God’s Theodicy Problem

By some strange twist of life, I’ve been to a lot of funerals and memorial services, most of them for children, but I’ve never met a single one of the people for whom they were held.

As a reporter, especially working the night shift over the first two years, my job was essentially to cover tragedy. The young boy killed in a house fire. The teenager racing – too fast – into town to see his newborn son. A teenage girl accidentally shot in the chest by her boyfriend.

I’ve heard the wailing from a mother who could not contain her grief. I’ve heard the bitterness of a father who lost his son in a war he opposed. I’ve been lied to by a dead girl’s drug-addicted parents, who used the support offered to them to buy more meth. I’ve seen bodies on dirt roads and highways covered with blood-stained sheets amid the wreckage of automobiles and motorcycles.

I’ve watched two men die, one protesting his innocence with his final breaths, the other apologizing to the family of the little girl he had raped and murdered.

I’ve never known any of them, yet each has changed my life in ways I’ll never fully understand or appreciate. Being around that much death and suffering changes a person; it has to.

Somehow, I’d never really thought much about the theology of death. But in recent months, and certainly since Liam’s death two weeks ago, that has changed. It’s become clear that God has a theodicy problem.

I’m not sure how a person can spend years around death and not think more deeply about its existence in the face of a supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God – it’s probably an indication of how near death my faith was, as well as evidence of the survival tactics reporters use to shield themselves from thinking or feeling too much about the things they cover. That’s certainly changed now.

So here are some statements about death and God that seem like they must be true:

  • God is good, and he cares about his creation, which includes all people.
  • God does not routinely intervene to prevent suffering or death
  • Therefore, either death and suffering must be attributes of goodness …
  • … or God is not omnipotent – or chooses to limit his omnipotence, which is pretty much the same thing as far as humanity is concerned.

There are some other points to be made here:

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Enns, Evolution and the Slipperiness of Slippery Slopes

Perhaps the least surprising development since the release of Peter Enns’ book, The Evolution of Adam, is the release of critical reviews from biblical literalists (or biblicists, if you prefer Christian Smith’s language). I stumbled across two of these – one by Ken Ham, president and CEO of the creationist group Answers in Genesis, and another by James Hamilton, who appears to have written some books himself. (Actually, Hamilton isn’t reviewing the book itself, but rather a lecture Enns gave that appears to be essentially a summary of the points he makes in the book.)

Rather than try a point-by-point rebuttal that these men will never read – and for which I don’t have the time – I wanted to note two arguments they share in common, and which seem to be the core of their respective objections to Enns’ book.

1. The slope, it’s slippery!

I don’t think it’s any surprise that classic slippery slope-ism is a big part of their argument. As Ham puts it, “[S]ecular scientists today will argue that a man can’t rise from the dead. Or that you can’t have a virgin birth in humans, or that a man can’t walk on water. So shouldn’t we (using the same approach as Dr. Enns) also give up the literal Resurrection and literal virgin birth of Christ?

Hamilton argues similarly from Enns’ approach to Paul’s creative use of the Old Testament:

This seems to suggest that what has happened in Christ is not what the OT was building to all along. If this is correct, how are the New Testament authors not imposing a fulfillment on the Old Testament that was never there to begin with? How is this not bad interpretation that should be rejected? How can bad interpretation marked by creativity be authoritative?

Enns answers both of these questions in his book, but let me give this a shot.

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It’s OK to Be Liberal. Honest.

Our Sunday morning Bible class is working through a book one probably wouldn’t expect to see discussed, especially in a fairly conservative church tradition such as ours: The Bible Made Impossible, by Christian Smith.

