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We Don’t Get to Hold God Accountable: Theodicy as a Problem

As creatures made in God’s image, we are given many gifts, broad freedom, and power to represent Him with boldness in the world, but we are never given the right to hold God accountable.

William Placher’s The Domestication of Transcendence ends with a thoughtful chapter on what is usually called theodicy, the theological discipline that examines the justice of God.  Placher’s project in this work is to show how 17th century thinkers “domesticated” God, emphasizing via human reason God’s immanence (knowablility) to the detriment of God’s transcendence, particularly in classic Christian categories.  Given that focus, it should be no surprise that he finds theodicy exemplifies the worst of this trend.

Classic theodicies, in dealing with a basic (yet difficult!) question of innocent suffering, might pose a question like this: “If God is all-powerful, all-loving, and all knowing, why do children get cancer and die?”  This limits the answers, naturally, to compromising some part of God’s character: God either must not be omnipotent, benevolent, or omniscient.  The only other alternative is that either the supposedly innocent sufferer is not really that innocent, or that the suffering serves some higher purpose to which we do not have access.

All of these miss the mark, of course, if one is committed to the Trinity of Christian belief and worship.  Placher cites John Hick as an example of the spiritual gymnastics one must do to resolve the tensions inherent in traditional theodicies, by which we [read: theologians] seek to hold God accountable:

…in Evil and the God of Love, John Hick proposes that a world without pain “would lack the stimuli to hunting, agriculture, building, social organization, and the development of the sciences and technologies, which have been essential foci of human civilization and culture.” Like right-wing politicians urging reductions in welfare benefits to force people back to work, such a theodicy seeks to justify God in the face of starving children by pointing out that their hunger constitutes a stimulus to agriculture and hunting. This seems to manifest a kind of moral tone-deafness. My point is not to launch personal attacks on particular writers of theodicy, but to suggest that something about the enterprise of theodicy itself drives even thoughtful, decent folk to morally unacceptable conclusions. (204, emphasis added)

As Hauerwas argues in his magnificent God, Medicine, and Suffering (first published as Naming the Silences), it is the entire practice of theodicy that must be rethought, not simply this or that variety thereof.  Theodicy as normally undertaken inevitably results in compromising some critical facet of our understanding of God or humanity.  The quest to hold God accountable is thus bankrupt from the jump.  What is needed is a way of honestly confronting evil and suffering while holding on to God’s character revealed in the self-giving love of Christ.  This results in its own difficulty, but a difficulty that is altogether better than the kind of alternatives represented by John Hick and others in the tradition of theodicy.  As Placher has written before in regards to the Trinity, Christians must hold on to, rather than attempt to resolve, an inherent tension that we run up against:

Theologians have often been justly criticized for announcing a “mystery” whenever they find themselves lacking a good explanation. But it is not intellectual cheating to refuse to explain something if you can give an account of why just this should not be explicable; and reflection on the nature of sin, I have been arguing, provides just such an account. Christians therefore should say both that there is not a single point where God is absent or inactive or only partly active or restricted in action, and that there are irrational events that are somehow not caused by God. They should be willing to say both without worrying overmuch about how both could be true, for the attempt to resolve such worries leads inevitably to a search for sin’s causes that makes it explicable, and it therefore loses its full irrationality. Even worse, it starts to produce accounts of why those who have suffered somehow deserved it – the one thing biblical texts like Job and the Gospel healing stories so firmly reject. (211, emphasis added)

To sum up, it is not our job to hold God accountable. We are mere creatures, and so our search for God will always carry with it some degree of mystery. And our efforts to do so, however humble, pastoral, and well-intentioned, result only in alternatives that are worse than living with the tension Placher names above.  As Brueggemann and others point out, the Bible nowhere offers a “theodicy” in the traditional sense. The only answer Job gets is, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

The Bible treats evil as a reality to be confronted rather than an intellectual puzzle to be solved. The laments of the Psalms are the finest example of this, teaching us to call out to God in the raw reality of agony, not wax philosophically over our predicament.  Laments hold together the goodness of God with the incomprehensibility – what Hannah Arendt called the “banality” of evil – that mars so much of life on this side of the eschaton.

We don’t get to hold God accountable. It is not ours to justify the ways of God to us.  But neither can we be deaf to the cries of innocent suffering or blind to the raw evil in our midst. That tension is precarious, but it is better than the alternatives.

Is theodicy by nature a bankrupt discipline? Should we seek better alternatives, rather than abandoning it altogether? Leave a comment below – and don’t forget to enter your email at to the right of the title and subscribe to get these blogs in your inbox weekly!

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Towards Schism at Ludicrous Speed

spaceballs meme

One of my favorite films of all time is actually a spoof of one of my other favorites.  As you may have guessed from the title, it is Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, a classic slapstick comedy that pokes fun at the Star Wars saga (later George Lucas would release three “Prequels” that were even more hysterical parodies of his original work).  At one point in the film, the villain Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), sets out to pursue the hero Lone Star (Bill Pullman).  His second-in-command orders light speed, but Dark Helmet informs him that “light speed is too slow” and orders him to take it to the next level: ludicrous speed.  (Watch the scene here if you wish – minor language warning, though.)

Today a self-appointed College of Cardinals mysterious cabal of conservative pastors and theologians announced in a press release through Good News that schism is already a reality, and we should  be Christian enough to go our separate ways in charity.  In other words, they have just gone from light speed to ludicrous speed.

