*It’s a song released in – gasp – 1969. Not going to link to it as it’s not really the point.
Why do the raindrops fall on my head? How I answer that reveals my ideas about God. Is rain part of understandable natural phenomena that God designed, or phenomena that came into being by chance because no God exists, or a sign of God’s (or the gods’) pleasure or displeasure?
When we meet the Prophet Elijah, he announces that the God of Israel has let him in on a significant weather forecast: no rain for several years. (I Kings 17:1). Ahab is King of Israel, and has the people dabbling in the religion of his Sidonian wife Jezebel – the cult of the storm god Ba’al (I Kings 16:29 and following). So Yahweh, the God of Israel, claims the power over nature that some ascribe to Ba’al, and also sets up validation of Elijah as a true prophet, with a message that will prove out.
God’s purposes are clear enough. He’s upstaging the pagan weather god, showing his displeasure with the people’s apostasy, and establishing a prophet to speak for Him. But Yahweh’s actions are broad. There are no particular events tied to the start or end of the drought (I Kings 18:1) and there’s no moral outline in place. God doesn’t say, “I am withholding the rain until Ahab repents.” The timing of the drought and the rain are not tied to human action, but they are essential to establishing Elijah as a human witness to God’s authority over and purpose for His people.
The Bible isn’t always tidy about moral cause and effect. Things are much broader, especially from a Christian point of view. Morally, we’re all deficient, yet, as Jesus tells us, the rain is one of many signs that God deals with us patiently and mercifully,
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45 ESV)
God’s justice lacks mechanical precision, and we don’t like that because we can’t control or manipulate it any more than we can control the weather. So we tend to revert to aspects of paganism.
In 1993, Juergen Moltmann released his Theology of Hope. I find his distinction between God as revealed in the Bible and the gods of preceding cultures helpful. The God of the Bible – of Israel and of the Christ – is the God of “promise and fulfillment.” This God announces promises to human messengers, and people are gathered in faith to proclaim the promise until it is fulfilled. This goes on over long periods of time and through good and bad situations.
Moltmann calls preceding cults (he doesn’t fancy the word pagan but that’s what I’m using) “epiphany religions” (Theology of Hope 2.1),
It is here important to see that these epiphanies have their point in themselves, in their coming about. For where they come about, there comes the hallowing of place, of time and of men in that act in which man’s ever-threatened culture is granted correspondence with, and participation in, the eternal divine cosmos. The threat to human existence from the forces of chaos and of annihilation is overcome through the epiphany of the eternal present. Man’s being comes into congruence with eternal being, understands itself in correspondence and participation as protected by the presence of the eternal.
That is to say, “If the rain comes at the right time for our crops, the gods are with us; if not, we better toss an extra virgin in the volcano.” Sorry to be flippant, but theologians are dense writers (you can parse that as you like).
The Bible presents God fully and, to our limited minds, as somewhat maddening: yes, personally invested in each of us; yes, mysterious and inscrutable; yes, holding power over nature and history; yes, letting nature and history operate apart from His direct intervention.
This tempts us to explain raindrops in pagan terms. Christians today grapple with the “Prosperity Gospel,” which turns the God of the Bible into an epiphany god who reacts to our efforts. Church historian Kate Bowler has studied this branch of the church with some respect and sympathy, and says
Prosperity gospel makes God into a kind of monster. It creates the problem that it tries to solve. It says we can always know the will of God because God has given us a special kind of faith which we can use to act. What that means is every single thing in your life becomes your fault or your reward. That’s a terrifying place to be.
Here’s an example from prosperity preacher Joel Osteen. Note the rain imagery. You can also skip to Osteen’s message, intoned at 1:30 of the video.
More terrifying than that is the world’s dominant strain of Islam. Robert R. Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind is, like Bowler’s look at Prosperity Christianity, respectful and sympathetic. It is dedicated to
…the courageous men and women throughout the Islamic world, here nameless for reasons of their own security, who are struggling for a reopening of the Muslim mind.
Reilly uses primary sources, looks to Islamic scholars, and has familiarity with Arabic. He details how dominant Sunni Islam went through an internal struggle between adherents who were able to engage surrounding cultures and philosophies and those who rejected them. The latter won out, and are driving much of the conflict we experience today.
The dominant view, so foreign to Westerners, includes assumptions that Allah is a humanly inscrutable will rather than a personality acting out of love; that every moment is in fact an epiphany in which God alone destroys and reconstructs reality rather than part of a meaningful continuum; and that there is no real cause and effect except the will of God in which we have no active part.
Now that’s plenty to chew on and the book does so with detail and clarity, so I’ll leave it to your reading. What struck me is that the dominant strain of Islam rejects other cultures in favor of a perception of god created by the harsh desert environment in which the religion originated. While displacing pagan polytheism, Islam’s one God is capricious like the desert, where the natural forces can turn in an instant and show no regard for human well being. Here’s a telling quote, featuring, you guessed it, rain:
It is in (Allah’s) power to pour down torrents upon mankind and if he were to do it, his justice would not be arraigned. There is nothing he can be tied to, to perform, nor can any injustice be supposed of him, nor can He be under obligation to any person whatever. (Abu Al-Ghazali, Iran, d. 1111, from his work The Incoherence of the Philosophers)
Allah is posited in desert terms. Long hot months with no rain, and/or freezing nights, and/or abrupt downpours that temporarily fill the wadis, and/or sandstorms, and/or scorching winds. One big Whatev. A god not unlike the capricious figures of the Graeco-Roman mythologies that Islam would claim to reject. Humanity has no purpose but to submit.
Prosperity Christianity and dominant Sunni Islam become two sides of the same pagan coin. The former posits a god whose epiphanies are contingent upon our “sacrifices,” like the pagan weather and fertility gods of the ancient Near East. The latter pronounces an impersonal deity who does what he wants, shaped by the desert environment in which Muhammad preached but ironically similar to the pagan deities of classical mythology in other cultures.
All of us, on a day when the rain clouds seem to follow us around, can lapse into pagan thinking. Faith doesn’t run between the raindrops, but walks between the extremes of assuming that the rain is all our fault on the one hand or that there’s no God who cares that we’re all wet on the other.