by Hannah Bramsen, Upper School Humanities Teacher and Middle School French Teacher
Classes Nine and Ten just finished studying Dorothy L. Sayers’ play, The Zeal of Thy House, in Medieval Humanities Seminar. As we were reading, this question came up in our discussion: does God rely on us to accomplish his glory in the world?
As a class we wrestled with this, and as a Christian and a teacher, I could not quite rest easy until I gave it a little more thought. In the play, Sayers poses this question in conjunction with the idea that humanity’s power to create reflects the image of God in us. She draws her story from the writings of Gervase, a monk at Canterbury in the 12th century, who wrote about the process and the people involved in building the Canterbury Cathedral.
The play particularly hones in on the story of the architect, William of Sens. According to Sayers, Gervase tells us that William was not a particularly moral man; taking bribes, carrying on with ladies of the town, and so forth. Yet, God chose him for this project, which raises the question, why? Why would God choose a man who lacks moral fiber to build his cathedral? What about William was so special? Sayers answers this question by making it about not how he acts, but what he has to offer creatively. In a particularly disconcerting speech William asserts:
He [God] must now depend on man for what man’s brain, creative and divine, can give him. Man stands equal with him now, partner and rival. Say God needs a church—as here in Canterbury—and say he calls together by miracle stone, wood, and metal, and builds a church of sorts; my church He cannot make—another, but not that. This church is mine and none but I, not even God, can build it. Me he hath made vice-regent of himself and were I lost something unique were lost.
Now, there are several things in this speech which raise my hackles. I do not like the assertion that man is an equal or a rival to God, and tonally this speech seems rather arrogant, a sin for which William repents in the final scene of the play. But when I move on from this point, I am forced to wonder about his assertion of creative power. Is it true that if William were lost, something unique would be lost? Is it true that God must work through humanity-- must in a sense rely on us to create? I think the simple answer is no. God does not have to work through man—even William admits as much. God does not need William, or any human being for that matter, to build a church for him. But God chooses William, he wants William’s church. And again this raises the question, why? What about man causes God to choose this partnership?
To help in my own thinking I brought it back to a teacher analogy. My students are currently working on an essay about the book of Job. I set them this task in part, because I want beautiful essays. Now, I could write the essay, I could answer my own questions, and meet my own standards; after all, I would know exactly what to write to please myself. If all I wanted was an essay that fit exactly into my way of thinking, it would be better to do it myself. But of course, I am not interested in just a good essay, I am interested in their good essays. I want my students to think through the questions, to learn, and to exercise their God-given gift of creation. I believe that they possess something unique and divinely created, that only they can give to the process, and it is that spark that I want in the essay. So, because I want that spark, I must rely on them to accomplish the task. I cannot do it myself.
It seems that this same truth can be applied to God’s feelings about us. There can be no doubt that he is the master creator, or that he could create a bigger and better church with anyone other than William, if that’s all he wanted. But the remarkable, and beautiful truth shows that God wanted William’s church. He did not want it because it was the most beautiful and the best in creation, he wanted it because by building that cathedral William gave God a tribute that only William could give. God wants that tribute above all others, because he delights when we use our gifts for his service. But since only William can create that exact church—yes, God must rely on him to build it. In this thought exists enormous beauty for us, but this beauty also comes with responsibility.
God chooses us, weak vessels though we are, to carry out his work. God gave us some portion of power to imitate his creative ability, and because of that he intends to use our powers for his glory. We are part of his plan and, if we ignore or misuse that power, something is lost. So, in answer to the question posed in my class I must answer a firm yes--God does rely on us to accomplish his glory. Not because he has to, but because he chooses to. God chose to rely on us, because he desires that his humble creation offer something beautiful back to him, something we have joyfully created on our own, something that allows us to understand his joy just a little bit better.