysteries, the cosmic model that is foundational to modern science and technology?
Despite the 20-centuries-wide ditch that separates us from Paul, we would be mistaken to assume that his language about the anguish of the universe would have been more readily comprehensible to his contemporaries than it is to us. To be sure, many in those days would have responded favorably to what they might have thought Paul meant when he described the creation as being “subjected to futility,” in “bondage to decay” and “groaning in travail.” The Roman Empire of the first century was greatly influenced by a sort of dualism that regarded nature—the physical world—as being at best unworthy and at worst positively evil, the source of corruption, carnality and suffering.
The ancient dualist might have had some difficulty with what Paul says about the creation being “set free.” If matter is evil, how could it be liberated? Paul’s words at this point would seem idiosyncratic to the dualist, although he might also feel that a person who could speak of the “futility” of the created order must somehow be on the right track. In fact, however, this seeming idiosyncrasy is not a quirk in an otherwise consistent dualism. Rather, it reveals that Paul was, at least in the usual first-century sense, no dualist at all.
Paul was what might be termed a ” redemptionist.” He might well grant that the dualist had a point in regarding the functioning of the material world in a negative way—as a world whose process necessitates the extermination of all sentient reality. It does indeed appear that matter supports our individual existences in much the same way that a conveyor belt supports the objects it moves. Objects on a conveyor belt seem almost to float effortlessly and securely—until the belt reaches its limit. Then suddenly it loops back upon itself, and they drop like lead.
Basic to all of Paul’s theology, however, was his insistence that only in its penultimate function is nature such a relentless conveyor of doom. Dualism could never provide a point of contact by which Paul’s contemporaries might have grasped his claim that the creation which presently is the ground of human suffering will one day be made the ground of human redemption! How could any dualist grant Paul’s seemingly paradoxical claim that though our sinful deeds are indeed works of the “flesh,” our ultimate hope lies in “the redemption of our bodies”?
We come at the Romans text very differently than would have Paul’s contemporaries, though in our own way we are also dualistic. For us, however, the split between mind and body is not a moral cleavage—i.e., the notion that the body is evil, while the mind or spirit is good. For us the cleavage between mind and matter is simply the place at which our knowledge reaches its limits. What is the reality of things? Do our sense impressions actually correspond to the reality of the material world itself ? Curiously, though the discoveries of subatomic physics signal to some a breakdown of modern dualism, the implications of such discoveries have been slow to penetrate most people’s consciousness (including that of many scientists), and they may in fact merely lead to another sort of dualism. Dualistic impasse, as old as Descartes’s philosophy, stubbornly continues to affect the very philosophic air we breathe.
In ethics the dualistic uncertainty over the nature of “reality” and our perception of it is a major justification for modern moral relativism, or the claim that what is called morality is actually grounded in nothing but people’s emotive and purely arbitrary preferences. On the other hand, for the dualist of Paul’s day, ironically, the split between mind and matter was the basis of moral certitude. One knew what evil was: the body and its temptations. One knew what good was: the spirit or the mind in pursuit of the eternal verities.
The contrast with present-day attitudes is so extreme as to be almost ludicrous. Though we can be shaken by the fear of disease, today’s idea of “health” includes a physical perfection achieved through personal conditioning and control, along with an emotional state that accepts, without guilt, acquisitiveness and hedonism. Interestingly, to be psychologically healthy is to be fully in touch with one’s body. Presumably, if the body is functioning well and is uninhibited in its appetites, the psyche will automatically be “healthy.” The ascetic, in contrast, is seen to be a repressed neurotic or, sometimes, a delusional anorectic who is unable to come to terms with his or her physical being. The unwashed, half-starved celibate saint of old would be written off today as a candidate for a psychiatric ward. Today’s paragon is yesterday’s pervert and vice versa.
Though modern dualism tends to lead toward a philosophic skepticism, it is skepticism with a bias. We are uncertain as to whether there is any truth or value. But we are convinced that whatever of either there may be is grounded in the material basis of things. Society’s materialist bias has been given a powerful impetus by the burgeoning success of the sciences and technology. We have nature by the throat.
