Sunday, November 2, 2014

God's Existence in the Midst of Suffering

This is a paper I wrote at OC addressing God's existence in the midst of suffering in the world.

Intro.  J.L. Mackie states, “… that [if] good is apposed to evil in such a way that a being who is wholly good eliminates evil as far as he can, and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do, then we do have a contradiction.  A wholly good omnipotent being would eliminate evil completely; if there really are evils, then there cannot be any such being.”  Mackie’s assertion is that, because evil exists in the world, then the God proposed by Christians cannot exist.  This paper will address arguments both for and against this system of thinking.

Context of Arguments.  Before any positions are firmly established, however, it is necessary to gain some semblance of a context for this question as it pertains to both sides of the argument.  Philosopher Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, identifies the time period in which sociological change that allowed questions like the goodness of God to be asked as “the anthropocentric turn”.  Taylor defines this turn, saying, the “sense of God’s ordering presence begins to fade. The sense begins to arise that we can sustain the order [of the world] on our own.”  He goes on to coin the phrase “immanent frame” and “buffered self” both of which refer to mankind’s newfound confidence in their own reason as a result of the enlightenment.  Timothy Keller States, “But Taylor rightly points out that despite the discussions of philosophers, the argument from evil never had anything like popular appeal and broad attraction until some time after the Enlightenment. Things changed when Western thought came to see God as more remote, and to see the world as ultimately completely understandable through reason.”
Keller goes on to note, “One of the first places that the new, modern self came up against evil and suffering was in the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, a famous example of what has been called “natural evil”— suffering caused not by human agents but just as part of the natural world.”  Keller notes that questioning God in today’s world is a relatively normal circumstance, but, when this event took place, it was relatively new.  “Of course people have questioned the ways and justice of God in human affairs since the book of Job and earlier. But virtually no one on record had previously argued that evil made the existence of God impossible… In earlier times, when suffering occurred, just because we couldn’t think within our own mind of good reasons for it didn’t mean there couldn’t be any.”  In the Reason for God, Keller goes onto to turn this logic into an argument against assumptions by those such as Mackie.  He says,  “Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.  Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties.  If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any!  This is blind faith of a high order.”  Therefore, it is important to note that this questioning of God is actually a relatively new phenomenon and is a result of a greater faith in our own thinking, an inherent understanding in our culture that if one cannot perceive a reason for something, then there cannot be one.  

Suffering prevents a good God from existing.  There are several arguments for the evil’s existence and, therein, the implausibility of a Christian God.  The first is David Hume’s, and he states, “The first Circumstance, which introduce Evil, is that Contrivance or the economy of the animal Creation, by which Pains, as well as Pleasures, are employed to excite all Creatures to Action, and make them vigilant in the great Work of Self-preservation.  Now Pleasure alone, in its various Degrees, seems to human Understanding sufficient for this Purpose.”  Hume is essentially stating the pain is unnecessary to accomplish the motivation which a Creator God might be inclined to do, so, since there is pain, there can be no God.    
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion Hume generates another similar, but widely understood to be a more substantial argument.  He says, “Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”
Suffering does not prevent a good/Omnipotent God from existing.  Alvin Plantinga argues that, “the existence of evil is not logically incompatible (even in the broadly logical sense) with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good God.”  Plantinga’s argument goes like this:  “I look inside my tent: I don’t see a St. Bernard; it is then probable that there is no St. Bernard in my tent.  That is because if there were one there, I would very likely have seen it; it’s not easy for a St. Bernard to avoid detection in a small tent.  Again, I look inside my tent:  I don’t see any noseeums (very small midges with a bite out of all proportion to their size); this time it is not particularly probable that there are no noseeums in my tent – at least it isn’t any more probable than before I looked.  The reason, of course, is that even if there we noseeums there, I wouldn’t see ‘em; they’re too small to see.”  This is, essentially, a continuation of Keller’s argument from above.
C.S. Lewis also argues against these notions.  He writes, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?...  What was I comparing the universe with when I called it unjust? Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if i did that, then my argument against God collapsed too--for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist - in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless - I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality - namely my idea of justice - was full of sense.”   Lewis asserts that a sense of “evil” and “wrongness” surrounding suffering cannot be explained via any other narrative except a religious one.
Theodicies.  Aside from the defenses by Lewis and Plantinga, there have been offered, over the years, a great many number of theodicies which attempt to not only defend God’s goodness in the midst of an evil world, but show the process by which his existence and permission of suffering is possible.  One of these theodicies is presented by John Hicks, who suggests that the purpose of this world is solely to develop souls.  If one holds to this view, then suffering in the world can be explained as a process by which spiritual development may take place.  Hicks says, this is done by “meeting and eventually mastering temptation  .  .  . rightly making responsible choices in concrete situations.”  Timothy Keller points out the problem with this theodicy when he states, “However, the soul-making theodicy suffers from some glaring weaknesses. First, pain and evil do not appear in any way to be distributed according to soul-making need. Many people with bad souls get very little of the adversity they apparently need, and many with great souls get an amount that seems to go far beyond what is necessary for spiritual growth. Also, this theodicy does not speak to or account for the suffering of little children or infants who die in pain, or even for the suffering of animals.”
Peter van Inwagen notes another common theodicy for suffering in the world.  He states, “The omniscient God knew that, however much evil might result from the elected separation from himself  .  .  . the gift of free will would be, so to speak, worth it. For the existence of an eternity of love depends on this gift, and that eternity outweighs the horrors of the very long, but, in the most literal sense, temporary period of divine-human estrangement.”  Essentially Inwagen suggests that free will makes suffering and pain worth it.  Keller also questions this theodicy when he says, “Is it really true that God could not create free agents capable of love without making them also capable of evil?... But the Bible presents God himself as sovereign and free (Ps 115: 3), and not just capable of love but the very fountain and source of all love. Nevertheless, he himself cannot be evil. He cannot lie or break a promise (Num 23: 19; Titus 1: 2), he cannot be tempted by evil (James 1: 13), he cannot deny or contradict his perfectly righteous and holy character (2 Tim 2: 13; 1 Pet 1: 16). If God has a free will yet is not capable of doing wrong— why could not other beings also be likewise constituted?"

