[Something like a sermon, on Genesis 9:8-17, the Uniform Series text for Sunday, September 3]
Does God learn?
That’s a hard question, and maybe a trick question. If God has the characteristics that classical theology has classically ascribed to God – like omniscience, full and complete knowledge of all that can be known, along with omnipresence and omnipotence, so that wherever anything can be, God is, and whatever can be done, God can do – then it would seem that God doesn’t have a lot of need to learn, because God already knows. For humans, learning is a good – not just because there are things that it is good for us to know, so that learning is good because it gets us to the good of knowing, but because learning itself, the changes that we associate with learning, the process of experience and insight and delight that is what we mean by learning, that is good all on its own, apart from the usefulness of whatever it is we learn. So it feels a little … not good … to say that God cannot have that good along with all the other good that God has and is. Although God is not us, so it may be that we do not need to worry too much about that.
Still … the question comes up in connection with the story today, because the story seems to paint a picture of God … learning something.
Back in Genesis 6, God takes note of the humans that “the inclination of the thoughts of their hearts” are “only evil continually.” The earth is full of violence as a consequence of this state of affairs. God is “sorry that he ever made” the human beings, says the text, and decides to clean up the mess – to power-wash the problem away, so to speak. And then after all the events of the deluge – after making an exception for Noah and Noah’s immediate family, after supervising Noah’s compliant construction of the ark and the corralling of the animals and birds, after bringing the ark safely through the long, rainy, watery ordeal, and after Noah turns in gratitude to the ritual he seems to have learned, the offering up of another living spirit … after all that … God still seems to be sorry.
“I’m not going to do that again,” God says; “Look here, I’m making a covenant with you and your descendants and all the living things and the earth, and I’m writing myself a big, bright note that I will be sure to see if this ever gets close to happening again, and I promise that I will remember that I am not going to do this again.” Not because the humans don’t deserve it … they are inclined to evil from their youth. They’re a mess. But God, it seems, does not want to put the earth through all of this again. God, it seems, has concluded that this approach might almost have been a case of the cure being worse than the disease. And all of this language of God being sorry and making decisions and putting up rainbow-colored reminders of those regrets and those decisions, all of this seems to tell a story about God … learning something.
But maybe that is the only way human beings like us can tell a story like this. Maybe the lens we need, the language that we can understand, is the lens and the language of learning. Maybe our ancestors told the story this way because it was the best they could do; and left it this way for us, because there is no better way for us to be told about a God who suffers along with the earth, and living creatures, and humans, inclined towards evil continually as they are, than to imagine God as one of us, feeling sorry about having even started this, trying first this plan to fix it, then that one, gaining insight from experience, realizing what we are up against, coming up with yet another idea … learning something along the way, about how to follow through on the love for creation that has animated all this activity all along.
Maybe we have to tell the story this way so that we ourselves can understand what it tells us about the way human evil gives rise to regret and cataclysm and to God’s refusal to accept the destruction of the damaged, since we know those realities as firmly conditioned by time and experience and have no other way to understand them. So maybe we have to have this story that seems to tell us God learns, even when we know that the book that tells the story this way also tells the story differently, tells it as that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love” (Ephesians 1:4), tells it as that – as Karl Barth said, so I was told – “Jesus is not Plan B.” Jesus, resurrection, redemption, love … it has always been what was happening.
We know this story about love being always what has been happening, “at the same time,” so to speak, because we have learned it, at least from being taught it, sometimes from experience, and sometimes despite our experience. Despite our experience, because sometimes our immediate experience traces out what feels like a very different story. Reading this story from Genesis about a flood that destroys the whole world during this week of all weeks, when we have been reading the stories from Houston and other places, and have been praying for relatives and friends and strangers in those places, reminds us that when a flood comes through the place we call home, it does not have to destroy the whole world to destroy our whole world.
So it reminds us of this: that when people are living through and experiencing a story that has to be told as a tale of disaster and destruction, we are called – those of us who are able to experience a different story, who are in a position to turn to a different page in the large book, who can bear witness to something else going on at the same time – to be the reminders for the others, to provide the tangible evidence that “at the same time” … love.
[Our Presbyterian congregation will be providing some of that tangible evidence through donations to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which is only one of many available ways.]