What Shall We Say?

I am very pleased to welcome back a wonderful guest blogger, someone who regularly comments on www.whatgoddoes.com, Mary Vanderplas.  She is a former Presbyterian Minister and is now the Chaplin at Florida Hospital in Leesburg, FL.  Her first guest blog was Revelation 8 (Guest-Blogger Mary Vanderplas).  Although we regularly disagree with one another, Mary regularly inspires me to look at things from a perspective that I might not otherwise.  Several times we have entered into discussion about theodicy (a spiritual/philosophical attempt to reconcile the idea that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing with the very real presence of evil and suffering in the world).  Mary’s perspective and insight is spectacular, and her vocation puts her in a unique position to give the very churchy word “theodicy” a gripping context in the human experience. Mary wrote the following introduction for a blog series I’ll be doing based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.  I will be writing this blog series in the same manner as I have been writing the Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell series, that is, as the inspiration hits and as time allows.  Here’s Mary’s introduction…

 

A little boy, barely five, is wheeled into the ER after being found unresponsive at home.  His body, connected to life support, shakes uncontrollably from brain seizures.  His mother and grandmother look on helplessly as the medical team does their work.

 

A young woman is brought into the ER after being involved in a terrible car accident.  She is sobbing and shaking, overcome by the trauma and desperate to know if her husband – who was airlifted to another hospital, a hospital with a trauma unit – is “going to be okay.”

 

A woman not yet fifty lies limp and lifeless in the bed, her frail body riddled with cancer.  Under the influence of medication for the pain, she is in and out of consciousness.  Her husband sits by her bedside, speechless with sorrow.

 

In my role as a hospital chaplain, I encounter on a regular basis people such as these, people who are dealing with tragic suffering.  Some of the time, they are asking tough questions about God and their experience.  Some of the time, they are feeling acutely the pain and grief of their situation and are not (yet) at a point of asking, let alone thinking about an answer to, the tough questions.  Some of the time, they express their feelings, including their sense of the absence and silence of God, with loud and mournful cries of “why?”

 

Because, quite often, the people I am called upon to minister to are in the midst of crisis, my ministry is primarily one of being present with them in the pit of their suffering.  With the mother and grandmother referred to above, I sat with them in their helpless sorrow, sharing with them in the sense of injustice and the experienced absence and distance of God.  I said very little.  At one point, at the grandmother’s request, I prayed out loud.  What I prayed was a bold prayer that God would act in power to spare the boy’s life.  Since it was evident that they were overwhelmed by the pain of watching their beloved child/grandchild suffer, I did not even attempt to help them make sense of their experience of tragic suffering.  I knew that to do so at that moment would have been wholly inappropriate.  Instead, I tried to communicate by my presence and actions the presence and care of God in the midst of their tragic situation.  And by my bold prayer, I made (indirectly) a statement about protesting the expressions of evil in the world and calling upon God to do something about these expressions being a faithful response in the face of suffering.

 

With the young woman who, with her husband, was involved in a car accident, I also provided mainly a ministry of presence.  Shortly after she came in, the word came from the hospital where her husband was taken that he had not made it.  Hearing the news, the woman emitted an anguished shriek, followed by intense sobbing.  I sat with her, holding her hand and “speaking,” with words and mainly with nonverbal expressions of empathy and caring.  An hour or so later, she looked at me and asked, “Why did God have to take someone who was so good?”  Even though my best judgment told me that it wasn’t the time for a deep discussion of the theological issues that her question raised, I responded in brief to her question, which arose out a struggle (in its beginning stage) to make sense of her experience in light of what she believed about God and his ways.  First, I challenged her understanding that God had caused the tragic death of her husband.  “God didn’t take him,” I said.  “I don’t believe that God caused this terrible thing to happen.”  Second, I acknowledged that I didn’t know the ultimate source of her terrible loss and that I didn’t think that it could be known whose doing it was.  Third, I acknowledged that I didn’t know why God didn’t intervene to prevent it from happening or to save her husband’s life after it happened.  I told her, too, that what I believe and am assured of is that “God cares and he is and will be with you in this.”  Whether she heard any of what I said in that moment of deep grief I don’t know.  But I did feel compelled to begin to help her address the issues raised by her anguished question, rather than simply ignoring them, and to provide the comfort of knowing that God was not the cause of her suffering but a very present help in her time of trouble.

 

With the woman afflicted with cancer, I provided something more than a ministry of presence.  She and her husband shared that well-meaning friends had spoken much to them about God being in control and God having a purpose for what they were going through.  After battling the disease for going-on two years and being the object of many prayers, their own and others’, they were weary of the battle and they were questioning deeply whether what others seemed so confident of – namely, the existence of a loving and just God who cared about them personally – could possibly be true.  I empathized with their expressed experience of the absence and indifference of God.  I spoke directly to the notion that “God is in control” and the notion that “God has a purpose” for their suffering.  I said, specifically, that while I believe that God’s purposes for us and for the world will ultimately prevail, I don’t believe that this cancer is God’s will.  “I don’t pretend to know where it came from in an ultimate sense, but I don’t believe that it came from God.  On the contrary, I believe that God hates it, just as you do.”  I affirmed that even though I don’t think we can know where cancer and other evils come from, I rest my faith and hope on the promise that one day God will act to overcome them, to destroy them completely, and that even now God is with us when we suffer, giving courage and strength and hope.  (If I had read Tom Long’s marvelous book prior to ministering to this struggling couple, I would have said even more.)  And by my presence and actions, I tried to communicate to them something of the loving, compassionate presence of God with them in their suffering.

Next blog in this series: The Shaking of the Foundations

In the middle of July, you may have read the blog, Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas).  If you haven’t yet, please do, because it 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.  I’m pretty sure that Mary and I disagree on the main premise of this book, but I could think of no one better to introduce this blog series than a hospital chaplain who loves God, loves others, and communicates effectively.  I’ll be going through this book, one chapter per blog, and I’ve got another guest blogger lined up with a personal testimony on suffering and faith to end the series.

The first chapter is entitled, “The Shaking of the Foundations.”

Long writes about the religious background of the city of Lisbon, Portugal, where prophets of doom said God would destroy the city:

Some said by earthquake, others said by wind, some warned of fire, and still others presaged flood.  As it turns out, they were much too modest.  Lisbon’s day of hell included the catastrophe forces of all four.

First came the earthquake, sending people running from the packed churches.  Then, a shockwave leveled many buildings, which collapsed on the people in the street.  Small fires became full roaring flames because of the strong winds that day.  There was a third shockwave, and the survivors felt like the safest place to go was to the harbor.  A tsunami wiped them out.  Long writes:

No one knows for certain how many people died in Lisbon on that All Saints’ Day.  Some say 15,000; other s say as many as 50,000 or 60,000.  What is known is that the bodies of the victims floated in the harbor for weeks.

