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Be Careful. Be Very, Very Careful.

16 September 2009

It is a dangerous thing to spend a lot of quality time with theodicy.


OK, so let’s add to our glossary of theological terms.  Essentially, “theodicy” refers to the problem of suffering in a God-created world and asks questions about God’s complicity – tacit, passive, or active – in the evil that humans experience in the created order.


Gentle reader, if you look to the right-hand column of this blog, you’ll find two books I’ve read recently that have to do with theodicy in one way or another.  The first, Bart Ehrman’s God’s Problem:  How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer, is a philosophical account of Ehrman’s journey from believer to agnostic/atheist, a journey for which the puzzles of theodicy were the primary vehicle.  The account is credible; Ehrman is a professor of theology at a prominent university in North Carolina, and he is married to a believer.

One can quibble with whether or not theodicy is our most important question, but it clearly must be numbered among the top few, inasmuch as we devote massive amounts of local, state, and federal taxes to suppress evil in its various forms and to remediate its various effects.  (Just pondering the magnitude of those expenditures can drive a person insane.  The cost of keeping evil at bay is truly unfathomable.)

And one could also quarrel with Ehrman’s reasoning as the book unfolds.  qb did just that at a number of points; Ehrman’s logic is not air-tight.  But one thing that cannot be disputed is that theodicy played the primary role in at least this one man’s decision to reject the God he had once willingly and piously served.


The second book is a shorter but more personal, and therefore more harrowing, narrative of looking at evil first-hand and up close, Elie Wiesel’s Night.  Do not read it unless you are prepared for nightmares and prepared to follow along with Wiesel as he questions, and then abandons, his own deeply internalized Jewish faith in YHWH, the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The setting:  Hungary and Poland, 1940s.  Separated from his mother and sister when the Third Reich sweeps into Hungary, Wiesel accompanies his father into the unconscionable suffering of Auschwitz and beyond, and they survive nearly all of it, until finally his beloved father succumbs to dysentery just before the Russian army liberates the camp.  The tragic ending reminds me so much of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which I read in Bob McCannon’s 10th-grade history class in Albuquerque…the injustice of dying at all is compounded by how tantalizingly close the two Wiesel men came to surviving together.


qb’s difficulty with all of this stems from his own experience of evil as a father, albeit a relatively mild form by comparison.  But the questions of theodicy are fundamentally the same at all scales of inquiry, from the social evils of suburban-American middle-school life to the systemic evils of Ghana, 9/11, and South Africa.  What sort of loving God would advocate the slaughter of innocents in Jericho and Ai, would give free rein to the likes of Pol Pot and Stalin, would stand idly by as mere children threaten to take their own lives to escape the quotidien torment of adolescent biochemistry and social orders?  It is enough, qb concludes, when considered at length, to drive a Christian believer to run away from the bloodthirsty God of the Old Testament and away from the criminally silent god of the present age.


Oddly, as I ponder these things, though I find myself running from God, yet I find myself running toward Jesus.  (Is this what C. S. Lewis really meant by “the hound of heaven?”)


So qb is toying with a solution.  What if, for example, the accounts of God’s slaughter-commands in the Hebrew Bible (the OT) are just so much literary propaganda by royal apologist-historians?  Egad.


Yes, gentle reader, qb is wandering far afield, toying with the theological equivalent of heroin.  The dangers here are no secret.  Still, it makes little sense to pretend the journey’s not going on when it clearly is.  As I told my Bible study group a couple of months ago:  if my sons are going to reject God, I want them to reject the real God, not some sanitized, absurd, incoherent caricature dreamed up by positivistic, irrational, two-bit evangelicals bent on building impressive religious empires on premillennial fantasies and self-help pabulum worthy of Dr. Phil.  (“But how do you really feel about them, qb?”)

And don’t miss this from nine lines up:  qb’s running toward Jesus.  qb can no more contemplate giving up on Jesus the Anointed than our Golden Retriever could contemplate life as a duck-billed platypus.  Whatever danger there is in this theological journey is the same sort of danger that Job courted in daring to question YHWH’s character…and for much the same reason.  But the active belief – the one that actually animates qb’s choices as a father and a husband and a boss and an employee – is the Dallas Willard- and N. T. Wright-inspired belief that the resurrected Jesus knew what he was talking about because of who he was.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 September 2009 8:33 pm

    I appreciate the way you compare your questioning to Job’s. It’s interesting to me how your post has highlighted the connection between questions of theodicy and hermeneutics. If only we could allow each other the same safe space for questioning each of these as God offers Job, David, Jesus, and so many others throughout the unfolding narrative of scripture.

  2. jds permalink
    20 September 2009 10:54 pm

    Most of the time I find those that have a problem with God regarding the problem of evil is that the underlying assumption is that God is controlling everything, which is something I do not believe the Bible teaches. I think Ehrman makes this mistake as well, and as you noted, does not make an airtight case even within that framework.

    Greg Boyd and others make a case for Open Theism (I am assuming you are familiar with the writings about this view), which explains that all suffering is a result of the freewill actions of humans and fallen angels, and that the future is open to God; he does not know the future free-will actions of his creatures because those actions do not yet exist. Open Theism has some holes of its own, but the idea of it is attractive to me.

    You are right that reading this stuff can be dangerous. I don’t know these days what to make of God, the effectiveness of prayer, the extent of human free-will and the point at which God steps in to merely shape events or say “enough!” as will happen at the Eschaton.

    I think I was more blissful in my ignorance.

    I commend your honesty, and your sprint to Jesus.

  3. 21 September 2009 5:52 am

    Thanks to both of you for stopping by. jds, qb has a strong, if contingent, affinity to open theism, and the contingency arises primarily because qb has no idea what he’s talking about most of the time…so I don’t want to pollute others’ well-considered theories by associating them with my ad hoc nonsense!


  4. 21 September 2009 5:57 am

    But this question remains for us, even if we adopt an open-theist posture. If in fact God does act *sometimes* within his creation (i. e., beyond or against his passive action, by which I mean his design that operates more or less on its own once “started”), then we are forced to wonder why he does not act *always*, or at least in some directed way that would justify calling him good rather than in just a few, [apparently] randomly selected cases.


    • jds permalink
      21 September 2009 4:36 pm

      I struggle with same questions about the frequency of God’s actions in the course of history, and why sometimes he allows incomprehensible evil to triumph. It doesn’t take a sharp eye to see it all over the world at any given time. Maybe because if everything were perfect, then we would not see our need for a savior. But then he could allow just a little evil to show that need, I suppose.

      And what of the times where God does intervene? Can we agree to call those “miracles,” and if so, what is normative regarding their frequency? My charismatic brethren believe that they happen all the time, and that when they don’t happen, it’s because people don’t ask for them. My more conservative friends of course don’t buy any of that. Miracles are for the Bible, period.

      I think where I am right now is that I affirm God is on his throne, but that he is ruling by wisdom, not by power. There is an interesting verse in Revelation 11:17 where the 24 elders say “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.” I infer from this wording that God, up to this point, has not taken his power and begun to reign. Maybe, in ruling by wisdom, he is guiding those who are willing into doing his will, still moving creation on to its culmination where “every knee will bow, every tongue confess…” If God is ruling by wisdom, and if people are free to say no to him, then that would explain a great deal of the evil in the world, but not all of it.

      Of course that leaves us with the question of how to explain ANY miraculous intervention, because that would mean God is taking his power.

      I don’t know, just blabbering, I suppose.

  5. 21 September 2009 4:43 pm

    Re: ruling by wisdom vs. power – that’s an interesting distinction that deserves some thought. I’m glad you spoke up. qb

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