Sunday, August 1, 2021

On Wisdom, the Problem of Suffering and How We Should Live

One of the privileges of life is to meet people who are extraordinary, beyond ordinary, outstanding. One such person is Walter Moberly, a British Old Testament scholar, in the Theology Department at the University of Durham, where I met him and learned from him when I studied there some thirty years ago. 

I love reading his writings - he writes well and clearly and insightfully - and there is always deep knowledge of the Old Testament and scholarship about the Old Testament (and a few other fields). He makes the Old Testament come alive as a living document directly speaking into Christian life.

Currently I am reading Walter's The God of the Old Testament: Encountering the Divine in Christian Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020).

In the first chapter, "The wise God: The depths of creation in Proverbs 8," there is this paragraph:

"Interestingly, Proverbs 8 no more tries to explain how folly can be present in a world made by God through wisdom than the Johannine Prologue tries to explain how darkness can be present in a world made by God through the Word who is life and light. The focus in each text is not on the abstract question "Why are there evil and folly in the world?" but rather is on the practically oriented question "How best should the world be understood for the purpose of living well in it?" The inability of monotheistic faith to "resolve" the question of evil and sin at a certain theoretical level is well known (however much partial accounts, primarily in terms of the implications of freedom, may be offered). But the corresponding strength of the biblical witness is its consistent focus on the inescapable reality of the world as known to all humans, with a clear vision of what enhances and diminishes life when confronted by this demanding reality." [p. 45]

In one paragraph Moberly does the following:

1. Sums up most if not all Christian literature on the problem of suffering:

"The inability of monotheistic faith to "resolve" the question of evil and sin at a certain theoretical level is well known (however much partial accounts, primarily in terms of the implications of freedom, may be offered)."

In other words, all those books (and blogposts) cannot solve the problem; and the most frequent proposal, that the implications of freedom explains suffering, is inadequate.

Gulp!

2. Yet does not leave Christians in a hopeless place with this realistic if unpalatable assessment:

"But the corresponding strength of the biblical witness is its consistent focus on the inescapable reality of the world as known to all humans, with a clear vision of what enhances and diminishes life when confronted by this demanding reality."

We may not be able to solve the problem of suffering at a theoretical level but we can learn together through Scripture how life may nevertheless be enhanced rather than diminished.

3. More generally concerning all of life in this world, Moberly challenges us to read Scripture (Old and New Testaments, Proverbs and John) for an ultimately practical rather than theoretical effect on life:

"The focus in each text is not on the abstract question "Why are there evil and folly in the world?" but rather is on the practically oriented question "How best should the world be understood for the purpose of living well in it?""

Some food for thought (on the Sunday when the Gospel is John's Jesus declaring, "I am the bread of life."). 

7 comments:

Father Ron said...

This Old Testament Scholar sounds very much like my own Old Testament Scholar at Saint John's College, Auckland; Dr. John J. Lewis. His O.T. lectures were studded with parallels from the New Testament. He seemed to have a very balanced view of the influence of both sets of Scripture on the way in which we might live out our lives as students and propagators of the Good News of Jesus The Christ. One of his main interests was in the implementation of Justice with Mercy - a theme common to the best of the O.T.Prophets in their prefacing of the Gospel of the Annointed Messiah.

Liturgy said...

Ummm... sorry, Peter, I cannot share your enthusiasm for this approach.

I think this approach underplays freedom as an explanation of the Problem of Evil, and the concomitant requirement (in order to be free) of a consistent universe.

And it overplays the Bible as a better solution - a "biblical witness" that is not "consistent" in its response, regularly has God as allowing evil, and often as the source of it.

Blessings

Bosco

Peter Carrell said...

Hi Bosco
A debate in which words like “partial” (Moberly) and “underplays”, “overplays”(Peters) feature is both a genuine debate and one which may - on clarifying terms etc - admit of reconciliation.

Unknown said...

Suffering is a problem. To endure it without being demoralized one needs an intention.

Suffering is also universal. At least, everyone everywhere says that it is.

But for whom, exactly, is The Problem of Evil a problem, and why?

Job's answer was not pragmatism-- although he did do some very interesting things-- but communion with the Whirlwind.

Likewise, the Suffering Servant.

BW

Anonymous said...

Adam Neely exposes The Great Myth of the Medieval Tritone Ban

https://youtu.be/3MhwGnq4N9o

BW

Liturgy said...

Ummm... Bowman, you mean the story, in the "consistent" Bible dealing with the Problem of Evil, where Satan is matey with YHWH and the other divine beings, and they work together to see if they can break Job, and in the process of trying to break Job, they kill people, burn animals and people, leaving destitute grieving whānau, and conclude this sequence by giving Job some form of plague - that's the story you mean?
And that's seen as a more adequate response to the Problem of Evil?
Blessings
Bosco

Unknown said...

Sorry, Bosco, I'm just now seeing this.

Yes, any text that dissolves the merely rationalistic Problem of Evil in the human universal of suffering is engaging the actual crisis in our existence. Much better.

All deep religions address suffering, but not in the same way. If one must have a discursive explanation for it, then one can probably do no better than Siddhartha's early discourses on desire in the Pali Canon.

At this altitude, Homer's Iliad and the Greek tragedies seem to mirror that Indic thought that the appetitive life brings its own frustration (eg the pleasure of Briseis brings Achilles the pain of the death of Patroclus). But a famous chorus in Aeschylus's Agamemnon (lines 179-183) reflects that the gods use the pain of suffering to send wisdom.**

Nearer Jerusalem than Paris, Varanasi, or Athens, the Tanakh is full of psalms and prophecies in which voices place their experience of suffering in the heart of their relationship with YHWH. In this Judaic imaginary, both pain and its dissolution are *active* concerns of consciousness in God.

As a wisdom poem in rebellion against rationalism, Job is especially interesting. It slyly gives several rationalists the opportunity to fail. Then Job's poetic interview with the Whirlwind evokes the communion that it prescribes. Finally, Job himself emerges from the ordeal with a more just respect for his daughters. If you get a chance to see J.B.,Archibald MacLeish's verse adaptation for the stage, do take it.

Isaiah is likewise no rationalist in singing of the redemptive pain of the Suffering Servant. If, as Daniel Boyarin suggests, midrash connected those songs to other messianic texts before the C1, Jesus himself stepped into a considerable body of reflection on suffering and then deepened it in his own healings and self-sacrifice.

** These are the lines with which Robert F. Kennedy broke the news of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr to a Black crowd in Indianapolis on April 4, 1968. His remarks that evening on his grief at the assassinations of his brother and Dr King are widely credited with dissuading his audience from rioting as so many did in other US cities that night.

BW