Evil and Theodicy

what if you feel disappointed with God? (coda)

When I was growing up there was a guy in our neighbourhood that all the kids made fun of.

He muttered to himself. Wore rags. Smelled funny. And collected empty drink cans — filling his garage with them.

I don’t think I ever spoke with him. So I don’t know his story. All I have is speculation. As well as the adult realisation that he was catastrophically broken. One of those people who had been let down by life — whether in one big way or in innumerable smaller ways.

Truth is, we’re all that guy.

In our own way, we all have our garages full of something. We’re all eventually overtaken by our brokenness and disappointment. Left to cope with the fallout of things that happen. Ultimately, inhabiting our own private Chernobyls.

Like I said when I started this mini series, I’m increasingly sure that sooner or later disappointment will be the pastoral issue for me and my peers.

Whether we’re dealing with it ourselves. Or standing beside those who are. Or perhaps desperately trying to fend it off — either by playing life completely safe or by constantly recalibrating our trajectory in order to present a moving target.

But this is where Christmas holds such good news for us.

Because, according to the birth narratives in the New Testament, Christmas is all about God breaking into our desperate and disappointing circumstances.

It’s about God not playing life safe or standing at a distance. But coming to be with us. Plunging fully into our mess and brokenness — not shying away from the messiness of being conceived by a not-yet-married teenage girl in an honour-shame society.

It’s about God making himself vulnerable. Vulnerable to disappointment, to being let down, betrayed, arrested and ultimately crucified.

It’s about him taking our brokenness upon himself. And making it his own. In order to overcome it for us.

The good news is that in the midst of our brokenness and disappointment, joy, hope, peace and comfort have arrived!

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

what Rupert Murdoch, Law & Order, and Franz Kafka have in common

High speed police chase

High speed police chase by m.laconte@sbcglobal.net, on Flickr

I was part of one of those tea-room conversations yesterday.

We were talking about Rupert Murdoch. (Who wasn’t?)

As inadequate as we found his Select Committee interview, we were all glad he’d been brought to some kind of public account. Although, most of us were sceptical about whether he would face significant legal sanctions like imprisonment — barring some kind of massive internal leak at News Corp.

At this point the conversation took a sharp left.

We began to tally up all those prominent public figures who had managed to avoid the pointy end of the law they were so obviously in breach of. We shook our heads at the fact that so many get off on technicalities even when the moral ‘spirit’ of the law lies in tatters around their feet.

Who would have thought? Our mundane tea-room conversation had joined the swelling chorus of all those throughout history lamenting the lack of justice in the world!

Then someone observed that all those crime shows on TV tap into exactly this.

They complained that no-one ever gets what they deserve. And they cited all the the plea-bargains and back room deals as evidence that the idea that justice system actually works is a total sham.

I wasn’t so sure that this was the moral of the story. And I realised as I sat on the couch watching Law & Order later that night.

From where I was sitting, the chord progression Law & Order endlessly riffs on is that justice is bigger and deeper and harder to get at than mere laws allows.

What Law & Order dramatises — and what we see acted out in the Rupert Murdochs of the world — is an ancient dilemma, one which ethicists refer to as the Kafka paradox (in honour of Franz Kafka whose dense and dark fiction returns obsessively to themes of law and justice).

The dilemma is that the demand for justice that calls laws into being is often hijacked by those very laws.

Hence, all the effort goes into the technicalities of determining who’s legally wrong instead of dealing with wrong.

That job — the job of dealing with wrong and establishing justice in the widest sense of good and right order — is always tantalising beyond the reach of human laws.

For it requires not simply the transformation of human hearts (transformed men and women still have past wrongs to answer for) but the utter condemnation of wrong and the total renewal of wrongdoers.

In short, it requires death and resurrection … even new creation!

grace without guilt … when you’re hurting (i)

Hurting others and feeling hurt are often tangled up with each other.

On the one hand, when we hurt others that can leave us feeling hurt ourselves. On the other hand, our own hurt can lead us to lash out and hurt others.