To be sure, sometimes nature eludes our grasp, as in the case of the AIDS epidemic and the inadequacy of science to find an immediate cure. However, this instance offers only the barest of parallels with the overall non-scientific posture of the ancients toward the mysteries of nature and existence. People of the first century were fundamentally powerless in the face of any illness, since they did not understand the physiological basis of disease. Yet we think we basically know the cause of AIDS, and thus there is no stampede toward superstition or pseudo-science as a remedy. Science, we believe, will in time find a cure or a preventative. We are being assured that in the meantime we can take rational and educational stop-gap measures to slow the epidemic’s progress. In contrast, even as late as the 14th century the Black Death worked its ruin on a helpless Europe that could not even begin to understand and thus combat it. By the time the plague passed, nearly half of Europe was dead.
In view of earlier periods’ grim life-expectancy statistics and their harsh conditions of existence, is it any wonder that many ancients regarded the sex drive—the cause of souls being brought into this vale of tears—as a curse? When Marcion, the greatest of the second-century Christian dualists, insisted that the world was so fundamentally evil that the Creator God of the Old Testament, who was responsible for so immense a debacle, could only be a morally defective being, he was not speaking as some disillusioned idealist: rather, he was reflecting the hard, unsentimental realism of his time.
In Paul’s day, when modern technical and economic development could not be even remotely envisioned, the alternatives were few: one could indulge in the life of the body in a desperate gamble for creaturely happiness despite the odds, or one could opt for a life of self-denial, which by its studied indifference to earthly joy or sorrow was somewhat insulated from life’s tragedy. Just as we almost automatically try to address the problem of natural evil through the amoral pragmatism of technology, they, lacking the scientific knowledge to control nature, had only their moral capacity to say Yes or No to its ambiguities.
Though the ancients might judge us harshly as mere worldly hedonists, we might well protest that we are in fact Christian worldly hedonists. Furthermore, from time to time we even feel sated by the offerings of the consumer market and, irony of ironies, wonder if perhaps there is something more to life. Maybe Paul had something quite real in mind when he spoke of the longing of the whole creation to “be set free from the bondage to decay.” Could it be that modern existence so tranquilizes our spirits that we simply cannot “groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”? (We might wish that Paul could have broken with the patriarchalism of his age, as he did with its dualism.) However, as modern men and women we cannot long permit ourselves such pangs of unease—and for many reasons.
To begin with, we love what science and technology can do for us. We can scarcely imagine that a technologically primitive existence would be worth living. Therefore, on those infrequent occasions when we admit that even pleasure can cloy and we a experience fleeting desire for a richer spirituality, deep down we suspect that that desire is merely a matter of our looking the gift horse of modern life in the mouth. Having sold any other birth-right of ours for the rich stew of secular existence, we continue to desire a deeper spirituality. This desire is actually our hankering after one more pleasure—the pleasure of richness of soul, which, of course, can be turned on and off like a spigot—to go along with our well-tuned and richly satisfied carnal appetites.
Beyond these merely individualistic concerns, there is the more ethically serious matter of the potentially demoralizing impact of Paul’s vitalist theology of nature on the collective progress of modern life. If nature could indeed suffer, then our headlong, pragmatic exploitation of the natural order might not be value-neutral. Nature may kick back at us from time to time—with erosion, pollution, holes in the ozone layer and so on—but we like to think that these are simply impersonal matters of ecological imbalance. However, if creation were in some way actually to suffer pain—not in a merely metaphorical sense—would this give at least some of us certain pause?
We First World Christians can maintain a comfortable distance in contemplating the worldwide technological assault upon creation. We can afford to deplore the bulldozing of wildernesses, the extinction of various species. We have the luxury of being alarmed by the long-term effects of the destruction of the world’s rain forests upon the oxygen supply. Yet our concerns are conditioned by the fact that we already “have ours.” Behind our supposedly responsible ecological worries about the planet is a parallel fear that perhaps we will lose some of what we have. We are not willing to vote for much ecological self-constraint; indeed, the administration we Americans have placed in power seems hellbent on a free-enterprise assault on nature. We are hoping that the ecologists, with their doomsday forecasts, are mere alarmists. But just in case they are right, we are always good for a donation to save the whales.
