Road Hazards

Road Hazards

“The illiterate peasant who comments on the death of a child by referring to the will of God is engaging in theodicy as much as the learned theologian who writes a treatise to demonstrate that the suffering of the innocent does not negate the conception of a God both all-good and all-powerful.” – Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy

In “Road Hazards,” chapter three of Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, Long takes readers on a tour “down the pilgrim road” with the “best” thinkers of the last two centuries.  Considering the nature of the quote that introduces the chapter, it surprises me that Long doesn’t look to an equal number of ordinary thinkers (“illiterate peasants”) to learn more about how humanity engages the problem of theodicy.  Perhaps the reason for this is that ordinary people don’t usually have their writings (if there are any) published or preserved for future generations.  Nevertheless, we will travel “down the pilgrim road” with Long as our guide.

Long begins by showing the reader two important warning signs:

1. Speaking the Truth, Speaking in Love

A well-intended person could offer the suffering person “some abstract theological explanation”, but should he/she?  Words, “in the context of actual human suffering” can become “cruel mockeries” even if there is truth in them.

2. What God?  Whose Understanding?

To the believer, “God’s existence is not a question up for grabs but the undeniable reality that gets all other questions going,” and consequently, “all theological questions are forms of prayer.”  To the unbeliever, the paradoxical theodicy question is just another way that believers avoid entertaining serious doubts about the existence of God.

With this in mind, I’ll give a brief synopsis of Long’s “thinkers” along “the pilgrim road,” and what they had to say, in my own words:

David Bentley Hart, author of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? – We should never discuss the theological implications of theodicy with someone who is grieving.

Terrence Tilley, theologian cites Cardinal Charles Journet’s The Meaning of Evil – Journet believes that if evil should ever get out of hand, God will destroy His “earth experiment.”  Tilley finds this idea repulsive and of no comfort whatsoever to someone who is grieving.

Kenneth Surin, author of Theology and the Problem of Evil – Theodicy should not be approached exclusively as a theoretical, scholarly problem, and to do so would be a “tacit sanction” of evil.

William Sloane Coffin, a preacher whose son died – Biblical passages were rendered, for him, “unreal” in his grief.  When his grief became more bearable, these passages began “once again, to take hold.”

Jeffrey Stout, author of The Flight from Authority: Religion, Morality, and the Quest for Autonomy – Any evidence of God’s existence is dependent upon the so-called “divine authority” of certain people or writings.

Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything – Religion is man-made and doesn’t allow coexistence.

Thomas Paine – Religion destroys morality, peace, and happiness.

John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson – Contrasts the trinity, creeds, and other spiritual pretzels with Christianity.

Thomas Jefferson, in reply to Adams – The world would be better off without religion (if religion = “sectarian dogmas”), but it would be Hell without the “true religion” of Jesus of Nazareth.

Walter Kasper, author of The God of Jesus Christ – People have made God out to be a perfect and glorified version of themselves.

William J. Buckley, author of At the Origins of Modern Atheism and Denying and Disclosing God – Enlightenment thinkers invented a new version of God as a “cure” that killed God.

E. A. Burtt, author of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science – God is a “cosmic conservative” confined to “temporal housekeeping.”

Terry Eagleton, author of Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching – God created because He wanted to, not because He needed to.  God may regret His handiwork.

Long writes in response to some of these thinkers:

1. There is a God.

2. God is all-powerful.

3. God is loving and good.

4. There is innocent suffering.

But the “God” who shows up in this equation is the God of theism, the God of the Enlightenment, the mathematical First Cause of the philosophers, and not the God of Jesus Christ.  Thus, the only answer possible to the theodicy problem, when it is posed this way, is a mathematical, philosophical “solution” involving an abstract conception of God, a view unknown to Christian faith.  Indeed, contemplating the theodicy question in this way is playing poker against the house, since this whole philosophical casting of the issue is stacked, as people like Bart Ehrman have discovered, toward the elimination of the claim, “There is a God,” toward atheism.

I’ll continue with my brief synopsis of Long’s “thinkers” along “the pilgrim road,” and what they had to say, but this time, in their own words:

Paul Tillich, author of The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion – “God cannot be reached if he is the object of the question and not its basis.” (Long restates this for clarity, “…for Christians, all theological questions are forms of prayer.”)

