A few days ago I was sipping my morning coffee in the shade of pink bougainvillea while gazing into the enormous crater of a water-filled volcano. The night before I had seen a spectacular sunset from that very chair, and a few hours earlier I had watched the sun peek over the eastern horizon from my room. This was Santorini, Greece.
To be totally honest, I knew almost nothing about Santorini before I arrived. It had a cool name, and I had seen pictures of white hillside villas with blue-domed churches, and that was enough for me to book a flight there to fill up our remaining 2 days in Greece.
Once at the hotel, where I picked up a map of the island and could look out over this unique geological formation, it was obvious I was going to be sleeping the next couple of nights on the rim of a volcano that had erupted eons ago. The island of Santorini has the shape of a backward letter “C”, meaning it forms about 2/3 of the ancient volcanic rim. Its sister island, Thirassia fills in a bit of the crater formation on the other side. If that is not obvious enough, there is also a small, flat, uninhabited island in the middle which is the new dome that has formed through the centuries as a result of numerous small eruptions (one every 50 years or so). Also, the stratified black rock formations reminded me that even before the big eruption that changed this island completely (and also wiped out the Minoan civilization on Crete), there had been numerous eruptions and lava flows that had led to the super slow build-up of its volcanic cone over millions of years.
Add to that, the experience of witnessing both the sunset and the sunrise for two days in a row (a unique experience for me in my lifetime). Instead of thinking of it as the sun setting or rising, I tried to imagine each time the reality….that the massive piece of rock that I was standing on was actually rotating in space. Amazing!
All this to say, that I spent a lot of time thinking about this incredible earth that we live on. (Oh, and thanks to long conversations with my traveling companions, I could process it out loud.) …but I also realized that I was contemplating it all as a 21st century humanoid with a decent public school education. That means I knew much more about the science of volcanoes and sunsets than the vast majority of other fellow humans who walked the same terrain in the 4 millennia that proceeded me: I didn’t see the rising sun as a god to be worshiped but as the ordinary star that my planet revolves around. I didn’t see the eruption of the volcano (or the next one to come) as some judgement of a wrathful god that needs to be appeased, but as part of the dynamic always-changing earth.
I like the way my simple knowledge of this science dovetails with my spirituality. I see no conflict there. The Creator has placed his beloved human race on a very dangerous sphere that is basically a construction zone. The Genesis story goes that He declared it “good”, not finished, not complete nor perfect, but good. Sure, it’s dangerous, but it is also beautiful! In fact, most of the breath-taking sights we see on this earth are the result of tons of violent eruptions, massive volcanos, glaciers, earthquakes, etc.
The problem comes when this on-going construction of creation occurs where we humans are hanging out. It is not pretty. People die. Sometimes many people die. But if you look at the big, huge picture of this earth and the fact that it is still under-construction….then it is hard to “blame” God for the tragedy. It’s the way he started it millions and millions and millions of years ago, it’s not that he’s being judgmental or wiping you out because you’ve been bad. To be fair, there are touches of this kind of thinking in the Bible, but it is primitive thinking about God, and the Bible includes that in its collection of stories. But there is a progressive understanding on our part about God – who he is and what he wants from us and how he wants to interact with us. And even beyond the Biblical times, we humans have increased in our understanding of the world and of God. This has continued to change our perspective. For instance, we no longer think the world is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth. (This was very controversial about 500 years ago, BTW). We no longer view slavery as an acceptable social practice although the Bible doesn’t condemn it. Even simple, public school science can now help us understand our world better and how God interacts with us here.
Personally I like the idea that we’ve been placed on a dangerous, unfinished construction site. First of all, it sure beats the alternative of a static earth where everything is safe…and boring. Also, if the earth is unfinished, then what else is unfinished? Our understanding of God is certainly unfinished. His kingdom of goodness, justice, healing, loving, etc. is certainly unfinished. My life is certainly unfinished. If all that is true….then it is as if he has given me a role to play in its completion. He invites me to help with the creative process. Sure, I can’t tame an earthquake or stop a tsunami, but I can play my part in creating more peace, justice and goodness in the world. I can seek to develop a clearer and more mature understanding of God and to live it out for my friends. And I certainly have opportunities to spread around as much beauty, encouragement, acceptance, etc. as I can.
Seeing things this way helps me to comprehend the Divine differently. Instead of a wrathful Tyrant who doles out tragedy on a whim, I see Him as a very compassionate God who is completely aware that He has placed us in dangerous situations…in a world that not only has earthquakes and tsunamis but that may also include relational breakups, unfulfilled dreams, debilitating disease, emotional scarring and many, many, many other awful possibilities. I think it hurts Him terribly when he sees us face these difficulties. He wants us to know that He is there with us, as we pass through the flood, the dark night, the plague, the catastrophe. Francis Schaffer called him “The God Who Is There”. And the most cited Psalm in the Bible, the 23rd, assures us that, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me…” You see, God doesn’t take away the danger or remove us from the perilous adventure. Instead He calls us into it….It’s the stuff of great movies and great novels and great lives. It’s what makes the plot work, what makes the story riveting. And He’s there every step of the way. It’s trusting Him with even the tough stuff of life that helps us learn firsthand about His character, His faithfulness, His enduring and unconditional love. And to make it more interesting, somewhere along the adventure we learn that it is NOT all about us…about us getting to the end of the story….but it’s about us becoming like Him, imitating Him, learning to love those around us as He loves us…about us being there for others like He’s there for us. This is what gives us meaning. This is what makes us truly human. This is what makes a life worth living. This is our calling…our destiny…our raison d’être.