Monday, 27 October 2014

New Book - The Widening Circle

I have a new book coming out,called "The Widening Circle", published by SPCK - it comes out on November 20th, and the theme is Priesthood - not in the narrow sense of ministers (although it does get onto that in the end) but looking at the broader theme of priesthood in Christian theology. Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting excerpts here on this blog to give you a bit of a taste of the whole thing.

First up: Created for Joy

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis do not tell us why God created the heavens and the earth. They just tell us that he did. To find the beginnings of a reason, we need to look elsewhere, to one of the other Old Testament books that develops a theology of creation: the book of Psalms. There, the creation exists as a reflection and expression of the goodness and glory of God himself. Psalm 19 begins with the classic statement of this idea: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” (Ps 19.1). Psalm 104 is perhaps the greatest creation Psalm in the collection, and here, creation is simply depicted as an act of joy. The poem is a litany of overflowing goodness, fruitfulness, creativity, which climaxes in v31-34 with this:

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.

The creation is made so that in it the glory of God can be seen and ‘endure forever’, but even more, that God can ‘rejoice in his works’. The picture painted here is not particularly serious or earnest. Creation does not have to exist: it is contingent rather than necessary. And yet it does exist, simply because God wanted it to, as a cause for and source of joy and praise. Yet this picture of God rejoicing over his creation is only half the picture. Joy is not just the property of God, but of creation itself, in a kind of virtuous circle of enjoyment. This joy requires not just the act of creation, but involves a dynamic relation between God and the creation. The earth is not an inanimate object, an inert, dead thing that is incapable of response. Instead, it is called upon to reflect back to God its own joy in being created.  Psalm 148, for example, depicts the entire creation in unison, praising God without words, but just by existing: “Let all things praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created. “ (v5) As Richard Bauckham puts it: “all creatures bring glory to God simply by being themselves, and by fulfilling their God-given roles in God's Creation.”  Psalm 96 similarly depicts the creation itself praising God, but here, the same note is sounded: that of sheer unadulterated joy:

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord (Ps 96.11-13)

The creation exists for no other purpose than joy. It is not a means to an end, an instrument through which God can fulfill certain tasks, or even an accidental by-product of conflict among the gods, as the ancient Babylonian story of Enuma Elish imagined it. The world exists to elicit joy, both from God and from within itself, directed back to God in praise. As Genesis puts it, the climax of creation is when God sits back, looks at what he has made, and declares it ‘very good’ (Genesis 1.31).

More to come later...