The young of all animals grow by playing. Among humans "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy." Good education creates the freedom to explore, experience, use mathematics, work with our world, relate to others, learn languages. Children grow in an environment created by good stories, the freedom to read, enjoy fantasies, make music, work with computers, engage in challenging activities. Outstanding children tend to come from homes where parents have loved them enough to create the environment that was needed to develop their potential.
Similarly in a nation we expect our leaders to create an environment in which we can live and move and work and love safely. We need protection from our enemies, unpolluted air and water, safe transportation, good laws and the police to enforce them. There should be educational opportunities and reasonable medical treatment at every stage of life.
These examples can help us imagine what a loving God might care about. In Christian theology God is not an undifferentiated oneness. We distinguish the three Persons of the Trinity. They have different functions but they are eternally one in the perfection of love. In this chapter we are focusing on God as Father. We are not thinking of a single male father figure, but a perfectly loving Parent who is concerned to create the environment needed for our freedom.
We know that even the best of parents, and the most outstanding national leaders, can at times be ignorant, careless, too occupied with their own agendas. We don't expect total perfection. But there is a limit to what we can tolerate. We may have to reject parents or leaders who show no signs of loving us enough to care about our freedom.
The main reason people give for atheism is that God has made such a bad job of creating our personal and social environment that we must make our way alone. But what if we began allowing God the same kinds of imperfection that we tolerate in the best of parents and the best of national leaders? In due course we might find that parents, and leaders, and certainly God, have good explanations for the environment they have created for us. What we perceive as injustice might look quite different from the point of view of heaven. Meanwhile we can begin by being thankful for what we have been given.
For each person God as Parent appoints a place to be born. We are given human parents who give us the genes for every cell in our body. They also give a language to communicate with, and exciting directions for us to grow in. On a wider scale we are given the grace of a world to explore, languages to learn, and all sorts of cultural differences in which to express our creative freedom. Much that is given to us in our world is incredibly wonderful, and we certainly can't claim that we deserve it. It is given by grace. When we are bothered by genetic and environmental flaws, we have the capacity to work at correcting them for the freedom of others. And when we do that God seems to be pleased. That does not remove all our problems with the love of God, but the alternative that God is a monster out to make our life our misery also has problems.
The key to the Bible is in the first chapter. In Genesis 1 we have a picture of God creating our world as an environment for humans to live in. We see an Artist painting on a vast canvas. He uses light to make the colors for his palette (Genesis 1:1-5). He then makes water for rain from the sky, and the water in the seas. When he has put in the land masses emerging as plains and mountains from the sea, the Artist steps back, as artists do, "And God saw that it was good" (1:10). He does the same after filling in the plants and trees (Genesis 1:12), the sun, moon, planets and stars (1:18), the fish in the sea and birds in the sky (1:21), the mammals and other animals (1:25). Already it is an astonishing masterpiece. Any artist finds it awesome.
Finally the Artist says "Let us make humankind in our image" (Genesis 1:26).This suggests that our world was created for a purpose, and that purpose was for us to be in the image of God (Imago Dei).
What does the image of God mean? A simple answer is that since God is love, humans are created to love the way God loves (see 1 John 4: 7-12). And if God's love is concerned to create our freedom, then we love others the way God loves by doing the same for others.
This chapter began with some human experiences of creating an environment for a baby that is expected and a leader creating an environment for the freedom of his people. That enabled us to imagine what the creative love of God might be like. With that in mind we can see that our ability to create an environment for the freedom of others must have been created in us. We did not invent it.
When our cat Nika was about to have kittens she suddenly started nesting. She found a safe place and collected rags to provide for the offspring she hadn't yet seen. That behavior is obviously instinctive. Atheists imagine that the genes that moved Nika to create the environment for her kittens to survive (she had 32 kittens and never lost one of them) came by chance. As did the equally complex equipment needed for curiosity, navigation, hunting, purring, sex, etc. Theists agree that there has been evolution, but the billions of mutations that were needed were already in the mind of the Creator.
It is not that chance evolution is theoretically impossible. If there was enough flour, sugar, and other ingredients, swirling around at the right temperature for each stage, one could imagine a cake with "Happy Birthday Bob" appearing by chance on my birthday. The only missing link would be how the candles were lit. But it seems much simpler to think that a person who loved me evolved every stage of the cake. And of course evolving a cake is a million times simpler than evolving a cat, and that is quite a bit easier than evolving a loving person.
I therefore assume that my ability to create an environment for the freedom of others derives from the creative love of God. "We love because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The difference is that our cat Nika didn't have the freedom to say "I don't want these brats. Let them find their own warmth and food." But humans have the inhuman freedom to do just that. "If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?" (James 2:15-16).
That suggests that people who lovingly create the environment for the freedom of others must be responding to the creative love of God. Like our cat Nika, they may not know it, far less explain it. Our very ability to love is totally given to us. But our human freedom could allow us to reject the love of God and our ability to love others.
There is an interesting verse that at first sight looks like a typical patriarchal male Chauvinist pronouncement. Speaking of an ordinary woman who was illiterate and lacking the most basic freedoms, the text says "Yet she will be saved through childbearing" (1 Timothy 2:15). Using our model, every part of the woman's natural ability to provide an environment for her children's freedom to live and grow is given to her. Childbearing and nurturing is in her genes. But as a human she could choose to reject the creative love that is given to her. In accepting the costly sacrificial loving care of her children she is unconsciously responding in her own way to the love of God.
Does that mean a theology of salvation by good works ? That would be the case if good works were merely the ideas of doing good that we think up. But if all genuine doing good is a direct gift and creation of God then there is no question of earning one's salvation. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Ephesians 2:8-10).
Many preachers prefer to narrow the scope of the love of God to those who take the step of responding in the way that their doctrine prescribes. But most of us find it impossible to believe that all the billions of women who never learned those doctrines are excluded and sent to eternal damnation. Better say that the creative love of God can very naturally include women and men of every culture in God's own way. That leaves the awful possibility that some people, for whatever reason, may freely choose to reject the creative love of God the Father and decide that the freedom of others is unimportant.
Chapter 2 .....