If you want to go deeper

February 24, 2010

Here are a couple of books that I found very helpful as I reflected on the recent earthquake in Haiti. One, David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, was written just after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It is short (109 pages), polemical, and deep. Hart is not someone you’d want to face in a debate. He elaborates on an op-ed he wrote shortly after the tsunami in the Wall Street Journal. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, is deeply critical of the extreme sovereignty position of hard-line Calvinism, which says that there is no difference between what God wills and what God allows. Everything that happens, Calvin argued and some Calvinists still believe, is God’s will—a position that strikes me as deeply unbiblical, not to mention just plain weird.

Hart also blows apart a couple of related, but perhaps more seductive, ideas. First, as bad as the world often is, God needs everything to happen just this way in order to reach his desired (good) goal. All this suffering will make sense, in other words, at the end of history as we know it. This is the foundation of the platitude, “Everything happens for a reason.” I like this idea in the sense that it emphasizes humility, which surely we need to bring to any discussion of God’s ways in the world. The problem is that it turns evil, suffering, and death into God’s secret allies, the biblical witness to the contrary. If evil is necessary to achieve God’s ends, then it’s not really bad after all. It just seems bad.

Second, he destroys the idea that God himself needed the Incarnation in order to learn what it means to be human and suffer. Learning what it means to be human—to see how bad we’ve really got it and to have empathy and compassion on us—is a source of God’s love for us. How could a God who is the source of all things need anything external to himself? That’s ridiculous. It diminishes God.

Ultimately, because of God’s desire that his Creation be free (which is non-negotiable, as Hart passionately argues), we are liberated from the idea that there is any meaning in suffering, in and of itself. Not that God can’t use it for good, by all means, but terrible, tragic, absurd, ridiculous things happen to us as human beings. Stuff happens, in other words. But our hope is in the One who overcame evil, suffering, and death.

The other great book I read is C.S. Lewis’s classic, The Problem of Pain. This is, according to its reputation, Lewis’s apologetic book on theodicy: how do we comprehend that God is good in the face of so much evil. It does that, to some extent, but unlike Hart’s book, it isn’t polemical. Nor is it (as its critics say) academic: it’s warm and heartfelt. It is, more than anything, a beautiful statement of the gospel. For me, it says more about the Christian faith than Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

I’ve heard the book criticized as Lewis’s saying that “pain is necessary” for our redemption, and that maybe what we call evil is really good, etc. (not unlike an argument Hart attacks above). That isn’t right. What Lewis says, emphatically, is that God uses pain and that pain can be good for us. Who hasn’t found that to be true in their own experience? That God uses it for good is an expression of a love for us that we can’t imagine. That God can use suffering is not the same as saying that God requires it or that it’s somehow good in and of itself (if only we could see it the right way). Lewis would be the first one to say that suffering is a consequence of living in a fallen world, contrary to God’s original plan, but God redeems it.

But the book is so much more than theodicy or apologetic. His reflection on God’s goodness and love for us, his insightful speculation about humanity before the Fall (which includes his happy acceptance of evolution), his discussion of hell, and, best of all, his beautiful final chapter on heaven (by which he means resurrection, embodied life in God’s kingdom), make this the best, most beautiful book on Christian theology I’ve ever read. And his writing is accessible, witty, and crystal-clear. (And he’s an untrained layperson!)

To give you one unfairly small excerpt as an example of its beauty, consider this passage from the final chapter (which of course ought to be read in its full context):

There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else. You may have noticed that the books you really love are bound together by a secret thread. You know very well what is the common quality that make you love them, though you cannot put it into words: but most of your friends do not see it at all, and often wonder why, liking this, you should also like that.

He goes on to describe that same elusive thread connecting your love of art, your hobbies, your lifelong friendships.

You never had it [i.e., this thing you deeply desire]. All the things that have ever deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it—tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest—if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself—you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want, the thing we desired before we met our wives or made our friends or chose our work, and which we shall still desire on our deathbeds, when the mind no longer knows wife or friend or work. While we are, this is. If we lose this, we lose all.

You know this “signature,” don’t you? I do. That is what heaven is for us. That is what we find in God.

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