Several months ago, my husband and I had a theological conversation with an agnostic friend who said (I think) that if there is a God, then God is DNA. The idea (I think) was that DNA constitutes the building blocks of life and if God is indeed the creator of all life, then God is obviously DNA. I think. Honestly, when my husband and I got home that night, we spent forty-five minutes trying to figure what the heck our friend had said. I finally threw up my hands in frustration and said, “Sometimes it’s just easier to think of God as an old man with a white beard sitting on a throne.”
To which my husband said, “We’re paying way too much for your theological education for that to be your conclusion.”
Now, interestingly, this God and DNA thing has been picked up by some Christians, but in a different way. Google “God and DNA” and you can sample any of several thousand earnest Christian websites claiming that some sort of “DNA code” proves that God exists. One “researcher” said that he spent twelve years decoding human DNA before finding string of characters which read,[i] “God Eternal Within the Body.”
I find this conclusion troubling. Because like my agnostic friend’s idea that God is DNA, this Christian take on the matter has nothing to do with the central tenets of our faith:[ii] our justification and sanctification by God’s grace. Rather, it’s about our satisfaction with our own scientific “proofs.”
There’s a lot we just don’t know about God. That’s what makes faith so handy. But the temptation to which we so often succumb is the demystification of God. We do this by simplifying our notions of God, because a simple God is easy for us to deal with. Whether we’ve got God on a throne or in a string of molecules, the important thing is that we’ve got God right where we want him/her.
Luke 13:1-9 is this week’s odd little selection from the Revised Common Lectionary. It poses one of the most difficult questions people of faith wrestle with: “Why do bad things happen if God is good?” Jesus’ answer is interesting because it’s not even remotely clear; in fact, he basically just poses more questions. That suggests to me that there’s something very important about questions and that something about our faith depends on our not knowing. A synopsis:
Bad things happened to some people and some other people were worried about why the bad things happened to the particular people they happened to. Jesus said, “No, they did not have it coming. But unless you repent, you’re going to perish the same way. By the way, that reminds me of a pert little tale about a guy who owns a fig tree.[iii] This dude owned a fig tree and got mad that it didn’t have any figs on it. He told his servant to chop it down, saying, ‘Why should it be wasting the soil?’ The servant, who apparently had a spare bag of manure and some time on his hands, offered to fertilize the tree for a year.
The “perishing” Jesus mentions isn’t about physical death. After all, death comes to sinner and saint alike. I strongly suspect he’s actually referring to the death of the human spirit in this life. By “perishing,” I think he means our despair about God not caring when our grief and fear and confusion are at their worst. And by “repentance,” Jesus is talking about way more than feeling bad about how bad you suck. The word in Greek, which I can’t spell or pronounce, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, implies something transformative and life-altering, along the lines of being “born again,” except not nearly that annoying. I’d suggest that life’s difficulties somehow transform the gap between our grief and our experience of God’s grace
The parable of the barren fig tree sheds some light on this, but not if we read it the traditional way. Traditionally, it’s read with us as the unfruitful tree, God as the owner of the tree, and Jesus Christ as the servant. But that reading doesn’t answer the riddles in the first part of the text. What if we move things around a bit and make ourselves the owner of the tree and our relationship with God, the tree itself? After all, in times of suffering, that tree can seem pretty fruitless. And what if we think of God as the servant and the soil as our own lives? As for the manure…well, as we all know, in this life, shit happens.
Does God work with manure like the gardener in the story? Absolutely. God works with the manure of life. God works with the terminal cancer diagnosis, with the motorcycle accident, with the foreclosure, the divorce, the arrest, the addiction, the bankruptcy…and with the countless little disappointments in life that can eat away at our spirits and make us seriously question if God really cares at all.
Jesus’ question, “Why should this tree be wasting the soil?” is a question for all of us, especially when we’re going through tough times. If God, like a tree, is rooted in the soil of our lives, God will not waste the soil. God works the manure of life into the roots of our faith so that our relationship with God will bear good fruit.
Answers, especially easy answers often come up short, leaving us to deal with our questions. Our questions frequently don’t give us a lot of satisfying answers. Perhaps the answers are not the point. Perhaps the task of faith is best described by poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who offered these words of advice to a struggling friend:
“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
[i] In English, conveniently enough.
[ii] The central tenets of Christianity, btw, have nothing to do with proving the existence of God.
[iii] Whenever Jesus gets near a fig tree, things get weird. What was it with this guy and figs? Did he just love figs so much that he stayed up nights worrying that they would run out…not unlike I do with vanilla Oreos? Or did he hate figs, remembering the many nights when Mary made him sit at the dinner table until he ate all his figs? Yet another inscrutable mystery of the Christian faith.
© Marian the Seminarian, 2013