God's workers?

Richard Vytniorgu offers an alternative perspective on scholarly freedom.

Alicia Smith’s recent blog posts on Rilke and Scholarly work under God affirm the importance of academics’ work. But they prompt me to ask some questions. Alicia’s language is saturated by an emphasis on the ‘sovereignty’ of God. She speaks of ‘working under the supreme agency of God in the world’, that God is an ‘omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient Being’ who ‘faces no restrictions’. Moreover, we as researchers seem called to ‘work under God’ and to ‘work in his laws […] the given norms of divinely created and sustained reality’. This makes me feel rather sat upon, reckoning with my contingent, ‘time-bound’ existence. Simply put, in this vision I am God’s handmaiden responding submissively, ‘Be it unto me’.

But I wonder how fruitful this view is. Firstly, I remind myself that God is a personal Trinity – that each person in the Trinity is a person in communion with the others, each with his special role. Christ – the God-man – is the person who reveals the Father to the human race and his Church is made up of those connected to the Head, who are becoming transfigured, revealing the divine to creation at the same time as revealing the human to the divine.

Creation was not finished at the first Sabbath; it is an ongoing project in which humans use their freedom either to work towards the realisation of the Kingdom of God, or to return themselves and the rest of Creation to nothingness. The Gospel is so radical because it asks that humans realise their full humanity by recovering their connection to the divine – to the one who has actually defeated death and promises a resurrection. As the Russian religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev wrote in The Destiny of Man (1931): "God longs for His 'other', His friend; He wants him to answer the call to enter the fullness of the divine life and participate in God’s creative work of conquering non-being. God does not answer his own call."

Importantly, when we turn to God and work with him in the transfiguration of the world, we are coming into contact with a personal Trinity – a God who has an inner emotional life, an inward movement towards his beloved (mankind): "Men are afraid to ascribe to Him inner conflict and tragedy characteristic of all life", wrote Berdyaev, "but have no hesitation in ascribing to Him anger, jealousy, vengeance and other affective states which, in man, are regarded as reprehensible". Like Berdyaev, I am puzzled by some of the attributes for which God is traditionally lauded: "Self-satisfaction, self-sufficiency, stony immobility, pride, the demand for continual submission are qualities which the Christian religion considers vicious and sinful, though it calmly ascribes them to God".

The point of articulating this discrepancy is that creativity – what we engage in as academics (including scientists) – is something more radical than sliding into the grooves of pre-ordained ‘norms’ or ‘laws’. Indeed, personally I have my doubts about the very existence of such things, which seem to me to derive more from Enlightenment modernity than the Gospels.

Creativity is radically new only because it is radically personal: it develops out of a human’s transformational divine image, and is therefore a process, just as personality is also a process. All of us hope that the work we do will be considered of the gold and precious stones variety rather than hay and rubbish to be thrown on a fire. But I would argue that the only way we will create such work is by responding freely to God’s call to co-create with him (not for him), knowing that when we do so, we are bringing joy to a God who yearns to understand and love his creation as it unfolds new developments which will enter eternal life.

The Christian faith is either beset or bejewelled with paradoxes, depending on your perspective. Working under a sovereign God sounds very much like working under Caesar, and indeed, emphasis on the ‘sovereignty of God’ stems from a Roman interpretation of Christianity; it is less known among Eastern Christians. Yes, God has ‘control’ over all he made. But let’s be careful what we ‘do’ with this truth. We must remember that God’s eternal plan was always to reveal himself as the self-sacrificing one, who liberates his creation from slavery to sin and folds creatures into his sobornost (community) of transfiguring human beings. His ‘yearning’ is for this free response among us, to bring our own gifts to the great work of ongoing personal creation.

In my own work, how am I going to dignify the Triune God with a free response to his call to co-create with him as one connected to the God-man? How am I going to give joy to my yearning God?

Richard Vytniorgu is a PhD candidate in English Literature at De Montfort University with Midlands3Cities (AHRC). You can find him at www.richardvytniorgu.com.


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Thanks for your thoughtful response to my post, Richard. It's good to hear differing perspectives on the nature of God's activity in the world. I agree that it's important to be wary of what we 'do' with the idea of sovereignty, and to reflect deeply on the perfect character of God.
But I do question the formulation of creating with, not for, God, because to me eliminating the latter seems to ignore God's lordship even apart from the issue of sovereignty and freedom. Whether we use the language of 'norms' or not, God is still Lord. I think this is my research interests raising their head, but my response to your reference to the vision of us as 'God's handmaiden' is - yes! In relation to a (loving, generous, self-sacrificing) Lord God, that is who I am, and it's a position and way of being with profound dignity and potential.

(transmitted via David Hanson)
Vytniorgu’s response to Smith’s essay seems to me a classic case of two people coming at a topic from different angles, rather than having different positions. While Smith emphasizes the importance for scholarly work of seeing the way reality is governed by the laws and norms God has built into creation, Vytniorgu emphasizes the freedom humans have with respect to creation and for their calling in relation to God. He reminds us that we are called to be co-workers with God, both in interpreting God’s creation and in preparing for God’s coming kingdom.

As I see it, both are correct. Smith reminds us that creation is as God made it, not whatever we wish to think it is. And it is an ordered reality rather than a chaos so that the idea of its being governed by laws and norms is not merely an enlightenment idea. (In fact, I would argue that the enlightenment distorted the biblical idea of the order of creation, and made it to be either a human invention or an absolute order independent of its Creator.) As to how fruitful this approach can be, I would point to the remarkable accomplishments of Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Vollenhoven and others in the Dutch Calvinist tradition.

But at the same time, both the Orthodox and Calvinist theologies have always pointed out that the laws that determine what is possible and what is necessary in the non-human creation, do not bind humans in the same way. Vytniorgu is surely right when he says that we have been given the gift of real freedom and called upon to exercise it in thought, will, and action. Since that is so, the scholarly work we are called to do is also work in which we are partners with God (2 Cor. 6:1). And the ultimate goal of that work is to bring about God’s coming Kingdom.

Another way to put my suggestion is to say that while Smith emphasizes the oder of creation as the key to explaining the world we live in, Vytniorgu reminds us that there is also a subject-side to scholarly work, a side in which we stand in immediate relation to God and are called to employ our freedom to work with Him. Happily, both are correct.

Roy Clouser

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