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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.
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 . . .
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.