Following on from last week:
What of "the problem of suffering" in response to the suffering of recent devastation in our land?
This post is in two parts: part 1, my summary as succinct as I can make it of what might be said in response to the question; part 2, my long "working" which lies behind the summary.
We should listen to those who suffer, hold their hand (literally or metaphorically), be slow to speak, quick to offer practical, active love (while not being a burden on communities and households with limited power, food and accommodation), refrain from blame while embracing change that is needed in our communities and across the world so that to the extent to which humans can mitigate against further disaster, we do, all the while confident that God is present and active in our world in order to yet bring the fulfilment of God's kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth in which there are no more tears.
Small update: This article, reflecting on the suffering in the war in Ukraine, is worth reading to the last line.
(1) The Old Testament and the problem of suffering
While this is not the time for a coffee house discussion in a region far from recent destruction (e.g. my own) which lacks the sharp edge of the coffee drinkers actually faced with damaged livelihoods, lost lives and destroyed homes, there is nevertheless always an occasion for saying something about suffering in a world the Good God made and declared to be "good" since those on the pastoral front line are likely to be asked, "How can God permit this?" or "Where is God in this tragic mess?"
So, on the one hand, I want to attempt to avoid that approach which focuses on reading books to resolve such issues. "You must read the best theology of suffering in the 21st century by J. Theologian who, you know, resurrects a brilliant but long forgotten argument from the fourth century when St Simeon Apologia tackled a question raised by the Synod of Querula." As though a quick trip to the library or order from Amazon is the appropriate pastoral response.
On the other hand, there is a book, the book, the Bible which speaks God's Word into all human situations. I don't think we can avoid discussing some things it has to say.
The Old Testament, relevantly, is a collection of Israelite writings driven by suffering for the most part. When David's and Solomon's glorious, expanding, victorious Israel broke first into two divided kingdoms, Israel/Samaria and Judah, and then each in turn was subject to conquest and exile, the former at the hand of Assyria, 721 BC, and the latter at the hand of Babylon, 587 BC, with the double blow of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, there was a theological crisis.
How could Israel be cast from the Promised Land, and how could there be no successor to David on the throne in Jerusalem? Had God not promised precisely the opposite? How then to explain the absence of God's support to prevent calamity to Israel?
Much of Israel's scriptures, the collection we know as the Old Testament, has been shaped by the theological crisis of the Babylonian Exile - shaped via editing of existing stories, laws and wisdom, or by writing in direct response to this calamity (for example Isaiah 40-66), or by taking care to preserve prophetic literature which conveyed the warning proclamations of the prophets of Israel before its exile and the prophets of Judah before its exile - literature which recorded the attempt of God to speak to the hardened hearts of his people in order that destruction would be avoided.
One of the significant results of the Babylonian Exile was the hammering into final shape of the Pentateuch and the so called Deuteronomistic History (i.e. the line of writings from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings), so that one response - the majority response of the theologians of Judah - was to explain the suffering of Israel in terms of its disobedience to God's law. It had been warned and warned again to obey God's commandments and that there would be consequences for disobedience.
It was a foolishness to understand God's covenant with David as a guarantee that no matter what Israel/Judah did, there would be security for God's people around the throne and temple in Jerusalem. This in many ways was the point of Jeremiah (e.g. Jeremiah 7:4 where God through Jeremiah says to the people (I paraphrase), 'Do not say "We have the temple of the Lord, everything will be all right".' Rather, the people need to amend their ways and start genuinely obeying the Law of Moses (Jeremiah 7:1-7)
This approach - the people are responsible for the suffering they have brought on themselves - is mostly not pastorally appropriate in today's world. Yet, if we refuse to follow the Deuteronomist in respect applying the conclusion drawn in the Deuteronomistic History to the people bearing the present suffering in the North Island, might we not recognise that there is another set of people, namely all the rest of us, who need to recognise our role in climate change? Repentance for how we have been treating God's world is a fair message to the whole world right now.
By way of illustrating something which is not quite my precise point here, I noticed this on Twitter (as I am writing this post):
But, the Deuteronomist is not the only voice in respect of suffering in the Old Testament.
