Posts Tagged ‘David Bentley Hart’

My old blogging nemesis is at it again

May 18, 2017

My old blogging nemesis, Jason Micheli, a United Methodist pastor and author, is at it again. In this recent post, he describes a conversation with a father who lost his son to a tragic accident. Then he complains about Christians who tried to comfort this father with words about God’s “having a plan” for his son’s death.

Micheli writes the following (emphasis his):

Contra the false teaching of the “God has a plan…” variety:

The test of whether or not our speech about God is true isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.

The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.

To preach a sovereign God of absolute will who causes suffering and tragedy for a ‘greater purpose’ is not only to preach a God who trucks in suffering and evil but a God who gives meaning to it.

A God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.

I don’t know what he means by a “God of absolute will.” I disagree that God uses anything for “His own self-realization,” since God is perfectly, fully realized. And I hope that God gives meaning to evil and suffering. But my point in the following comment, as I’ve said many times before, is that even if God merely allows evil and suffering—having the power to prevent it—God is ultimately responsible for it.

So here’s my comment. (Micheli recently wrote a book about his own experience with what he calls “stage serious” cancer. It’s in remission.):


I can’t comprehend the complete lack of engagement with scripture in this post. Providence is an idea that’s writ large across the entire Bible, and one endorsed by the consensual teaching of the Church. I’ve read the DB Hart book. It doesn’t, in my opinion, satisfactorily engage the question.

Does God govern the universe and our lives within it, or doesn’t he? Does God have the power to prevent the death of a child or doesn’t he? As long as God has the power to prevent the death of a child and doesn’t use that power, God is not off the hook for suffering and evil. Even if we say, in this instance, “God lets the laws of physics run their course,” we still ought to “blame” God (if you insist on that word)—first because he created these physical laws, and second, because we believe that God answers prayer, at least sometimes.

We pray for our children’s safety. God grants that petition or doesn’t. If he doesn’t, how do we interpret it: Did God not hear our petition? Does he not have the power to grant it? Does he act arbitrarily? Or does he have a reason for either granting it or not? Is there some alternative I’m leaving out? Surely I don’t need to cite proof-texts to back up my position, because there are plenty—whereas, on your side, you have David Bentley Hart and the “God of the philosophers.”

In your case, haven’t you thanked God for sending your cancer into remission? Or did God not have anything to do with it?

Anyway, I’d recommend this father read Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. And you too! You may disagree with Keller, but it won’t be because Keller hasn’t thought it through. Nor is he some kind of demon from hell because he disagrees with you.

Sermon 09-04-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 3: Our Gifts”

September 14, 2016


When it comes to financial giving in church, the Bible doesn’t say what we pastors want it to say: We want it to say, “Thou shalt give a tithe, or ten percent of your income, to support this church.” But notice in today’s scripture, the first church’s generosity is completely free and joyful. Why is our giving often so different? This sermon explores this question.

Sermon Text: Acts 4:32-5:11

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

I don’t think you would consider me someone who is irrationally afraid of heights. But I certainly have what I believe is a healthy fear of them. So you can imagine how I felt last month when I read about a man named Luke Aikens. He became the first person to skydive without a parachute or wing suit and live to tell the tale. It was broadcast live on the Fox network. He jumped from 25,000 feet and landed in a 100-x-100-foot net—about a third of the size of a football field. It was suspended 200 feet off the ground.


Aikens jumped 25,000 feet without a parachute—and lived to tell the tale!

Whether we’re afraid of heights or not, I think we can all agree that that seems crazy. But not so fast… The 42-year-old Aikens has been skydiving since he was 16. He’s made about 18,000 jumps in his life. He’s practiced this particular jump for a couple of years—using special parachutes that he opened at very low altitudes—landing on targets much smaller than the net he landed on last month. And a crew down below rigged some high powered lights on the ground that would indicate whether he was on-target or off-target—so he could make adjustments in the air. Read the rest of this entry »

We don’t live in world that is “in and of itself”

December 3, 2015

Tackling the subject of evil and suffering the day after yet another mass shooting in the U.S. isn’t, I know, good timing. On the other hand, people are getting murdered all the time in every place in the world—it’s just that most of the time it doesn’t affect us. We can’t wait for evil and suffering to cease before we address the topic. I’m only addressing it now because, for me, nothing less than God’s goodness is at stake in the question. How can I ignore it?

Besides, I didn’t bring it up; this blog post by Drew McIntyre over at the United Methodist-affiliated Ministry Matters website did. Drew calls the suffering of children the number one reason to be an atheist.