When catastrophic events like this take place, people question the goodness of God.

Another example Long gives is the Black Death, a 14th century plague.  French medical writer at the time, Ambroise Pare, wrote:

The plague is a malady come from God: furious, tempestuous, swift, monstrous, and frightful, contagious, terrible, fierce, treacherous, deceptive, mortal enemy of human life…

Fast forward a couple of hundred years.  Newton’s claims have “staggering implications for theology.”  Long writes:

If time, space, and presumably everything that moves within them can be defined without recourse to anything outside of them, then what is the role of God – or even the need of God?

Because human attempts at sense making were no longer making sense, a shift in thinking took place.  Long describes it like this:

Particular providence involves the claim that God is an active player in the specific events and circumstances of the world… General providence, on the other hand, is the notion that God cares for the world not through extraordinary interventions of divine action but through constant and unchanging sustenance and the benevolent design of creation.

Long also notes that this theological shift has been given a name – “disenchantment of the world.”

Long concludes the chapter with a sympathetic assessment of the disenchanted people caught somewhere between particular and general providence:

When those of us who preach stand up on Sunday morning, we are looking out at many educated and thoughtful Christians who want to hang on to faith, but who secretly wonder – often silently, sometimes in ways denied and hidden even from themselves – if… faith… [is] a childish fantasy.  With all that they know and see, they can no longer rest easily with the claim that the world is ruled by a good and powerful parental God, and so they wonder if the faith they are being asked to believe and live, the faith they want to believe and live, is simply a way of making us feel better in the storm, and if it is time to grow up and move on to a sadder but wiser world where we must stand up and be on our own.

Instead of offering my own commentary, I would like to conclude with the words of Christ.

“…some people came up and told [Jesus] about the Galileans Pilate had killed while they were at worship… [and] Jesus responded)”:

Do you think those murdered Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans? Not at all. Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die. And those eighteen in Jerusalem the other day, the ones crushed and killed when the Tower of Siloam collapsed and fell on them, do you think they were worse citizens than all other Jerusalemites? Not at all.  Unless you turn to God, you, too, will die.

What does this mean?  Does disaster happen because people don’t turn to Him?  But, the people in Lisbon were attending church the morning all hell broke loose!  So tell me, readers, how do you make sense of this?

 

The next blog will be on chapter two: The Impossible Chess Match

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

 

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (by Frederick Douglass), Douglass tells the story of how he meets with his fellow-slaves on Sabbath to teach them how to read:

I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man…  The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.  We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed.  When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?”  These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged.  Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes.  They came because they wished to learn.  Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters.  They had been shut up in mental darkness.

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  Douglass writes that he is “almost ready to ask” the hard questions, but in writing them, he does ask them, although he doesn’t seek answers to those questions in his writing.  Oh what I wouldn’t give to borrow the pen of Frederick Douglass in this particular blog series!  He was a brilliant man, and like Christ, acquainted with sorrows.

Douglass also expresses a sentiment that is common in all time periods since the first century, that is, the difference between the institutional church (what I sometimes refer to as “churchianity” or simply, “the institution”) and what he calls “Christianity proper” or “the Christianity of Christ.”  Sadly, much of what he has to say still rings true over a century and a half later as people have yet to learn the difference between being a slave to righteousness (which is the ultimate freedom) and being a slave to a form of godliness that lacks power.  The physical slavery has ended (at least in this and most countries), but the spiritual slavery remains.  I’ll conclude with this lengthy quote from the appendix to Douglass’s Narrative and prayer that the Spirit of God will open the readers eyes to see the spiritual significance of his words:

I find… that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion.  To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation.  What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.  To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other.  I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.  Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.  I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.  Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.”  I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me.  We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.  The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin [whip] during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.  The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning, to show me the way of life, and the path of salvation.  He who sells my sister, for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity.  He who proclaims it a religious duty to read the Bible denies me the right of learning to read the name of the God who made me.  He who is the religious advocate of marriage robs whole millions of its sacred influence, and leaves them to the ravages of wholesale pollution.  The warm defender of the sacredness of the family relation is the same that scatters whole families, – sundering husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, – leaving the hut vacant, and the hearth desolate.  We see the thief preaching against theft, and the adulterer against adultery.  We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babes sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! all for the glory of God and the good of souls!   The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.  Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together.  The slave prison and the church stand near each other.  The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time.  The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.  Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other – devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.

Just God! and these are they,

Who minister at thine altar, God of right!

Men who their hands, with prayer and blessing, lay

On Israel’s ark of light.

What! preach, and kidnap men?

Give thanks, and rob thy own afflicted poor?

Talk of thy glorious liberty, and then

Bolt hard the captive’s door?

What! servants of thy own

Merciful Son, who came to seek and save

The homeless and the outcast, fettering down

The tasked and plundered slave!

Pilate and Herod friends!

Chief priests and rulers, as of old, combine!

Just God and holy! is that church which lends

Strength to the spoiler thine?

Dark and terrible as is this picture, I hold it to be strictly true of the overwhelming mass of professed Christians in America.  They strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.  Could any thing be more true of our churches?  They would be shocked at the proposition of fellowshipping a sheep-stealer; and at the same time they hug to their communion a man-stealer, and brand me with being an infidel, if I find fault with them for it…

Next blog in this series: 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

 

Here is an excerpt of what is probably one of the most significant crossroads in Frederick Douglass’s life:

My master and myself had quite a number of differences.  He found me unsuitable to his purpose.  […]  One of my greatest faults was that of letting his horse run away, and go down to his father-in-law’s farm […] I would then have to go after it.  My reason for this kind of carelessness, or carefulness, was, that I could always get something to eat when I went there.  Master William Hamilton, my master’s father-in-law, always gave his slaves enough to eat.  I never left there hungry, no matter how great the need of my speedy return.  Master Thomas at length said he would stand it no longer.  I had lived with him nine months, during which time he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.  He resolved to put me out, as he said, to be broken; and, for this purpose, he let me for one year to a man named Edward Covey.  […] Mr. Covey had acquired a very high reputation for breaking young slaves, and this reputation was of immense value to him. […] Added to the natural good qualities of Mr. Covey, he was a professor of religion – a pious soul – a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church.  All of this added to his reputation as a “nigger-breaker.” […]