Conclusion.  All theodicies eventually hit some fatal end such as these.  Because of this Plantinga concludes, “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil— theodicies, as we may call them— strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.”  Both Plantinga and Keller assert that Christians are not to come up with a reason for suffering, and, therefore, must take a defensive position.  They conclude that it cannot be proven that a good God cannot exist with the state of the present world.  

Reference List:  

Hick, John, Evil and the God of Love rev. ed.; Harper, 1978,
Hume, David, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard Popkin Hackett Pub, 1980
Hume, David. "Why Does God Let People Suffer?" Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy. Boston, 
MA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011
Inwagen, Peter Van, The Problem of Evil: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of St Andrews in 
2003 (Oxford University Press, 2006).  
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God. New York, New York: Dutton, 2008.
Keller, Timothy, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group US. 2013.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper-Collins
Mackie, J.L. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the existence of God. Oxford: Clarendon Press
Plantinga, Alvin, The Nature of Necessity Oxford University Press.
Plantinga, Alvin, Profiles, Ed. James E. Tomberlin and Peter van Inwagen, 1985.  
Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000
Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age.  Harvard University Press, 2007

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Weekend with Monks: After Spiritual Direction

Last week I spent several days at a monastery outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  This is a select journal entry from my time there.

This is how my session of spiritual direction ended: Father Bachman looked concernedly into my eyes (think Gandalf looking into Pippin's eyes in Lord of the Rings) and said, "let me pray for you".  Then, without another word, his eyes got big and he stood up and SPRINTED out of the room, black cloak billowing behind him, looking once again like professor Snape.  What??!  In my experience when somebody says, "let me pray for you", they typically pray for you right then and there.  Why did he run??  Am I possessed??  Is there something I need to know about myself which tends to make holy men want to sprint away from me??  I THINK he may have been late for compline... but I don't know.  Bizarre... really bizarre.

A Weekend with Monks: Things I would Miss

Last week I spent several days at a monastery outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  This is a select journal entry from my time there.

I have been asking myself what I would miss if I were to give up everything to be a monk.  To my surprise, so many things!  New movies, knowing smirks at inappropriate moments, dressing like an idiot, music! (speaking of music, I'm currently taking a mental break with the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack... in a monastery... how is that NOT funny?  Maybe I have been couped up too long as I am actually dying laughing thinking about that... I think I am one step away from drawing a face on a volleyball and calling it Wilson.) the freedom to walk farther than 2 miles, road trips, good fiction books, girls, strange items in the wal-mart pharmacy, the ability to laugh at some of the silly things these monks do, Alfredo's!, talks with Phil, Kraig and Brenton's relentless harassment, Skyler's crazy wisdom (or is it idiocy?), poop jokes!, ah Lily and Ruby, ugly Kansas jokes, colors other than white and black, harassing Kevin and Amanda, text messaging funny dog picture, spontaneity!, working out with a crazy pre-workout, thinking systematically through problems (here, I don't think they perceive any problems in need of working through), youtube!, starbucks, and that is all I have time to think of right now.  Thank You for all these things.

