Friday, September 4, 2009

Belated Anniversary, With Explanations: Why Mi Yodea?

When putting the blog together last year — on an all-day shift at the backdoor of the library, on a hot late summer afternoon, if memory serves correctly — I wanted a way to characterize the tone and aim of the site in a pithy, creative way. I'm not sure what sparked the connection to Jonah, but one of the reasons it is one of my favorite books in Scripture is because of what it says about God. Not only is the Israelite prophet the bumbling clown who gets everything wrong, but the sworn enemies of God's people — the inhabitants of Nineveh — are those to whom Jonah is sent by Yahweh to preach. Yet Jonah's message is not merely "fire and brimstone" for its own sake, but he is commissioned in the hope — Yahweh's hope! — that the city might repent. And the city does repent! And God does relent!

And all the while, Jonah sits, and watches, and whines. What is God's reply? "Should I not have concern for the great city Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?" (4:11). Such a goofy last note, yet so profound: If you knew the grace and mercy of Israel's God, how could you ever suppose, much less hope, for wrath and destruction on these senseless people (and animals!) in such great need of my help?

The message of the book is in keeping with much of the rest of the Old Testament, that Yahweh is a God open to new and surprising futures. I will retain my full exegesis of Mi yodea? for a coming post, but if you read 2 Samuel 12:22, Esther 4:14, and Joel 2:14, you will see the exact same question posed in similar circumstances: though the enemies swarm, though the tribulations mount, though even God himself has promised judgment and finality — who knows? Who knows if Yahweh of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel, the merciful and gracious Lord of Lords — who knows if he will relent, if he will create a new future, if he will part the waves and make a path of redemption? Yes, we know the past; yes, we know what is realistic; but we know what sort of God our God is, and he may, just, yet...

This vision of God seriously disintegrates once Christian doctrine formally pronounces on God abstract universal attributes like "omniscience," "omnipotence," "omnibenevolence," "immutability," etc. Is God not free? Is God not more than mere monad? Is God chained by the past, or by our interpretations of his or our past, or by what is realistic or predictable?

No, and no, and no and no and no.

That is indeed why Mi Yodea? ought to be the central, overarching question for all of theology; for though one might understandably believe otherwise, theologians do not have any better clue of what God is up to than anyone else. We don't have the scoop.

If, however, we position ourselves such that we expect God to surprise us, as is his way, and such that we go looking for his curious work in places the world forgets or belittles, then at the very least, we will have opened ourselves from the beginning, to the extent that we can, to the places and forms and character of God's actions and presence.

And that, I think we may say with confidence, is a good start.

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