An alternative history of Israel, told by the Chronicler in 1 and 2 Chronicles (with supporting voices in Nehemiah-Ezra) beginning with Adam in 1 Chronicles 1:1 and ending with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:23).
In this history less attention is paid to moral behaviour (e.g. David's offence against Bathsheba is not mentioned; Manasseh, unrepentant according to the Deuteronomist, is repentant according to the Chronicler, cf. 2 Kings 21:10-15; 23:26-27; 24:3-4, and 2 Chronicles 33:12-13) and much more to "attitude to the Temple". The final straw which brings God's wrath on Jerusalem is that the last king, Zedekiah, in collaboration with "leading priests and the people" were "unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jersualem" (2 Chronicles 36:14).
Here, of course, the people of Israel bring their painful exile on themselves, but, interestingly, the Chronicler doesn't labour any need for repentance. The people serve their time in exile (36:20-21) and then God takes the initiative, via Cyrus, to institute the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. For the Chronicler the suffering of exile is not in need of any great explanation which shapes a long connection between the Law and the history of Israel such as the Deuteronomist gives, rather it is a blip in the story of what matters in the relationship between heaven and earth, the temple in Jerusalem which is the house of the Lord.
Perhaps the relevance of the Chronicler to our question is this: suffering is terrible but it is never the end of the story of humanity. Potentially this is a comforting message to those of us merely observing the suffering - is it of comfort to those experiencing pain, dislocation, loss, grief and despair?
Thirdly, while looking at the Old Testament, we must attend to Job! I like to first read Job in comparison to other "wisdom literature" such as Proverbs. The latter is somewhat sunny and optimistic: be wise, live wisely and all will go well with you - you'll avoid calamity and prosper. Job is a counterpoint: what if, like Job, you are wise and live wisely and calamity comes upon you and destroys your prosperity? In short, between Job and Proverbs we encounter human experience - most of us do not experience calamity, but some of us do, so what is true wisdom - great theology - which enables us to meet the good times and the bad times in life?
Job's friends seem to be readers of the Deuteronomist. They persist in telling Job that he must have sinned to have earned such destructiveness on his life and on his family's lives. Job is resolute: not true! But what is Job's (and God's) own response to the "problem of suffering"? Through the last chapters the answer appears to be God being God can do what God wills and that will should not be questioned, nor should those who suffer under that will be blamed (because they may like Job be innocent); rather the awesome power of God calls for praise and wonder in response.
Are any of these proposals from the Old Testament entirely satisfactory?
(For reasons of time I need to by pass New Testament considerations altogether.)
(2) Andrew Shepherd, University of Otago theology lecturer writes on "Cyclone Gabrielle will have been apocalytpic if it inspires change". This is also a biblical response to suffering: whatever else we have to say, Andrew implies, suffering through devastation is a call to collective action to not have a repeat of the suffering. Some of the thinking within the "Wairua" section of our national church response to the Cyclone is along these lines, seeking to integrate our love for one another with our centres of collective work such as marae and church.
(3) A comment from B Walton to the post below:
"...inevitable questions about how and why a good, kind, loving God presides over a world..."
YHWH is not a Victorian liberal gentleman. And offhand, I cannot remember meeting any believer who staked the major decisions of his or her life on Dr Pangloss's idea that everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Becoming a disciple is, after all, leaving such fables behind to learn Christianity.
So these "inevitable questions" sound empty, something that moderns know one can ask to fill the awkward silence after life is disrupted but cannot track back to credal faith in the Crucified God. Of course, one might still have to reply to them, even if one refuses to answer them.
Last week, I wandered through an active shooter event. Nine casualties, including the gunman who shot himself around the corner from here. So I have anyway been surrounded by mass grief counseling and thinking about what I was taught about evil when I was the age of the students who died.
In the 1970s, the predominant voice here up yonder was that of Simone Weil: "The greatness of Christianity is that it offers, not a supernatural explanation for suffering, but a supernatural use for it." Bad for modern chaplaincy, but good for postmodern spirituality.
Weil's books were read alongside all the others from her wartime French milieu. But Robert Coles, who was then conducting his research on the moral and spiritual lives of children, turned the mainline here away from glib *explanatory religion* and toward the notion that coping with disruption and evil is spiritual work that requires biblical resources.
