Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas) puts Thomas G. Long’s book, “What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith” into perspective in a very real and powerful way. The Shaking of the Foundations is the second blog in the series. Chapter two of Long’s book is entitled “The Impossible Chess Match.” Long examines how Bart D. Ehrman, a biblical scholar, loses his faith:
As Ehrman grew older… and gained more education, the tight tethers of his fundamentalism began to fray and finally to break loose. First, there was a crisis over his belief about Scripture. Ehrman learned the inescapable truth that the texts of the Bible, which he had believed were “God-breathed” and infallible, even inerrant, were actually composed by fallible human hands and heavily edited by others. The biblical texts, Ehrman discovered, contained contradictions and discrepancies. What is more, the books that made it into the Bible, into the canon, were there not simply because of inspiration but also because of controversy and political maneuvering. If the Bible was an inspired book, Ehrman came to realize, it was inspired in a much messier, much more historically conflicted way than he had imagined. Out went the fundamentalist Bible. And along with it went Ehrman’s own fundamentalism.
But not his Christian faith… not yet. While problems with the Bible caused him to change his views of Scripture, they did not prompt Ehrman to leave the believing fold. What finally closed the chapel door for Ehrman was not something wrong with the Bible but something wrong, he came to believe, in the God of the Bible.
Long explains how Ehrman’s crisis of faith is a modern crisis of faith:
But Ehrman lives on this side of modernity’s ditch, and his crisis of faith leads him not to his knees in prayer but to his mind in thinking things through rationally. A fourteenth century mind would encounter terrible suffering and say, “This is from the hand of God. What is God saying to us?” A contemporary mind encounters suffering and asks, “How does the reality of this suffering fit into my worldview? How do the pieces of reality I think of as true fit together logically?
This leads to what is known as the “theodicy problem” – that God exists, is all-powerful, good, and loving, yet there is suffering in the world. The exhausting attempt to solve the theodicy problem is what Long calls “the impossible chess match,” a theological stalemate. Ehrman eventually decides that if God exists at all, “he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world.”
According to Long, pastors are taught to stay away from the theodicy problem, because any attempt to resolve it will only result in “more harm than good.” Instead, they are taught to have a “ministry of presence” in which pastors are simply there. This is the same approach taken by Diane Komp, a pediatric cancer specialist who hasn’t quite decided whether she’s atheist or agnostic and doesn’t really care to decide. One of her patients described seeing angels and hearing them sing just moments before she died. Komp’s response: “Together we contemplated a spiritual mystery that transcended our understanding and experience.” Neither Komp nor pastors who subscribe to a “ministry of presence” seek to answer the hard questions.
Long recognizes the value of a ministry of presence, but he also recognizes the implications of unanswered questions. He writes, “What is at stake here is not only the very basis of faith but also our ability to worship authentically.” And Long also makes a point that resonates with me more than anything else in this book:
The inability to make some kind of sense of the actions and will of God in a world of suffering and evil puts pressure on people of faith – sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle – to abandon the biblical claim that God is a God of history, of time, of material embodiment and actual circumstances, in favor of a mystical God of nature and spirituality. If people in our day are “spiritual but not religious,” could it be that this is not simply because they are individualistic narcissists or people who find “institutional religion” bland and confining, but because they have lost a meaningful way to speak and thing about a God who acts in history, in institutions, in actual human relationships, in concrete circumstances.
I believe that Long is onto something here. In many of my blogs, I note that God is called God of the Ages for a reason, and that when we mistranslate “age” as “eternity,” we miss out on a very important aspect of the character of God, that God is, indeed, God of the day-to-day experiences of humanity, that God is intimately involved in every moment of history and nothing happens without Him first sovereignly permitting it to happen. If there were no suffering or evil, this would not be a difficult concept for the theist. There is much more to say about this, but for now, I am simply reviewing each chapter of Long’s book.
Long explains that the theodicy is not a problem relegated to the detached arena of theological debate, it is a very real problem for believers who experience suffering. As an example, Long tells the story of theologian Lewis Smede and his wife, Doris. They had tried for a decade to have children, and Doris finally became pregnant. About six months into the pregnancy, the baby died. A neighbor told Lewis Smede, “God was in control.” Smede’s response? “I wanted to say to her, ‘Not this time.'” Smede explains:
If God could show us that there was a good and necessary reason for such a bad thing to have happened, it must not have been a bad thing after all. And I cannot accommodate that thought.
I learned that I do not have the right stuff for such hard-boiled theology. I am no more able to believe that God micro-manages the death of little children than I am able to believe that God was macro-managing Hitler’s Holocaust. With one morning’s wrenching intuition, I knew that my portrait of God would have to be repainted.
What does this mean? Is God in control? If God is in control, does this mean that tragedy isn’t really tragedy? So tell me, readers, how do you make sense of this?
Next blog in this series: The Climax of All Misnomers