Monday, April 25, 2011

The Theology of Suffering, Part IV

"Theologians and philosophers talk about 'the problem of evil,' and the hygienic phrase itself bespeaks a certain distance from extreme suffering, the view from a life inside the charmed circle." - James Wood

The above statement is one of my favorites in all of James Wood's recent New Yorker article on Theodicy (i.e. why a gracious God would allow suffering). I could not agree with him more. In fact, in this final installment, my primary focus will be the disconnect he's describing between the theory of suffering and actual suffering. The truth is this: you must be a fellow sufferer in order to comfort sufferers. No amount of figuring out "why" will assuage the pain.

My last two posts have discussed: 1. the primacy of the heart in regard to the thoughts and actions of human beings, and 2. the superiority of a bottom-up theology that emphasizes the nature and work of Christ in revealing the Father. Now, the above quotation describes an approach that is divorced from both of these. It describes an approach to suffering that is speculative and sterile, one that appeals coolly (and ultimately unsatisfactorily) to a dry intellect.

Sadly, we've all heard this approach used far too often. It commonly takes the form of the callous announcement that suffering is “for the glory of God”. Sometimes it is expressed with such relish that one wonders if the sentiment has been unconsciously sent hurtling forward in time from a wounded little boy. Other times, the bizarre and presumptuous nature of the statement leaves one in stunned silence (e.g., Pat Robertson’s assertion that Ariel Sharon’s stroke was the result of giving Gaza to the Palestinians, etc...).

But the approach of one who has been justified by faith is different. It is one of deep humility about the acts of God and deep love and empathy for fellow sufferers. It is bottom-up and heart-centered, and it is not self-delusional about the suffering in one's own life - it does not stuff its remembrance into the shoebox in the closet. In this approach, empathy, understanding, patience, and mutual connection flow organically and naturally. With texture instead of sterility. Tears instead of data.

Since Fyodor Dostoevsky has been a theme in the Wood article and in my responses, it is only fitting that we end with him. The following quotation, from the epilogue of Crime and Punishment, sums up the sufferer-to-sufferer approach better than anything I've ever read.

By way of background, the protagonist anti-hero Raskolnikov has been sent to a Siberian prison camp for killing two women (for an interesting reason that is not germane to our discussion). He has spent the entire (long) book under assault from his conscience and the authorities. Along the way, he develops a complicated relationship with a tragic girl named Sonia who was forced into prostitution by the financial need of her family. One of the murdered women was her only friend, yet in Raskolnikov, she finds a fellow sufferer. Despite his pushing her away, she follows him to Siberia:

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come....

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Theology of Suffering, Part III

It is with fear and trembling that I attempt to address the main question of suffering raised by James Wood in his recent New Yorker article. Here goes:

If anyone ever sits you down and starts explaining how they've finally figured out God’s machinations in the universe, you can get up and go home. What they are giving you is their opinion and, hell, you already have one of those.

When it comes to theology, the place where we begin our inquiries makes an enormous difference in the conclusions we draw. This is especially true when dealing with a question like why a gracious God would allow suffering. Do we begin at the "top", taking God as our starting point and work our way down? Or do we keep our feet on the ground, looking first for things that are a bit more accessible to tell us about Him? I have found that a "bottom-up" approach is far, far superior to a "top-down" one, which (at best) only ever leads to speculation.

The answer to the question of suffering does not lie in circular metaphysical rambling. No, it lies in the words that Jesus spoke in John 14:9; “Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, `Show us the Father'?”

When I was a kid, I caught my first catfish with my grandfather in the Alabama River near Montgomery. Now, there is no way that that catfish could use his interaction with me to figure out the fashion industry in New York or the Dow Industrials. All he knew is that I put a hook in him and was probably going to eat him at some point. In other words, his revelation of the human race was that they are malevolent. That is all he could know (just look at that catfish and tell me he could factor accounts receivable)!