The majority of the world’s people, however, have yet to “get theirs.” They do not have the luxury to worry about the long-term environmental impact of their attempts to survive. Their often desperate situations make our First World existential agonizing over the effects of our 20th-century hedonism on our 20th-century spirituality seem trivial and self-absorbed.
The success of democracy in the West serves as a beacon for many of the world’s wretched. Yet it is clear that the worldwide clamoring for democracy entails, among other ends, a right of access to material progress. Modern democracy does not envision as its goal mutually shared poverty and despair. The very logic of both liberal and socialist democracy, whatever their differences, inevitably involves a wider distribution of the world’s riches as democracy progresses. However, modern economic, social and medical progress can only intensify humankind’s terrible onslaught against nature. For the iron law of progress is that its cost necessitates the radical disordering of nature as we received it, and its rearrangement after the image of our perceived interests.
Human progress feeds on death, on the creation’s decay. The faster the progress, the higher the price that living beings must pay. For example, it is grimly apparent that the remains of aborted fetuses may have great value in medical experimentation, as well as being a potential source of medicine and even spare parts for transplants.
Even assuming that it were possible to do so, what moral right would we have to try to stop modern scientific development simply because our First World nerve had failed us? If we did stop it, the wretched of the earth would no doubt be condemned to countless generations of brief, brutal existences. We are confronted by a serious contradiction in our highest First World ethical values. We liberals are generally supportive of environmental causes, but our even higher ethical priority envisions worldwide social and material progress.
Such modern ethical dilemmas as these come to a focus in the realization that the Apostle Paul knew fully as well as we that we must live out our lives on the horns of a cosmic dilemma. On the one hand, it is our divinely ordained destiny to “populate the earth and subdue it.” We were created by the Lord of creation to be creative beings, and if our destiny is eternal life, our creative accomplishments actually have eternal significance. On the other hand, for all our creativity and rationality, for all our spasms of virtue and wisdom, we are caught in the steel vise of evolution’s law. Nothing can be achieved without cost to other persons and other forms of life. Scientific and technical progress is fueled by bloody competition and suffering. Mutilated landscapes, extinct species, vivisection, slaughterhouses, fetal experiments are typical of “progress” when things are going well. On bad days we have wars.
Paul is not saying, “It’s a jungle out there, so let’s all be brutes. ” His gospel entails sympathy, mercy, kindness, concern for the environment—in short, the whole bag of traditional Christian sentiments and causes applied to nature as well as to other human beings. The call for the careful, respectful, unwasteful use of our natural resources is the proper Christian stance. Christian ethics is not grounded in the law of the jungle, “nature red in tooth and claw.” Christian morality is the attempt to combat the brute child of nature in all of us. To control ferocity, to heal the wounds that we inevitably inflict because of life’s pressure to be competitive, is the business of civilization, and it is the business of Christian social ethics to remind civilization of its civilizing obligation.
Having acknowledged all of this—and putting ourselves on the side of the angels, advocating the cause of the poor, plunging ourselves as wholeheartedly as any sated hedonists can into the cause of human liberation—we should also acknowledge that the best we can ever hope to accomplish is the amelioration of the carnage of existence. Apart from the fact that we are often wrong about what is needed—and apart from the fact that successful campaigns for good causes can breed corruption and themselves become a part of the problem—the larger reality is that we are all mortal and the world is finite. Everything in life necessitates tradeoffs, and finally the success of one person, group, class or species entails the defeat or demise of its rivals. Though Paul wrote in an era during which humanity was less able to deal with the deadly course of a creation groaning in travail, his basic point is confirmed by our very success in manipulating nature. In order to become less victimized by nature, we must become its victimizers. Death is not abolished; it is merely reallocated.
Paul’s theology was not grounded in nature’s decay. Instead of a natural theology, he was creating a theology of nature—a theology that viewed nature from the perspective of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only from the perspective of that event, which decisively shows the limits of decay, does the ultimate purpose of God who raised Jesus begin to come into focus. Certainly nature nurtures life, but nature is neither the ultimate source nor the ultimate goal of life. God is the alpha and the omega.
