Beliefnet
Blogalogue

Thanks, Bart, for a further characteristic (and as you say forceful) response and fresh statement. You’ve taken a few more words this time (I’m delighted to see) and I will happily do the same.
Let me begin by trying to clarify the first two matters which you picked up. I’ll take them in reverse order for a reason which may become clear.


I wasn’t suggesting you left the faith because you had an intellectualized understanding of it. I was wondering whether the argument of your book – there is so much suffering, the Bible doesn’t explain it satisfactorily, I can’t reconcile it with a good and powerful God – was the reason you left the faith, or if not, what was the reason, and how that reason relates to the argument of the book.
From what you now say it sounds to me as though you are saying you used to have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ and now you don’t, and that the argument about suffering has as it were reinforced that sense of something that no longer works for you. (Or are you saying the argument precipitated the loss of the relationship? You say that perhaps you ‘left for good reasons’ – were these the reasons in the book? If so, how does that differ from an intellectual argument which reaches a conclusion?) I’m certainly not trying to put words into your mouth or ideas into your head – I am (I trust) too experienced a pastor to suppose I can psychoanalyze even someone who is sitting in the same room and co-operating! – but simply to be sure I’ve heard what you are saying. You do after all talk quite a bit, in the book and in your first posting, about your loss of faith, and I was wanting to be sure I heard what you were saying and how that loss related to the argument about suffering.
This was why (your first point, my second) I was wondering about the force that is added to the case your book is making (or – a sudden thought – was your book not after all ‘making a case,’ but rather ‘expressing an emotion’?) by spending, say, twenty pages describing the Holocaust in detail rather than summarizing it in one or two. I’m still trying to get a handle on the relation between the rhetorical strategy of your book (rubbing your readers’ noses in great detail about the horrors of the world) and the actual substance of the case you’re making. I am not at all saying that numbers don’t matter or wanting to reduce things to cold logic . . .
So to the more substantial points. I think we differ on what might be meant by ‘the biblical view of suffering.’ That phrase is, it now appears, quite ambiguous. You are trying to get at ‘what the Bible says about why suffering happens.’ I argued in my book that the Bible doesn’t actually give us much of an answer to that question – why, to put it sharply, there was a snake in Eden in the first place – and that ‘the biblical view of suffering’ is more about what the creator God is doing about it and/or with it. We may thus in fact be talking more at cross purposes than I had realised.
In other words, I don’t think (for instance) that Amos and the others were writing in order to address the problem of theodicy (‘Why are these bad things happening? It’s because you’ve been wicked!’) but to say, ‘Israel – YHWH has called you to be his holy people, and if you fail at that point, the world is out of joint, and you’ll discover what that means!’ In other words, the prophets were not, by and large, answering our philosophical question, but acting (so they seem to have believed) as mouthpieces for the covenant God. Clearly Job (and Psalm 73 and some other passages) are addressing the philosophical problem more directly, and I agree that the answers there remain puzzling, though I think the real answers there are actually, ‘Here are some reasons why you won’t ever be able fully to understand this in the present life.’ Yes, I puzzle about the ending of Job, but my strategy for puzzling is different from yours, I think. (See my book Scripture and the Authority of God, published in the USA under the wondrous title The Last Word.)
Underneath a lot of this I resonate with a line from Bonhoeffer that has haunted me ever since I heard it as a student: that the primal sin of humanity, as in Genesis 3, is to put the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God. This could just be a shrug of the shoulders (‘Who am I to understand such mysteries?’), but it could and I think should be something more and richer: a recognition that the sort of creatures we are are never going to be in a position to set a moral bar and insist that God – if there is a creator God – jump over it. It is like recognising that the telescope I have, while very good at enabling me to see the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and other glories, won’t ever let me see a black hole, or several other things that the high-energy physicists and astronomers tell me are there. The instrument in question – my creaturely and innately rebellious humanity – can’t pick up the full mysteries of God and the world. Of course, there is continuity between God’s view of good and evil and ours, or it would be chaos come again. But we are never in a position to judge God (if God there be). That’s not a pious platitude, but a rather obvious ontological reality.
But the main thing that the Bible has to offer, I still believe – and no, it isn’t a canon within the canon, but rather the narrative offered by the canon itself! – is the call of Abraham as the one through whom the problem of the human plight will be addressed and resolved, and the long playing out of that call, and the story of Abraham’s descendents, not as the explanation of why there is evil, suffering etc., but as the story of what the creator is now doing about it. I then hold the other themes within that, and I think that is a fair thing for a Jewish or Christian theologian to do. I appreciate that you don’t read the Bible like this, and that’s a larger conversation we might have some time. As I say, I think we need the big stories as well as the little details. And the details – including Amos, the Flood, Revelation – are held within that larger narrative, not isolated nuggets of philosophical statements (‘now I’m going to explain what this suffering is about’).