I had been at my new home but one week before Mr. Covey gave me a very severe whipping, cutting my back, causing the blood to run, and raising ridges on my flesh as large as my little finger.  The details of this affair are as follows: Mr. Covey sent me, very early in the morning of one of our coldest days in the month of January, to the woods, to get a load of wood.  He gave me a team of unbroken oxen.  He told me which was the in-hand ox, and which the off-hand one.  He then tied the end of a large rope around the horns of the in-hand ox, and gave me the other end of it, and told me, if the oxen started to run, that I must hold on upon the rope.  I had never driven oxen before, and of course, I was very awkward.  I, however, succeeded in getting to the edge of the woods, when the oxen took fright, and started full tilt, carrying the cart against trees, and over stumps, in the most frightful manner.  I expected every moment that my brains would be dashed out against the trees.  After running thus for a considerable distance, they finally upset the cart, dashing it with great force against a tree, and threw themselves into a dense thicket.  How I escaped death, I do not know.  There I was, entirely alone, in a thick wood, in a place new to me […] and there was none to help me.  After a long spell of effort, I succeeded in getting my cart righted, my oxen disentangled, and again yoked to the cart.  I now proceeded with my team to the place where I had, the day before, been chopping wood, and loaded my cart pretty heavily, thinking in this way to tame my oxen.  I then proceeded on my way home.  I had now consumed one half of the day.  I got out of the woods safely, and now felt out of danger.  I stopped my oxen to open the woods gate; and just as I did so, before I could get hold of my ox-rope, the oxen again started, rushed through the gate, catching it between the wheel and the body of the cart, tearing it to pieces, and coming within a few inches of crushing me against the gate-post.  Thus twice, in one short day, I escaped death by the merest chance.  On my return, I told Mr. Covey what had happened, and how it happened.  […] He went to a large gum-tree, and with his axe cut three large switches, and after trimming them up neatly with his pocket-knife, he ordered me to take off my clothes.  I made him no answer, but stood with my clothes on.  He repeated his order.  I still made him no answer, nor did I move to strip myself.  Upon this he rushed at me with the fierceness of a tiger, tore off my clothes, and lashed me till he had worn out his switches, cutting me so savagely as to leave the marks visible for a long time after.  This whipping was the first of a number just like it, and for similar offenses. […]

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey.  […] It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or show, too hard for us to work in the field.  Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night.  The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him.  I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me.  Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.  I was broken in body, soul, and spirit.  My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

Sunday was my only leisure time.  I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.  At times I would rise up, a flash of energetic freedom would dart through my soul, accompanied with a faint beam of hope, that flickered for a moment, and then vanished.  I sank down again, mourning over my wretched condition.  I was sometimes prompted to take my life, and that of Covey, but was prevented by a combination of hope and fear.  My sufferings on this plantation seem now like a dream rather than a stern reality.

Our house stood within a few rods of Chesapeake Bay, whose broad bosom was ever white with sails from every quarter of the habitable globe.  Those beautiful vessels, robed in purest white, so delightful to the eye of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts, to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition.  I have often, in the deep stillness of a summer’s Sabbath, stood all alone upon the lofty banks of that noble bay, and traced, with saddened heart and tearful eye, the countless number of sails moving off to the mighty ocean.  The sight of these always affected me powerfully.  My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way, with an apostrophe to the moving multitude of ships: –

“You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!  You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip!  You are freedom’s swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron!  O that I were free!  O, that I were on one of your gallant decks, and under your protecting wing!  Alas! betwixt me and you, the turbid waters roll.  Go on, go on.  O that I could also go! Could I but swim!  If I could fly!  O, why was I born a man, of whom to make a brute!  The glad ship is gone; she hides in the dim distance.  I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery.  O God, save me!  God, deliver me!  Let me be free!  Is there any God?  Why am I a slave?  I will run away.  I will not stand it.  Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it.  I had as well die with ague [malaria] as the fever.  I have only one life to lose.  I had as well be killed running as die standing.  Only think of it; one hundred miles straight north, and I am free!  Try it?  Yes!  God helping me, I will.  It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.  […] Let but the first opportunity offer, and, come what will, I am off.  Meanwhile, I will try to bear up under the yoke.  I am not the only slave in the world.  Why should I fret?  I can bear as much as any of them. […] It may be that my misery in slavery will only increase my happiness when I get free.  There is a better day coming.”

Thus I used to think, and thus I used to speak to myself; goaded almost to madness at one moment, and at the next reconciling myself to my wretched lot.

I have already intimated that my condition was much worse, during the first six months of my stay at Mr. Covey’s, than in the last six.  The circumstances leading to the change in Mr. Covey’s course toward me for an epoch in my humble history.  You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man.

At this point, I’ll hold you in suspense as to the details of Douglass’s “epoch” – another blog for another day.  It’s enough for now to say that God gave Douglass a way out.  I wrote a response to my reading assignments for my literature class, The Narratives of Slavery.  The goal of my response, per instructions, was to take just one of literary critic James Olney’s ideas and find specific evidence for or against Olney’s idea in a slave narrative.  I chose Frederick Douglass’s narrative.  Here is my response, in less than 250 words.  My apologies for the academic (hoity-toity) writing style:

Conventions, or as James Olney writes, the “Master Plan for Slave Narratives,” (153) are characteristics that distinguish the slave narrative from other narratives. Olney contends that Frederick Douglass “paradoxically transcends the slave narrative mode while being at the same time it fullest, most exact representative,” in that Douglass-as-narrator, unlike many of his literate, ex-slave peers, is independent of the possession and use of the abolitionist (154).

Here I focus solely on the convention of physical abuse and violence, which does occur in Douglass’s narrative, beginning with the vicious beating of his Aunt Hester (284-5), continuing with an account of Mr. Severe, who lives up to his name as a cruel slave overseer (288), and other examples, the most noteworthy, in my opinion, being Mr. Covey, the “nigger-breaker” (320). Because the history of slavery is not marked with the extreme violence and horror of antebellum slavery and because the abolition of slavery is accomplished on the heels of this time period, I suspect that the devil may have overplayed his hand in the violent dehumanization of slaves. Douglass’s turning point is a microcosm of Olney’s two-word existential description of slave narratives, that is, “I exist” (155). Douglass’s experience, in his own words: “This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning-point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood.” What Douglass accomplishes with physical strength, he later accomplishes with intellect and the power of words.

Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself.” Boston: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. Slave Narratives. Andrews, William L., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: First Library of America College Edition, 2002. 267-368. Print.

Olney, James. “Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature.” The Slave’s Narratives. Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates Jr., eds. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985. 148-75. Print.