I don’t imagine it’d be too hard to produce a typology of hurt:

The more desperately you’re seeking comfort, the more you’ll suffer when you’re stressed and the more likely you’ll be to inflict hurt on others by outsourcing or defaulting on anything that might stress you out.

If it’s approval that drives you, then you’ll hurt when you’re rejected and hurt others — either by walling yourself off against them if you don’t get approval or smothering them if you do.

If your hunger for control is insatiable, then it’s uncertainty that will hurt you most — just as it’s blame and condemnation that you’ll direct at others who seem to challenge your control.

And if you’re out for power then humiliation (or perceived humiliation) will cut you deepest, while others will probably feel used by you.

What can we say in the face of such an overwhelming variety of ways to be hurt and oppressed or to hurt and oppress others?

Well, if Ephesians 3.1-13 is anything to go by, we can say two things on the basis of the good news of God’s grace in Jesus:

  1. There is comfort for the oppressed.
  2. And there is hope for the oppressor.

The good news of God’s grace in Jesus — what Paul calls ‘the mystery’ that ‘has now been revealed … by the Spirit’ — effects the long-awaited victory over the powers that bind and enslave human life, and that produce hurt and hostility between people.

This is why, in Paul’s thought, the church is such a big deal.

For the church is where God’s wisdom is triumphantly displayed — where it’s brandished aloft like a trophy.

For Paul, the church is the place where hurt gets healed (most astoundingly in the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles).

Oh, that it might be true of our churches!

[To be continued…]

clash of the theological titans?

It’s on!

Two popular theological titans are battling it out over how to make sense of Japan. I’m referring of course to John Piper and Brian McLaren.

Last week, John Piper posted briefly on his Desiring God blog about the need for Christians to move beyond empathy and aid in responding to the ongoing catastrophe in Japan.

Piper strongly affirms the priority of empathy and aid. He then urges us to to take the next step: “When love has wept and worked, it must have something to say about God.”

For Piper, it seems that what this ‘something’ will consist in is primarily answers about the kind of purposes God might have in permitting what’s happening in Japan. (Here he is no doubt sensitive to the big question many will be asking — ‘Why didn’t God prevent such massive suffering?’)

This week, Brian McLaren weighed in with a very substantial reply at The Other Journal.

Against what seem to him to be Piper’s too-easy answers, McLaren pleads:

Evil and suffering, I suspect, aren’t properly responded to by simple explanations. They instead demand — certainly our empathy and our aid — but much more: our ongoing presence in shared agony and our passionate self-giving to our neighbors in pain.

I don’t want to be detained right now by where my theological sympathies lie — although, it shouldn’t be that hard to work out in light of some things I’ve said before on this blog (e.g., THIS, THIS or THIS).

What I do want to say is simply this:

Let’s be careful that Japan — its people and its very real need and suffering — isn’t eclipsed by a theological dispute we want (and maybe even need) to have…

how do you pray in the wake of catastrophe?

As I look at the images of disaster in Japan, I’m having trouble processing them. I hardly know what to think or how feel. And I’m definitely struggling to pray about it.

Yet my experience suggests that there are at least three components to healthy prayer in the wake of catastrophe:

  1. Let it all hang out before God — lay out your confusion, grief, pain, hurt, shock, anger, resentment and even guilt in prayer; speak honestly to God about your reaction (or your inability to have a coherent reaction). God made us and the Lord Jesus knows our plight from the inside. We don’t need to hide or pretend.
  2. Call on God to do something about it — God is the God of life; death was not his intention for the world or human life. Although it may not be everything we have to say about God’s relationship to death and catastrophe, surely the first thing we must say is that they’re his enemies.
  3. Ask God to somehow bring good out of it — the crucified (and risen) Lord can use even the most tragic and horrible thing to bring about good. We probably won’t often be able to see how he might do this. But we can entrust ourselves to him.

My impression is that we often ignore point 1 and (usually muttering something about God working all things for the good of those who love him) put point 3 before point 2 — especially in our public prayers.

