Wednesday, March 22, 2017

But So That

Yesterday, I pseudo-engaged, pseudo-trolled my friend Steve Pankey by commenting on his blog post on Facebook. He had written about the importance of avoiding bad theology by not declaring that God had intentionally caused the man in Sunday's gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) to be born blind so that a miraculous healing could be worked in him. Although I agree with that wholeheartedly, I take exception not with Steve's post but with a more general tendency to avoid hard theology by reinterpreting what the bible says by effectively ignoring what the bible says. That wasn't Steve's point, and I encourage you to read his thoughtful and important post. Although it wasn't his intention, he gave me the chance to spout off about my issue. I love back-and-forth theology, but Facebook comments are rarely the place for a full conversation, and I did not really give Steve's post its due. He was gracious in his response, and I appreciate it.

He also has forced me to grapple with those dangerous, theologically provocative, culturally insensitive words that Jesus says at the beginning of Sunday's long, long, long gospel lesson:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him."
Here's how I read those words. Jesus and the disciples come upon a man who had been blind from birth. (How did they know he was blind from birth? I have no idea, but that's part of John's story, so we're just supposed to accept it.) The disciples asked, "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" (What a crass thing to say! Please, Jesus, put them in their place. Don't let them get away with it.) Jesus replies, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." (That's what I'm talking about! Be bold! Make a stand for good theology.) Jesus continues, "This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (Dammit, Jesus! That's not what I meant. That's even worse than what the disciples said. At least if it's a consequence of sin someone must have deserved it. Now you're claiming that God would deny sight to someone just so God could make a big show of his healing. That's cheap. That's terrible. No, thank you, Jesus. You can keep that theology for yourself. We've learned a lot about God since you were around. Maybe you need to go back to rabbi school.)

So what does it mean? What does it mean for Jesus to claim that a man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him? The Greek text relies on two conjunctions stuck together to hinge the "born blind" part with the "works of God" part: "ἀλλ' ἵνα," which means literally "but so that." How to we cross that bridge and relate the two seemingly unrelatable statements?

In a way that almost obliterates that bridge, Steve points to this week's Working Preacher commentary, in which Osvaldo Vena, a New Testament professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, shifts the punctuation to change the emphasis and, in some sense, the meaning: "Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me..." Remember that in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament there were no punctuation marks. Later readers and translators have added them, parsing out what clause and what phrase go where. We've inherited what they thought, and new translators usually rely heavily on what their predecessors have done. But that doesn't mean the tradition is correct.

What do I think? I think that translation makes me feel a lot better. And I think that it's doable with the Greek. But I think there's a reason that translators have rendered it the old way for a long, long time. And, more to the point, I think there is a better reason for us to stick with the old text that allows us to tackle more deeply the problem of divine causality.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. On the one hand, I find that statement repugnant, but why? Why is it offensive? Why are we uncomfortable with that sort of depiction of God? Because, in the back of our minds, we believe that it's up to God whether a person is born with a disability. But that's not how God works. God isn't upstairs in some great baby factory doling out intelligence, good looks, athleticism, congenital defects, and handicaps to those he wants to have them. Yes, God is the source of all things. Yes, I'm comfortable saying that God causes all things. But divine causality is not like human causality. We link cause and effect with purpose and, when appropriate, malice aforethought. But that's not how God works.

Yes, in some sense, God caused this man to be born, and, yes, in some even more vague sense, God caused this man to be born blind, but that isn't because God has a simplistic sense of the value in it--a value that is revealed when Jesus heals him. The problem isn't with the translation. The problem isn't with the theology of linking the "born blind" with the "works of God." The problem is with our limited theology of purpose--that we look for and often demand a clear and linear cause and effect relationship when that's not what God has in mind. Jesus says, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him." Jesus is repudiating a theology of divine punishment for sin. But that doesn't mean the only substitute is one and only one reason: so God's works might be revealed. Sure, that's part of it. Aren't we comfortable saying thing? The problem is when we limit God's purposes to a single strand.

I got married because I wanted to have children. But that's not the only reason. To a lesser extent, I got married because of the tax break. To a greater extent, I got married because the love I had for Elizabeth found its fulfillment in the institution of marriage. Christians see marriage as an image of God's limitless, unconditional love for the church as shown in Jesus. Does that mean all married persons must be Christians? Clearly not. There are often multiple reasons that things happen. When it comes to God, the lens of causality only works looking backward.

This man was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. Don't lose sight of the context. Jesus isn't saying this in the abstract. He's repudiating the disciples' suggestion that sin might be the cause. On another day, in another situation, he might give a different reason. Jesus doesn't say, "The only reason this man was born blind is so that God's works might be revealed in him." Instead, he points us to hope--hope for God's glory even in a tragic circumstance. He doesn't declare that the tragedy is justified fully in the healing work. He simply points to the miracle as a sign of redemption. There's too much bad theology out there for us to ignore the opportunity to tackle the tough issues. If we're sweeping hard theology under a rug, we do the world a disservice.

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