One person in our family—I’ll let you guess which one—is in the throes of the “why?” stage. At her age, asking “why?” is an automatic reflex, an endlessly entertaining game. “Honey, I can’t hold you right now. I’m making dinner.” “Why?” “Because we need to eat.” “Why?” “Well, aren’t you hungry?” “Why?” “Just because.” “Why?” “I don’t know.” “Why?”
Two- and three-year-olds don’t totally comprehend the question “why” but they seem to understand that it is a deep and important question. I think they enjoy asking “why?” because it gives them power—the power to stump the big people around them, who, otherwise, seem to know everything.
The writers of the Hebrew scriptures imagined God as an intensely emotional being—and God has a lot of feelings in today’s text from Jeremiah. God is certainly angry about the people’s unfaithfulness, but underneath that anger is deep grief and disappointment, a sense of abandonment. God is heart-broken, and the heart of God is not separate from the heart of the earth, the heart of God’s creation. “Be appalled, O heavens,” cries God, “At this, be shocked, be utterly desolate.” There is no long list of sins that have provoked God’s angry sadness. The key transgression of the people is—get this—the fact that they failed to question, “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’”
Today’s text makes it clear that faithfulness means wrestling with God’s apparent absence and probing God’s profound mystery with all the persistence of a toddler asking “Why?” Apathy, not doubt and disbelief, is the enemy of a meaningful faith.
As I pondered our human calling to care enough to question, I turned toward a recent opinion piece in the Star Tribune by Peter Leschak. Leschak reports on scientific research that argues: “Our planet has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene [that is the] (‘human epoch)…. The impact of our numbers and activity on the Earth shows…we are becoming a geological agent in ourselves.”
Leschak goes on to note three basic philosophical approaches to this reality of human influence over our planet. The Open Society Triumphant (OST), declares that
Humanity is the de facto master of the biosphere, that we will continue to alter it and ourselves, and that these transformations are ultimately positive, speaking to our “open” future. The extinction of other beings and our impact on the atmosphere, oceans, soil, etc., will be managed by technological and biotechnological means, and though our success and survival are not guaranteed, they are probable.
“A second outlook,” Leschak explains,
Is Gaia’s Important Footnote (GIF) [that] acknowledges that humans are in some ways singular, but we can’t trump the ecological/cosmological imperatives, and it’s possible for us to overextend. We cannot, for example, destroy the planet, but we can alter it so rapidly and radically that the conditions for our survival disappear.”
And finally, he notes,
A third outlook is one that most people are raised with in one version or another: We are the product of a creator deity with a vested interest in our fate, and this deity has the will to intervene, that is, to change the rules. A deep faith in this outlook—regardless of particular religion—is mostly incompatible with the other two, which are science-based as opposed to belief-based.
Leschak finds merits and problems in both the philosophy of an “open” future built on technological solutions and the notion that we humans are merely Gaia’s Important Footnote.
His key point; however, is that too many of us are unwilling to consciously consider the question of what humanity’s role ought to be. He argues that we need to take seriously our responsibility “to think and act from earned convictions and observations about what it means to be one of the 7-billion-plus of our race.”
I certainly agree with Leschak’s assertion that God is not an interventionist who will swoop in and rescue us from the mess we are in. But there are other ways to conceive of God’s presence and power. I think that today’s scripture text, ancient, and pre-scientific as it is, asks just the right question: “Where is God?” Where is God, if God is not acting from outside the creation? Where is God as we struggle with both the devastation and the healing that our human technology can produce? Where is God as we seek to find our place in relation to processes of ecology, laws of nature?
The prophet makes it clear that the question “Where is God?” is not simply a philosophical inquiry. As verse 6 puts it, the people did not say: “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” When God’s people fail to seek God, we fail to remember our history, to engage our core narrative. We forgot that God is a lived experience of liberation. God offers not rescue, but courage and strength to navigate a path toward freedom. God is a way to walk, a way to travel through the human-caused, human-centered perils of this new epoch. God is a guiding spirit in the desert of climate change, the pit of systemic racism, the drought of profound economic inequity, the deep darkness of terrorism and war.
The crux of the matter is this, God says: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” The cisterns the ancient Israelites built are an example of a human technology that ought to be profoundly life-giving. But, as the prophet reminds us, our technologies only truly offer life when they serve our deepest human calling. Our cisterns, no matter how cleverly constructed, are useless unless they gather the water of life. If we forgot to ask, “Where is God,” if we forgot the search for true and lasting liberation, then we settle for a life that isn’t really living. We remain thirsty even as the fountain of living water burbles all around us.
There’s another passage from the prophet Jeremiah that I love, a brief word of hope embedded in a chapter dripping with God’s frustration over the ways the people have strayed from their calling to question and to struggle. “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” I believe we do stand at a crossroads today. And that’s what the confrontation is about at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota. I listened to an April 22 interview with one of the elders there, La Donna Brave Bull Allard. Describing a profound gathering that had just happened, she said:
Every [indigenous] nation stood with us. They are telling me that 60 nations were there—and growing. I never thought I would ever see this. Now we must figure out how we unify. Stopping the pipeline is important. Saving our water is important. But now I see we can also save the people…. It was not the pipeline that bought people together. It was the water.
We stand at a crossroads. Will we continue to try to drink from the cracked cistern of our greed and fear? Will we persist in exploiting the earth and its beautiful, diverse web of life with the same violence that fractured the first nations of our country, that plundered their land, that nearly destroyed their languages, cultures, religions? Or, will we drink from the same fountain of the water life that our native sisters and brothers find in the depths of the Missouri River? Will we return, with them, to the source of our human healing, unity, and power?
We stand at a crossroads. Let us not fail to ask, “Where is God?”