Evil: Always the Problem

ehrmangodsproblemMy wife pointed out a hole in the eschatology outlined last week in my review of N.T. Wright’s How God Became King. Namely, if Christians are called to make things better, to prepare the world for the arrival of the kingdom of God, which was inaugurated by the ministry and death of Jesus and proven by his resurrection – in other words, if God is currently king of the world to which he will return and physically rule at the end of time as we know it – then why does the world suck so much?

In other words, theodicy. Evil is the problem with this system.

But here’s the thing: Evil is the problem with every system.

Believe God is an all-powerful judge, waiting to destroy the world with fire and brimstone after rapturing his true followers to heaven? Believe God is the sympathizer-in-chief, stooping to identify personally with the grieving, the wounded, the outcast? Believe God is radically loving and gracious, to the extent that each and every person eventually will be welcomed into his presence?

Good for you. None of it explains the existence of evil.

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A Lesson for the Church from the Horse and His Cousin, the Boy

“My good Horse,” said the Hermit, who had approached them unnoticed because his bare feet made so little noise on that sweet, dewy grass. “My good Horse, you’ve lost nothing but your self-respect. No, no, cousin. Do not put back your ears and shake your main at me. If you are really so humbled as you sounded a minute ago, you must learn to listen to sense. You’re not quite the Horse you had come to think, from living among poor dumb horses. Of course you were braver and cleverer than them. You could hardly help being that. It doesn’t follow that you’ll be anyone very special in Narnia. But as long as you know you’re nobody very special, you’ll be a very decent sort of Horse, on the whole, and taking one thing with another.

“And now, if you and my other four-footed cousin will come round to the kitchen door we’ll see about the other half of that mash.”

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My oldest daughter and I continue reading through the Chronicles of Narnia. We’re in Book 5 (not Book 3, as the abominable new numbering system would have it), The Horse and His Boy. I’ve read each of these books many times, but there’s always something new to notice. This time I noticed the strange way in which the hermit of the Southern March addresses the talking horses Bree and Hwin: Cousins.

I notice this because, earlier, I’m sure I always took this as a squishy “brotherhood of life” kind of term, or one that signified the extraordinary closeness between humans and talking animals in Narnia and Archenland. But now, having made my peace with evolution as the method with which God chose to create the world and humanity, that phrase takes on a new light. Indeed, we know C.S. Lewis himself accepted evolution and did not think that a particularly big deal theologically speaking: “I don’t mind whether God made man out of earth or whether ‘earth’ merely means ‘previous millennia of ancestral organisms.’ If the fossils make it probable that man’s physical ancestor’s ‘evolved,’ no matter.”

But I don’t mean to make this a big post about C.S. Lewis and evolution, merely to note that when Lewis has one of his human characters – arguably the wisest one in the book – refer to horses as “my cousins,” he is perhaps giving us a way to look at the world and life around us. Indeed, how would we treat our planet and our fellow inhabitants on it if we thought of them as part of our family and not merchandise or product to be consumed?

Our family tree does not just include our own family members, but every person on the planet, plus hundreds of thousands of years of hominids, plus millions upon millions of animal species, some of whom are closer relatives than others but all of whom are our cousins.

In the same way, our church family tree includes far more than we perhaps acknowledge. One of the eye-opening things about the Christian History class I just finished is how closely related all of us who claim Jesus as Lord truly are. It’s easy enough as a New Testament restorationist, two significant movements (the Reformation and the Restoration) removed from the Catholic Church, to belittle the doctrines that branch of the faith still holds dear – things like transubstantiation or indulgences or purgatory or the assumption and perpetual virginity of Mary. They’re so illogical! They’re crazy! There’s not even a hint of them in the Bible!

Yet not so much if you follow the evolutionary patterns of the church’s first 1,300 years – and, further, not so removed from us.

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Why Christians Should Be Environmentalists

One of the churches in town recently hired a new preacher – a young guy, around my age with kids my age. I was curious because this church has long had an older preacher and been on the conservative end of the spectrum. I didn’t expect them to hire Rob Bell or Brian McLaren, but new blood isn’t a bad thing, and I decided to check him out.

His name’s Wes McAdams, and he runs a blog called Radically Christian – which sounds promising for us progressive types until you realize he’s setting up New Testament restorationism as a radical break from the Christian norms of today. It’s a neat construct, but pedestrian conservative pseudoevangelical theology with a cappella worship doesn’t scream, “Radical!” to me.

One of his posts caught my eye, however, and that’s where I’m really going with this. The post is called, “3 Reasons Why I’m Not an ‘Environmentalist‘”.

It leads with this disclaimer:

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say, I love this planet and everything God put on it. I love the trees, the hills, the water, the animals, even the air; and I’m all for us keeping these things clean. But, I can honestly say, I’m not an “environmentalist.”

