The survival of chaos after the victory of God

Jon D. Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence is one of the most stimulating theology books I’ve read in a long time. I was expecting something different–a theodicy of sorts; but what I got instead was more interesting. Levenson argues that key passages in the Tanakh/Jewish Bible present creation not as “creation out of nothing,” but as God’s “mastery” of the forces of chaos. These forces continually threaten to reemerge and will not be fully vanquished until God’s final victory at the end of time; hence the “persistence of evil.”

While Levenson recognizes that creatio ex nihilo has become the more-or-less orthodox view in Judaism (as well as in Christianity and Islam), he demonstrates–rather convincingly–that the Bible contains an only partially submerged motif of “creation from chaos.” That is, YHWH creates by defeating those forces that threaten to undo the divinely constituted order, stability, and peace that characterize creation. This victory, however, is precarious or incomplete: violence, disorder, and suffering are all-too-familiar parts of our experience, suggesting “the survival of chaos after the victory of God.” Contrary to many other interpreters, Levenson sees affinities with as much as differences from other Near Eastern creation myths–such as the Babylonian–that posit a primordial battle out of which the world order emerged. Through analysis of key texts, including of course the beginning of Genesis but also several Psalms, Job, and others, Levenson reveals traces of the creation from chaos motif.

A key implication of this view is that evil and suffering are not the result of an inscrutable divine will, but rather of the incomplete, tentative, and agonistic nature of YHWH’s mastery of the forces of chaos, which continually resist his benevolent ordering. Peace, justice, and stability continually threaten to lapse back into the chaos out of which they were brought. This is vividly brought home for long stretches of Israel’s history, and the biblical traditions of lament and apocalyptic can be seen as a cry for God to finally bring about the decisive victory over the elements that threaten God’s good creation.

Importantly, the Bible also attests to the role human beings are to play in this victory. When Israel keeps the commandments of God–including its cultic and ritual obedience–it is expanding the area over which the divine will holds sway in the world. (In this regard, Levenson allows himself some shots at certain Christian theologies that minimize the importance of human action.) The completion of creation only comes when the forces of evil and chaos are vanquished both in external history and in the human heart.

Creation from chaos can seem a bit mythological, and Levenson generally avoids trying to cash it out in more rationalistic or metaphysical terms. Process theology is the most obvious candidate for a compatible philosophical account, but Levenson seems to prefer to let the tension between divine omnipotence and the “groaning” of creation stand. The point is that God’s sovereignty, or omnipotence, is not a static fact, but a true dramatic achievement:

The operative dichotomy, thus, is not that between limitation and omnipotence, but that which lies between omnipotence as a static attribute and omnipotence as a dramatic enactment: the absolute power of God realizing itself in achievement and relationship. What this biblical theology of dramatic omnipotence shares with the theology of the limited God is a frank recognition of God’s setbacks, in contrast to the classical theodicies with their exaggerated commitment to divine impassibility and their tendency to ascribe imperfection solely to human free will, the recalcitrance of matter, or the like. . . . But whereas the theology of the limited God provides exoneration of a sort for God’s failures (for, in Kantian terms, how can we say God ought to do what he cannot?), the theology of omnipotence as dramatic enactment allows people to fault God for the persistence of evil (including, on occasion, human evil) and to goad him into reactivating his primal omnipotence, which is never relinquished but often agonizingly, catastrophically dormant. One might call this latter position a theology of omnipotence in potentia, omnipotence recollected from the cosmogonic past and expected in the eschatological future but only affirmed in faith in the disordered present.

In any event, metaphysical speculation seems less important here than fidelity to experience. Faith in the God who is the source of all good can’t help but stand in tension with our manifest experience of evil and suffering. In this light, Levenson’s conclusion to his discussion of Job could (and probably does) double as a conclusion to the book as a whole:

Though the persistence of evil seems to undermine the magisterial claims of the creator-God, it is through submission to exactly those claims that the good order that is creation comes into being. Like all other faith, creation-faith carries with it enormous risk. Only as the enormity of the risk is acknowledged can the grandeur of the faith be appreciated.

Theodicy–in the sense of explaining why evil exists–is an inherently unsatisfying undertaking. Would you really be satisfied to learn that some tragedy that befell you or someone you loved was the inevitable outworking of the divine plan or the fundamental metaphysical principles of the universe? What Levenson’s biblical account evokes instead is a kind of holy impatience with evil and suffering and a faith–albeit one often sorely tested–in the One who laid the foundations of the world and who will “swallow up death for ever and . . . wipe away tears from all faces.”

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