On This American Life a couple of weeks ago, author Tim Kreider describes the happy year following the near-fatal stabbing that he endured, a period during which he felt a profound sense of “euphoric gratitude” to be alive. The experience “jolted [him] out of a lifelong stupor.”
I like this piece. I’ve never had a personal brush with death. I’ve never (so far) nearly died. Nevertheless, I’ve had experiences with loved ones dying that have had a similar (though obviously far less intense) impact on me. I’ve preached before that we could all use a good funeral to remind us of how precious life is. I’ve experienced at least a few of those.
Still, I was disappointed that this experience didn’t awaken Kreider from his spiritual stupor. After all, the experience made him grateful to be alive, but to whom is he grateful for his gift of life? Not God, as he makes clear. In the following excerpt, he rejects any sense of God’s providence at work in or through the terrifying event:
Not for one passing moment did it occur to me that God must have spared my life for some purpose. Even if I had been the type that was prone to such notions, I would have been disabused of it by the heavy-handed coincidence of the Oklahoma City bombing, occurring on the same day I spent in a recuperative coma. If there is some divine plan that requires my survival and the deaths of all those children in daycare, I respectfully decline to participate. What I had been was not blessed or chosen, but lucky.
Give Kreider his theological props. In this short paragraph, he puts his finger on the best reason not to be Calvinist. As theologian David Bentley Hart makes clear in his book Doors of the Sea and in an essay from First Things written soon after the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2005, one of the most liberating ideas Christianity has given the world is that the world as it is—in its current, fallen state—is not morally comprehensible. God does not require evil and suffering to accomplish his sovereign will. Indeed, God stands opposed to them, and he came to us in Christ to defeat them.
Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
I’m hardly surprised that Kreider doesn’t know this much about orthodox Christian theology. Why should he? After all, how many times do I hear Christians recite that damnable bit of bumper-sticker theology, “Everything happens for a reason”? Far too often!
Everything does not happen for a reason! And thank God for that! God does not require, for example, tsunamis, war, and genocide to play a role in history’s turning out the way God planned it. God does not require evil for his glory to unfold in some heretofore unimaginable way. God does not need to override the freedom of earthly agents, human or otherwise, for his sovereign will to be accomplished. God is God. He’s not constrained in the way that this Calvinist bumper-sticker theology implies.
I doubt even many believers who say “everything happens for a reason” mean it in the strongest, most deterministic sense. They’re expressing, very imprecisely, the providential idea that “Nothing happens beyond God’s control, or beyond God’s ability to redeem. And God will bring good even out of this suffering.” For them, “Everything happens for a reason” will do in a pinch. But not for me.
Nitpicky, you say? I hope not. I am paid, in part, to think about stuff like this, and to express what we Christians believe as clearly as possible.
As for Kreider, I hope he continues to reflect deeply on his feeling of gratitude for the goodness of life. When one’s argument against God is rooted in moral indignation at evil and suffering, one is nearer to God than one knows.