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Experimental Apostasy

20 May 2009

Damn the airport bookstores.  Damn them.

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Salt Lake City’s airport is nothing to write home about.  While the rest of the airborne world has busily upgraded its terminals with consumer-friendly offerings and comfortable, airy spaces, Salt Lake City has contented itself with the airport of the 1980s:  narrow concourses, low ceilings, and sparse nutritional options.  But they have dabbled in bookstores, and one in particular caught my eye.  I actually stopped to see what kind of hardback Bible that was, only to find to my deep chagrin the toothy smile of Joel Osteen on the cover.  Lest I vomit, I turned away and promptly, inadvertently, laid mine eyes on a little paperback by Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem:  How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.  Now the quandary begins.

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As I said, it’s a quandary.  Because once the question has been raised, either you answer it, or you ignore it.  Ignoring it is the ostrich’s gambit:  if I stick my head in the sand, or if I stick my fingers in my ears and sing “na-na-na-na…”, maybe it’ll go away.  Answering it, on the other hand, is the philosopher’s equivalent of firing up a fattie in private just to see what this delta-THC thing is all about.  (For the record:  never.  EVER.)

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$16 later, I’ve fired it up, and its subject is eerily related to the subject of my previous post from the Northern Rockies.  From the intro:

I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life.  In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things…I don’t know if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one who is actively and powerfully involved in this world.  (Ehrman, 3-4)

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Boiling it all down to the prickly essence, the most important question of all is not human suffering.  The most important question, rather, is this one:  if there is a God, does he interact with us?  The question of suffering, with all due respect to Ehrman and the rest of humanity, is subsidiary.  Moot.  Empty.  And the claims of Jesus – or, perhaps, the claims of the communities that decided to cast their lots with him – are staggeringly direct.  His name shall be called Emmanuel – God with us.

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Back to N. T. Wright.  Deep into the masterpiece Jesus and the Victory of God, now, I find myself confronted with the unchallenged primacy of the Temple in the world view of the Judaism into which Jesus was born and to which he believed he was sent as an apocalyptic prophet.  What is the Temple, after all?  It is the home of the Shekinah, the glorious presence of YHWH, the focal point of sacrifice, and the political fulcrum of the Jewish nation.  He who built or preserved the Temple would be the King of the Jews; he who destroyed, defamed, or defiled it would be an impostor.  Everything hinges on the fate of the Temple.  If it stands, it stands as a vindication of everything that surrounds it; if it falls, it falls in judgment of those who were charged with its stewardship.  And Jesus walks in from Capernaum and proclaims its doom – obliquely, mysteriously, subversively, under the radar, a message intended only for those with ears to hear, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

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The interactive presence and action of God in men’s affairs is IT.  That’s the whole banana, the linchpin, the fulcrum.  If God is not active in men’s affairs, we are stuck with deism at best, and atheism at worst.  If he IS actively engaged with us, though – and that is Willard’s definition of grace:  God’s action – then we have no choice but to ask what form his activity takes as we observe the infinite variety of evil and suffering that surrounds us.  Ehrman may be an apostate now, but he has done us the great service of focusing our attention where it belongs:  What is God doing about all of this?

—–

I suppose it’s possible that we cannot answer the question if it is posed in the context of suffering.  We in affluent North America are prone to ask such questions at a comfortable distance from the real object of our inquiry, but Ehrman is not content to leave us in such a compromised state.  With a dignified sweep of his brush, he reminds us of the street-level expressions of evil that modernism – modern Darwinism, lest we be tempted to let secular humanism off the hook – has wrought in our century alone, from Auschwitz to Darfur.  (Elie Wiesel’s Night has just moved to the top of the must-read list.)

—–

Let me stop there.  I haven’t the energy to go further, and besides, I’ve got to print off a boarding pass so I can get home to the family I love.  

By the way, where did I get the idea that my family ought to be my beloved stewardship?

qb

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