I can understand this, of course. What more powerful statement of faith is there than this in the teeth of an unfolding disaster?

I suppose nothing essential hinges on the order in which you pour out what’s on your heart to God. But I do wonder how often we allow ourselves — or the people we’re leading in prayer — to (a) feel the horror and depth of a catastrophe, or (b) beg God to intercede now in the way he’s promised to when Christ returns.

How do you pray in the wake of catastrophe?

the all-purpose theological trump card (ii)

Late last week I dared to suggest that we can make too much of the story of Israel — particularly if we imagine that it can unravel every theological tangle.

Understandably, I was pinned in the comments for failing to specify how and where this might happen. So I’m going to try to make good my negligence.

Before I do, though, let me give just two examples of how and where I find the story of Israel theologically illuminating.

To begin with, I feel it sheds light on many details of exegesis — especially in the Gospels.

For instance, I was recently reading about how to understand the request we make in the Lord’s prayer for God to give us our ‘daily bread’. Commentators apparently argue over how best to translate the word behind ‘daily’.

It can get quite involved. But, as Halden has recently argued, the debate is thoroughly recast when we pay the probable reference to God’s provision of manna in the desert:

When Jesus then instructs his disciples to pray for “our daily bread” ought we not … realize that in calling his followers to pray in this way Jesus is calling us back into the desert with Israel. Out of the security of land, possessions, cultural production and into a life of sojourning in which we, once again, are given to depend, quite literally on God for the essentials of survival?

Likewise, I find that proper attention to the story of Israel puts a whole new spin on some classical bigger picture problems.

Take the problem of evil, for example. Rather than an abstract equation to be balanced, the goodness and all-powerfulness of God collides with the evil reality of evil in Israel’s concrete historical experience.

In the face of evil, the Old Testament points relentlessly forward to the (eschatological) future instead of backward in the manner typical of theodicy (e.g., to human free will or an angelic rebellion).

This response gathers momentum as it bounces around what Richard Hays calls ‘the prophetic sounding chamber’ of Israel’s exile. A momentum thoroughly alien to the environment of an air-conditioned tutorial room…

the ultimate question when faced with suffering

Suffering raises questions. Big ones. We’re already seeing this with the floods on the east coast of Australia.

Toowoomba flood 2011

Predictably, we’re also seeing commentators wading in with insights and explanations. Some showing a tremendous confidence that they know exactly what it means and what God’s doing in the midst of this disaster.

I doubt I have anything particularly new or earth-shattering to add. I simply want to draw attention to Revelation 6.9-10:

I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’

Here’s a picture of some people who’ve faced pretty severe suffering — they’ve been killed for their faithful witness to God.

As savage and shocking as their outburst might sound, I find it intriguing that these sufferers don’t seem to be particularly interested in insights or explanations. They don’t ask ‘Why?’. Instead, they ask ‘How long?’

How long until what?

Until God shows up to judge, justly dealing with suffering and its root cause.

They’re not after answers or explanations. They’re after presence — God’s presence. Personal and willing and able to make a difference.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that ‘How long until God shows up?’ is the ultimate question when faced with suffering.

Because showing up is what all sufferers need. It’s what they need from God. And it’s what they need from us…

what do you think I should read this year?

I’m developing a shortlist of books to try to read this year. And I need your help.

It’s worth you knowing something up-front though. Typically, the list of books I’ve read at the end of the year looks quite different from the reading list I set myself at the start.

That’s largely down to the pressure I’ve felt in pastoral ministry to pick up a big chunk of my reading reactively (in response to the questions people are asking) as well as on a project basis.

In fact, I’ve already got a bit of an agenda along these lines, travelling mainly in the orbit of the New Atheism, leadership, and missional engagement/faithful presence.

But I’m keen work towards developing a more balanced diet of (modest) proactive reading — my own personal R & D programme if you like.

So I’m setting myself to read two or three books in each of the following categories (culled from N. T. Wright, New Testament And The People of God, p 123):

  1. Identity
  2. Environment
  3. Evil
  4. Eschatology

Can you help me compile a shortlist?