Are the storefront chapels across the street from the crime scene helping that spiritual work? This generation's Christians seem to be anxious to show that, notwithstanding a reputation for moralism, they can be competent grief counselors. They do not preach; they do listen; they sometimes pray.
Karen Kilby's book God, Evil, and the Limits of Theology is current. So is Suffering and the Christian Life, a volume she edited with Rachel Davies.
Theology down under is in rude good health. But between the lines of ADU, I sometimes detect an adamant public down under that will not let + Peter and his readers represent anyone but that Victorian liberal gentleman who so famously died a dozen theological deaths in the last century. They may not actually believe in the old chaplaincy, but they still expect churches to supply it and somebody somewhere to be entitled to it.
Coffee-drinkers may want to read--
Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil.
Joseph Ratzinger, God, Creation, and Humanity.
But on to + Peter's source-wise inventory of the OT.
All religion is somewhat about suffering, so it is not crazy to think that the OT might whisper or declare something to storm victims. And indeed, when Hurricane Katrina swept across the Gulf Coast here up yonder, church groups who went down to help did recall scriptures as they cleared collapsed houses and distributed bottled water.
But in the era of climate change, we now think of humans as responsible for the ferocity of these disasters. A new question?
The big OT principle I see at work is God speaks to people who are suffering. God is involved in their lives, in our world, in specific, particular ways.
It seems better to me to be listening to what God is saying *now* (to the people of Tairāwhiti, Te Ika a Māui, to the rest of us etc), rather than recycle what God said to Job etc.
"It seems better to me to be listening to what God is saying *now*... rather than recycling...""
So said Hitler's German Christians who did nothing about the death of six million Jews. Every marcionite rejection of the OT implies the Holocaust. That is what discredited the old liberalism-- it was inexorably antisemitic, first in theory, and then in genocidal practice.
But there is nothing wrong with listening *now* to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And if he does speak, will we refuse to listen to him because he spoke first to the patriarchs?
What is appealing about hating the Father of Jesus or the Holy Spirit who brought creatures from chaos?
Gosh, Bowman...antisemitism, holocaust, heresy, hating the Father....that's quite a catastrophic distrust of listening to the Spirit.
You might prefer to read Plantinga, and Peter to survey historical OT (or NT) theories on God and suffering, but I'm not sure those approaches are any more 'Christian' or 'Biblical' than the one I'm suggesting here.
Not wanting to distract from engagement with Peter's piece: I am simply stating my strong preference for *experience first, scripture and tradition second*
....especially in the context of how we spiritually respond to questions of
"Where is God in this tragic mess?"
Peter himself has suggested his desire to "to avoid [an] approach which focuses on reading books to resolve such issues..", but then surveys the OT - 'the book' - on approaches to suffering. I have no problems with Peter doing that (at some stage), but it does seem to contradict his first intention and desire for a more pastoral response IMHO.
Rather than beginning with Job, Proverbs etc., I would prefer an approach that began by asking people: what are some of your (ordinary, inward, prayerful, communal) experiences of where God is in this tragic mess?
I trust/hope: God is alive and speaking.
I fear: this simple, world-changing experience might be missed if we pile in with scripture and theology first.
Perhaps I could rescue myself, Mark? :)
Only by going through the Book or books can we have confidence that the solution to the problem of suffering (whether speaking in general terms or wondering what to say to an individual in the midst of devastation) only has a limited answer via books, even via the Bible; and so to experience, to listening, etc ... but, even then, pace BW, what we might profess to say from experience, and listening, will or will not be shaped by the words we already know via the OT and NT?
An interesting analogy (of sorts) has struck me re "the climate change debate" - at least here in NZ - namely before the Cyclone, we focused our debate on "mitigation": how can we reduce emissions, and to a degree this debate was driven by text books: if we don't reduce by X then the temperature increases by Y and Z consequences will occur, with complications around how we reduce without shattering our economy. (and, also a degree of overlooking NZ's 0.017 contribution to gloabl warming - so a bit textbookish about what difference we could make by culling cows).