I was pleased that Drew’s post got some good pushback from his readers. For example, one person said that in his experience of dealing with parents who’ve lost children, “I never once saw the parents or anyone else see this as a reason for questioning God’s existence. On the contrary, the experience brought them all closer to God, driving home their need for Him.”

I agree. In reply I wrote:

My experience as a pastor confirms this as well: When I’ve seen Christian parents lose children—again, I’m only speaking from my direct experience—it has the effect of bringing them closer to God, not pushing them away from God. People who have already convinced themselves that there is no God are the ones who find this moral argument against God persuasive.

But they’re not thinking clearly. The moral argument against God turns in on itself: If God doesn’t exist, then there is no objective basis on which to say, “The death of children is wrong.” Without God, our moral intuition is a meaningless byproduct of unthinking and unguided forces. Moral intuition becomes nothing more than a matter of personal taste. Without a lawgiver, there is no law.

When we object to God’s existence on moral grounds, we are, as Tim Keller says, “relying on God to make an argument against God,” as I discuss here.

The best comment came from Mike D’Virgilio.


I replied as follows:

Exactly right, Mike. The difference between God’s allowing and God’s causing evil, while important, isn’t nearly as great as many Methodists think. God is responsible for evil, as my (Lutheran) systematic theology prof at Candler said (echoing Pannenberg). God is responsible because God made this particular world, which permits evil. And as Christians we must assume that, from God’s perspective, it was worth making this world, in spite of the fact that evil would be one consequence of doing so.

I read Hart’s book, too, and I found it evasive at times: Evil has no positive contribution to make in our world, he says again and again. In and of itself that’s true. Fortunately, we don’t live in a world that’s “in and of itself.” We live in a world infused with God’s grace. The overwhelming biblical answer is that God can and does redeem evil, as the cross itself emphatically proclaims. (Remember Joseph’s words to his brothers: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) If God can transform the greatest evil imaginable (the cross of his Son) into the greatest good imaginable (our salvation), then surely he can transform any lesser form of evil the same way.

I hate to be sectarian, but as an Eastern Orthodox convert, Hart doesn’t have to worry nearly as much as we Protestants do (or ought to) about making sure theology accords with scripture.

And, Mike, you’re absolutely right about prayer. The idea that God has nothing whatsoever to do with intervening to stop evil in our world conflicts with Jesus’ clear teaching that our prayers make a difference in the world. Logically, if God ever does something in response to our prayers that God wouldn’t otherwise do, then we must assume that God has a good reason for not giving us what we ask for—even when what we ask for is the safety of our children.

For all we know, if God intervened to prevent children from dying in a particular instance, something far worse might happen. We can’t know what that worse thing might be. Only God can. The question is, will we trust him?

I raised this question in a Facebook comment thread, and I’ll raise it here: Drew asks: “Could there ever be a good reason that God let your child die?” All I can say is, I hope so, because God clearly does let that happen. Right?

Finally, let’s remember: There’s no balancing of the scales of justice apart from heaven. Some Methodist thinkers refuse to resort to heaven—as if it were cheating or something—but ultimately it answers every objection. In the face of evil, the hope of eternal life and future resurrection is a fire hose extinguishing a birthday candle.

Or isn’t it? Do we not believe in it, after all?

I’ve made this point in sermons before but it bears repeating: In the aftermath of Sandy Hook three years ago, one theologian posted on Facebook: “The first five seconds in heaven will compensate for any suffering that these children and their teachers endured.”

Do you disagree? Please tell me why.

A word about tragedies

May 6, 2015

hartI can always count on fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli to write something that gets under my skin. He did so again—although I suppose David Bentley Hart deserves more of the blame this time. Micheli was using Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea to make a point about suffering. I disagree with that particular point, as I made clear in the comments section of his blog and on a fellow WordPress blogger who commended Micheli’s post.

In response to the latter, I wrote the following:

I left a similar comment over at Micheli’s blog, but I won’t hold my breath that he’ll respond. (We have history.) I’ve read Hart’s book, and for a while I was enamored of it, not because it made much sense, but because he wrote with such force, such extreme self-confidence, such derision, how could he be wrong? But if so, how do we explain this very sentence that Micheli excerpts?

Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends.