When our Lord identified Himself as the lens through which one understands God, He was giving a picture of a God who is fully and unconditionally in the corner of those who would spurn Him. Looking at Jesus, we see a God who is totally benevolent. Now that we know where to begin, we can try to interpret suffering in a way that is faithful to the revelation of God which is Christ.

There is a great presumption among modern folk about the need to have God conform to our reason and right to pursue happiness. We make ourselves the final arbiters of what is good and what is evil. When we do so, we prove Ludwig Feuerbach to be correct: theology is just anthropology, with humanity projecting its wishes onto a created deity.

But this is where Martin Luther’s great insight of the “hidden God” or the theology of the cross comes into play. Again, we understand that the revelation of Christ is the lens through which we see the Father. We also see great pain and suffering brought about by both man and nature. God hides His love and mercy in what appears to be wrath, the ultimate example of course being the Cross. His alien work wrests us from our need to make ourselves as gods and forces us to place reliance (faith) on Him. Our eyes are then opened and we are able to look up and see love while looking around to see objects of love. In this manner, the old is destroyed and the new is reborn. Love is created out of nothing.

Certainly, there is a lot left untied. But God does not operate under the constraints of human reason. Would you operate under the reason of a catfish? The proof of this is not human logic but the Resurrection. Suffering and death do not hold those who put their faith in Christ. In the end, all is accomplished and all is won.

There is still plenty to say about Wood's arguments. For instance, he overlooks the answer that Dostoevsky himself gives about suffering and a gracious God. It comes in the latter part of The Brothers Karamazov, after Ivan Karamazov has given his protest atheism manifesto so confidently (the one that Wood refers to so liberally) and is visited by the devil. One quote from the devil is just too good to pass up. It is typical Dostoevsky humor:

"Once there was on your earth a thinker and philosopher who rejected everything... above all, a future life. So when he died, he expected to plunge right into blackness and nothingness, but what did he find instead but future life. He was very surprised and quite outraged."

So, the nature of the debate (not to mention the question itself) shifts radically when viewed from the bottom-up. We see God through the lens of the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, not vice versa, and it makes all the difference. I know I for one could never be the “great and terrible mind” Victor Hugo speaks of in Les Misérables, trying to punch through the mysteries of God. I am fine just being a catfish.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Theology of Suffering, Part II

According to Ashley Null, the wonderful scholar of the English Reformation, Thomas Cranmer said something close to the following: “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” And according to the Prophet Jeremiah “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9 RSV). This is the doctrine of the bound will, and it is at the heart of the Reformation. If it is true (and we confess that it is), then arguments that appeal to the mind are, at best, tertiary. It is also why, in questions such as theodicy and protest atheism, the heart (or the irrational) must be the first item of interest.

Furthermore, it means (and I realize some people may disagree) that appeals to the rational like “presuppositional” apologetics are of limited value. I'm not saying apologetics don't serve a purpose; certainly, they provide a helpful foundation for many people. But so often, these kind of arguments are presented in a condescending or paternalistic manner, rendering them downright counter-productive. There is nothing more irritating than having someone check your “presuppositions” at every turn. It is more likely to produce a bloody nose than a conversion. At least from me.

It is the heart that lies at the core of the New Yorker article about “theodicy.” It positively screams off the pages when you read the following (supposedly) background information. This first quote is a personal statement from the author of the article, James Wood, and the second is him describing Bart Ehrman, the author of the book under review:

I know this, because it was how I began to separate myself from the somewhat austere Christian environment I grew up in. I remember the day, in my late teens, when I drew a line down the middle of a piece of paper, on one side of which I wrote my reasons for belief in God, on the other my reasons against.

Readers learned that he had been reared in a conservative family in Kansas, was “born again” in high school, attended the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, and then Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater.

Words such as “austere” and “fundamentalist” belie a strong negative reaction against a Christian environment of law rather than grace. They describe an environment that was most likely long on control/superficiality and short on freedom/comfort to sufferers (and probably not much fun to be raised in!). This could be similar to the story of Wes Craven, who graduated from a conservative Christian college resolved to combat Christianity wherever he found it. To borrow a phrase from our friend Rod Rosenbladt, I believe these are people that have been "wounded by the church."