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  As with so many other areas of study, the human experience gives tangible substance to spiritual truth.  You may recall from the previous blog in this series, Road Hazards, I quoted Peter L. Berger, sociologist and author of The Sacred Canopy.  His quote puts Douglass’s situation into perspective for theodicy.  Theodicy is “an attempt to resolve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling God’s traditional characteristics of omnibenevolenceomnipotence and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world” (Wikipedia).  Here’s Berger’s quote:

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.

God can handle your honesty.  Go ahead.  Be angry.  Unload your frustration, your outrage, your disgust.

Suffering, grief, and all other consequences associated with evil or tragedy have a way of reducing a human being to his/her most basic emotional instincts.  We become gut-wrenchingly honest with ourselves and our Creator.  Douglas describes this as “My thoughts would compel utterance; and there, with no audience but the Almighty, I would pour out my soul’s complaint, in my rude way…”  The thing is, God already knows what is going on inside your heart and mind, and He even has a clearer view of you than you do.  But for your sake, not His, embrace the idea, “I exist!”  You are here for a reason.  Your life is not the culmination of a grand cosmic accident.  You were born during this time period to this particular genetic heritage and disposition in this particular geographical location, ON PURPOSE.  Your feelings matter to God.  Right or wrong, theologically sound or heretical, positive or negative – in the “howling animality” of ENOUGH ALREADY, God is not going to stop you and make you become the church-approved version of yourself in order to hear you.  He’s there.  He’s hurting with you.  And He’s ready for you to pour out your heart to Him.  He is not the cruel slave-master burdening you with more than you can handle, always waiting to catch you doing something wrong or looking at Him the wrong way, He is the wind in the white sails of the ships on the bay, the silent voice of freedom drawing you to Himself.  He knows that you are “prevented by a combination of hope and fear” in the “stern reality” of “only one life to lose.”

If “You have seen how a man was made a slave” then “you shall see how a slave was made a man.”

Next blog in this series: Awakening, by Asia Samson

If you’ve been following this blog long enough, you may recall reading Java Jives: The Asia Project.  Here’s an excerpt:

“God, I want a penis the size of a forearm with a clenched fist…” is not your typical Sunday morning prayer.  But Asia Samson, a poet and cancer survivor who calls himself “God’s faithful servant”, is not your typical minister.

Asia finds purpose in suffering, and this is very evident to his audience.  About a month and a half ago, Asia’s sister had to have brain surgery.  She was recuperating at home and was expected to recover completely when she suddenly experienced complications, fell into a coma, and within a few short days, she passed away.  I wondered to myself how Asia might respond, especially after seeing status updates about his faith being shaken to the core.   A little over a week ago, Asia posted, “Today’s the 40th day of my sister’s death. In Catholicism, it’s when we pray to God to let her into heaven.”

From a theological perspective, there may be some (protestant evangelicals, fundamentalists) who scoff at the idea that I believe Asia is a “minister,” as in “called by God,” because first, he prays for the post-mortem salvation of his sister, and second, he doesn’t mention that Jesus Christ is the only hope for anyone who would enter into the reign of God.  To the first objection I would respond that there are some concepts in which the Catholics are closer to the truth than the Protestants, and vice-versa.  To the second objection I don’t need to respond, because the Asia Project website does it for me:

Doesn’t this remind you of what the Apostle Paul wrote?

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

 It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on…

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely…

Each of us is an original…

Live creatively, friends. If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed…

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.

We become who God created us to be in the same way that babies mature into adults.  We babble before we speak words.  We combine our words incorrectly until we learn how to form complete sentences.  We crawl before we walk.  We stumble along until we learn how to keep our balance.  We drink milk before we have teeth.  We learn to chew on tiny, soft pieces until we are able to eat a steak.  We do the best we can and rejoice in a hope that is not disappointed, the hope that He will finish what He starts in us.  The same is true of suffering.  Some of us may believe we are spiritually mature, but when we experience some devastating loss, we learn that we are infants.  The scriptures are loaded with stories of people who became giants in the faith only after having been trained by hardship, having been oppressed by others, or having suffered in some other way.  For more on that, read Hebrews 11.  As to whether God simply permits unthinkable loss or orchestrates it, whether we can understand it this side of the grave or it must remain a mystery, if there is purpose in it or if it is the result of living in a creation that has gone renegade, these are all ideas that are being explored in this blog series called Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas), The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad Hazards, and The Soul’s Complaint, based on the book, What Shall We Say? by Thomas G. Long.  This blog is the seventh in this series.

Click the link below to hear Asia’s spoken word poetry dedication to his sister and see a slideshow.  I wanted to include his testimony in this series, because Asia is familiar with suffering and effortlessly exposes its emotional core.  His poem informs us of what it’s like to collapse under the weight of believing God for something and realizing that God has something else in mind.  For him, the tension of that moment gives way to resignation at first, and then hope for something more from the One Who is able to do more than we can ever ask or imagine – an awakening, from winter to spring, from death to life.

Next blog in this series: Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom

 

 A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog called The Climax of All Misnomers and a blog called The Soul’s Complaint.  In both of these blogs, I generously quoted from the slave narrative of Frederick Douglass.  My reasoning for doing so is as follows:

Since I’m in the middle of a blog series on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith, the inclusion of Frederick Douglass’s crisis of faith is worthwhile.  Douglass writes that he is “almost ready to ask” the hard questions, but in writing them, he does ask them, although he doesn’t seek answers to those questions in his writing.  Oh what I wouldn’t give to borrow the pen of Frederick Douglass in this particular blog series!  He was a brilliant man, and like Christ, acquainted with sorrows.

Here I would like to offer a different point of view.  Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom is a slave narrative by William and Ellen Craft.

The narratives of both Douglass and Craft utilize personal testimony and scripture to expose the corrupt nature of the system of slavery by demonstrating how the professed religion of slaveholders differs from true religion.  The former is practiced word only; the latter is practiced in both word and deed. Douglass and Craft differ in their personal interpretation and application of true religion.  For example, in light of suffering and grief, Douglass punctuates his narrative with questions of theodicy, asking, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” Craft, on the other hand, consistently looks toward the justice of God with bold certainty.  He writes, “I must leave [heartless tyrants] in the hands of an all-wise and just God, who will, in his own good time, and in his own way, avenge the wrongs of his oppressed people.”  Craft is more methodical in his response to the religious hypocrisy of proponents of slavery in that he uses their own hate-filled religious rhetoric against them.  He quotes from the sermons of nine reverends who strongly defend the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill and skillfully responds with both logic and scripture.  Craft politely concludes, “I must now leave the reverend gentlemen in the hands of Him who knows best how to deal with a recreant ministry.”

