By The Rev. Randy Cross, Adirondack Alliance Church, Saranac Lake;
The Rev. Ann S. Gaillard, rector, Episcopal Church of St. Luke the Beloved Physician, Saranac Lake;
Pastor Bruce McCulley, High Peaks Church, Saranac Lake;
The Rev. Mark Reilly, Catholic Churches of the Assumption of Mary (Gabriels), St. Bernard's (Saranac Lake), St. John in the Wilderness (Lake Clear), St. Paul's (Bloomingdale);
The Rev. William D. Small, Episcopal priest (retired from service at St. Luke's, Saranac Lake);
Pastor Colin Tuggle, Adirondack Vineyard Church, Saranac Lake;
The Rev. Joann White, First Presbyterian Church, Saranac Lake
Noah is back in the news. No, the forecast doesn't call for forty days and nights of rain. Instead, Hollywood is again wading into biblical waters with its most recent end-of-the-world extravaganza, "Noah."
In a recent North Country Public Radio commentary, "'Noah' takes Christians to the deep end of the pool," commentator Brian Mann raised tough questions that many who view the biblical epic may ask. We have a number of objections to the way in which Mann frames the questions, and to some of his conclusions as well. But in the interest of clarity and brevity, we wish to engage one specific challenge to the Christian faith that he raises - a challenge that clearly deserves a respectful, serious response.
The great difficulty Mann identifies is the "morality of God," who, in response to the utter depravity of the race, decides to wipe out humanity, except for the righteous Noah and his family. As Mann puts it, "the morality of the pronouncement - the lack of morality, rather - is stunning." Stunning, indeed.
Christians believe that the God of the Noah story is the same God revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses - the same God revealed most completely and perfectly in Jesus of Nazareth. The God who "is love" (1 John 4:8). How does a Christian reconcile faith in a loving God with this story of a God who says, "I will blot out man whom I have created ... for I am sorry that I have made them." (Genesis 6:7)? Let's move toward an answer in four steps:
-First, remember: The God unveiled in Scripture cannot be easily understood. God is mysterious, as are the problems vexing humanity since the dawn of time. Sacred Scripture reveals a timeless wrestling match with the mysteries of creation, life, mortality, evil and the meaning of it all. Scripture does not traffic in simple answers. It's not written in language that we're accustomed to. It can sound strange to our ears. And in the story of Noah, God sounds strange indeed. It takes thoughtful effort to discern whom this God is, and we cannot impose contemporary ways of thinking on a story that goes back thousands of years.
-A second crucial step toward a Christian understanding of Noah is that humans are morally responsible creatures. We've been endowed with rational intellect and free will. That means we can both recognize and choose to do good, and recognize and choose to avoid evil. What we choose really does matter.
"In the beginning," Genesis tells of a beautiful, harmonious, well-ordered creation. All things were "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The original sin of our first parents has consequences for humanity and all creation. Sin caused the dis-integration of the human person in devastatingly self-destructive ways. Sin ruptured the relationships between humans, God, and creation. The moral collapse (sin) of the human person disturbed the original order, harmony and balance of ALL creation - and we continue to experience its effects today. Yes, moral choices bear consequences. And, because we have been made in an interconnected web of humanity and creation, those consequences affect more than the individuals making the choices - they have long-lasting effects on others.
-Our third step is to carry this moral framework into a reading of Noah's story. The evil into which the human race descended "grieved (God) to his heart" (Genesis 6:6). This grief is God's sorrow over the misery humans inflicted on themselves and others. When God resolved to "blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth," God allowed humanity's widespread abuse of freedom to play itself out. Even the natural order is implicated in these unfolding consequences of sin. We don't have to look far to see connections to our experience here and now. Just last week, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned of "grave risk" to all life on earth as a result of human-caused global climate change. Whether the science is truly settled or not, scientists and many non-religious people connect the dots between natural catastrophe and human abuse of rational free will.
-Fourth and finally, God allows the consequences of sin to play themselves out in our world, yes. But God also intervenes to save and restore. In the story of Noah, God "covenants" - pledges - to never allow such destruction by flood again. The human race is spared through Noah and his descendants. When grappling with this mysterious, "murdering" God of Noah's story, Christians must balance it with the story of God who himself is "wiped out" in the person of his son, Jesus. God takes upon himself the weight of the consequences of all evil in the world when Jesus shoulders a cross and carries it to Calvary, enduring a horrible death outside Jerusalem. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the lens through which Christians view all Bible stories. God is most vividly revealed in Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection. That is God's definitive response to evil in the world. It is neither a pat answer nor a magic wand that waves away evil and suffering. Rather, God joins us in that suffering, taking upon himself the consequences of the abuse of our freedom (sin). After facing the enormity of sin head-on in the cross, God returns from the dead, extends a hand and utters that most blessed greeting: Shalom. Peace. (John 20:19)
"Peace," coming from one so unjustly condemned and brutally tortured, is more baffling than the reaction of God to the horrible reality of sinful humanity in the Noah story. We hope Brian Mann is right. We hope people will be "scratching their heads," wondering whom this God really is. And we hope that will lead to an encounter with the God who really can't be "figured out." This God who allows the consequences of our sin to play out in our world is the same God who comes into this world and makes, in the end, "peace."