Anselm, describing his quest for God – “faith seeking understanding” (Long explains, “an activity begun not in one’s head, but on one’s knees”)

John Caputo, philosopher and author of On Religion – “Where are you, Lord?  If I have wandered far away from home and gotten lost, I ask where my home is.  I have no doubt that it is there.”

Even if someone were to solve the theodicy problem, it probably wouldn’t matter to atheists, according to Long.  He quips, “People fall in love with God, not with mathematical solutions.”  But Long isn’t throwing in the towel in chapter three, he’s just getting started.  Long writes:

First, “the impossible chess match” is, in fact, the way that many thoughtful Christians today ponder the question of suffering in the world, and as preachers, we do not have the luxury of avoiding the question. […] Second, I am not convinced that, when twenty-first-century Christians pose the theodicy question, they are suddenly reverting to the Age of Reason and the posture of Enlightenment philosophers.

Long introduces readers to one last thinker in the chapter’s conclusion, that is, Peter L. Berger, sociologist and author of The Sacred Canopy:

Every nomos [a person’s sense of order of the world]… implies theodicy.  Every nomos confronts the individual as a meaningful reality that comprehends him and all his experiences.  It bestows sense on his life, also on its discrepant and painful aspects… In consequence, the pain becomes more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming, as the sheltering canopy of the nomos extends to cover even those experiences that may reduce the individual to howling animality.

Berger’s view of theodicy, according to Long, is much closer to the way believers view theodicy.  Believers aren’t trying to “solve a logical problem in philosophy but instead repair a faithful but imperiled worldview.”  The danger in this is, according to Berger, “theodicies provide the poor with a meaning for their poverty, but may also provide the rich with a meaning for their wealth.”  Long cautions his readers against becoming like Job’s friends, who tried to blame Job’s tragic situation on Job himself, as if God were punishing Job for some secret wrongdoing.

In a way, the first three chapters of the book don’t really even deal with theodicy, but address the worst and best ways to engage in theodicy-type thinking.

Next blog in this series: The Soul’s Complaint

  • Stephen Helbig September 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    One of the worst ways to engage in Theodicy is when one is grieving. I greatly agree with David Bentley Hart, in his qoute, ~ “We should NEVER discuss the theological implications of theodicy with someone who is grieving.

  • Mary Vanderplas September 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    I think the point Long is making is that, if a word is judged to be cruel if it were spoken to a person in the midst of an experience of tragic suffering, then it may be rightly concluded that this word is not the gospel, i.e., that it is not true. While he adds that sometimes it’s a matter of timing – i.e., a word that shouldn’t be spoken in the midst of crisis can and should be spoken later – the main point of what he says is, I think, that the cruelty factor is a valid test of whether a word is true – a point with which I agree wholeheartedly. I think that the point Hart is making is not so much that “we should never discuss the theological implications of theodicy with someone who is grieving,” but that we shouldn’t attempt to “solve” the problem of theodicy in a way that makes innocent suffering somehow not so bad after all. We need, that is, to refrain from discussing theodicy in a way that rationally justifies the suffering and that distorts the truth of who God is (by presenting him as being impersonal and detached or even as being a moral monster – p. 44).

    I like what Long says by way of pointing out how the theodicy quest as it is usually undertaken – i.e., philosophically, with the question framed in such a way that God is a hypothetical construct – is “contaminated,” driving toward atheism, and contrasting this with the quest of believers seeking understanding. And I agree with his point that even if one were to succeed in solving the problem philosophically, it likely wouldn’t be enough to bring people to faith, which involves a trust-love relationship with God. I think that he’s right in asserting that, even though the theodicy quest is contaminated, preachers must not avoid the question since it is the way many Christians think about the fact of innocent suffering and since the struggle with theodicy for most Christians reflects a worldview crisis and the need we have to construct a world that makes sense. I like what he says, too, about the greater danger (than that we end up chucking God) being that in striving to justify God we succumb to justifying evil – and turn away from doing anything to alleviate human suffering.

