It is a popular theme in music to suggest various possibilities for “what makes the world go ’round.” I know of two immediately: music and love. Both are wonderful sentiments but not very useful to me as answers. I have asked the question in this way to yet again bring our thoughts to the nature of the world in which we live. The simple Christian answer to the question is that “God makes the world go ’round,” or, as the Scriptures would have it, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
None of this is to deny the “laws” of physics or any such thing, but rather it is to say that beneath everything, whether we think of them as “laws” or “principles” or what-have-you, is the will of God sustaining everything in existence. This is vastly different than conceiving of the universe as somehow “created” by God, but then left to itself and the laws with which it was created. This is not the Orthodox faith. Rather, we believe that God sustains everything and that nothing exists apart from His will. Only God is self-existent.
Some will counter with the question of “What about evil?” God does not sustain nor create evil. Evil, in that sense, has no true existence, but describes only the actions of things that are fundamentally good but have gone astray and act in a manner for which they were not created. And yet existence itself is a “good” thing which God does not begrudge to any of us, and thus sustains us in existence even though we abuse the gift. His will is the well-being and the salvation of us all.
Self-existence and the sort of “autonomy” that is associated with it are generally “givens” in our modern world. However, as we learn more about ourselves from science, we also are learning that we are not nearly as “free” as we often imagine – our genetics are powerful elements in the determination of our lives. Add to that the “randomness” of our birth, birth-order, economic and social circumstances and our “freedom” becomes yet more theoretical. Were we to look to ourselves for any guarantee of our freedom, we would be looking at a very weak source indeed. And yet “freedom” is an absolute necessity for us to exist as persons and somehow distinguish ourselves from rocks and trees.
Of course it is possible to give intellectual assent to the notion that in God “we live and move and have our being,” and at the same time living as though our existence were somehow our own gift to ourselves. But it is God alone who causes us to exist, who sustains us in existence, and who wills our well-being. Learning to live with that as the constant reality of our lives is at the very heart of the spiritual life.
At the same time, though less obviously so, it is necessary for us to learn to live with evil around us. This is not to say that we accept evil actions or refuse to do battle with injustice and oppression. However, the clear teaching of the Gospel is that we are to forgive our enemies and to do good to those who do evil to us. Not only are we told this, but we are explicitly told to do so because God Himself does the same (see Luke 6:30ff.). Certainly at the heart of love and forgiveness is the willingness to grant “existence” to another. It seems to me significant that the second sin described in Scripture is murder. It seems an extreme leap from eating forbidden fruit to murder but murder, we are told, was only one generation removed from Adam and Eve. The refusal to forgive or to love is, at its deepest root, an unwillingness to grant existence to another, or, at the least, a refusal to grant “well-being.”
When we understand that our own existence is itself a free gift, not only in its inception, but in its moment-by-moment continuation, then perhaps we will understand more clearly why we must forgive and pray for our enemies. Thus it would seem that “love makes the world go ’round” is not an incorrect sentiment.
An additional thought: for those who wrestle with the problem of “natural evil” as in a number of the responses, I recommend an interview with David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, who has written as eloquently and clearly on the subject as anyone in our time. The interview may be found here.
I think it’s important not to over emphasize human choice as being what makes us different from animals. According to scientists, radioactive elements decay “at random”–that is, due to no factor outside of themselves. But it would be silly to call decaying atoms valuable in the way that humans are valuable.
I think what makes us valuable is not just our ability to make choices per se, but our ability to make moral choices. To our knowledge, nothing else in the world has a moral sense. We can train an ape to use rudimentary sign language, but not to that it should honor its parents. We can make chess playing computers, but not a computer that has “eaten the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”
The problem with Adam and Eve is that they partook the apple at the wrong time and in the wrong way. Eve was not wrong to want to “be like God,” but she was wrong to think that she could decide the terms for this independently of God. We cannot force God to make us like Him (or to do anything else, for that matter). However at the same time, God wants what is best for us, so we do not have to force God to do something. We have to make ourselves conform to the image God has given us and to give thanks and glory to God for His gifts.
So, it is true that humans are different because we make choices, but we should focus on what kind of choices those are–they are choices to conform our lives to the law that God gives us and (more importantly) to the image of His Son, who is greater even than the law.
I worry that focusing too much on the act of choosing makes it seem as though are choices are uncreated, as though we are the gods of our own lives, and leads to the nihilistic existentialism of the mid-20th century.
