A Moral Universe?

While our country and others are roiled by divisive political questions, the Owl proposes a theological one that cuts deeper: Do we live in a moral universe or not? Are we under a moral imperative to make the world better? Probably most American Protestants would say that it i, and we are so commissioned.

Another way of putting the question is this: Are there two worlds or one? Does God command us to turn this world into a peaceable kingdom? Or has he prepared another place for us, to which this is an anteroom, a way station, or a refining fire? Is it actually getting better, or ought we to confess our inability to make it so and long for the next?

This is not an idle theoretical question. How we answer it has a profound effect  on the ways we treat each other. For if we’re supposed to make the world better; if that is the sum and substance of salvation itself, then no sacrifice is too much to bring about. Everyone’s immortal soul is at stake, here and now. No amount of violence and oppression could be commensurate with that. Thus we get Stalin, Al Qaida, and (some would add) the Puritanism that animated the colonists of Massachusetts Bay.

If that is not the case, if this is as good as it gets and we just have to live with it, then we have a different problem: how to treat each other as sharers of pain, not expecting to get out of here alive. Clearly, so far we have not made a new Eden of our surroundings, and it is not for lack of trying on the part of all kinds of people, religious and secular, Christian and otherwise.

Which is the Biblical answer? Of course, any well versed student of the Bible knows there is not one Biblical answer. But let’s play the game for a minute anyway, taking page one for a start. God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was —What? Good? Potentially Good? Pragmatically Useful? A mess, but an interesting mess? Answer: none of the above. The earth was without form, and void. (True, God pronounces it good, but that comes after he has done some work on it. In context, that is only a set up for that episode with the Serpent.)

Without Form, and Void. That is the nature of the material with which everything starts. (The medieval scholastic phrase “ex nihilo,” is a distraction. Ignore it. This is Hebrew.) The text isn’t even as clear as “Without Form and Void.” It is “Tohu waBohu”; words that appear nowhere else in scripture, maybe nowhere in any literature. A moral universe made out of such stuff? I suspect the Biblical writer is warning us against thinking so.

If that is the case, what becomes of our creaturely moralism? As noted at the outset: we take care of each other as best we can, knowing we all die from this world, while we wait on God’s new creation.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
(Colossians 3:3)

2 thoughts on “A Moral Universe?”

  1. Tom,
    I felt like this was the start of great discussion. I was just beginning to appreciate the setup and hoping for some insight and then it stopped. I hope you pick up this thread in the future. Thanks for making reading my e-mail more of a treasure hunt. Your posts are surely one of my favorite treasures.


    1. Woody:

      Thanks for your kind words and hopes of the Owl. Indeed there is much more to say under the rubric of moralism and the difference between eshatological hope and the foreshortened substitute, political optimism. The Owl will endeavor to be worthy of your further interest.


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