A Weekend with Monks: After Vespers

Last week I spent several days at a monastery outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.  This is a select journal entry from my time there.

I couldn't help but think Vespers played out as if I was watching some insane, eccentric stage director direct the monks at his whismy in the worst play ever.  "ooo!  Let's have everybody stand in straight lines wearing all black!  Oh oh, wait!  You three, yes you there, wear white robes, not black ones.  And candles!  Bring in some candles after you feel the song has gone on long enough.  30 minutes of singing in latin should do it.  MORE white!  We MUST have more white!  You all wear white too.  And capes!  Gold capes!  And more candles!  Bring in more candles my capies.  Now walk in a circle and kneel.  Hm... nope, I don't like it, go back in a circle the other way walking backwards and kneel again.  Everybody sit down.  You!  In the black, stand up awkwardly and sing one syllable by yourself!  Sit back down.  Everybody stand up and sing together now!  WAIT!!!  More candles! Must have more candles.  Get a gold dangly candle and wiggle it around in front of everybody's face!  Perfect.  While he is doing that, capies, you all go prance around and do an uncomfortable kneeling dance while holding hands.  You know, the one where you all prance around kneel randomly in unison... perfection."

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Theology of Criticism

As I sat through a sermon some time ago, I began to become frustrated.  Being an academically trained Bible student has its upsides, but it also has downsides.  We are taught to dissect scripture like a corpse, so as to discern what it is truly communicating.  While helpful, this can lend itself to a feeling that scripture is dead, not something with a living power.  Another downside is that we are trained that there are certain correct ways to communicate scripture.  First, one practices exegesis (the aforementioned scriptural dissection process), and then one takes the meaning found in the original context and applies it to the specific audience being preached to.  The speaker has ONE point, and one point only that they are to communicate in various ways throughout the sermon, and yada yada yada the list of how to preach correctly goes on.  You can imagine, then, how difficult it might be for somebody who was immersed in this kind of training for 4 (or in my case 5) years might have trouble hearing what the preacher is saying due to the fact that I was, instead, too busy critically analyzing the sermon.  In this particular case, the sermon was TERRIBLE.  The preacher had about 10 different points (none of which addressed particular needs of his community), he was taking verses out of context, his sermon was based on a theme instead of a scripture (Ex. "happiness".  Thematic teaching leads to looking through scripture to find verses that apply to your theme, which inadvertently makes you look at scripture through the lens of "everything applies to my theme!"  This is called eisegesis), AND, worst of all, he was communicating the message in the most boring way I thought possible.  I mean really, I think this guy sat down and thought for awhile, "what would be the WORST structure and speaking style to talk to people?"  So instead of listening and worshiping, I sat and stewed for a long period of time.  I prayed to God and asked Him to do something because this was awful.  Painful really.  Nobody was going to leave church inspired and nobody was going to leave church encouraged and refreshed by the love of God!  But as I continued to be introspective I discerned what was at the root of my cynicism and criticism.  I wasn't frustrated entirely by the bad sermon; I was frustrated because I didn't have the power to do anything about it.  Seething there, I felt an overwhelming sense of a desire for control.  Going further, I discovered that my desire for control came out of a fear that God could not work through bad preaching, and that I clearly had a diminished sense of what God could do.  My motivation for my frustration was, essentially, that God could not and would not show up through such a poorly planned and executed sermon, and that, therefore, somebody had to (and show me a minister without a God complex), which led me to become frustrated at my lack of ability to do/change anything. 

