Thanks, Tom, for a thoughtful and interesting response. I think we both must feel how difficult it is to interact in this kind of forum, where what we want is sustained debate but have chosen to limit ourselves to brief responses. But we – you and I – must muddle along as best we can….
You are right that my goal is not to make agnostics out of people, either in my book or in my postings in this forum. This is because I am not so arrogant as to think that intelligent people should always agree with me! But I wonder if you are willing to take a similar stand, that is, whether you too would be willing to say that you also are not interested in converting people to your way of thinking or believing?
I am especially surprised that you find an appeal to emotion unworthy of the debate or irrelevant to the issues of the pain and misery in the world – as if pure cold logic (or exegesis!) is what is required when dealing with the problem of suffering. Your view strikes me as a uniquely post-enlightenment position characteristic of a particular strain of modern Protestantism, and I have to say, in my judgment, it is a stance that I find completely inappropriate (I am particularly moved, on this issue, by the “anti-theodical” positions mapped out by Therence Tilley and Kenneth Surin, which I recommend to everyone who doesn’t mind a little heavy-hitting reading on important issues). The issue of human suffering is not a logical problem to be solved or some kind of mathematical equation. It is a human problem that requires empathy, sympathy, emotional involvement, and action.
You ask if I suspect that you, and others like you, are unaware of the pain and misery in the world. No, I suspect you do know about it. But I am personally dead set against an approach to suffering that thinks that human agony is to be seen from the distance of intellectual engagement with the “issues.” It is one thing to preach from the ivory tower of the academy or the cathedral about the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. It’s another thing to sit beside a child starving to death in Darfur and to speak of God’s glorious purposes for this world. In the time that it has taken me to write this response to your posting, there have been something like thirty thousand children who have died in this way -– by horribly starving to death — in the world. Surely you’re not saying that in dealing with this problem we should remove ourselves from this pain and misery and instead talk rationally about the exegesis of Paul’s letter to the Romans. At least I *hope* you’re not saying that (even though it does appear to be what you’re saying), because that strikes me as inhumane, and I know (since I know you) that you are not inhumane.
As to the substance of your response I am also a bit taken back by your claim that my views of apocalypticism are somehow out of date. I don’t know what you’re thinking about, as you don’t say, but I consider the study of ancient apocalyptic thought to be one of the areas of my scholarly expertise; I have read and studied apocalyptic literature for over thirty years, and am up to speed, I believe, on scholarship in the field. Your offhand comment that my views are somehow antiquated thus strike me as rhetorical rather than substantive. Still, I’d be interested in having the substantive discussion, if you want to tell me where you think I get it wrong.
I should say, in this connection, that I do not think that apocalyptic thinking stands in radical discontinuity with prophecy on the one hand, or that it should be dismissed out of hand on the other (these appear to be the two objections you have to my view). Apocalyptic views did, to be sure, arise out of prophetic views – in large measure because of the stark deficiencies of the prophetic insistence that suffering comes to the people of God because he is punishing them for their sins: if that is the reason for suffering, why then do people suffer if they follow his will? The apocalyptic answer gives a response. For apocalypticists, it was God’s cosmic enemies who are causing the suffering. This is the period in the history of Israel that Jewish thinkers began (contrary to the classical prophets) to hypothesize the existence of the Devil and demons and other cosmic powers of evil opposed to God. And as you know from reading my book, I am not at all unsympathetic with this view. It is the view I held for many years as a Christian, and if I were still a Christian, I would continue to hold on to it.
Yes, I have read your discussion of the Hebrew Bible and Abraham, and I’m afraid that I find it unpersuasive and inadequate. Possibly this is because you wanted to write a short and simple book and so had to overly simplify your views? In your book on evil you treat the Hebrew Bible as if it were one continuous narrative written by a single author with one overarching theme (with Abraham as the lynchpin). It is not that, any more than the New Testament, or even the NT Gospel literature, represents one point of view of one author. The Bible is gloriously rich, diverse, and textured. Different biblical authors wrote at different times in different situations to different audiences, and they have different perspectives and points of view, many of them completely at odds with one another. I know you know this. But why do you act, speak, and write as if it were otherwise? Your synthesizing narrative of the text (both of the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels) is precisely what I have spent most of my academic career trying to correct in my students. The narratives of the Hebrew Bible incorporate numerous sources, with varieties of perspectives, and sometimes stand at odds in terms of theological perspective from one another (on the problem of suffering, for example). All of that is completely lost in your account of “the” story of the Bible, with Abraham as the pivot point leading up to Isaiah 11 (and so on).
In the end, I think what I am most surprised about is that you don’t actually deal with the problem of suffering in your posting. You hint at the idea that you have some theological explanation for it all. But you don’t indicate what that explanation is. I would like to hear it. My view is that it is impossible to reconcile the pain and misery all about us – the millions of children in Africa dying of AIDS and malaria, the millions of others dying because they are forced to drink unclean water, the countless others dying from natural disasters (hurricanes, tsunamis, droughts, famine) – if there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world.