Oppenheimer and the hand of God
This week has seen the release of two box office hits: Oppenheimer and Barbie. Both films touch on existential threats to humanity. The first intentionally so: the impending and omnipresent cloud of nuclear disaster keeps the hands of the doomsday clock frighteningly close to midnight. The second reminds us of human narcissistic obsessions with the banal and unimportant, whilst living with blind indifference to what is important. Residents of North Africa, North America and Europe suffering oppressive heat and fire must be pleased and comforted that economies are built on encouraging ever increasing consumer desire for the expendable, thus making this climate experience the new normal.
Has humanity’s tombstone already been quarried, lacking only an epitaph to be inscribed? This was the dark musing of one of this week’s media commentators. To forestall such ignominy, is dependence on technology as humankind’s saviour the sensible way forward? Coming home from watching Oppenheimer and remembering what it was like as a child growing up in the 1950’s, worrying about nuclear war, suggests this is not a smart option. Those responsible for the latest technological advancement – Artificial Intelligence – while appropriately proclaiming it’s obvious and seductive benefits to education and medical science, warn us negative outcomes of the technology could have the capacity to completely overwhelm us.
Where to from here? I want to promote a counter intuitive and easily ridiculed alternative as we contemplate humanity’s future. Rather than looking to future technological discoveries for salvation, let us look again at past, but enduring wisdom. (Thinking of ridicule, the political right loves to make fun of any attempt to measure wellbeing as an appropriate gauge of a nation’s state of health).
Over centuries mighty empires rose and fell – Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman. Numerous ethnic groups were made subject to these mighty powers. People known as the Israelites were one of these groups. At one stage or another they were subject to them all. Approximately 2,500 years ago they were taken into Babylonian exile. Whilst in exile they demonstrated an amazing and abiding truth about humans, namely, we learn more from adversity than we do from triumph. This should be a salutary reminder as we contemplate our present predicament.
Here in exile, an unknown scribe (he is known to us as Deutero Isaiah) penned a soaring piece of theological insight. “Is there any god beside me? There is no other rock; I know not one”. Isaiah 44:8. – a declaration of monotheism. Their God was not in fact ‘their’ god. There can only be one God. If God is God, God must be sovereign of the whole created order, including Israel’s oppressors. The passage is set within a broader piece which refers to Israel’s role as servant(s) of the good that God intends. This is where their blessing lies, not in being patron of the divine with entitlement to special consideration.
Prior to this monotheistic statement, and sadly subsequent to it, divinity was/is an expression of tribalism. The most dangerous form of tribalism is national tribalism. Putin’s current use of the Russian Orthodox Church is a flagrant attempt to manipulate divinity in support of Russian nationalistic ambition.
Genuine monotheistic belief has consequences.
At this time of monotheistic awareness, what we know as the first creation story, Genesis 1:1 – 2:4 probably reached the form we recognise today. It stands in contrast to the second creation story (Adam and Eve and their descendants) which became and remains linked to the tribal emergence and history of Israel.
In the first creation narrative humanity is conceived universally. Adam, earth creature, is the whole of humanity, integrally part of the whole created order. What is proclaimed as ‘very good’ is the harmony and beauty of the whole created order. Identity is inextricably bound within a web of relationships. Each is celebrated in its own place. Each contributes to the flourishing of the whole.
Modern humanity likes truth to be defined, quantified. However, foundational truths are too big to be defined, let alone reduced to data or information. The only way to properly encompass such insight is within story or narrative. This is why Jesus taught in parables.
The creation narratives are destroyed as vehicles of truth when made instruments of history. They are not stories of the past but narratives through which to interpret and understand the present. They neither prove nor disprove the big bang. They neither support the theory of evolution nor are they enhanced or reduced by it.
Because monotheism is belief that God is sovereign, we can assume it is a grave mistake to assume we are – sovereign. The dominion humanity is endowed with in this narrative must be understood as service, or at the very least as stewardship of the good that God intends.
It is more likely we face the erection of our species’ tombstone sooner rather than later if we think we are sovereign, or we are entitled to act in any way that serves our short term wants and desires. While most technologies have greatly enhanced human wellbeing, especially those that have advanced human health, the reality is that they have also been used to advance negative human sovereignty, both over the nonhuman world, but also in competition with, and to the diminishment of, other humans.
The first creation story concludes with an account of Sabbath. This is not to be understood as one climactic ‘day’ in a cycle of seven, but a description of how the ‘six days’, or life in all its fullness, is to be celebrated.
It is almost certain that ‘sabbath’ began as ritual associated with the new moon, specifically the three-day period between the waning of the old and the birth of the new. This period of ‘rest’ was deemed of such significance that the principle inherent in it became applied to all aspects of life and expressed in the creation narrative itself. No part of the created order should overreach itself. Every part should be respected and honoured for its uniqueness. To quote the late Bishop of Winchester, John Vincent Taylor, the principle of ‘enough is enough’ is a divine intention that cannot be abrogated without serious consequence.
Unfortunately, the whole economic system upon which the health and prosperity of nations is supposedly based exists in aggressive opposition to this principle. We are told that enough should never be enough, that our wellbeing depends on more being spent, more being owned, more being used.
Being in awe of the sheer abundance and beauty of the world we experience and being deeply grateful for it, is not part of the common lexicon.
We are used to the fact that physical laws govern the universe. We have become oblivious to the truth that relational laws also stand beyond abrogation. Enough is enough. We cannot occupy the space of another without reducing them and ourselves. In the created order of which we are part, sovereignty can only be understood in the service of good.
What is good is necessarily also common.