It is interesting that Douglass and the Crafts, despite their similar experiences, approach the problem of theodicy so differently.  Why do you think this is?  Is one approach better than the other?  Why or why not?  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

*For the purpose of this blog, my focus is theodicy, but I encourage readers to click the link and read Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom in its entirety.  Find out how they pulled off their daring escape by coming up with a very clever plan…

Next blog in this series: David Will Live Again

I am very honored to welcome guest blogger, Louis Soto to www.whatgoddoes.com.  David’s view on theodicy (a spiritual/philosophical attempt to reconcile the idea that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing with the very real presence of evil and suffering in the world) is simple, but profound, basically, “I don’t know.”  He holds on to hope but admits, “I only see through a glass darkly.”  I appreciate Louis’s honest, humble, straightforward manner, and his commitment to telling the story of how losing his son caused him to reexamine traditional beliefs about God’s intentions toward humanity.  His experience is so much more than the churchy word “theodicy,” so much more than just a blog in a blog series.  That’s why I say I am honored that he has taken the time to write a blog for this series, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith.  

Here are the other blogs in this series:

Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)

The Shaking of the Foundations

The Impossible Chess Match

The Climax of All Misnomers

Road Hazards

The Soul’s Complaint

Awakening, by Asia Samson

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom

(Be sure to check out Louis’s website at the end of this blog post.)

 

It’s been four years since I had to view my son’s lifeless body and put him in the ground.  In the following months reading the police and medical reports that described his death has created a vivid visual that has haunted me almost daily. Despite the many hours and shifts in mood and perspective every minute has been pinned to the backdrop of the deepest sorrow.  There have been many emotions; so much fear and despair in the first few days that have become months and now years.  I couldn’t find a reasonable explanation for why God had allowed this to happen, but thought that in His mercy He would allow me to understand.  I felt as if God had hidden Himself from me.  No one could explain how this could have happened, but certainly God knew and I felt that if He helped me to understand I could somehow get through this. The truth is that after years of pleading with God for that understanding He has remained silent. I do not know why David couldn’t be saved and why God did not prevent this.  David choked to death with incredible odds in his favor; a police officer at his side at the time of the incident and EMT and ambulance 20 feet away. It appeared that these people did everything they knew to do to save David, but tragically failed.  One of the EMT’s present told me that this should not have gone down this way and all he could think of is that there was a higher power controlling the outcome. This has to be the greatest of all sorrows.  Why would God cause us to love our children so and then take them away?

My other grave concern was what had become of David. Everyone told me he was in a better place; that he had gone home to be with the Lord.  While I wanted to believe this, common religion teaches that the probability of damnation far exceeds the possibility of salvation and couldn’t understand how so many could be so sure.  I was conflicted with years of the typical Christian soteriology.  I had preached a gospel whose power was fear; turn or burn, what a horrible thought.  Sometimes, well-meaning Christians would attempt to comfort me by saying that David was in heaven, then paused and asked David was saved, wasn’t he? Uhhh…  I don’t know, what if he wasn’t!  Of course, silence ensued.   Why would God create the living, allow them to die so that they wouldn’t live forever in a state of sin, but allow a part of them to survive to be tormented while they wait to be brought back to life completely and be kept alive forever in a torture chamber. How is that better than living forever in sin? There had to be a better purpose for death.  That is what I had believed, but the thought that this could be the fate of my own son shocked me into a greater awareness.  I knew something was wrong with this thinking and am grateful to God for having revealed Himself to me in a way I had not known.  It probably would have been simpler to accept all the assurances that I was receiving, but I wanted assurance from God.

While I believed David to be a good kid and have a basic belief in God, I was unsure that he met the Christian definition of being saved.  As I grappled with God and approached scripture with a new heart and mind I began to see many things that settled the matter of David’s destiny.  Everyone that assured me of David’s salvation had David in mind when reaching that conclusion.  It always came back to David was a good kid, David was only 16, David believed in God, David was a Christian, David accepted Jesus.  It wasn’t until I realized that salvation, eternal life and reconciliation were not all necessarily the same thing and that David’s ultimate end was not found in David’s life, but in Jesus’. I found assurance when I understood that in the same way that David was included in Adam in his earthly life, so too was he included in Jesus’ in his spiritual life.  Living without David is extremely difficult, but living with the fear that David could potentially be tormented in hell forever would make this life intolerable. I don’t understand how those who believe in the hell doctrine as it is commonly taught can remain calm and sane while thinking that their loved ones are either there or heading there.  How could anyone live with that thought and even worse, how could we ever enjoy heaven while many of our children suffer in hell; our heaven would become hell.  To desire to enjoy an eternal bliss while our loved ones suffer hellish blisters seems ungodly and selfish.

While I wish that God hadn’t placed me on this path and miss David terribly I am convinced that David will live again.  For now the sorrow is deep and long for the day when my tears are wiped away as the trumpet of God rouses David from the grave and I see my boy even more beautiful than I knew him to be.

I have created a website that describes in more detail this hope that David will live again.

www.davidwillliveagain.com

 

Next blog in this series: Fellow Pilgrims

Continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

Chapter Four: Fellow Pilgrims

Philosopher J. L. Mackey, in his essay, “Evil and Omnipotence,” argues that if God can choose to do anything He wants to do, then He could “have created a world in which human beings could be completely free in their choices but would freely choose the good on each and every occassion” (Long).  Mackey writes, “Clearly, his failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.”

Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga challenges Mackey.  To piggy-back on the blog I wrote yesterday, let’s suppose that Plantinga is Facebook friends with Mackey.  Plantinga posts this on his Facebook page:

godisgood

Then suppose that Mackey responds to Plantinga’s post with his “Evil and Omnipotence” argument.  Plantinga wants it to be a private conversation, but Mackey feels that it should be public.  Plantinga immediately deletes Mackey’s response and unfriends him.  The end.  That’s pretty counterproductive, isn’t it?  For more on the prevalence of censorship in Christianity read yesterday’s blog and/or Something Very DisturbingTest everything, hold on to what is good.Spiritual BottleneckYou Can’t Kill God’s Idea.

Anyhow, back to the theodicy argument…

Plantinga writes a response to Mackey’s essay called “God, Freedom, and Evil,” in which he counters that Mackey’s definition of omnipotence (meaning God being all-powerful) is flawed.  Plantinga’s idea of omnipotence is “not that there are no limits to God’s power, but at most that there are no nonlogical limits.  Plantinga cites a few classic examples: God creating square circles, married bachelors, or a rock so heavy that even He can’t lift it.

