Friday, May 19, 2006

Deus Ex Machina

My last two posts have drawn on insights from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, as found in his book Eyes Remade For Wonder. I have one last tasty morsel from the good rabbi that I'd like to chew on a bit before I let him move on.

Rabbi Kushner, reflecting on the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50, observes that the whole purpose of this story is to get the Israelites into Egypt. If the Israelites don't get to Eygpt, the new Pharoah comes to power, but there are no Hebrew slaves there for God to deliver from bondage. No Hebrew slaves, no Exodus, no Passover, no Sinai, no Torah. So it's very important that the Israelites find their way to Egypt.

With this in mind, he calls our attention to a seemingly insignificant detail in the story of Joseph. Jacob sends Joseph to Shechem to check on his brothers who are pastoring their flocks in the field. When Joseph gets to Shecham, his brothers are nowhere to be found. Genesis relates the story thus:
He came to Shechem, and a man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, "What are you seeking?" "I am seeking my brothers," he said; "tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock." The man said, "They have gone away, for I heard them say, 'Let us go to Dothan.'" So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan.
-Genesis 37:14-17
So Kushner claims if this nameless man didn't happen to run into Joseph in the fields at Shechem and pass along this very helpful information, Joseph would have gone back home, his brothers wouldn't have thrown him in the pit and sold him into slavery, etc., etc., and there'd have been no Exodus.

Now this just happens to tie in with another bit of data that's crossed my inbox recently. In a theological brief issued last week, Ted Peters addresses the absurdity of the speculation that because Judas agreed (as per the Gospel of Judas) to hand Jesus over to the authorities he is responsible for our redemption. Peters uses reductio ad absurdum, claiming that he has purchased a manuscript of the Gospel of the Chief Priests from antiquities dealers, which argues that the Atonement would not have been possible if the chief priests hadn't been willing to meet Judas' asking price and that the chief priests therefore deserve credit for our redemption. But then he says he has also acquired from antiquities dealers a manuscript of the Gospel of Jesus which claims that Jesus did and said certain things that infuriated the chief priests, causing them to be willing to meet Judas' asking price. So maybe Jesus is responsible for our salvation after all.

While Dr. Peters' treatment does make clear his point that we cannot elevate anyone other than Jesus as the focus of redemption, the event inextricably involves a web of people. And this is exactly what we should expect. God's work in the world involves people, often lots of people, and many of them doing things that they probably have no idea are parts of God's work in the world. This is the way God works.

Jesus' redemption of the world is God's greatest work, and so we are naturally against attributing any part of it to anyone but Christ himself (with the exception of those bold enough to celebrate what God worked through the fiat of a young virgin in Nazareth).

This is certainly a fitting way to think of our redemption, but it can obscure our view of just how God works in the world if we use this as our template for what to expect in rest of our experience. We're looking for a glorious angel from heaven to appear and give us some message that will put us on the divine path, and so we disregard the commonplace words of a nameless man who finds us wandering in the field.

The Greeks gave us this great concept of deus ex machina. We tend to see it as a cheap plot trick to get a desired result, but it seems to have been a large part of how the Greeks viewed the world. In The Odyssey, for instance, we are told about Athena coming to speak to Telemachus disguised as Mentor. It would be easy for us to "demythologize" this and understand that Mentor just gave Telemachus some sound advice. But Homer saw divine intervention in it.

Christianity is quite content with the fact that it does not imagine superhumans on Mount Olympus intervening in our daily lives. We don't ever suspect that some god has spoken to us disguised as someone we know. We don't have that sort of superstition. But lets hope that in the process we haven't forgotten how to see God acting in the ordinary events of the world around us.

If we are to truly catch a glimpse of God in the world today, it will almost certainly be by noticing God emerging from the machine that is Creation.

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