Post the Cyclone, voices are emerging driven by the "experience" of the Cyclone: "adaptation" is now the cry: build away from rivers and beaches; make new roads in better places than the ones that have fallen off hillsides, etc!!
Yeah that's a really good point: climate change is easier to avoid when it's abstract and distant, but when we have an actual, lived experience of it we're (many of us are) suddenly engaged.
And on the side track of experience and theology: I'm doubtful that our experience is *entirely* a internalization of outer narrative and cultural forms. "Shaped" (your word) absolutely. But entirely shaped? So what else is there?
Our tradition - ;) - records that in the depth of our experience/soul there is a place of simple contact with the living God. This encounter may express itself in our limited, rich, poetic, cultural condioned forms and received traditions, but is may just as readily ignore or disrupt them.
“Somewhere in a coffee shop near you, there are Christians meeting to discuss what they might do together for the North Island. They surely have Bibles with Old Testaments like + Peter's. They may have insights into the context of that suffering like your own. One or two may even have browsed Plantinga on theodicy or Ratzinger on creational stewardship. The Holy Spirit is in all of it; they have no reason to choose.” (B.W.)
This sounds very reasonable, and no doubt much practical good may come of it. The trouble is we’ve been so thoroughly trained to look for God up there and out there - in a heaven, in a book or series of books, in a cyclone (‘act of God’), in a holy person, priest, or…*
Some African Anglicans are currently convulsing because their image of God (or the earthly guardian of that image) – the ‘Mother Church’ of England – has been so shockingly revealed as the antichrist.
One part of 'up there and out there' is our compulsion to think. Paraphrasing Meister Eckhart, how is the Spirit to break into or out of these thick, layered hides?
Noisy coffeeshops and go-to bibles doesn’t give the Spirit much chance IMHO.
[I'm not a robot]
*The overcompensation is to worship everything inside as God – which gets us into other sorts of trouble, evil.
Dear Bishop Peter,
Acutely aware of the Season of Lent that is now upon us, I noticed this message from Papa Francisco this morning:
"Brothers and sisters, let us not neglect the grace of this holy season, but fix our gaze on the cross and set out, responding generously to the powerful promptings of Lent. At the end of the journey, we will encounter with greater joy the Lord of life, we will meet him, who alone can raise us up from our ashes." (Pope Francis).
In this context, I also very much appreciated the tenor of your sermon to us at SMAA at the Induction of our new Vicar, Father Jordan; which pointed to the centrality of Jesus with us in the Eucharist, encouraging us to absorb something of the 'Light of The World' that is found only in Him. One of my fave bits of Scripture? : "Turn towards HIM and be radiant!"
'Toot' plus response - viewed just now on Mastodon - interesting
>> Toot 1 : from a pastor of a Baptist church in the UK
Israel: We want a king to be like all the other nations
Church: We want "strong leaders" to be like all the other organisations
[emoticon pointing upward] This is where our leadership crisis originated
>> Reply from another Mastodon user
Israel: We want a king like other nations.
Church: We want to feel validated and powerful.
Jesus: That's not what I called you to be.
Church: Man, I wish Jesus would return to straighten this world out. At least we have our systematic theology to explain everything.
Jesus: You're not even trying to listen, are you.
Friends, I found these two blog-posts really thought-provoking, from an Anglican pastor in Edmonton, Canada. He's originally from UK. And a quick thanks to +Peter because I found him somehow at your twitter a/c!
via Tim Chesterton, blog= "Faith, Folk and Charity"
~I've posted title, one selected paragraph, and a post-link~
1. Title: On What Authority…?
"Every time Christians argue about stuff, there are appeals to authority of some kind—the Bible, the church’s traditions, reason—the so-called ‘three-legged stool’ in Anglicanism. But a fourth authority is also sometimes cited: experience."
2. Title: Out of the Depths (a settler’s reflection on the residential schools)
(paragraph from near the end)
"When it comes to the Residential Schools and the worldview that produced them, I, for one, am crying ‘Never again.’ But am I actually learning the lessons? Am I practicing what it means to be a follower of Jesus from a position of weakness and vulnerability, not a position of power and coercion? Am I a good listener? Am I a voice for justice for the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land?"