Smith, a sociologist, describes and refutes a core tenet of the faith I had growing up. He calls it biblicism, the notion that the Bible is not only easily read and understandable, but it is those things to the extent that everyone should be able to read the text and come to the same conclusion. He features 10 traits of biblicism; see if these apply in some way to what you were taught:

  1. Divine Writing – The Bible’s very words are the exact words of God “written inerrantly in human language.”
  2. Total Representation – The Bible is the totality of God’s communication with humanity, containing everything God has to say to us.
  3. Complete Coverage – “The divine will about all of the issues relevant to Christian belief and life are contained in the Bible.”
  4. Democratic Perspicuity – Anyone can read the Bible and “correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.”
  5. Commonsense Hermeneutics – The correct way to read the Bible is to take the words literally, at face value, except where obviously noted.
  6. Solo Scriptura – The Bible is understandable without the help of creeds, confessions, traditions or hermeneutics (other than the one listed above). “Theological formulations can be built up directly out of the Bible from scratch.” Not to be confused with the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
  7. Internal Harmony  – The Bible speaks with a unified, noncontradictory voice about any given subject.
  8. Universal Applicability – Everything in the Bible applies to all Christians at all times, regardless of the historical or cultural context of the original text.
  9. Inductive Method – “All matters of Christian belief and practice can be learned by sitting down with the Bible and piecing together … the clear  … truths that it teaches.”
  10. Handbook Model – The doctrines of the Bible can be applied in numerous non-theological fields, such as science, politics, economics, health and romance.
Any given strain of biblicism doesn’t need to include all 10 – I definitely grew up believing Nos. 1, 3-8 and 10, but not really Nos. 2 or 9.

At any rate, Smith’s main argument against biblicism isn’t so much that it’s wrong – though it certainly is – but that it’s impossible. No biblicist actually treats the Bible the way they say they do. I don’t know if he uses this example or not, but one I can easily think of is the question of women’s roles in the church. Most biblicists are hierarchical on this subject, which requires them to explain away the New Testament passages describing female prophets, leaders and deacons in the early church. You cannot maintain Item 7, which strikes me as one of the more important points in a biblicist view, without doing severe damage to Item 5, which in turn affects Item 8, which knocks down Item 10, and so on.

Smith further argues that if it were true – that the Bible is easily understandable, internally consistent, universally applicable and meant to be read literally in nearly every case – then there would be a whole lot of unity ever since it was made available in the common language back around 1500. But, of course, there has not. Rather, the proliferation of sects, denominations and congregations, each with a different interpretation of some part of the Bible, has continued to increase. Biblicism is disproven by the simple fact that plenty of reasonably intelligent, well-meaning, Spirit-filled believers clearly disagree about what the Bible actually teaches.

That’s a really long intro to get to the one beef I have with Smith at this point in his book.

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Book Review: The Evolution of Adam

Since the first fiery clash between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow in Dayton, Tenn., the discussion between evolutionists and biblical literalists has not moved much.

It’s been more than 200 years since geologists first argued for an extremely old earth – older than any literal reading of the Bible could allow. It’s been 153 years since The Origin of Species, and it’s been 87 years since the Scopes monkey trial.

Yet a 2006 Michigan State University survey found that just 40 percent of Americans who were asked to respond to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals,” said it was true, equaling the number who said it was false. Twenty percent weren’t sure.

Christians clearly drive these data; only 24 percent of weekly churchgoers and 30 percent of regular nonweekly churchgoers accept the theory as true. I would argue these opinions stem not from an antipathy to scientific evidence, though they have, ahem, evolved a strain of anti-intellectualism, but rather a desire to maintain the integrity of scripture. Acknowledging the Bible’s creation story as untrue in a modern historical sense is seen as a step down a slope of relativism that leads to denial of Christ’s resurrection itself.  Rhetoric of the so-called New Atheists, who are all too eager to wield science as a cudgel against faith, doesn’t help matters.

So the sides gridlock, the drawbridges raised, the encampments bristling with rhetorical ammunition, the arrows ready to fly: “Elitist!” “Anti-intellectual!” “Pagan!” “Fundamentalist!” “Extremist!”

