xbn .
Politics of Scripture

A Political Theology of Presence

Gen 1:1-2:4a

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 6And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” 7So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 9And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. 12The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. 14And God said, “Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16God made the two great lights–the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night–and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day. 20And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.” 21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. 24And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.” And it was so. 25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 26Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. 2:1Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4a These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. 

In The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, Margaret Bendroth brings an awareness of three assumptions modern readers often hold about the past: “1) that the past is ‘behind’ us, 2) that it is inferior to the present, and 3) that it is not really real” (p 11). As Bendroth unfolds the goods of being connected to our past, she speaks of what it means to be “stranded in the present” (p 22). 

In the recent weeks of global confinement due to a virus we have by providence been shown examples of being “stranded in the present.” This series of events brings to mind the need to revisit a theology of presence. This series of texts in the lectionary give us a vision of the cosmos as a temple in a polis. Learning how to live in this world as a temple in a polis can revive our communities with a political theology of being present. 

How does the creation story illustrate this? A good starting point is the seventh day. The chronological account of cosmic origins ends on the seventh day with God resting “from all the work that he had done” (Gen 2:3). Commentary on that first Sabbath varies about what “rested” means, but most explanations agree that God rested not because of weariness, but as a tangible sign of a bond with what God had made. The sign, both the day itself, and God’s hallowing of the day, is given to mark God’s habitation in the cosmos. Unlike a Deist view of a creator that makes and leaves, the Genesis accounts show God from the first day to the last coming into the spaces God made. 

Another indication of paradigmatic presence is the temple language in the Genesis accounts. The temple setting of creation, as Gordon J. Wenham comments, coheres in the heptadic structure (repetition of sevens). This has an abiding liturgical effect. Liturgy is socially binding as much as religious. Also, the Hebrew verbs, “work” and “keep,” used in the second creation account (Gen 2) and later in the Pentateuch are distinct terms for priestly service.

The forms used in creation initiated a pattern repeated in the tabernacle, in Solomon’s temple and in Ezekiel’s temple. These are structures of concentric spaces wrapping around a central presence. The organic rooms of creation were arranged around a sacred center not to shield the inhabitants from it, but to both draw them in and extend the centered presence outward. The centered divine presence was to be a hub to hold the whole cosmos as well as a point of dispersion. 

God pronounced what he made “good” and the blessing of the seventh day to consummate the joy of the past six days and to delight in the six that follow (cf. 1:28; 2:3). All these actions and more in creation are temple patterns that purpose worship for the act of being present. That human is an image for the deity (1:27 – Hebrew: tselem, likeness or Septuagint: eikon, graphic) is the most apparent indication of temple imagery and visible presence. 

If human is the most important visible icon of personal presence in the cosmos, then the Spirit is the most important non-visible icon of personal presence in the cosmos. The caring actions such as “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (v 2) or “gathered together into one place” (v 9-10), or even the many uses of the preposition “in” communicate that the cosmos depends upon the sustaining action of God’s presence. Some translations and Bible scholars see this “wind” as the Ruach of God, the Spirit presence of YHWH entering into the cosmos even at an embryonic stage. Noteworthy is the use of the metaphor “face” so early in Scripture. Its use holds – as do related metaphors (eyes, ears, mouth, etc.) – a pronounced emphasis on being present, especially of the divine presence. 

Perhaps less talked about is how the creation accounts also indicate the cosmos to be a polis. It is a polis on the grand scale. For example, when God tells the humans to “subdue” and have “dominion” over it, they are delegated with royal authority to rule the cosmic city. It was a barren city at the start, but with great potential. The temple pattern and the polis pattern of the cosmos are not separate domains, but are enmeshed in one structure. The pattern of the cosmos is that of a temple within a polis.

What is the divine intention of gathering things as a cosmos, the reverse of chaos? The word “cosmos” itself means order and design. Yet, its orderly arrangements are not for the sake of design alone. The well-ordered temple-cosmos is for one kind of indwelling and the well-ordered polis-cosmos is for another. 

The temple-cosmos arrangement sustains human life in the goal of worship. When humans come together to worship the Giver, not themselves or what they have made, that gathered presence promotes respect and gratitude among its people. 

The polis-cosmos arrangement sustains human life in the goal of productivity and peace. When humanity comes together to be productive for the polis, the city and its people, that kind of activity promotes a harmonious presence throughout the polis. 

The Giver made this world to function in those ways. Theresa Latini describes the origin of these functional gifts as koinonia, a harmonious gathering. Oliver O’Donovan sees in it the basic connotations of “community,” “communion,” and “communicate.” We can think of creational koinonia as not only bringing together living things, but also a fitting description of life itself. The earth and its dwellers were made not to live in isolated compartments, but in community. When our structures for community are combined with our habits of presence the polis becomes home.

Psalm 8

1O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 9O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalmist too has seen these created glories and marvels at the favor bestowed on humanity. He is full of joy at the thought of it. Yet, as we also stand in amazement we might ask, What are we to do when the home or city loses this joy? What can be done when the polis loses its harmonious presence, when it loses koinonia?