    • admin September 14, 2012 at 1:25 am

      Thanks for clarifying what you believe Hart is saying. I try not to misrepresent, but I don’t always get it right. I agree and disagree with Hart’s input. I’ll write about it later, though. That’s a good point you finish with – the best response is to demonstrate love in practical ways, if at all possible. This probably speaks more wisdom than a thousand words can.

  • Lanny A. Eichert September 14, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Compared to the “after-life” the suffering of this life is of little consequence, so God’s saints, who are few {Matthew 7: 14}, need not be concerned. Maybe all the rest of the many of you who can’t find the “strait” gate and go in at the “wide” gate might have need to investigate theodicy fruitlessly. Why do you fret about suffering in this life when you will be eternally tormented in the after-life? Don’t you go believing Alice’s false Amazing Hope, because it is impossible to be saved after you die. It says so in the perfect literal Holy Bible: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. {Isaiah 38: 18}

    Alice said September 11, 2012 at 10:05 am Lanny, you hold up a “proof” claiming “You Amazing Hope is impossible.” I refute it outright or debate through your line of reasoning (attempting to reach its end). BUT she did NOT refute or debate !!! All she did was insist I make one or the other figurative and didn’t prove why. I showed her no conflict that both are literal in consciousness: there are no Gospel conversations for the purpose of converting the lost after death and that she is not able to refute or debate: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. {Isaiah 38: 18} see also {Ecclesiastes 9: 10} {Psalm 6: 5; 31: 17; 49: 14; 88: 5, 10 – 12; 115: 17}

    She only has one “supposed” failed attempt made by Jesus in 1 Peter 3: 18 – 20 and that is proven contrary to reason by all the above texts so that interpretation has no merit and is proven wrong. {The above references quoted below from the KJV.}

    For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks? {Psalm 6: 5}
    let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave. {Psalm 31: 17}
    they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them {Psalm 49: 14}
    among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. {Psalm 88: 5}
    Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee? Selah. Shall thy lovingkindness be declared in the grave? or thy faithfulness in destruction? Shall thy wonders be known in the dark? and thy righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? {Psalm 88: 10 – 12}
    for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. {Ecclesiastes 9: 10}
    The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence. {Psalm 115: 17}
    For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. {Isaiah 38: 18}

    • admin September 14, 2012 at 1:27 am

      The saints need not be concerned about suffering? Jesus was very concerned about suffering during His earthly ministry. I’m probably misunderstanding you or taking what you say too literally. Surely, you are concerned about those you cross paths with who are suffering.

    • Lanny A. Eichert September 14, 2012 at 1:35 am

      1 Peter 3: 18 – 20 is incorrectly taken to mean that after Jesus died on the cross and before He arose bodily from the grave, He was in the Spirit and went to the spirit prison where the spirits of those who refused Noah’s preaching were found to be during Jesus’ earthly ministry; and there He preached the Gospel to them so they could believe and be saved. I asked, Did Jesus accomplish His purpose? Did Peter write they were redeemed and taken to heaven and thus was the spirit prison emptied? No. You see, Peter knew from Psalm 6: 5; 31: 17; 49: 14; 88: 5, 10 – 12; 115: 17; Ecclesiastes 9: 10; and Isaiah 38: 18 that would be impossible and that his three verse text intended no such meaning. What he meant was that the Spirit of Christ spoke to the disobedient spirits of the men as He was “in” Noah preaching while he built the ark and waited for the water to float it. Those disobedient to the preaching perished in the flood and were imprisoned by God and were still in prison when Peter wrote the word “now”. Don’t you see, Peter didn’t write that as a result of an evangelistic visit from Jesus’ those Noahic peoples were saved and released from prison and taken to heaven and spirit prison is now victoriously emptied. Neither did Peter write that Jesus failed to convert them in such a supposed visit to the prison in which case the visit was a waste of time and effort, something that God doesn’t do. You see, if Jesus failed there, then He also fails forever in the Lake of Fire converting them. If He couldn’t save them in one visit, there is NO assurance that He will ever save them no matter how many ages He works on them. Our verses above prove they will be eternally unresponsive to the Gospel and therefore it is never presented to them in any way, shape, or form.