Into this stalemate steps Dr. Peter Enns, who knows a thing or two about how the increasingly sealed culture of conservative evangelicalism can turn vicious against those accused of dalliances with the other side. Enns, a senior fellow of biblical studies at the BioLogos Foundation and much admired by this blogger, has joined the war of words with a respectful call for ceasefire.

His latest book, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins, pulls no punches theologically, but its tone seems intent on mollification, addressing those interested in a serious discussion about serious issues and focusing entirely on the biggest problem evangelicals have with evolution – its consequences for biblical authority.

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‘My Heart Stutters; My Strength Abandons Me’

In the end, no miracles.

A boy named Liam fought against leukemia for two years, and those of us who knew him or know his family learned yesterday morning that he lost it the night before. He had just turned 7.

Saying I don’t understand is somewhat redundant. No one understands. Even those who say they do – don’t.

Because in the end, for all the talk about tests and heaven and eventual reunification, if it had been your child or my child, none of that would make much sense. Those who think life-shattering losses can be explained don’t just insult those grieving the loss, they misread their own Bible.

Below is a new translation of portions of Psalm 38 from the first volume of Timeless: Ancient Psalms for the Church Today, which pairs new translations of the Psalms with new hymns based upon them, an effort to recover both the syntax and the poetry of the original Hebrew:

O Lord, rebuke me not in your anger; correct me not in your wrath. …

O Master, all my desire is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart stutters; my strength abandons me; my sight even fails me. My friends and my companions stand away from my affliction; those close to me stand far away. …

Ah, it is for you, O Lord, I wait; it is you who will answer, O Master my God.

Ah, I said, “Only do not let them rejoice over me, or when my feet stumble they will boast against me.”

Ah, I go on limping and limping, my pain always the next step before me. …

I have so many foes without cause; so many who hate me for no reason. They repay evil for good; they are my adversaries though I pursue what is good.

O Lord, do not abandon me! O my God, do not be so far from me! Hurry to my aid, O Master, my Savior.”

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The Unfinished Legacy of Martin Luther King

As you might know, Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which means Facebook and Twitter came alive with the words of Dr. King, who remains eminently quotable on a host of topics, not least of which were justice, inequality, race and war – evergreen topics about which his words still ring true today, 40-50 years after he first spoke them.

In the spate of MLK-related blog posts that also happens this time every year, the preacher at my church posted this gem of a YouTube video, King’s late 1950s appearance on Meet the Press when he was just 31 years old and leading the lunch-counter sit-ins across the South (Part 3, which contains the quote I want to discuss is above; here’s the link to Part 1). He was only a decade away from his death, but much would change in those 10 years, including the passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill. Just 40 years after his death, America elected a black man as president. There is no doubt that King accomplished much in the short time he had to do it.

It so happens that I’m reading the book Unfinished Reconciliation: Justice, Racism & Churches of Christ, published in 2003. In this case, Churches of Christ are the group of New Testament restorationist congregations who trace their lineage back to Alexander Campbell (the more conservative members would argue they trace it back to Jesus, but that’s simply untrue from a purely historical perspective).

Anyway, early in the book, Dr. Harold Marks, a minister at the Highland Street Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., discusses the Minor Prophets and, though not explicitly – and perhaps not even intentionally, though I kind of doubt that – draws a connection between them and King, America’s most famous prophetic voice:

Hosea, Amos and Micah went against the flow. Their dreams were not what the common people of that time had in mind for their future. These Minor Prophets were not swayed by the cultural majority. Through God, they saw a different kind of world that God would create. There is power in a vision.

Somebody in every community must see people flowing to Zion to hear the word of God. Someone must see a vision of the nation hammering military hardware into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Someone must paint a picture of a society has his or her own fig tree and vine. Dreamers do not have dreams; dreams have dreamers. The dreams come from God, not from us.

Many of King’s dreams came true, though he did not live to see them. But there is still a glaring blind spot in our self-congratulation over the amount of racial progress we’ve made in the four decades since King’s death.

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