Meanings of Christmas: In the new world there will be no more sea

Does God have a responsibility to stop earthquakes and tidal waves? The story of Jesus raises much subtler questions
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The Independent Online

The ancient Jewish writers saw the sea as evil. It floods and destroys the world. It stands between the Israelites and freedom. It rages horribly; monsters come out of it. There is a hint that God had to overcome the dark primal waters in order to create the world in the first place.

The ancient Jewish writers saw the sea as evil. It floods and destroys the world. It stands between the Israelites and freedom. It rages horribly; monsters come out of it. There is a hint that God had to overcome the dark primal waters in order to create the world in the first place.

Ancient symbols spring into unwelcome new life. The murderous mountain of water that charged across the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day rivals the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in its deadly power. Lisbon caused a sea-change in the Enlightenment itself: before it, Bishop Butler could gaze at the natural world and infer Christian theology, but Lisbon drove a wedge between God and the world, giving fresh impetus to the idea of God as an absentee landlord and then, not long after, a mere absentee. Since then, it has been assumed that "God" has a responsibility to stop things like earthquakes and tidal waves; if He doesn't, they constitute a standing disproof. What's the point in saying "The heavens declare the glory of God", if tidal waves declare His incompetence? Western culture hasn't advanced much beyond that sterile stand-off. This week's horror won't change it any more than did the man-made nightmare of 11 September 2001.

People today assume that a "religious" view of life must address "the problem of evil", the toughest part of which is so-called "natural evil". Evil isn't as bad as it seems, say some; or it's all someone's fault (or, with natural evil, Satan's fault); or it offers a chance for greater moral virtue (courage, and so on). One major tsunami does to theories like that what it does to buildings and people: it crushes them to matchwood.

In a culture heavily influenced by Judaism and Christianity, one might have hoped that the Bible would play a part in the discussion. People seem to assume that it's irrelevant. The general view is that the Bible offers an escape from the world into a personal religion. But that view is itself the result of the Enlightenment's reductionism.

The Bible itself resists such treatment. It constantly acknowledges evil - "human" and "natural" alike - as a terrible reality. It doesn't try to minimise it, to explain that good will come of it, or to blame someone (reactions which correspond uncomfortably closely to the excuses offered by immoral or warmongering politicians). It tells a story about the Creator's plan to put the world to rights, a plan which involves a people who are themselves part of the problem as well as the bearers of the solution.

That people, the family of Israel, are brought through the sea to the promised land, despite grumbling on the way. Through long years of Babylonian exile, they cry out for a new Exodus, for their God again to overrule the mighty waters from which came the monsters of pagan empire. This is the people whose prophets tell of God's intention to deal with evil itself, so that the wolf and the lamb would lie down together, and the earth be awash with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The healing of creation will result from the Servant of the Lord going down to the depths, taking evil's weight on to himself, exhausting its power.

When the early Christians wrote about Jesus, this was the story they believed themselves to be telling. They didn't see him as simply a teacher, a moral example, or even as one who saved people from a doomed world. They told his story as the point where the dark forces of chaos converged, in the cynical politics of Herod and Pilate, the bitter fanaticism of the Pharisees, the wild shrieks of diseased souls, the sudden storms on the lake. They invite us to see his death on the analogy of Jonah's being thrown into the sea, there to be swallowed by the monster called Death. They insist that in this death God has taken upon Himself the full force of the world's evil. As a sign of that, the final book of the Bible declares that in the new world, now already begun with his resurrection, there will be no more sea.

Saying this precisely does not give Christian theology an easy explanation ("Oh, that's all right then") for the continuing presence of evil in the world. On the contrary, it tells a story about Jesus's own sense of abandonment, and thereby encourages us to embrace the same sense of helpless involvement in the sorrow of the world, as the means by which the world is to be healed. Those who work for justice, reconciliation and peace will know that sense, and perhaps, occasionally, that healing.

This isn't the kind of answer that the Enlightenment wanted. But maybe, as we launch into the deep waters of another new year, it is the kind of vocation we ought to embrace in place of shallow analysis and shrill reaction.

Tom Wright is the Bishop of Durham

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