As I say in the book, once God decides (with the call of Abraham) to work to address the problem of evil through people who are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, there is going to be an awful lot of messiness, which will reach its climax when God not only gets his feet muddy with the mess of the world but his hands bloody with the nails of the world. (But of course, I forgot: you don’t think the NT, or its early parts, believes in the divinity of Jesus, do you? I am genuinely puzzled by that. It seems abundantly clear in Paul, as I and plenty of others have argued in various places.)
This isn’t of course a full answer but a signpost in one direction. And, just as a nudge – are you sure Ecclesiastes doesn’t think there is a future judgment – in other words, a day of reckoning when the creator will sort things out? How do you read those passages (3.17, 12.14) which seem to say there is? And what do you do with the passages (e.g. 2.26, 5.6) where Ecclesiastes seems to share what you see as the ‘prophetic’ perspective, that God makes bad things happen to bad people?
But the real dividing line, still – and you still haven’t addressed it – comes with the resurrection. I do think, and I think the early Christians thought, and I think the evangelists (yes, in their different ways) thought, that the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not ‘come’ fully, of course; but, in the usual language, it was radically inaugurated. The myth of the ‘delay of the parousia’ has largely grown up in the modern world to fill the vacuum left when scholars insisted that the resurrection didn’t happen. For the early Christians, God’s new world – the world where God’s writ runs – had already begun, and they were living in it by the power of the Spirit. Things did change. The early Christians did make a difference. (See Rodney Stark’s remarkable book on The Rise of Christianity.) Yes, of course, earthquakes and tsunamis still happen. The NT writers knew that as well as we did, and they went on saying that Jesus was already Lord, not simply that he would become that one day. They weren’t mostly offering, either, an analysis of ‘why evil/suffering happens,’ but they were implementing Jesus’ kingdom-work of challenging evil/suffering in the power of God – not in a sudden all-powerful theocracy, banishing every evil at a stroke, but in their continuing work on the model of Jesus himself and his parables.
So if you’re saying I’m missing things out, I think you are too – and rather important ones. Not only the resurrection, but also (I return to this) Paul’s massive exposition of ‘God’s justice’ in Romans. Romans is much, much bigger than ‘how can sinners find a gracious God.’ It’s ‘how is God seen to be righteous?’, which is perhaps the closest, along with Job, that the Bible gets to a direct address to your question. Interestingly, Paul insists that the answer passes through the story of Abraham and, of course, the story of Jesus and particularly his death and resurrection. I would love to know how you deal with that.
So, to answer your four propositions (noting as you say that propositions aren’t the sum and substance of Christian faith!):
I don’t think much of the Bible is actually addressing the question, ‘Why is there suffering?’, but rather the question, ‘What is God doing about it?’. When cause-and-effect sequences do occur, as in Amos etc., I read them within the prophetic call to Israel and the warnings, proper to humans in general and covenant people in particular, about the consequences of not going with the grain of the creator’s purposes. (If I say to my teenage son, ‘The reason you came off the road is that you were driving too fast round the corner,’ I am pointing out a cause-and-effect sequence which he was apparently ignoring. I’m not saying all your examples are like that but I think some of them may be.)
If we insist on putting things the Bible says into a grid of our own questions, we will often find apparent contradictions. (This, by the way, is part of my answer about the gospels, but that would take a whole book to work out!) If I drive all round the perimeter of a big city, I will see several quite different signs to the city centre. They will say different things, because I am in a different place; but they are in fact all pointing to the same reality. Like all illustrations, that is of course inadequate but it offers a warning against presuming ‘contradiction’ where none exists. (Obvious example: Paul’s ‘negative’ view of the law in Galatians and his ‘positive’ view in Romans. Has he changed his mind? No. It is we who have come to him with our question, ‘Do you have a positive or negative view of the law?’. Paul, however, is wrestling with the complex story of God’s people, not checking boxes in a C17 dogmatic textbook.)
I don’t think the passages you refer to are meant as stand-alone ‘answers to the question.’ Yes, they raise natural problems which I have tried to address in my book, but it won’t do just to say, ‘Well, that was a poor answer,’ and leave it at that.
Well, good that we can agree on this at least! And this is of course at quite a deep level why I left the academy fifteen years ago and have tried, through energising the church more directly, to get exactly this on the agenda. But it leads me to my final question – to press a point I made in our radio interview: Why, granted your view of the world, should we bother? Why not ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ and thank our lucky stars that we can do so? The other side of the coin of ‘the problem of evil’ is, after all, ‘the problem of good’: if there is no God, no good and wise creator, why is there an impulse to justice and mercy so deep within us? Why is there beauty, love, laughter, friendship, joy? How do you then tell the difference between Ecclesiastes and Sartre? The Bible of course has some answers to those questions. But I’d be interested to hear yours.
I guess this may be the end. But perhaps it’s only a semi-colon. Thanks for the dialogue and the stimulus of debate. Frustrating to be so brief, but better than nothing. Thanks for putting up with an incorrigible theologian.
Tom

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