Let’s take the hardest question first, because it may be the most illustrative of what such a shift of central images can mean. What do we make of evil?
Bad things happen to good people. That is, at it’s heart, unjust. If God is all-just and all-powerful, this is an insoluble problem. Either God is not powerful enough to prevent evil, or God is not good enough to will to do so.
The first response of traditional theology is true to a point: evil (at least most of what we find evil) exists because God creates us with the free will to choose it, and in our limited and disordered sense of good, we often choose to do evil instead of good. This is sin.
But this has some limits as an answer. Even if most of the evil in the world can be traced to human sin, not all of it can be. The man wasn’t born blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The rain falls and the wind blows upon the just and the unjust. As our understanding of the environment expands, we can almost make the argument that some original ecological sin may be responsible for the hurricane and earthquake. But it’s not a satisfying answer.
Nor is it satisfying, if God is all-powerful and all-good, to believe that we would be willing to choose that which is less than God, even with free will. Why would God create such flawed creatures?
But what if creative Love is the central means of understanding God? Those of us who are parents know a few things. We know that the love of a fully free person is more volatile and more valuable than the love of a constrained being. There is a reason why, in the Genesis creation story, it wasn’t good enough for God that Adam had animals. Pets are fine, and I know people – including a majority of my household – who will be mad at me for insinuating that pets aren’t fully loving. But their affection is a poor substitute for the real thing. Loving a pet is fishing in a pay lake. Sure, pets can spurn you, but not like a fellow human can. Not like a lover can. Not like a child can. And pets can warm the heart, but not like a mate or a son or daughter can, because the freedom to choose to love brings with it the high of acceptance and the low of rejection.
We know, as parents, that we are bringing into the world a child who will hurt. Some have asked whether it’s even ethical to have children, such is the state of our troubled reality. It’s a point not worth laughing off – if your ethical priority is to do no harm, well, turning your offspring out to skin their knees and get cut from the school basketball team and much, much worse, even seeing their parents die, then there is a real point in the question. But if your ethical priority is to expand the world’s capacity to love, to offer another an opportunity to feel what you felt when you first embraced your beloved, to extend the ecstasy of love at its highest into the future by giving it a name and being all its own, then have children.
If, with John Paul II, we see God first as Lover, maybe we can better express how God would choose to bring new life to love into a painful world. It is, from a power dynamic, not an answer at all to the question of evil. But it allows us – at least it allows me – to empathize with God and understand why God would choose to give us painful life over non-existence.
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