A universal mode of return is gratitude. There is ancient wisdom in Marcus Cicero’s observation that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” The psalmist, while facing creation, is standing on these ancient stones. 

For example, we might consider how gratitude turns its back on resentment. Resentment is a force that fractures harmonious presence. Gratitude has power in that it turns away from resentment, and in its fullness of power, gratitude brings with it other positive sentiments which keep resentment at bay. Then, there pervades in the polis a desire to spread that harmonious joy “in all the earth” (v 1, 9). 

Another mode of return to the joy of harmonious presence is in seeing humanity’s position in the cosmos – “a little lower than God” (v 5). Blaise Pascal thought that humanity is positioned in the most severe place in the cosmos, and also the most fortuitous place – halfway between the abysses of the infinitesimal and the infinite expanse. On this extraordinary spot looking in both directions we ask in wonder, “O Lord…what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (v 4). We are as nothing to the universe, but we have been given everything that is ultimately essential. To be crowned “with glory and honor” is a humbling thought (v 5). 

The psalmist is one voice, but he speaks into the community. Thus, praise to our Benefactor cultivates humility and gratitude as community virtues. In the lines of our praise, if we are mindful that “human beings” (v 4) around us are fellow image bearers, we will delight that God has also “crowned them with glory and honor” (v 5). In such a frame of mind would we not also be inclined to heap honor and glory on those around us? The koinonia of the polis will return from a broken shalom when its citizens are in awe of the “glory” they see in the Maker and in each other.

In 2005 Pope Benedict spoke of adoration as “mouth to mouth” with God. This notion coming from the Latin etymology of to adore – ad, toward + oratio, mouth – confesses to the need for God’s words to be on our lips. Even the most meager praise, that from “the mouth of babes and infants” (v 2), brings the presence of the Good nearer to the polis.

In the middle of these expressions of wonder is another habit for restoring koinonia to the city. The expression in v 4, “that you care for them” can be understood with a kind of “care” which may include the idea of “visit.” The Hebrew verb give the sense of a care which is either done by being present or a care which is the effect of a knowing presence. The same Hebrew verb is used when YHWH meets Moses in the burning bush. “…I have given heed to you” (Ex. 3:16 NRSV). 

Echoes of divine visitation appear throughout the Hebrew scriptures and again in the New Testament. A prominent example is the temple-city of Ezekiel having the name, Yahweh-Shammah, “The Lord is there” (Ezk 48:35). Paul draws upon Psalm 8 to speak of the exaltation of the Son of Man as in Eph 1:22, “And he has put all things under his feet…” and in 1 Cor 15:27, “For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” In Hebrews we hear about the humiliation of the Son of Man which came before his exaltation: “…but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor…” (2:9). 

The splintered shalom on earth, our isolation from the face of God, has been made whole by the One who reigns above being present with us in our grief, our need, our shame and dereliction. “…because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (2:9b). Second chances for the polis-cosmos are made real in the practical reality of our being there for each other, even at great cost. And a splintered shalom in our cities, whether extended confinement or confrontation, can be restored by gratitude shared face to face.  

Matthew 28:16-20

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

Finally, we consider another essential dimension in a theology of presence. It answers the question, How can political authority be used to promote a harmonious presence? Both of these ideas – authority and presence – are stated in Jesus’ commission to his disciples. He conveyed that he has cosmic authority and by that authority decreed the promise of his presence. The authority of leadership and the withness of leadership go hand in hand. 

Authority is not merely about power. There are mistaken ideas about authority that see it as mostly about holding a position. Yet, all through Scripture the authority of God includes the use of power to create, to save, to inform and sustain. 

In the last days of his earthly service Jesus not only delegates a teaching mission to his followers. He also promises his followers that he will be “with” them (v 20). What does Scripture say about the withness of the Almighty? A large tome could be written on that subject. The thread of divine presence moves all through the Hebrew Scriptures from Genesis 1 onward. It may be overwhelming at first, but it has a positive effect on those who embrace the withness of God. Rev. Dennis Mitchell called this desire a “theology of presence.” To no less degree a political theology of being present has at its center longings for God to be “with” us and we with each other. Whether in the Church, or in the polis, Rev. Mitchell further connects being present with love and with the fruits of hope. When we use the authority we have, even if a small measure of agency, to serve those around us in need, we bring hope with those acts of love. 

This hope is as durable as the millennia are long – “to the end of the age” (v 20). From God walking with Adam and Eve in Eden (Gen 3:8) to the divine presence manifest in Immanuel to the New Jerusalem, the heavenly polis where “the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it” the longings of life come closer through habits of being present (Is 7:14, Matt 1:23 and Rev 22:3). Civilization was not made to thrive under extended quarantine or prolonged resentments. The cosmic home we inhabit may have its difficulties, but we can be sure it was made with and for the joys of being present. Wherever we are is our devoted space, to give ourselves to each other and to the future.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!