I’d love for you to tell me what you think I should read — please share your pick for the top book (or two) on each topic. Let the comments begin!

re: claiming the Old Testament — wrap up

In an important sense, after the previous three posts in this serious (which I kicked off back HERE), there’s really not much more to be said to wrap up. It shouldn’t be that hard to john the dots between what we’ve seen so far about passages like 1 Samuel 15 and the New Testament proclamation of what God has achieved in the resurrection of the crucified Messiah Jesus.

Let me briefly sketch out how I would see the dots joining:

First, in Jesus God has decisively done what we saw he was on about even in this dark corner of the Old Testament — that is, he has vindicated himself and his Messiah, redeeming and perfecting his good creation in the process and proving himself just in his judgement.

Second, he’s done this by definitively dealing with evil. God has gone to its root in person — both through Israel and in Israel’s place as her truly obedient and representative king. And he’s graciously turned evil’s own momentum against it, breaking its deadly circuit of violence on the cross.

And third, as a consequence of this, he’s opened up to us participation in his sin-uprooting and creation-renewing work. Yet he’s done this in a fundamentally theologically distinct manner to the manner in which he called Israel to participate in his work in 1 Samuel 15.

As such, the slaughter of the Amalekites is not some awkward — and preferably forgotten — part of our past that we’d best keep hidden in the deep recesses of the cupboard. It’s a necessary component in our history — and the history of God’s surprising ways with his creation — that God has himself brought to completion. And he’s brought it to completion in a way that (a) goes far beyond even what we see in passages like 1 Samuel 15 and (b) nevertheless does so graciously, working in the midst of, with and through human agency in doing his work. Or as Paul summarises God’s long-term project in and through (and in spite of) Israel: God has finally condemned sin in the flesh by the power of his Spirit in the crucifixion of the Messiah…

re: claiming the Old Testament — part four

OK. I’ve stalled long enough. In wrestling with 1 Samuel 15 so far, I’ve made two suggestions:

  1. Passages like this speak of God’s judgement not ethic cleansing; and
  2. Here, God both employs his people as an instrument of divine justice and reveals that they too need to be judged.

The time has come to put these two suggestions together and make one final claim (before wrapping up this series): The God revealed in these passages is no inanimate totem that Israel — and their anointed king — can manipulate to lend legitimacy to their savage and imperialistic pretensions. Rather, he is living and active, justly setting about dealing with sin — going to the root of the problem, deep in the human heart — and yet dealing with it graciously.

What I mean is this: Although he’d be perfectly entitled to do so, the God who meets us in 1 Samuel 15 doesn’t simply sweep aside sin and evil — and, along with it, those of us who’ve become entangled with sin and evil (as at once perpetrators and victims). Instead, he graciously works with the grain of human lives and history.

We see, on the one side, God’s undiscriminating justice as he condemns Saul (and Israel) for disobedience:

Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.

1 Samuel goes to great pains to stress that the holy God isn’t automatically and unconditionally on Israel’s side (e.g., in the Ark narrative running through chapters 4-7). There’s obvious bilateralism in God’s demand that Israel and her king must obey him. (In this we’re given clear evidence that Deuteronomic theology — with its blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience — has left its stamp on the history being recounted here.)

On the other side, though, we see God’s graciousness — rooted no doubt in the loving unilateralism of his covenant with Abraham, the unconditional frame within which the conditional stuff sits (even in Deuteronomy). Surprisingly, he continues to work out his purposes in and through his rebellious people. So even when God himself (through Samuel) has to ‘finish the job’ commissioned at the start of this chapter, it’s the completion of a human work rather than its repudiation.

It’s not easy to see how these two threads of God’s character are woven together in 1 Samuel (or in the Old Testament as a whole). Indeed, there are moments — Hosea 11.1-9, for example — when the holiness and the love of God appear irreconcilable, generating a momentum towards the future that leads us to Jesus…