"Every time Christians argue about stuff, there are appeals to authority of some kind..."
This is only true in self-consciously modern institutions. All those "appeals" are rationalizations of prior biases. Not one of these "kinds" persuades other minds to change. Adding or deleting *experience* makes no difference. Argument escalates conflict, but fails to produce agreement. The apostles warn that idle argument is a vice. "Those who live by the sword die by the sword." Souls that thrive on discord will not walk in the New Jerusalem.
Taking the longest view, this has never been a serious problem for the Body. The Way has spread, from antiquity to the present, not by argument, but by trial, example, testimony, initiation, imitation, contagion, recognition, canonisation. "By their fruits shall you know them." "Try all things; hold fast what is good." "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."
When we speak here of that rippling from pebbles as a process, we usually call it *paradosis* as the apostles did. Elsewhere it is sometimes called Tradition (grapes on the vine) as distinct from mere traditions of men (rocks in boxes). Occasionally and organically, patterns of practice diffuse throughout the Body, influencing local bishops as they spread.
The Holy Spirit is pruning dead modernity from the Vine-- neophytes are drawn to the metaphysical religion that moderns explained away; pretensions to power or even legitimacy are embarrassed; peripheral voices rival central ones; diversity is unraveling uniformity; experimentation outruns legislation; sacred knowledge diffuses past gatekeepers; personal faith displaces concern for an acceptable institutional facade; nobody anywhere cares what churches "think" about society, Progress, the future, blah blah blah. For disciples of Jesus, this is all good news, and in the long view, a return to normalcy under God alone.
Meanwhile, leaders are performing for two audiences-- the last moderns, who still insist on some cherished if hollow pretensions, and postmoderns, for whom unpretentious authenticity is the beginning of spiritual credibility. And when institutions unravel, their stewards are discerning or at least guessing which threads are worth keeping.
Francis is decentralizing liturgy in the new spirit of Vatican II by centralizing Latin in the old spirit of realpolitik. Wisely or (as I think) foolishly, Justin bet that Canterbury was worth less to the Communion than several African churches upset by a CoE General Synod's vote on rules governing sex. Faced with falling enrollments, an old classmate closed her seminary's doors for the last time and sold its campus; thus enriched, her community has found its way into a different mission in another seminary and city.
This is the life of the Body today. Stitching scraps of scripture, reason, tradition, maybe experience together does little for it.
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14 And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ 15 He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
Fox was preaching in Ulverston Chapel, and he asked “Christ saith this, and the Apostles say this, but what canst thou say?”
BW, Re experience. TC's example was of some Apostles (Peter, Paul, Silas) bearing witness to what they saw of the Holy Spirit descending on 'uncircumcised Gentiles' and on the basis of that experience persuading the Church to decide that Gentiles were under no obligation to follow the Jewish requirements. I've mused too how part of that story at the start was Peter having the vision of 'unclean things' where God told him not to "call anything impure that God has made clean."
I'm hardly cheerleading for argument, conflict and idle argument! But when questions and disagreements arise, surely faithful spirit-filled Christian leaders ought to be able to resolve them. Haven't you, BW, said in ADU something about the western church lacking a well developed theology of the Holy Spirit? Shouldn't we expect that through the Spirit there still can be divine revelation to guide the Church in the right way (with blessing to be experienced in obedience).
But you don't attach much importance to experience?
"Argument escalates conflict, but fails to produce agreement." ~BW
But questions often need to be asked - and they may well escalate conflict - but then hopefully, eventually, achieve a more healthy Body. The Church has a history of hiding things it doesn't want to face up to! In TC's article about Residential Schools he recounts how his 2-year evangelism training in the Anglican Church in Canada didn't teach him about church history in *Canada* and certainly not about Residential Schools. Later in his work the topic did come up but he regrets he talked to the wrong people and didn't ask enough questions back then. How bad it *had* been didn't really come out until First Nations started taking ACC to court! A terrible indictment on the Church.
"By their fruits shall you know them." Many folk know those words whether they're Christian or not - and unfortunately - often the 'fruit' makes people 'know' they want nothing to do with the Church!
