Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Onion Theodicy

I now realise firsthand that there is nothing like a serious disaster to pose a significant and urgent challenge to Christians articulating theodicy or the justification of God's goodness in the face of evil's apparent rampant triumph over human life. Walking an individual through (say) an awful tragedy there is potential for hugs, long silences, counselling to cover a multiple of shortfalls in one's ability to offer theodicy. A large natural disaster, by contrast, leaves a lot of people fit and able to engage rationally with hardheaded (if not hardhearted) critique of theodicy, in response to which hugs, silences, and counselling are no response.

Here, so as not to disappoint you once you get to the end of the post, I am not offering my own theodicy. I may or may not do that in a future post, but there are others aroundabout able to offer theodicy with greater intelligence and wisdom than I can muster. But I am offering here the idea that theodicy may be like an onion: layer upon layer of justification, each serving a purpose in specific contexts.

One layer of the onion goes like this, based as far as I can remember it, on an actual reported conversation a day or two after the quake last week:

Shop attendant to collared clergyperson: "Tell your boss to stop these quakes. We have had enough."

Clergyperson: "My boss didn't cause the earthquakes."

In one way or another a variety of church spokespersons in the media have offered a similar line: God did not cause the earthquakes - the earth did.

Now, in my view, in a brief conversation in a shop, or in a media interview when a soundbite is all that will be broadcast, something pithy, understandable, and direct is needed, and the kinds of things I am hearing said serve a purpose: to uphold the honour and reputation of God as the One who is Love, who may be turned to for help and comfort in good faith and without fear.

But there is another layer, longer to explain, and liable to lose the listener at the shop counter or watching the TV, but it needs to be said, at least in the theological discourse of the church, at some point in the process of honest dealing with the general situation humanity experiences in a world experienced both as friendly and as hostile.

In this layer God is responsible for the world. God has caused it to exist in the way it exists. God continues to sustain the world. God continues to watch over the world with all its travails and groanings, working a purpose out which culminates in a new heaven and a new earth. Various passages in Scripture supporting this understanding of the work of God can be turned to. One which hit me with special force yesterday is this:

'All things were made through [the Word], without [the Word] was not any thing made that was made.' (John 1:3)

This earth with its spasmodically moving crust is not a random outcome of an ancient cosmic explosion which God ignited without foreknowledge of how all the post big bang bits and pieces would end up. We praise God as creator, precisely because we believe God created our world as it is, not because we believe God's creative power was solely about detonating the initial explosion of cosmic matter. God through Christ the Word is at the centre of creation as well as at its beginning and its end: all things were made through the Word.

From the perspective of theodicy, in this layer of the onion, the God of Jesus Christ is not quite so easily off the hook for responsibility for earthquakes.

There is much more to say, other layers of the onion. But I must stop there today.


christplaysnz said...

I wonder if the simple "My God didn't do this." response isn't so much an attempt at a comprehensive reply as an attempt to block some disturbing paths that that conversation can follow.

"God has his reasons" lets the mind search for justification, in the sin of others, in the policies of council in ANYTHING that could give us a clue as to "why God did this" (And, oh, how we long to blame someone, anyone)- i had a bit of a rage bout that here -

But while God isn't off the hook we don't believe that God has a direct causal relationship with tectonic plates, do we?

So many nonsense questions are asked in times like these, sometimes it is best just to shutdown speculation until all practical steps of service and support have been taken - then, once we've covered the tragedy in layers of good works, good intentions and respectful remembrances - we can sit down and humbly ask God the harder questions.

Jesus may not be off the hook, but that doesn't mean now is the appropriate time to schedule the meeting with him.

Father Ron Smith said...

Surely, the fact the the Son of God had to undergo crucifixion should tell us that; though Jesus, The Word, was at Creation; Jesus, the human being was still subject to the whims of the created order. This would imply - at the simplest level - that; even the Creator (in Christ) has, for God's own reasons, not opted out of, but complied with, the consequences of 'The Fall'.

The fact is that, in Christ, Creation has already been redeemed. It is also a fact that we, who are subject to the inexorable process of time, still have to 'undergo' the process of our redemption. This is summed up in the hope (Pauline) that All Creation will one day (in time) experience the redemption that God has in mind for it (and us).

"All creation has been groaning (and is still groaning) in the act of giving birth" - to what? To the New Creation (beyond this time), which Christ has already inaugurated.

Soteriology: Redemption has already been achieved - but is yet to come!

Anonymous said...

"From the perspective of theodicy, in this layer of the onion, the God of Jesus Christ is not quite so easily off the hook for responsibility for earthquakes"

- Where suffering is concerned, God has not been let "off the hook" - or nails, in any case. Which is to say that any discussion of theodicy that does make the Cross and Resurrection of the Incarnate Son of God central is doomed to the (tedious) lampooning of optimistic deism in Voltaire's 'Candide'. If people are indeed ready for serious discussion of theodicy (say I, who have never suffered the loss of my home or the violent death of loved ones) and orthodox Christians (not liberal 'process theologians') are up to the apologetic task, some engagement with the philosophical issues is essential.
Christian teachers like Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga grapple with these questions with real intelellectual - and pastoral - seriousness. Plantinga talks about "defeaters" for any proposition, while Craig turns the argumetns of critics on their headAt a more generally accessible level, Peter Jensen wrote a fine piece on the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami.
Praying for you every day.
Peter "Palaiologos"

Paul Powers said...

I don't think there is a satisfactory response in these situations. "My God didn't do this" not only sounds like we are acting as God's defense counsel, but it's an attempt to make God in our image instead of the other way around.

"Why did God make a world in which natural disasters are possible" implies a) that we deserve such a world, and b) that if we had the chance to create a universe, we could do a better job.

Another problem is that unlike God, we are not omniscient. If you give a two year-old a vaccination, she will cry bloody murder. For her, that shot is the worst thing that has ever happened--or could possibly happen--to her, and it's futile to try to convince her that it's for her own good or that it will keep from hurting even more in the future. But that two year-old's intellectual capacity is much closer to an adult human's than ours is to that of an omniscient Deity. Not for nothing are we described as "sheep" in various places in the Bible. As most Kiwis probably know, sheep are incredibly stupid creatures, so it's not exactly a compliment.

Maybe someday we'll figure it out, maybe we won't. In the meantime, "il faut cultiver notre jardin."

Paul Powers said...

To clarify: just because there's no good answer doesn't mean we shouldn't ask the question.