I certainly hope my saying that doesn’t sound patronizing. I myself have had a long struggle with agnosticism and Christianity that was only decided when I heard the word of grace five years ago in this sermon. Even now, the word “decided” almost seems too strong, especially considering how the things that I value so much, things like grace, freedom, and comfort for sufferers, are so actively opposed/frustrated by elements in the Christian church.

But again, what the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies, and what we have read here is what the mind has justified. In this light, perhaps we can see the two authors as fellow sufferers rather than idealogues to be attacked. This is not to say that Christianity should not be rationally defended. It should. It should only be done, however, with the understanding that the heart ultimately calls the shots. I believe this to be faithful to the insight of the Reformation and would love to hear what you think.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wendell Berry Poem

I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.

I have no love
except it come from Thee.

Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.
- Wendell Berry

The Who: Live in Houston, Texas 1975, Song Eight

This is one of the great, great songs from The Who.  It sort of spotlights how a person can be of such normal appearance and yet have something totally different going on underneath.  This can be applied anywhere from Ted Bundy to the everyday person who has a deep well of skeletons in the closet.

Speaking of that, you also get to see how truly nutty Keith Moon was in his brief monologue.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Theology of Suffering, Part I

Last week I was sitting at home, minding my own business one evening, when I received an e-mail from Jady Koch about a recent New Yorker article called “Holiday in Hellmouth: God May Be Dead, But The Question Of Why He Permits Suffering Lives On". Catchy title. After clicking on the link, I was disheartened to discover a long, dense piece of writing about something called “theodicy.” But after reading it, I was glad that I pushed aside my normal reluctance to read long articles on my computer. And since Jady is traveling the world at the moment, I agreed to pinch-hit for him and post some commentary.

The article raises quite a few big issues (and implies several others), so I've decided to break my thoughts into four parts, to be posted individually over the course of a few days. Hopefully, this will aid in readability and accommodate certain givens, such as time constraints, coffee breaks, screaming children, and other assorted real-world concerns. In any case, here we go. This first installment will introduce the concept of “theodicy” and one of its most important antagonists, “protest atheism.”

Theodicy” can be defined as the Christian Church’s (for our purposes) efforts to rationally explain the existence of suffering in light of a gracious God. An antithesis to this is a phenomenon called “protest atheism”. The latter view is represented by Ivan Karamazov in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and is expressed in Ivan’s explanation to his brother Alyosha Karamazov, a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church:

No, I want no part of any harmony; I don’t want it out of love for mankind. I prefer to remain with my unavenged suffering and my unappeased anger – even if I happen to be wrong. I feel, moreover, that such harmony is rather overpriced. We cannot afford to pay so much for a ticket. And I hasten to return the ticket I’ve been sent. If I’m honest, it is my duty to return it as long as possible before the show. And that’s what I’m trying to do, Alyosha. It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning Him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat. (The Brothers Karamazov)

As you can see, there is a sort of Bizzaro-piety involved with this movement. There is, however, a lot to be said for this way of approaching suffering if human reason is the final arbiter. James Wood, the author our article, echoes Ivan’s thoughts:

There is something adolescent about such complaint; I can hear it like a boy’s breaking voice in my own prose. For anti-theodicy is permanent rebellion. It is not quite atheism but wounded theism, condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in. (Holiday in Hellmouth)

“Protest atheism” is certainly a part of this article but there are other aspects as well. In the next installment, I will discuss the damage that law-based, control religion does to people and how they react (this will not be a red herring). This will appeal to a deeper undercurrent and, hopefully, quiet the natural reaction of the Christian to attack. The installment after that will deal with the issue of “theodicy” itself in theological argument. The last installment will advocate what I believe to be the Christian theology of suffering in light of love for the neighbor. In the meantime, take a look at the article and see what you think.

Sunday, April 3, 2011