Tinkering under the bonnet

My wife went to a school which was also attended by the daughter of the comedian Norman Wisdom. On very special occasions, he would bring his Rolls Royce and offer trips round the school grounds to the students, but most of his visits, he arrived in an old beat-up Mini, and was constantly having to tinker under the bonnet to keep it running.

I often think of that picture when the idea of the supernatural, interventionist God is raised by someone. Typically, they also think that God created everything “ex nihilo” – and Genesis 1 has multiple repetitions of “and God saw that it was good” to bolster their idea that what God has created could not be less than perfect. This all sounds very much like a constant process of tinkering by someone who really does not have control of the mechanics.

I’ve written about my own take on “the fall” previously, and this is not going to be a rehash of that, but the same thoughts spring to mind, coupled with “How can it have been perfect if one act of disobedience could mess it up for thousands of years (taking the fundamentalist idea of the length of history) or millions (taking a more scientific view)?” And it only takes until Genesis 6 for God, as portrayed in this scripture, to decide that everything is completely crocked and needs a “redo from start” so far as living things are concerned.

That, to me, looks extremely like Norman Wisdom tinkering under the bonnet, but with the additional feature of his having designed and built the car as well.

Now actually, if I entertain for a moment the idea that the world/universe is a case of “intelligent design”, I can somewhat understand this. What we see is a system which is based on uncertainty at the lowest level (thank you, Heisenberg) and at higher levels is often chaotic, where very small changes in one or other parameter can have massive effects in global outcomes. Weather systems are the best example of that, and most people have heard of the idea that a butterfly can flap its wings in the Amazon rain forest, and there will be tornadoes in Kansas. When it comes to living things, they are self-ordering systems (noting that there are also some non-living self-organising systems) and evolution is a process which takes the random and selects for suitability to environment over time (usually fairly long periods, but where catastrophic events occur, potentially very quickly). It could, just conceivably, be that the whole system was designed with chance and chaos included and then left to run itself.

But this would be the “blind watchmaker” concept, which is totally unacceptable to those with conservative views – indeed, to most people with a supernatural theist concept of God. It is, for what it’s worth, the furthest I might be prepared to go towards the idea of a creator God in the normally accepted sense (as opposed to the feedback loop between humanity and human God-concepts; the God-concepts mould what humanity is , i.e. how they think, irrespective of whether there’s a “real” God involved, so our God-concepts do actually “create” us…) There are days when I find the fine tuning argument at least somewhat persuasive…

Here, however, I intend to pick up where the “original sin” concept leaves us in the minds of conservative Christians – those who can say, as someone did to me recently “do you know where you’ll be when you die?” expecting that the choice is between those who have “accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour” and those who haven’t, and are therefore headed down the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire, as Shakespeare put it.

This viewpoint, it seems to me, thinks that the only thing which enables God not to condemn us all is Jesus’ death on the cross, which is thought of as God recognising a problem and offering a solution. Not that a solution was needed, according to Ezekiel 18 (among other texts in the Hebrew Scriptures, which conservative Christians still tell me is “the word of God”, apparently divinely dictated to various infallible secretaries).

The thing is, if we accept the premises so far, we also have a template of living for the People of God (or, at least, the Israelite contingent of those) for faithful living and, one might presume, forgiveness (certainly for atonement and some sins), in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It’s the Law of Moses. Some considerable time ago, the Rabbis (the primary interpreters of the Hebrew Scriptures, at least until Paul came along – and one might regard him as an aberration, as Judaism definitely does) determined that non-Jews could get by very nicely on the basis of the “Noahide laws”. We didn’t need to follow all 613 of those in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, and we would still be OK, we could be “righteous gentiles” – we wouldn’t have the land covenant giving Israel to the descendants of Jacob, but would otherwise be included in the group entitled to God’s favour.

However, my conservative interlocutors use an interpretation of Paul’s writings to say that the Law of Moses was entirely useless to provide salvation (and it’s difficult to argue with, for instance, Romans 9:30-32 in their way of thinking, though some have done so, and I personally regard this as purely an argument against the transactional view that if you do “all the right things”, you are as of right going to be among the elect, something which I consider contributes to an attitude of smug satisfaction with a huge side order of hypocrisy, lampooned by Jesus in Matt. 23:23 inter alia).

In conscience, the advent of the Law, around 2000 years into the saga for Young Earth Creationists and some millions of years into it since the creation or evolution of humanity for anyone else itself smacks of a kind of tinkering under the bonnet, or at least a very late provision of some operating instructions by the manufacturer. However, providing a “fix” for the problem of how humans are not to be summarily condemned by God for being pretty much as he putatively designed them at least 4000 years in (or millions) beggars belief even as “tinkering under the bonnet”.

What of the millions of humans who lived before getting any instructions (613 or, just perhaps, a few less – Jesus, agreeing with Rabbi Hillel, thought two was probably sufficient)? What of those who followed the Law of Moses assidulously on the basis that that was what God wanted them to do? For 2000 years or thereabouts (or well over 500 taking modern dating of some of the Tanakh/Pentateuch seriously) that’s what observant Jews did. And conservatives (and possibly Paul) say that that was useless, pointless? They still maintain, though, that the Hebrew Scriptures were God’s word. So are they effectively saying that “God’s word to Moses” was in error? A lie?

I am not remotely “out on a limb” in considering this particular interpretation of Jesus’ death, this particular piece of “tinkering under the bonnet” as repugnant – here’s James McGrath’s take, and here’s James Allison’s. I’m just not where conservative Christians are, and I recall talking to a church worker at an Alpha course, saying that I didn’t like PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement), and hearing the response “But that’s the Gospel!”.

I’ve recently finished a Homebrewed Christianity course on the Apostles’ creed, from a Process/Open and Relational point of view, led by Tripp Fuller and Tom Oord. Curiously, the position that the future is not settled, cannot be known to God makes the idea of tinkering under the bonnet a viable one again. Of course, conservatives will not accept that omniscience, including full knowledge of the future, is an impossibility in the world as we see it (and presumably the one of which God said “very good”). If the future is not forseseeable, maybe it does require some tweaks along the way, to encourage it to perform as God would wish?

The thing is, from almost any standpoint I can envisage, the world as we now see it could do to have not just a few tweaks but a complete garage overhaul and rebuild.

Process and Open and Relational, of course, ditch not just omniscience in terms of knowledge of the future but also omnipotence. Tom Oord has written extremely well of this in his books “The Uncontrolling Love of God” and the pithily titled “God Can’t” – the inability being to intervene in the “tinkering under the bonnet” manner, or even the full refit one. He rests this on the idea that God will not under any circumstances derogate from the grant of freewill, and any intervention would do that. My own thinking is not a million miles from his “radical kenosis” in effect, but is not quite the same – I think in terms of radical incarnation, of God pouring Godsself into creation, delegating his power into the created order such that there is no significant residual power to act. In poker terms, one might say that God is “all in” in creation.

Teresa de Avila wrote a poem expressing this wonderfully, although she thought that Jesus was the original incarnation:-

Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

On this Easter Saturday, when uniquely in the Christian year, more conventional Christians can join the Radical Theologians in saying “God is dead”, we can notice that yes, there’s a need for tinkering under the bonnet – the engine is spluttering and may die completely soon. And we’re the ones who need to do the tinkering.