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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
He's The Boss: On the Meaning of God's Authority
by Colin Graham
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'As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I came to a dark place, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. And in my dream I saw a man, smiling and talking of God and I asked of him what substance had God and how he could be found in this wilderness of a world.'
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The Pilgrim of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress starts out looking for God in this entirely reasonable way. It's certain enough from the beginning that to believe you've found God and know his 'substance' is going to unsettle things a little. The pilgrim returns to his family, who assume he's just been out for a stroll, and he breaks the news to them: 'O my dear wife, said he, and you the children of my bowels, I, your dear friend, am in myself undone by reason of a burden that lieth hard upon me; moreover, I am for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found, whereby we may be delivered'.
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It's not entirely a surprise to find out that 'his relations were sore amazed' when they heard this, and being called 'children of my bowels' must be disconcerting in itself. And the Bunyan's hero sets off on his journey, hoping for resolution, looking for authority, and searching for escape. Bunyan perhaps tells us as much where to find God as what He's like when you find him, and how reassuringly authoritative He or She is when found. One of the standard narratives of Christianity is of course God finding you rather than you finding Him and being overwhelming in His authority when found. Saul becomes Paul on the roadway in the great conversion narrative of the New Testament, and his own authority is taken away. Most extraordinary of all is St Augustine, who pondered Paul's conversion, felt guilty at stealing from an orchard, and then had his moment of enlightenment in a garden, so almost becoming a Paul himself and repairing his sin of pinching pears.
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Augustine is smart enough to know the knottiest of difficulties about God's authority, the problem of omniscience. If God knows all then He's authoritative, though not in an intellectually stimulating way. Poor old Bunyan had a problem with this since he did, at one point anyway, believe in predestination this being the ultimate expression of God's authority because He knew who would be saved and who damned before their souls were even put in a body. In his wonderfully titled book Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, Bunyan recounts thinking about this predestination while sitting in the shade of a wall, and becoming increasingly convinced that the wall is about to fall on him because he can feel God's will behind it. Augustine has a nice way around this desperate paranoia. The moment of Augustine's conversion is when he hears a young child's voice, which he takes to be a message from the Lord, singing 'take it and read, take it and read'. So he lets his book of scripture fall open and reads the first words he comes across Augustine reads a passage from Romans, written by Paul, and is converted by a mixture of God's authoritative look into the future, his own decision, and chance.
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The predestination idea is just one repetitively, sometimes, nerdy argument about God's authority, and even in a secular age the need to wonder about such possibilities is always around. Fate, luck or the stars serve the same purpose. To take the worst of cases Dr Who, Back to the Future, Douglas Adams and Donnie Darko wouldn't really work unless they came out of a culture still unsure about whether God knows everything in advance or genuinely gives us all a real choice (to go back and change the past, or the future, or the fish, or the aeroplane engine falling on the house).
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In the end all of these considerations amount to something serious, something that in our culture goes back to Bunyan's time, or to Milton and his rewriting of the Bible as an epic about free will. Because in here is the germ of the hypocrisy of Western politics which can think at the same time that democracy is the expression of the free will of the people and, perhaps mainly in the case of US 'democracy' and 'freedom', the will of God. Looked at generously, this is a melancholy inability to take the weight of the world on human shoulders alone.
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And all of this is why The Wizard of Oz is one of the greatest books of our times. Characters in search of an author, lost fools in search of an authority. When they have travelled their yellow brick road, like Bunyan's Christian, they expect to meet pure authority. The booming voice and scare tactics turn out to be a ruse, a way of hiding a small and powerless man, who is no wizard at all. The end of God's authority is here, from the booming voice of God in a child's song to the pathetic voice of the overrated human in a pretend Wizard.
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