01 September 2008

Is Theodicy a "Problem" at all?

Although it appears at this moment that Gustav is not likely to be quite the storm that Katrina was, it's still obviously a serious event. It's hard to imagine what it must be like to live under the continual threat of devastating hurricanes, or to endure repeated chaotic evacuations - especially if you are elderly or have mobility issues.

Hurricane Katrina sparked a giant political conversation, but it also stirred the theological pot. Christians often end up trying to defend God (or find themselves accusing God) for letting such a tragedy happen. It's a hard defense to mount, because there is just so much suffering at every turn. UNC professor and ex-Christian Bart Ehrman reflects on the worst events of the 20th century in an effort to demonstrate the fallacy of believing in a loving, omnipotent God in his book, "God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer". (I haven't read the book; just this review of it.)

It might be the case that the "most important question" for Ehrman and others to ask is actually, "Why do I feel that the existence of suffering is humanity's most important question?" I think that people recall specific sayings of Jesus ("Ask, and it shall be given unto you"; "I am with you always...") and translate that in their minds into "I will protect you in the ways you want to be protected." That's not a careful reading. In times of trouble, we must also remember that this Jesus who seems to be our guardian is also a man who didn't particularly want to be crucified, yet submitted himself to God's will -- and said that we, too, must take up our cross.

That's kind of dangerous territory; comparing human suffering with Christ's crucifixion could be malappropriated to justify violence or tragedy as instruments of God's will, a la Falwell with 9/11 or Hagee with the Holocaust. The nuance is critical: we don't have to believe that God causes/permits these great tragedies, but we do have to let go of the expectation that God will protect us from pain and suffering (as well as its corrolary, that the experience of suffering presents a challenge to faith).

My thinking on these questions is colored by the fact that I have not experienced a direct, profound tragedy in my life the way that so many others have. One dear friend of mine had a Sunday School teacher, Todd Beamer, who died in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Another friend and classmate named Jill has a mother who is living with very aggressive ALS right now. I was there when Jill got the telephone call about the diagnosis, and you can read/watch a pretty intimate interview that her parents did with the local TV station here. I'm one step removed from these events & relationships, and so I know it is easier for me to stand back and say that they should not call God's sovereignty into question. But I do think it is true nonetheless, and the enduring faith of these two friends helps me believe that.

If anyone is interested, Jill is joining 5 siblings, 3 brothers-in-law, and 5 nephews in the Michigan Walk to Defeat ALS. You can support her towards her $1000 goal here.

1 comment:

Heather said...

Mmm..so good. I just started Ellen Davis' Psalm chapter of her book and she said that there are more Psalms of Lament than Psalms of Praise in the Scriptures, and that we as Christians need to contend with the fact that suffering is/will be a large part of our life as disciples of Jesus. The book is real good.