Ian Harris Otago Daily Times October 21, 2011
REMEMBER those reassuring lines from poet Robert Browning, “God’s in his heaven – all’s right with the world”? Or those of the spiritual, “He’s got the whole world in his hands”? You don’t hear them so much these days, and for good reason. It’s not just that for many people the idea of a physical heaven as the dwelling-place of God has evaporated, nor that they find the traditional concept of God more problematical than they used to.
It is also, as July’s Norwegian massacre and recurrent Islamist bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere remind us, that all is obviously not right with the world. Even more pointedly, it would seem that God has not “got the whole world in his hands” – increasingly, we humans do.
This is one of the starkest and, for some, most unsettling contrasts between old and new understandings of the way the world works, and it has big implications for the way people think about God. Indeed, some theologians would say that God – that is, God as experienced in human consciousness – has emptied himself into humanity. Some would add that that was the point of the Incarnation of God in the human Jesus. Others again would fume at the very idea.
Whatever, it is an observable fact of the modern secular culture that people are aware as never before that in their hands lies the power to shape the world for good or ill. There is power for good in the skill of doctors and surgeons to prevent illness, heal diseases or, where a cure is beyond them, at least make the patients’ lives tolerable. Agricultural science is continually improving animal breeds, strains of crops and pest control. Industrial know-how adds to the quality of life in myriad ways. The communications media have a role in spreading literacy and promoting health.
The other side of the coin is that nations and, increasingly, bands of fanatics now have advanced weaponry capable of destroying life indiscriminately. There is huge destructive force in the drugs trade. Some industries seriously pollute the air, water and the earth itself, raze primeval forests and exterminate species. Genetic engineering sits on the cusp of promise and peril. Harnessing the genes to make food more nutritious, correct genetic defects and produce medicines offers prospects of enhancing human life no less dramatically than all the progress in medicine over the past 100 years. Misusing the opportunities inherent in genetic engineering could result in unpredictable catastrophes, some of which might not emerge for years or even decades.
Given the possibilities for good or evil, everything will depend on how people exercise their growing power to determine the future of the planet. The ultimate control which our ancestors believed to lie in God’s hands is now seen to rest in our own. To that extent, humankind has come of age, and must accept the enormous increase in responsibility that goes with that.
In the new era, five great salvation/destruction issues loom – or, to express that in a mythological way, the future poses five pivotal choices between heaven and hell. These are not so much questions of what happens to the individual soul, which used to be the prime preoccupation, but what happens to humanity as a whole. They fall into two groups.
In the first category are racism, poverty, sexism and war. These are all destructive of human relationships, crushing the victims and breeding division, resentment and hate. All are rooted in a lack of respect for other people. All devalue human life, whichever side of the divide people find themselves on. The remaining issue arises from the demands which a burgeoning human population is making on the planet. Soil, water, minerals and other resources are finite, and it is always easier to damage ecological systems than repair them. It is therefore urgent that we accept full responsibility for stewardship of the planet that sustains all life, not just for our own sake but for the benefit of future generations.
No external God will intervene to solve these problems for us. Human beings have both the power and the responsibility to do it for themselves – and we know it. The growing interest in ethics in so many fields is a sign that the point is being taken. And since both salvation and ethics have been a prime focus of the church during its 2000-year history, it has a unique contribution to make to the new world, if only it could adapt in time. The question is: will it?