The danger here is to ignore the heavy heart of the person who just lost a dear loved one in a tragic accident as we charge headlong into a complicated, brain scrambling, philosophical debate on logic.  Long recognizes this and introduces a few more voices into the conversation:

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People comes to terms with theodicy not by defining the logic behind omnipotence, but by defining the concept of “power” in omnipotence.  John B. Cobb, author of God and the World agrees with Kushner’s views.  God’s power is less “being” and more “process,” and God’s power is “embedded in larger evolving systems.  God works in and with what is available, not coercing but luring the world toward greater and greater good” (Long).

I have a lot to say about this, but I’ll reserve it for another blog another day.  For now we’ll follow the trail Long leaves for his readers and examine a question raised by process theologian David Ray Griffin in his book, God, Power, and Evil: A Process Theodicy.  Griffin asks if should have brought order out of chaos and holds God “clearly responsible” for evil, since God did.  But Griffin assures his readers that God subjects Himself to all the discomforts of evil.  He is with us.

Theologian Robert Neville points out that Griffin’s idea of God doesn’t satisfy the moral outrage people feel in the wake of evil.  If God is in the same predicament we are, what consolation is that?

Long changes gears mid-chapter and moves into the free will argument, in which the entire world is implicated in evil and there really is no such thing as “suffering that is innocent.”  Long claims that most American Christians plant their flag in this camp, but I disagree.  I think that the modern American Christian’s approach to Augustinian theodicy is what my late father-in-law would call a polished turd.  They have no idea what their shiny, pretty, sensible theology really is.  If church-goers actually studied the history behind and implications of their orthodoxy (see “statement of faith,” usually available on your church’s website), they would be surprised.  They might be outraged that an innocent child was tortured and murdered, but their theology says there is no such thing as an innocent child.  I urge readers to do their homework in this and other matters.

It’s that tired old argument again.  That if God didn’t give us free will, we would be robots.  That sin originated in humanity.  That we chose it. That God allowed it as part of His redemptive plan. I’m glad that Long addresses this – “If the world was [created] perfect, then from whence did [sin/evil] come?”  Long notes that the free will argument only addresses some forms of evil and that evil-for-the-purpose-of-redemption is an inadequate answer.  “Some forms of evil are absurd, beyond any rational ability to find redemptive purpose in them,” Long writes.  I believe that the most telling words in that statement are “beyond any rational ability,” particularly, the word “any.”  I’ll be writing more about this later in the series.

The problem of theodicy, as complicated as it is, can be boiled down to one simple question.  Can we trust God?

Long asks, “What gives?”  And then he restates the theodicy problem:

  • There is a God.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • God is loving and good.
  • There is innocent suffering.

Long writes, “Having explored the thought of fellow pilgrims, the best response, I would argue, is ‘all of the above.'”

How do you respond, readers?  Do you agree with Long?  Why or why not?  Please feel free to comment.

The links to each of the blogs in this series are Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad HazardsThe Soul’s ComplaintAwakening, by Asia SamsonRunning a Thousand Miles for FreedomDavid Will Live Again.

The next blog in this series: Howl: Job and the Whirlwind

Continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

Chapter Five: Howl: Job and the Whirlwind

Long quotes David Robertson, author of The Book of Job: A Literary Study, Terrance W. Tilley, author of The Evils of Theodicy, and David B. Burrell, author of Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering, to suggest the possibility that the book of Job is not supposed to be a theodicy, and those who approach the book as a theodicy will find it “problematic and ultimately disappointing.”  Long writes that according to Burrell, “a principal function of Job is to deconstruct all of the ‘sober efforts of philosophers to construct theories’ that defend the character of God.”

Long looks at the book of Job as a stage play or tall tale, “employing the classic comedic technique of exaggeration,” a heavily edited “jumble of genres” including epic poetry and dialogue.  Long writes,

Job’s “perfect world” was built upon the assumption that God plays by a set of moral rules that are widely publicized and known to humanity.  As long as a person, like Job, obeys those rules, or engages in acts of purification when one of those rules may have inadvertently been broken, then God can be trusted to “play fair” and to preserve and protect.  The problem, however, was that God broke the rules.  The destruction and suffering experienced by Job came as the direct result of divine behavior, which as far as the agreed-upon rules go, was definitely in foul territory… God’s behavior broke the Humpty Dumpty world apart, and it makes no sense whatsoever to end the story by pretending that it could be put back together again.  The plot of the story itself has destroyed the foundation upon which that world was built.

Philosopher Richard Rorty defines deconstruction as “the way in which the ‘accidental’ features of a text can be seen as betraying, subverting, its purportedly ‘essential’ message.”  If I understand Long’s position correctly, then the essential message of Job, as a theodicy, fails because the text basically unravels itself.

Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, each give Job opinions and advice about Job’s awful situation.  Long writes, “As we witness this drama, it gradually dawns on us is that what separates Job from his friends is that Job loves God.  His friends love the religious system, but Job loves God.  Unlike them, Job is willing, if he must, to give up his theology, but he will not give up on his God.”

A fourth friend of Job’s, Elihu, delivers what Long calls “the false denouement,” basically repeating the ideas that have already been presented by the other three, according to Long.  I am surprised at Long’s take on Elihu, and how he says Elihu “is all wind-up and no pitch.”

Elihu is a young man among elders, yet he is bold enough to say, “But not one of you has proved Job wrong; none of you has answered his arguments.”  Although I don’t necessarily agree with all of Elihu’s ideas, I can totally identify with Elihu’s position, because this blog exists for the same reasons as Elihu’s monologue, that is “For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me; inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.  I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply. I will show no partiality, nor will I flatter anyone…”

Elihu offers this nugget of wisdom: “The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power; in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.”

And as soon as Elihu is finished, God shows up.

I’ll continue my review of chapter five next time…

Other blogs in this series: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad HazardsThe Soul’s ComplaintAwakening, by Asia SamsonRunning a Thousand Miles for FreedomDavid Will Live Again, and Fellow Pilgrims.

 

Next blog in this series: Christ is the Yes of the Universe

Continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

I’d like to begin with the following excerpt from another blog, Satan, the Pupil:

According to orthodox theology, Job’s torment is instigated by Satan and permitted by God. I see something different. Let’s take a look at the text…

Job 1:7-8

The LORD said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it.”

Then the LORD said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job?”

Who brought up the name of Job? It wasn’t Satan, it was God. And God, having all knowledge of every being knows how Satan will respond. Of all the beings gathered together, why not choose to have a discussion about Job with one of the good guys? Instead, God chooses to have a conversation with the one called the “adversary.”