I was particularly disappointed in their dismissal of a “middle way,” for which my colleagues and others have been advocating.  I cannot resist the temptation to use their own wording against them and suggest:

Talk of an “amicable” separation is comforting and sounds Christ-like.  However, such language only denies the reality that we need to admit.  Neither extreme represents either the main thrust or the majority view of the UMC, most of whose members and clergy live somewhere in between.

But today, mostly I am just sad that it has come to this.  The will of God is not divorce, however polite and “win-win,” but reconciliation.  Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann reflects,

“It grieves the heart of God that the children are estranged from God and from one another. God wills an utterly reconciled community and is at work toward that reality…the task of reconciliation includes the ordering of the family of faith itself. It is ludicrous for the beloved sons and daughters of God to be alienated in their own life. Surely at the center of God’s vision of reconciliation is an image of a united church. That will not come by trade-offs or power plays but by a new radical obedience in which our hoped-for unity calls us to abandon much of our divisive history, even that part of it that we treasure.” (104)

I am on retreat this week at a Benedictine monastery, planning sermons for the upcoming year.  Part of my time has involved worshiping with the community throughout the day.  A couple of nights ago at vespers, we sang Psalm 133:1, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!”

It was deeply moving, not only to sing that as a United Methodist in a  time of chaos, but to do so among a group of brethren who have taken the Bible seriously enough to pursue the hard work of what Brueggemann calls “radical obedience” towards that vision. God’s ultimate will for his church is not brokenness, however harmless and cordial, but unity.  The extremes – both left and right, mind you – seem intent on running in the opposite direction.  But we will not accomplish God’s will through “trade-offs or power plays.”  You ludicrous speedcan end a hostage standoff by shooting the hostage, but that defeats the purpose.  Likewise, two (or more?) churches that would result from the desired schism may purchase a measure of relief, but it will  come at great cost.

Ludicrous speed it is.  If the extremists in both camps – and yes, I think both are equally responsible – don’t take their hands off the accelerator soon, there is only one place left to go: to plaid.

And while I don’t know what that means, I don’t want to find out.

 

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Songs for Aurora: The Psalms Versus the Cult of Positivity

I’ve been preaching on the Psalms recently, using Walter Brueggemann’s three-fold typology (orientation, disorientation, new orientation) to order my preaching and teaching of the Bible’s great prayer book.  Little did I know that, unfortunately, the Sunday I had planned to preach about the Psalms of disorientation would be all too close to one of the worst mass killings in recent American history.

I do a double cringe every time a horrific act like the shootings in Aurora takes place.  The first is for the evil act itself, for the victims and their loved ones, for the communities shattered, for families torn apart.  The second cringe follows closely, though: the gut feeling in my stomach that all around the country (and the world) Christians are going to start saying stupid things in the face of cruelty and grief.  Case[s] in point here and here.

Too much popular Christianity is so inoculated by the cult of positivity, so intent on existing only in easy victory, on the mountaintop, that such actions literally do not compute with their comfortable, simple worldview.  So they result to familiar yet ultimately grotesque platitudes: God has a plan; every cloud has a silver lining; only the good die young, etc.  The most common refrain in these – often Reformed, whether acknowledged or not – churches is that somehow this (any and every this) fits into God’s purpose and will for the world.  Ugh.

Brueggemann, in his masterpiece The Message of the Psalms, points out the problem with churches that preach and sing nothing but a well-ordered, rational universe:

Life is not like that.  Life is also savagely marked by disequilibrium, incoherence, and unrelieved asymmetry.  In our time – perhaps any time – that needs no argument or documentation.

Certainly, in the face of the Aurora massacre, no one can doubt life’s “incoherence.”  Denial won’t cut it.  The Bible does not deny agony and distress, and we see this most acutely in the Psalms.  Nowhere does the Bible say, as evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe wrote, “If a Christian dies early, if a Christian dies young, it seems tragic, but really it is not tragic because they are going to a wonderful place.” (emphasis added)

Some might suggest that going on as if the world is well ordered and sensible in the face of counterfactuals is an act of gospel rebellion, of faith unmixed with doubt, just as Jesus would have us exhibit.  Bruggemann is suspicious:

It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more  frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life…a church that goes on singing “happy songs” in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does.” (The Message of the Psalms [Minneapolis: Augsburg 1984], 51-52.)

The questions that come at times like this are all legitimate.  In the Psalms, everything is on the table: God is asked to show up, to be the God of deliverance, the God of hope; God is accused of silence and abandonment; God’s own holiness and righteousness is invoked against what looks like his insufficiency in the face of evil.  Jesus cries one such Psalm on the cross in Matthew and Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

The legitimacy of the questions does not equate to easy answers, though.  The Bible doesn’t give us those.  Job learned that the hard way.  The Psalms are no better.  “There is no rhetorical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament.  The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible [Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005], 170.)

This is how the Bible deals with the disorientation, the darkness, the madness of life: by addressing it all to God, the good and bad, the gore and the glory:

Remember this, O Lord, how the enemy scoffs,
and an impious people reviles your name.
Do not deliver the soul of your dove to the wild animals;
do not forget the life of your poor for ever.

Have regard for your covenant,
for the dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence.
Do not let the downtrodden be put to shame;
let the poor and needy praise your name.
Rise up, O God, plead your cause;
remember how the impious scoff at you all day long.
Do not forget the clamor of your foes,
the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.

Psalm 74:18-23

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