  • Stephen Helbig September 14, 2012 at 1:36 am

    Road Hazards

    I do firmly believe there is a purpose for all the road hazards of our life’s journey ~ and this belief is a simple yet profound in His Wisdom. ~ What good could possible ever come from evil one may ask? Here is one the many facets of suffering ~ unto glory.

    There are fundamental laws in all of creation and one is that of OPPOSING FORCES ~ (Light ~ Darkness), (Joy ~ Sorrow), (Good ~ Bad), ( ect. ect. … ), This law is absolutly necessary for ones growth, ~ to produce strength, stamina, and endurance. Any living thing that grows up without any opposition is weak and powerless. God’s NEW CREATION ~ THE SONS OF GOD must be strong and powerful, to reign and rule with our Lord, ~ And anything, (or anyone), that desires to be strong, must wrestle with a force that is contrary. Any man who wants to develop muscles to be strong, must spend weeks and months and even years in vigorous training doing exercises, lifting heavy weights, using the OPPOSING FORCE of gravity to DEVELOP HIS STRENGTH. These OPPOSING FORCES are requisites to developing our strength. Notice this; ~ A plant that grows in a greenhouse sheltered from the winds and rains, pampered day after day, may grow large, but it is essentially weak, and if suddenly exposed to the tempest uproar of the wicked elements, this plant will most likely wither and die. But the plant that is constantly exposed to the fierce winds and pounding rains, burning heat and chilling cold, will be strong and not easily destroyed. Opposing forces are as simple as this analogy, ~ To know the grief’s of sorrow one will surely know and appreciate what JOY UNSEAKABLE is, ~ without sorrow it is just joy (without a needed experiential knowing). With opposites our focus now becomes keen and very intense, ~ our eye becomes single. One can now see and understand that the opposites, (these opposing forces and road hazards of life) are necessary and that is why one can agree with (Eccl 7 : 3,4) which states ~ (3) Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. (4) The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

    “God is constructing a temple, made of living stones, so that He can manifest Himself throughout the ages and ages to come. SATAN WAS CREATED ~ as a chisel and hammer to be used in the construction of this building and temple of which we are. The living stones that are even now being placed in this temple have been chosen, says the Lord, ~ In the “furnace of affliction” (Isa. 48:10). God, however, is MERCY; God is LOVE; God is COMASSION, ~ He is a healer, not a destroyer. It was, nonetheless, necessary that an oven be heated in which to purify the gold – a furnace in which the wood, hay, and stubble were to be burned – but God, in His NATURE OF LOVE, choose to CREATE evil to perform the necessary affliction. It was for this reason that He created AN INSTRUMENT that was capable of performing this essential action in the lives of men, for in Satan God literally created a chastening rod. You must go thru this process, you must experience death to understand LIFE.

    p.s. ~ There is a great sight and parable in the bush burning, ~ The Bush is not consumed; Jesus is the bush that is not consumed, ~ See Jesus, ~ See the AGONY in Gethsemane. See the wisdom in Jesus prayer ~ “NOT MY WILL BUT THINE BE DONE”.

    There is an interesting side note to Jesus’s prayer in Getsemane , ~ The name Gethsemane signifies ~ an olive-mill, ~ a press for olives, like a wine-press, ~ This is where they trod the olives, and this word “GETHSEMANE” is from the Hebrew word גִּת (gath) ~ meaning press, and שָׁמְנָא (shemen) ~ meaning oil, ~ Surely this was the proper place for such a prayer as Jesus prayer ~ In the midst of agony, at the foot of The Mount of Olives. There our Lord Jesus began his passion; ~ There he said “My soul is crushed with anguish to the very point of death, ~ and yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him, ~ To crush him so that fresh oil might flow to ALL ~ from Jesus to us let us follow in his path . Oil signifies the Holy Spirit’s anointing for service. Let us look at sufferings as such ~ Are ye able to drink the cup which I drink, Jesus asks, or be baptised with the baptism that I am baptised with? Let us say to him we are able, and in drinking we will be made strong to overcome, ~ overcoming all evil. ~ The LORD WILL FULFILL his purpose; ~ Your love, O LORD, endures forever ~ O LORD do not abandon the works of your hands.

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