Worrying about our shaky doctrine of God is much less a concern I have for my own understanding of God at this time and more for our witness to the reality of God's existence, God's love, and God's saving action in Christ. What do we say with credibility to a world that looks in askance at devastation through quake and tsunami? Where is the love of God? To an extent we Christians seem to be saying it is present after the disaster as we find new depths of love and compassion for one another in otherwise impersonalised, workaholic, consumerist societies. This is true, but does it resolve all questions sceptical unbelievers and agnostics have about the apparent powerlessness of God relative to the power of the natural world? The world which, in another voice, we Christians proclaim is the creation of God as Creator and redeemed by God as Redeemer. Is the flipside of raising the question of the shakiness of our doctrine of God the question of stabilizing our witness?
There is negativity out there in the community around us, even as that community appreciates all the love that flows from Christians involved in post-disaster care and reconstruction, especially via the Salvation Army. Here is the voice of Paul Holmes (for overseas readers, one of our leading, love him or hate him, media commentators) pontificating on the National Memorial Service on Friday 18 March:
"He quoted his grandmother, the Queen, as saying that grief is the price of love. It was pure class. It was also brief. The speeches, if one were being a bit picky, could all have been a bit briefer, particularly the religious ones.
There was plenty of religion, it has to be said. And what the bloke [Maori elder giving a traditional opening speech] was saying at the start about the tree of life was beyond most of us.
Hayley Westenra stopped the day. She stopped the birds in the trees, did Hayley. The sun stopped moving across the sky and listened in wonder. The timing in her performance of Amazing Grace was extraordinary. You found yourself not breathing. Something very mature has happened to Hayley.
Bob Parker's speech was nice and brief. I didn't quite understand it but it was nice and brief. The various religions each made a contribution, Muslims, Jews, Hindu, Buddhist and Baha'i. They too were brief. It was the Christians who banged on a bit."
The words I have italicised are a familiar theme in Holmes' writing: religion is not up to much, Christianity even less so. But he would speak for many NZers who are well versed in the faults of religions and of Christianity in particular. (One conversation I had with a complete stranger on Friday very quickly got to the roots of his scepticism of Christianity: religious wars beginning with the crusades and continuing through the Irish fighting one another).
Raising the question of the credibility of our witness at a time like this could lead to a long answer which I have not time and perhaps not ability to give. Just a few comments.
First, that our tendency within our communities of faith to speak of God suffering with us in the incarnated Christ may be pastorally helpful to the faithful but implausible if not incredible to those not of faith.
Secondly, the stack of facts against us (such as our appalling record of fighting among each other, or fighting wars for the faith) should not be underestimated. The relatively good record of Christians in the last century or so of working for peace, justice and social improvement may delude us as to the impressiveness of our testimony of good works - the aftertaste of the crusades and other religious wars still leaves lingers in the mouth of humanity.
Thirdly, the challenge of witnessing credibly, with a stable witness undergirded by a secure doctrine of God, is so huge that we cannot meet the challenge in our own strength. We need God's Pentecostal power. And we may have to reckon with those uncomfortable theologians of the Western church, St Augustine and John Calvin when they highlighted St Paul and others on predestination: those who come to faith do so through God's will which transcends the frailty of our witness.