"unpretentious authenticity is the beginning of spiritual credibility" - surely experience is very much a part of that.
I've tried to share some thoughts here of how I was thinking re these things because, most probably, I don't fully understand what you've said in 4:23.
Liz, you must already know Diana Butler Bass by now, but if not this seems to be the time--
Duke. https://youtu.be/-G9LxM9PDrU Christianity and Its Future.
Elizabeth Schrader Polczer, by the way, is a textual critic with a particular interest in Mary Magdalene and women in Early Christianity.
You may also be interested in Beth Allison Barr's conversation with her in the same series--
Duke. https://youtu.be/DWwBm7BnfPs Christianity and Women.
Liz, it might be best for me to reply to your 10:23 after you have had a chance to digest Diane's and Libby's conversation on Christianity and its Future. What they see is what I see, and when you see it too, you will have the context of my few simple thoughts. Then you may disagree with them, or you may explain them better than I did. Either is fine, of course.
TC has been a sane voice online for many years. Even today, he occasionally writes testimony like the first "weblogs" and today's most interesting podcasts.
"Argument" is not experience. "Trial, example, testimony, initiation, imitation, contagion, recognition, canonisation" are all experience. It has its place.
"But when questions and disagreements arise, surely faithful spirit-filled Christian leaders ought to be able to resolve them." In fact, they almost never do. Nevertheless, we carry on, and good ideas spread.
In 1617, Marc Antonio de Dominis, Archbishop of Spoleto on the Adriatic but also an admirer of the reforming Church of England, wrote in his De Republica Ecclesiastica that in a decentralised church "we would all embrace a mutual unity in things necessary; in things not necessary liberty; in all things charity." **
** In context: "Quod si in ipsa radice, hoc est sede, vel potius solio Romani pontificis haec abominationis lues purgaretur et ex communi ecclesiae consilio consensuque auferretur hic metus, depressa scilicet hac petra scandali ac ad normae canonicae iustitiam complanata, haberemus ecclesiae atrium aequabile levigatum ac pulcherrimis sanctuarii gemmis splendidissimum. Omnesque mutuam amplecteremur unitatem in necessariis, in non necessariis libertatem, in omnibus caritatem. Ita sentio, ita opto, ita plane spero, in eo qui est spes nostra et non confundemur."
That's an interesting blog. I haven't read that - thanks Bowman!
BW, thanks for the Diana Butler Bass link. I became aware of DBB quite a while ago but was slow to engage. I've read her Washington National Cathedral experience before but hearing her talk about it within this context was way more meaningful. Listening to her story about someone bemoaning the absence of youth at church because they're "at the protests" was a shocker, ugh! Great talk.. the stats plus context, politics-religion relationship, the shifts that are taking place, and the Q&A at the end - I enjoyed it all very much.
Just checked and I see your 7.11 comment, thanks much BW. I'm all tuckered out and I think I might give my 'new' learning a rest for a while!
Mark, if memory serves, George Amoss has some mental health credential-- an MSW?-- so that his explorations of Quaker tradition are informed by more psychological literacy than one usually finds.
Liz, I promise to leave you in peace, but for + Peter's other readers will mention here three thoughts of DBB with which I strongly concur--
(1) In the US as a whole, religion and society are so inextricably linked that a revolution in either is a revolution in both. Historically, the three or four Great Awakenings in American religion have all had further political consequences.
(2) The decline in church affiliation here up yonder is not Max Weber's secularization with progressing modernity, but rather another cycle of national metamorphosis like those before it. Consequently, it is a mistake to project the gloomy fatalism of the old New Atheism into church statistics, or to be surprised to find political polarity in American denominations.
(3) There is a lot of religious ferment among those counted in surveys as Nones, and the next paradigm in American religion will likely draw on their experimentation. The fissure we see divides religious institutions woven into a fraying social fabric from persons already living outside of it but not yet woven into a new one.
rippling from pebbles as a process,
we usually call it *paradosis*
~selected out of what you wrote at 4:23, BW.
I love it as verse :)
In terms of tonnes per capita of green house gas emissions were are one of the worst offenders in the world.
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