God could have kept His thoughts about Job to Himself, but He chose instead to share them with the one who is inclined to bring torment into Job’s life. Why?

The answer to this question can be found within the statement God makes – the word here translated “consider.” It is a word that has to do with learning.

So basically, God is teaching Satan. And apparently, what God is teaching Satan is so important that God will permit his faithful servant, Job, to suffer terribly.

What is God teaching Satan?

And more importantly, why is God bothering with teaching Satan anything at all?

Suppose Satan learns whatever it is that God is teaching him. Then what?

In the previous blog in this series on theodicy, Howl: Job and the Whirlwind, Long suggests the possibility that the book of Job is not supposed to be about theodicy, and those who approach the book as theodicy will find it “problematic and ultimately disappointing.”  Long writes*, “a principal function of Job is to deconstruct all of the ‘sober efforts of philosophers to construct theories’ that defend the character of God.”

Admittedly, until I read Long’s book, I had never considered the book of Job, or other wisdom literature for that matter, from this perspective.

Now, let me take you, reader, on a little detour, and then we’ll return to the subject at hand.

In the recent blog from the Why Chan Can’t Erase Hell series, Could You Love a God Like This?, I write:

Chan examines the laundry list of God; dirty laundry, that is.  The heading of this portion of the chapter is entitled, “I Wouldn’t Have Done That.”  Basically, Chan’s goal is to shock readers into agreeing that “sending people to hell isn’t the only thing God does that is impossible to figure out.”  The litany of bizarre and horrific “divine acts” includes:

  • A world-wide flood with only eight survivors
  • The command to slaughter of 3,000 people
  • The command to slaughter the inhabitants of Canaan, including men, women, and children
  • The command to stone people to death
  • The command for Ezekiel “to lie on his right side for 390 days, to lie on his left side for 40 days, to cook for over human dung, to hold himself back from mourning over his wife’s death when God takes her, and to preach sermons laced with sexually explicit rhetoric…”
  • Sending His Son to be tortured and killed

And later in the same blog, I ask, “Could you love a God like this?” and “Should you love a God like this?

Lanny Eichert, a regular blog reader, comments,

Aren’t you forgetting INCLUDED in the list is the bullet point: •Sending His Son to be tortured and killed. That bullet point is to stand in contrast to Who He REALLY is and what He REALLY does.

So, I guess you mean all those bullets reflect the OPPOSITE of your god’s character and work.

God sending His Son to be tortured and killed – it’s a false, human-invented God
Please explain, Alice.

And I respond,

You make a good point, Lanny. I didn’t really think of it that way – my intent was to address the biased tone Chan uses, as if there were no way possible way to look at this than that God does evil things, but since God does them, we must accept those evil things as somehow being good. What the Jews and Romans did to Jesus was evil. God did not prevent it. So you can look at it as God sending His Son for the ultimate purpose of dying a horrible death, or you can look at it as God sending His Son, Who, in agreement with His Father, subjected Himself to incredibly unfair treatment from His fellow human beings in order to accomplish the higher purpose of seeking and saving the lost. Chan only addresses the former, as if Jesus died and that’s it – end of story. There’s much more to it than that. God didn’t torture and kill His Son, people did.

The reason for this aside is that I see similarities between Christ and Job. In the story of Job and the account of Christ, God permits undeserved suffering.

But WHY?  That is THE question.  A question that Long very eloquently dodges, in my opinion (at least in chapter five of his book).  Long writes:

We are witnessing the claim that the alternative to our moral scheme of order and disorder is not chaos.  It is not even a new and divine scheme of order and disorder.  It is, rather, a vision that staggers the imagination, a vision of only order, of everything – even that which must be called evil – gathered into the hand of a just God.  It is a vision that comes to us from outside the place of human time, and yet one which serves to give radical hope in the present. […]

The New Testament does not claim that suffering is an illusion or that death is a friend.  Jesus’ own life was marked by suffering with “loud cries and tears,” and death is named as a very real and powerful “last enemy.” At the same time, the New Testament can affirm that “in Christ all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

Long refers to suffering, evil, death, and the like, as a cosmic negative, what he simply calls, “no.”  Long writes:

The New Testament does not deny the presence of the painful “no” at work in human life.  Nor does it attempt to balance this “no” with a countervailing “yes,” saying, in effect, that, all things considered, human suffering is not all that terrible.  Instead, like Job, it underscores the inescapable reality of that “no,” and then offers the death and resurrection of Jesus as the promise that the ambiguous interplay between “no” and “yes” in human experience has ultimately been absorbed into the “Yes” of Christ, who is all in all.

Long’s assessment of the situation resonates with me.  Jesus is the “Yes” of the universe.  Long uses the operative word, “absorbed” to describe where that dark “no” goes.  This reminds me very much of the concept Paul describes his letter to the Corinthians, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  Paul writes:

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

Although Long’s assessment of the situation resonates with me, I disagree with the idea that the book of Job never answers Job’s question, “Why me, Lord?”  Perhaps that question is not answered for Job, but the readers of the book of Job have more information than the main character.  Remember how the book of Job begins?

And the day is, that sons of God come in to station themselves by Jehovah, and there doth come also the Adversary in their midst.

And Jehovah saith unto the Adversary, “Whence comest thou?”

And the Adversary answereth Jehovah and saith, “From going to and fro in the land, and from walking up and down on it.”

And Jehovah saith unto the Adversary, “Hast thou set thy heart against My servant Job because there is none like him in the land, a man perfect and upright, fearing God, and turning aside from evil?”

Job doesn’t see this.  Job doesn’t know this.

Long writes about the conclusion of the book of Job:

We expected the Adversary to be shamed for his foolish wager, but the Adversary is never mentioned.  He has completely disappeared.  He is a character suitable only to the old world, which has passed away.  The friends of Job are scolded by God for lying, and, according to the old-world theology they so vigorously defended, they should have been punished without mercy.  But God’s grace, and Job’s prayer on their behalf, however, they are in fact forgiven.

Why do you think the Adversary is not mentioned again in the story?

*according to David B. Burrell, author of Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering

Next blog in this series: Theodicy of Protest

Continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

In chapter five, entitled, “Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow,” Long seeks to use the parable Jesus told of The Wheat and the Weeds as a “map” for the “journey” of theodicy.  Thankfully, Long takes the context of the parable into consideration.  The parable of the Wheat and Weeds is one of seven parables, “strung together in one long discourse.”

According to Long, Matthew’s literary construction of the parables points readers to The Wheat and the Weeds and Jesus’ private explanation of that parable as “bookends” that help us make sense of all the other parables.