I think one problem people have with believing the will of God sustains everything, rather than that He simply created the world and now lets its laws govern, is that we must include tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes and the like within His will when we take this view. Natural phenomenons and occurrences such as these cannot be evil or immoral, surely. Yet they exist and cause pain and harm. For the man whose wife slipped through his fingers as the hurricane pulled her away from him, never to see her again (true story), he’s likely to think one of two things after the fact: God’s will can’t possibly sustain everything that exists; or God isn’t bothered by the loss of loved ones, let alone the death of many (such as in southern India a few years ago). Of course, certain well-known evangelicals have taken this understanding of God’s will and made it out to be His righteous judgment on deserved nations for religious pluralism, abortion or other sins, much to your horror and mine.
How do we balance or explain this understanding of God’s will sustaining all things when the natural world—apart from the wicked deeds of men—eliminates life and well-being to such catastrophic measures?
Cameron, the argument on natural evil is not improved by making God “not responsible.” He sustains his world, even though we believe that nature itself is “fallen” and does not obey or behave in the manner for which it was created either (Romans 8 is clear on this). Thus, through not fault of its own, nature partakes of our sin and is just as destructive. But note that I said God is good and even sustains those who do evil. That would include sustain nature even though nature does not behave as it is meant.
It reminds me of the quote from the Philosopher, W.C.Fields, “The world is a dangerous place. A man’s lucky if he gets out of it alive.”
Actually there is an extremely good book on the topic of natural disaster, etc. and God by David Hart
The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?
I recently listened to Fr. Thomas Hopko’s comments on the Prayer of St. Ephraim on his podcast through Ancient Faith Radio. One part that really struck me was when he was explaining why we say to God, “Do not give to me the spirit of…” and list evil spirits. He said that God is in control even of the evil in our world, and that even when we deserve or ask for those evil spirits, God still has to be the one that gives them to us.
Thanks, Father. I’ll add the book to my list and think on what you said.
An interesting take on theodicy is Marilyn McCord Adams (a contemporary Anglican)’s work, specifically “Christ and Horrors.” Her basic argument is that for any theodicy to work, it must focus on the redeeming action of Christ in the world. It is He who turns personal “horrors” into a part of a larger narrative where those who mourn are comforted. In a larger sense, in the eschaton, even the tsunami and the tsetse fly will be saved and made to conform to their true natures instead of their fallen ones.
Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this post.
I will admitt, however, that I am not really spiritually mature enough to enjoy the comments thus far. I will seek Fr. Hopko’s podcast. I will also seek the book you mention. Thank you!
It’s a very hard thing – the aspect of theodicy. I’m barely able to live with it or understand it myself.
Thank you for introducing a new word to my limited vocabulary – theodicy. I had to look it up.
As for me, I am still thinking about this statement: “The refusal to forgive or to love is, at its deepest root, an unwillingness to grant existence to another, or, at the least, a refusal to grant well-being.” Well said and deeply, deeply convicting.
I had a sobering thought. Man is supposed to be in charge of the material universe. Ergo, all these tsunami, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. are OUR fault. To make it more specific, my fault, for not being saintly enough to divert it.
Especially when I hear the stories of saints calming storms or diverting floods, it makes me think that there isn’t a surplus of evil, but a shortage of saints.
Indeed, I would read Romans 8 precisely in that manner.
“…the argument on natural evil is not improved by making God “not responsible.” He sustains his world, even though we believe that nature itself is “fallen” and does not obey or behave in the manner for which it was created either (Romans 8 is clear on this). Thus, through not fault of its own, nature partakes of our sin and is just as destructive. But note that I said God is good and even sustains those who do evil. That would include sustain nature even though nature does not behave as it is meant.”
I found this very beautiful, and helpful in my understanding of natural disasters in a world sustained by God.
On a related issue, I have been told that God sustains us in much the same way after our deaths. I can understand existence itself being a good thing on this side of death – is existence equally intrinsically good for those on the other side of death, those who will suffer hell? Or put another way, how do you deal with the ultimate theodicy, hell? Or, why doesn’t God extinguish the sinner?
God does not torment the sinner but sheds upon them the same goodness we all receive. The torment lies within themselves and the state of their own heart. The final answer to the question has several answers, not all of them accepted fully by the Church.
i am having trouble understanding the world please help me i fell so confused about everything i dont know where my mind is please help me thanks cj
I will pray for you. If you want to write me privately my email is: