Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Begrudging God or Lavish Father? The Prominence of Pleasure in the Christian Life

Tempting as it is to live in the empty cave of asceticism and monkery, eschewing fine foods, wine, song and dance, and even sunshine as "worldy goods," Christians need to know that the Bible says, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1).  Paul picks up on this idea in his letter to the Corinthians concerning eating food sacrificed to idols.  "Eat up," Paul says, "for the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof."  In his book Wordsmithy, Douglas Wilson asks us, "Is God a curmudgeony Scrooge or a gracious, loving Father?" (I can't find the book right now, but the quote is something like that.  Blast it!  I can't stand it when I lose a book).  

Upon reading Wordsmithy, and seeing an advertisement on his website, Blog and Mablog, for a book called God's Kitchen ("the God of the OT is a butcher, because the Jesus of the NT is a Chef"), I've been encouraged in my view that the nature and purposes of God for the world is grand and positive.  Wilson's thesis in Wordsmithy is for us to grasp the creative use of language much in the same way we should be creative with food: spice it up some and cook it to enjoy it.

Of course, I've been an eschatological optimist for about ten years or so now, after hearing Kenneth Gentry's exposition on Matthew 24 (the Olivet Discourse), which says most of that passage was fulfilled in the first century.  This is the preterist position, and is part of the postmillennial outlook on the telos of God's history for planet Us.

Asceticism is tempting though.  Seeing the rank poverty in Ethiopian slums in Addis Ababa ripped me to the core, and hammered into the panels of my soul the voices of the aesthetic.  In addition, I had a friend in Kalamazoo (back in the mid 90's) who was a raw foodist, and he held an utter disdain for cooking anything.  His food was bland, because spices weren't part of the "macrobiotic way."  And then there are the luddites who fear technology as something moving us away from the Garden of Eden, or at least from the days of the guild.  But, if God is a progressive in the holy sense of the word, then it makes sense that everything in nature he created is there for us.  It's there for us to manipulate and use, within the confines of godliness and wisdom (not within the confines of greed and abuse).  Spices, flowers, rocks and words are all available to us to form and manipulate and use for the sake of taste, beauty, sculpture and poetry--and many more uses besides.  The Garden of Eden was a state of innocence in two ways: holiness and childishness.  That it was childish is not a pejorative term, but only suggests that there was to be a progression in maturity and dominion.  "Fill the earth and subdue it," the Lord told them (Genesis 1:28-29).

But, doesn't Jesus cut against the concept of progress by saying to deny yourself?  And doesn't he say that man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds by the mouth of God, thus denying "the good life" and that especially after he himself fasted for forty days?  And doesn't David say, in the entirety of Psalm 63, "my flesh longs for you, O God"?  The short answer is that there is a difference between God as sufficient in and of himself for his children's longing, and the comforts and pleasures of life as sufficient in themselves in order to satisfy the longing soul.  The latter is condemned by Christ in the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12, who built more barns for himself, but was not "rich toward God."  Therefore, we know that a life of pleasure without God is meaningless, just as we know that a life of a satisfied soul communing with God also longs for the good and natural desires of physical comfort and pleasure.  

Apparent to the contrary, if any Psalm is the psalm of an aesthetic, it is Psalm 63, where David, in the desert, longs not for food and water so much as he longs for the spirit of the living God.  Don't miss the end of the psalm though: ""But the king shall rejoice in God; everyone who swears by Him shall glory; but the mouth of those who speak lies shall be stopped" (v. 11).  David has his hope in God, who will both satisfy his soul, and his body, in the restoration of David's kingship.  We read in 2 Samuel that God did just that.  The Lord is the Lord of both the body and the soul, as well as the heavens and the earth.  Matter matters, says C.S. Lewis.  "God made it."  The Incarnation of Christ should give us a clue, eh?  God came in a body.  

Dutch-Reformed Calvinist theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper is well-known for his doctrine of "sphere-sovereignty," and his statement that there exists not one square inch on the planet Earth of which Jesus Christ does not say, "This is mine!"  So it is with food, technology, industry and progress.  Did God ask Adam and Eve to remain in the Garden as naive, wide-eyed children?  Didn't he tell them to take dominion over all the earth, including birds, fish and beat.  How do you take dominion over fish and birds?  Well, first off there is scientific study, and second there is farming and harvest.  That's just one example of the grand scheme of dominion given in Genesis, known as "the cultural mandate."  In other words, the Lord God desires that health, wealth and prosperity come to all nations of the earth, as a secondary blessing through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus.  This isn't the "health-wealth" gospel, but rather the will of a gracious Father who desire to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:11).  Even evil people, says Jesus, know how to give provision to their own children, and "how much more" will your heavenly Father give good gifts (the context is physical and desire) to those who ask him!  (Luke's gift from the Father is the Holy Spirit in 11:13).  

I've stopped skimping on things.  If it's cold in my office, I turn the heater up all the way.  Why skimp and be half-way warm?  When it's too warm, then I can turn it down.  But in the mean time, I'd like to be warm, thank-you.  If the Earth's core is like the sun, isn't there an almost infinite amount of energy in it?  The naysayers about the lack of fossil fuels, natural gasses and so forth could use some optimism.  If the earth is a living organism, then it's producing fuel even now.  What else?  Spicy sausage.  Oh goody.  Have you had some hot, spicy Italian sausage with sauteed onions and garlic gloves?  Oh man.  And how about a long, hot shower?  Isn't that good?  

God smiles on the pleasures of life, for he has given them to us.  Is God a Scrooge or a loving, gracious Father.  But my reckoning, it's the latter.

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