Long writes,

When we recognize the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds as a pastoral conversation about the presence of evil and good mixed together in the world, we can see that it is an implied dialogue constructed around three urgent questions.

Those questions are:

  1. God, did you cause this?
  2. Can we fix it?
  3. Will it always be this way?

If we look at the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, we can see why Long chooses these particular questions:

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” (God, did you cause this?)

An enemy did this,” he replied.

The servants asked him, “Do you want us to go and pull them up?” (Can we fix it?)

No,” he answered, “because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. (Will it always be this way?) Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.”

After the recent bombing in Boston, some “Christian” bloggers didn’t waste any time both asking and answering question one.  For example, Nathaniel Darnell writes in Could the Boston Bombing Be a Judgment from God?:

…we should consider it no coincidence in God’s providence that a wickedness like this would occur in a state and a city that has fallen from the purpose of its founders into abject wickedness…

…be in prayer, asking God to bring the people of Massachusetts to their senses for their sins against the Lord. We should furthermore examine ourselves for our own sins and repent of them before the Lord. Even as we work to deal with civil evils in the civil realm, we must recognize God’s providential hand in these events, motivating us to walk in the fear of the Lord.

For Darnell and others with the same view, the question, God, did you cause this? is answered with a resounding yes.  God’s “providential hand” brought “wickedness” to Boston as an act of judgment for “their sins against the Lord.”  To those who believe this to be true, the only proper response is fear.  Darnell writes that these events should cause believers to feel motivated “to walk in the fear of the Lord.”

But not everyone who holds Darnell’s view respond with fear.  Some respond with moral outrage, like the servants in the parable.  They ask, God, did you cause this?, and believing God did cause it, they question Who God is and what God does. “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?”  If there are weeds, or in this case, exploding bombs, does this mean God didn’t sow good seed in His field?

Long refers to this second group as expressing faith.  How does moral outrage express faith, you ask?  I’ll let Long explain:

If we did not believe in God at all, or if we believed that God is an absentee landlord, or, worse, a cruel tyrant, then the presence of weeds in the wheat, of evil and suffering in the midst of good, would simply be the way things are… Only in expectation that God is good and that the creation is good, only in a relationship of faith and trust, does the presence of evil prompt us to shake the finger of accusation in God’s face.

According to Long, the very first point Jesus makes in telling this parable is that “God has a lot to give an account for.”  It only takes one paragraph before Long quickly asks, “Who are we humans to file charges against God?”

These are “people who trust God and feel betrayed,” who practice a “theodicy of protest.”

Long explains,

When we voice protest over the suffering and evil we encounter in life, we do more than just vent our rage.  We engage in an ancient and profound form of prayer, an appeal to the honor of God.

I’ll continue in this chapter next time.

Next blog in this series: Where Did Evil Come From?

 

The links to each of the blogs in this series are Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad HazardsThe Soul’s ComplaintAwakening, by Asia SamsonRunning a Thousand Miles for FreedomDavid Will Live AgainHowl: Job and the WhirlwindChrist is the Yes of the Universe.

“The devil” is best imagined not literally, as some demonic figure lurking in the shadows, but as a symbol of a deep theological truth — namely, that the evil we experience in history is more than the sum of its parts and transcends logical explanation… There is a dark spiritual force in evil as we experience it. (Long)

images

Today I’m continuing in the blog series on theodicy, based on Thomas G. Long’s book, What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith

The links to each of the blogs in this series are Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Guest Blogger Mary Vanderplas)The Shaking of the FoundationsThe Impossible Chess MatchThe Climax of All MisnomersRoad HazardsThe Soul’s ComplaintAwakening, by Asia SamsonRunning a Thousand Miles for FreedomDavid Will Live AgainHowl: Job and the WhirlwindChrist is the Yes of the UniverseTheodicy of Protest.  My apologies that it’s been over six months since the most recent post in this series.  In order to avoid confusion, please take a few minutes to scan through these to re-familiarize yourself with the series before you continue reading.

In his exploration of theodicy, Long asserts that evil is God’s enemy.

This begs the question, if evil is God’s enemy, and God created everything, and everything that God created He called “good,” then how did evil come to exist?  Long creates a list of four ideas, possible explanations as to how evil came about:

  1. God is the author of both good and evil and made the creation as a mixture of good and evil, for whatever divine reasons.
  2. There are two “creators,” a good one and a bad one. God is the author of the good aspects of creation, and the force of evil is the author of the bad ones.
  3. God did not fashion the creation ex nihilo — that is, out of nothing — but started with some raw materials already at hand. As for the origins of these raw materials, we cannot say, but the potential for evil was already present in them, like impurities in clay. God’s creation is a work in progress, and all of the evil has not yet been eliminated.
  4. God is the one and only creator, and the creation was made “very good.” But something happened after God’s creative act to introduce evil into the goodness of creation.

 

Long dismisses number one because it makes God the author of evil, and since this is “not the God we meet in Christ, this can’t possibly be true.”  

I can’t help but wonder how Long explains Isaiah 45:7. In The Problem of Evil by John Essex, he writes, “In the book of Jeremiah alone, there are more than thirty references to God either doing evil or repenting from evil which He had purposed doing, and there are similar passages in other books.”

Long rejects number two because it “forces us to imagine creation as the eternal battlefield of two rival deities.”

Interestingly, there are two creation accounts in Genesis. One account states that Elohim said, “”Lo, I have given to you every herb sowing seed, which [is] upon the face of all the earth, and every tree in which [is] the fruit of a tree sowing seed, to you it is for food,” (with no mention of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, no prohibitions) and the other states that Jehovah God “layeth a charge on the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden eating thou dost eat; and of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou dost not eat of it…'”

Long discards number three because “Yahweh, the God of Jesus, arrives on stage late in the game and begins to influence an already existing creation.”

Some Christians don’t believe in the trinity of God but believe that Jesus came from God (the Word of God) and then created everything. John 1:3, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:16, and Hebrews 1:2 all indicate that creation is dia (through, for the sake of, because of) Christ.

Another thing to consider is the difference between Genesis 1 in which God “made” (prepared) stuff and Genesis 2 in which God “formed” (gave physical form to) stuff. According to Genesis 1, God finished “making” stuff, called it good, and rested. In contrast, according to Genesis 2, He never called the “formed” stuff good or rested from forming stuff.

Long chooses number four as the only viable option, saying that evil is “an intruder into the goodness of creation” that “did not come from the hand of God.”

Rather than just taking Long’s word for it, prayerfully examine these ideas for yourself.  I’m not planting any flags here; I’m just presenting some information to explore.  “Test everything.  Hold on to what is good.”