Modern and ancient dualistic world views, in spite of their seeming incompatibility, share the conviction that if God existed, he could only be a monster. In the second century, Marcion saw creation’s evils as sufficient reason to reject the lordship of the Creator God in favor of a heretofore unknown God, who through Christ mercifully intervenes and saves souls from the clutches of creation and its God. We moderns, on the other hand, with our profoundly materialistic bias—a bias which leads many influential intellectuals to deny the very existence of a self or a soul—cannot reject the world, irrespective of its evil, for we would then have no metaphysical or moral ground on which to stand. From the materialists’ viewpoint, if there were a God, he would have to be Creator of the only reality we trust, the material world. Thus, our addiction to matter cuts us off from Marcion’s appeal to a totally spiritual God. Yet, to complete the circle of inconsistency, we cannot, because of the suffering inherent in the process of creation, believe in a God who is creation’s Lord. When things are going well, we love matter with an all-consuming passion and have no need of God. When things go badly, we reject the Creator of all matter and passion because of the suffering they cause. God cannot win for losing.
In contrast, for Paul the reality of God was so utterly a given that there was no question of making belief in God dependent on one’s ability to solve the problem of evil. For Paul, there was no escaping our eternal destiny with God. The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ had made it abundantly clear that God will not accept human sin as humanity’s answer to the anguish that creation experiences on its way to God’s ultimate goal. Paul knew all the reasons for atheism.
For Paul, the world as we experience it is not the final expression of God’s creative purpose. God’s ultimate purpose in creation is, and always has been, eschatological. To claim that the world is merely the purposeless vehicle of sin and death is a slander against the honor of God. The notion that life arises out of the nothingness of nonexistence and moves toward the nothingness of annihilating death is a nihilistic conceit. Were this notion true, then sin, death and the devil—and not the “God who loves in freedom”—would be the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. To embrace an “eschatological” nihilism is finally to offer up all our civilization and sciences to the power of darkness. If there were no God, all our works would be as meaningless as the ground of nothingness out of which they arose and into which they would otherwise sink. The denial of eternal life which is so common among modern Christians is not, as its adherents often claim, a nonegoistic, mature, realistic willingness to face the brutal limitations of finitude; rather, it amounts to a tragically unbelieving denial of God’s honor—and thus of God’s very existence.
Many people are not affected by the pathos of the cosmos. A denial of eternal life violates God’s honor, yet an affirmation of eternal life can lead to a callous indifference to the world’s pain. After all, if the entire creation will eventually be redeemed, why be anguished now? This attitude is also a violation of God’s honor. Perhaps Paul was right; only those who have received the “first fruits of the spirit” have the ears to hear creation’s groaning. However, if passionate sympathy is the Spirit’s first fruit, then it is clear that the Spirit is not confined to the church. The Spirit is frequently anywhere but in the church. To be sure, Paul had a Spirit-touched sympathy, but so did the dualistic arch-“heretic” Marcion—and so too do those materialistically oriented, secular non-Christians who stand up for nature’s rights simply out of their abiding love for living things.
God has created an order in which all is passing away. Yet it is the resurrection faith that death is but a means to a very different end. The notion that the end justifies the means—which many find to be ethically appalling—provides the only way finally to understand Paul’s contention that “the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory . . .” God’s capacity to achieve “the glory” is the ground on which Christianity stands or falls. Can God indeed lure all things to himself through the reconciling fervor of his love?
Yet God’s honor is at genuine risk. For the price of glory is high. God’s own son must die to pay its price. The very Godhead is torn in anguish: the plea “Father, let this cup pass from me,” is answered by the Father’s relentless No. And what are we to say of the Spirit’s strange selectivity? The Spirit shows the way, but in such diverse degrees that we are all liars even in our most earnest efforts to point to the truth. God is not detached in his creative commitment to the universe: His holy purpose will kill us all, even his son. Yet the death and resurrection of Christ demonstrate that the creation’s very pain is itself an image of God’s redemptive and re-creative commitment to the creation.
Can the end of God’s endeavor justify the means he employs? Christian faith is grounded in the confidence that “the glory” will justify its price. But we Christians must at least be able to understand how others find this faith too much to hope for, given the way life appears to be. Sometimes one feels that most of the world is made up of two kinds of people: those who believe despite their unbelief and, those who wish they could believe, but cannot—half-believers and half-doubters. We could expect nothing else with the stakes so high and the perils so great.