During one of my last classes my last semester at Oklahoma Christian, I was provided the opportunity, due to the scriptural context, to ask a question which has always perplexed me.  What is the difference between "judgement" and analyzing a situation and coming to a conclusion?  
And for that matter, how are opinions not simplified and shortened judgements?  I have heard more opinions in my young life span than I suspect many will in their entire lives, simply because my job as a minister is often to listen to people express said opinions.  However, the more opinions I hear, the more I have become aware of what I believe the difference is.  More often than not, when people express an opinion to me it is either a negative opinion, OR it is expressed in a frustrated manner.  Think of somebody who might disagree with current political happenings.  How do they communicate that? Now think of somebody who agrees with current political happenings.  Most likely, they express their support in a similar manner.  Analyzing a circumstance and coming to conclusions based on that analysis is not inherently evil, however, the overindulgence of this activity can be.  Why?  Because analyzing other circumstances prevents us from analyzing ourselves.  It has been my limited experience that the more we complain about the government, our frustrating family, or the general state of things, the more we are distracting ourselves from introspection.  It is almost as if our brain was built to consistently assess our internal and spiritual well being, but, in order to allow our brain to feel as if it has accomplished its purpose while avoiding the pain of an inward glance, we turn that mental power outwards.  Strongly opinionated people, in my opinion, are usually hurt people who are struggling their darnedest to avoid looking inward.  As Conan Obrien said when he was leaving the tonight show, "Please do not be cynical, I hate cynicism.  For the record, it's my least favorite quality, it doesn't get anybody anywhere."  

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Limitations of Redemption

One of my favorite series of books is called The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever.  The trilogy follows a man named Thomas Covenant (duh), an author whose wife and child leave him as a result of his recent contraction of Hansen's disease, more commonly known as Leprosy.  Understandably, he has an exceptionally soured outlook on life when the reader meets him.  However, soon he is transported to a magical Narnia type land where he is hailed as a savior.  At this point, I immediately assumed that hope and salvation for this poor man was on the way! However, when the land returns his sense of touch (which Leprosy stripped from him), Thomas becomes overwhelmed by the renewed sense, and then rapes a child in the village.  As the reader, you lose all sympathy for the protagonist.  In fact, you begin to despise him.  To top it off, if you are to continue reading, you must then live inside the head of this despicable human being whose thoughts page after page are full of despair and annoying self pity.  What, in this case, motivates a reader to continue for 3 books??

The answer is two questions implicit within he narrative:  1.  Can this man be redeemed?  2.  Do I even want this man to be redeemed?  

Is redemption limited?

When two people enter the covenant of marriage, they do so knowing that one of them will most likely die before the other, leaving the other to cope and find meaning in the midst of such terrible loss.  However, people continue to get married even with the knowledge that this wonderful relationship WILL come to an end.  One is then faced with a daunting philosophical question: If something seemingly "good" is going to decay and die, is it still good?  As Christians we answer yes.

However, if something bad happens, only to turn into something beautiful.... is the bad, then, still bad?  As Christians we answer no.

Is this a double standard?  No.  These two Christian philosophies are a direct result of the concept of redemption.  I recently went to a conference where the concept of the hopelessness in prisoners was discussed.  Prisoners, even if released, are treated as walking talking cancer cells to be avoided at all costs.  What, then, does a prisoner have to look forward to?  The speaker, Efrem Smith, CEO of World Impact, stated, "letting people with no hope know that this is not the end of their story is really the gospel."

To Christians, redemption is the solution to hopelessness.  There is something about the the concept of redemption that attracts us.  It motivates us to read 1500 pages about a character we hate.  Redemption is powerful enough for a rapist leper, and it is powerful enough for whatever hopelessness captivates us.  So next time despair enthralls you know that whatever suffering surrounds you, it is not the end of your story.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Life of a Single Minister

Really enjoyed this thought by Jonathan Acuff in his book Stuff Christians Like:


He didn’t give it to me. I’m married, thank God, which I can totally say in this context because I am literally thanking God for something he gave me, which is a wife. It’s weird that he didn’t give you one though. Maybe he does want you to be lonely, I mean single. Like Paul. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Not everyone gets that gift. Some people, yourself for instance, get cats instead.

Or dogs. God seems like he’s more of a dog kind of guy. And that’s not so bad. Dogs are nice, you’ll have a lot of time by yourself for puzzles, and your tea will last twice as long. Think about that. Whenever my wife and I have tea we waste two teabags. Think of the savings in tea you’ll be enjoying, and you’ll never have to pick a side of the bed to sleep on. You have both sides to choose from and no one ever elbows you.

I bet you didn’t even consider that. Good thing I’m so insightful, which is another gift God gave me. He gave me more of a “spiritual gift basket” than just an individual gift. I got marriage and happiness and kids and joy and love, but you got the gift of singleness. Like Paul. That’s great. Seriously, I’ll pray you’ll be willing to embrace it and not shriek every morning when you awake and that gift is still sitting on your doorstep. That’s what I would do. I have nightmares about being alone sometimes. But that’s your gift.

Acuff, Jonathan (2010-03-03). Stuff Christians Like (Kindle Locations 826-830). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.