The reasons are, sadly enough, the reasons I used to give for why we needn’t worry about climate change or deforestation or any of the other ills humanity continues to inflict on our planet:

  1. God is in control
  2. The earth’s purpose is to be used, not protected
  3. It’s going to be destroyed anyway

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Our Postmodern God

This post is a response to Tony Jones’ call for progressive theological bloggers to write a post about God. So here goes …

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.

– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

It’s struck me lately that the best way to think of God is to compare him to an elephant.

Specifically, I think of God like the elephant in the old South Asian tale of the blind men who each grab hold of a piece of him and describe the animal they think they have. One has the trunk and thinks he’s holding a snake; another has an ear and thinks he’s holding a fan, etc. Each of them is attempting to accurately describe what they know, and some do a better job than others, but none of them is exactly right – indeed, being exactly right would have been impossible if they had never seen or felt a whole elephant before.

Which is why I call God postmodern and why it would serve the church well to stop running in fear from the notion of postmodernism. Perhaps no era in the history of the world better suits the God we worship than the one that openly and completely questions the ability for anyone to fully grasp and explain truth.

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Did Adam Have a Belly Button? (And Other Ridiculous Questions)

Adam and Mr. Lunt apparently had something in common.

I enjoyed Robert Gromacki’s The Virgin Birth, despite my many disagreements with his approach and assumptions about the inerrancy of scripture and Jesus’ sinlessness. But there was one line on Page 125 that, had I been drinking something when I read it, would have produced an epic spit take.

In a chapter entitled, “Jesus Was Truly Human,” Gromacki endeavors to describe, shockingly enough, Jesus’ humanity. Unfortunately, Gromacki doesn’t actually view Jesus as truly human in two rather large ways – first in the way Jesus was conceived and second, and more important, in the notion that Jesus could not have sinned even if he’d wanted to. Nevertheless, at the end of the chapter, Gromacki compares Adam to Jesus and comes up with quite the notion:

Contrasted with Adam, Christ’s humanity had a different expression. Adam was created and began an adult existence on the very first day he lived. The human nature of Jesus was conceived within a mother’s womb just like any other human being, but apart from human fertilization. Jesus experienced a fetal state, a real birth and normal development, but Adam did not. Christ had a navel; Adam had none.

Wait, what?

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The ‘Big History’ of God’s Evolving Universe

Update: TED’s WordPress embed code actually links to the wrong video, so you’ll have to visit this link to watch it. Sorry for the inconvenience!

My wife and I like to wind down before bed by watching one or two TED Talks – partly because we’re that nerdy and partly because Netflix has begun streaming them in little 10-talk packages by subject. We’re working through the “Ancient Clues” packet, which has all sorts of fun talks about human origins and the like.

The talk above by David Christian, an Australian history professor, is perhaps the strongest argument I’ve ever seen for the nature of God’s work in the universe. He never mentions God – indeed, doesn’t give us any reason to think he believes in any god at all – but his treatment of “Big History” and the various “Goldlilocks moments” when conditions were just right for the universe to buck the law of entropy and produce greater complexity rather than greater disorder is an inspirational telling of just how intimately involved God is in his creation.

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The Evolution of the Bible – and the Evolution of Us

Note: Some of this, especially near the end, is taken from the reading response I turned in very early this morning for my Amos class, but I’ve adapted it heavily for my blog audience.

As I was finishing the reading I needed to do for this upcoming short course on the book of Amos, it struck me that one of the older themes of this blog – seeing God as a multifaceted God of evolution – had cropped back up again.

Scholars disagree on how we got to the current text of Amos, but most agree Amos didn’t just get up and start preaching the words of 1:1, end with the last verse of chapter 9, then go home. Even a literal reading precludes that possibility, as it mixes oracles with visions, includes a narrative of confrontation between Amos and the high priest Amaziah, and seems to assume a significant time lapse over the course of the book. Besides which, we know Amos spoke his prophecies; at some point, they were written down, but we don’t know when or by whom.

Nineteenth-century source criticism was all about trying to uncover the various layers of Amos (and every other book of the Bible). The idea was to isolate the “true” historical Amos underneath the edits and redactions made by future generations compiling his spoken oracles into a single volume. There’s nothing wrong with this, but the problem lies in the assumption of those earliest scholars – the notion that the “true” Amos was more valuable than the rest because it was more historically accurate. That’s very modernist, and it’s very unfair to the text. We have the canonical version of Amos for a reason, however the evolution took place.

On the other extreme, traditional evangelicalism recoils against the notion that Amos is not written by Amos at one tim, in the eighth century B.C.E. The notion of finding “seams” within the text and arguing for a core set of oracles surrounded by later additions is considered heretical to the notion of the inerrant word of God. Such a process in composing the final text seems too … human.

Yet we know God uses humans and their imperfect methods to do his will. Simply because God doesn’t work the way we think he would in delivering his word to us doesn’t mean that’s not what he actually did (triple negative!). In other words, declaring off-limits the possibility of textual evolution doesn’t change the fact that the text did in fact evolve.

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