How is this not a remarkable concession on Hart’s part—one which contradicts much of what Hart says (or what Micheli says he says)? If this is true—that God “can certainly” turn even suffering and death providentially “toward God’s good ends” (I would say “will certainly,” per Romans 8:28, but that hardly affects my point), then that implies that suffering has meaning: God is using it for his redemptive purposes. If there’s a purpose in allowing it, then that implies meaning.

Or think of it this way: If we believe that God responds to and at least occasionally grants our petitionary prayers (it’s hard to argue against this point on biblical grounds), then what are we to imagine when God doesn’t grant our petition? There are three options, as far as I can see: (1) God is powerless to grant the petition; (2) God is capricious about granting our petitions; or (3) God has a good reason (whether we know what it is or not) in not granting this particular petition.

Is there a fourth option? I don’t know what it is.

I had a clergy friend tell me, “Maybe God sometimes just lets nature run its course.” Yes, but why? If there are times when God doesn’t “just let nature run its course,” as my friend conceded that there are, then surely God has a good reason in those cases. And if he has a reason in those cases, there is, therefore, meaning in all cases.

Think about the nearly infinite sequence of cause and effect that is set in motion in all directions by even one small event, never mind an earthquake, hurricane, or tsunami. Even one person’s death affects hundreds, or thousands, throughout history—people born, people unborn, people who may not even exist because of this person’s death. One “small” death changes the world. God can’t simply “let nature run its course” without intervening in some way—if in fact God loves us the way scripture says he does.

Also, I wonder if you’re not falling victim (as so many of us do when it comes to such large-scale tragedy) to “sum of suffering” arguments. What I mean is, the scale or extent of a tragedy adds nothing to the argument for or against God’s goodness. As C.S. Lewis said, “The sum of suffering doesn’t exist because no one suffers it.” In other words, the worst suffering in the world is the one person who suffers the most, and no more. The worst suffering that existed in the wake of that earthquake in Nepal was one person suffering. No one suffered more than that. While that suffering was obviously terrible, each of the dozens of people who died in traffic accidents while driving home today suffered nearly as much as anyone suffered in Nepal.

My point is, whether God lets one person die in a car accident, or one-hundred thousand in an earthquake, God is no more or no less off the hook for human suffering.

Finally, at the risk of sounding glib, heaven does balance the scales of justice. We need an afterlife for justice to be fully and finally done. That is part of our Christian hope.

C.S. Lewis on the moral argument against God

June 25, 2014

lewisWhen a Christian apologist says that we “need God” for objective moral values, unbelievers often mishear or misunderstand the statement. They think he’s saying, “We need God in order to be moral people”—at which point, they might, for example, point to Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Old Testament and say, “I don’t need that God telling me what’s good and bad!” Or they might become indignant, thinking the apologist is saying that unbelievers are incapable of being moral people. I witnessed the late Christopher Hitchens exhibiting this same confusion in both ways in a debate with my Christian ethics professor many years ago.

Needless to say, both these responses miss the point. As David Bentley Hart has written:

We all know that countless persons of no creed whatsoever—atheists, agnostics, the indeterminately “spiritual,” the genially indifferent—are able to behave with exemplary kindness and generosity. Spend some time working with Doctors Without Borders, for instance, and you will meet many physicians who joined the organization out of religious conviction, but also many who did not, and it is impossible to discern any great differences among them as far as compassion or heroism goes.

That said, I have to observe that… I have been led to a few dark and desolate locales, of the sort that never get mentioned in tourist guides, and it is hard not to notice that the nearer one gets to the ground in places where poverty, disease, despair, and terror are simply part of the quotidian fabric of existence, the more the burden of humanitarian aid is shifted onto the shoulders of religious institutions (generally, though not exclusively, Christian). I don’t doubt the good will, decency, or dedication of atheist altruists, or the supererogation of which many of them are individually capable. But I do occasionally entertain doubts that in general, considered purely proportionately, they can rival their believing counterparts for sheer moral stamina.

That is not an accusation, however. The real question of the moral life, at least as far as philosophical “warrant” is at issue, is not whether one personally needs God in order to be good, but whether one needs God in order for the good to be good.

For Hart, it’s “blindingly obvious” that we need God in order for the good to be good. You can read his essay for more on that.

Many atheists, by contrast, convinced already that the good is really good, reject faith in God on that basis. C.S. Lewis, who did the same thing himself early in life, points out the logical problem with doing so in the following paragraph from Mere Christianity:

My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it? A man feels wet when he falls into water, because man is not a water animal: a fish would not feel wet. Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too—for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense. Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.[†]

† C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity,” in The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2002), 41.

The Good Wife on the “problem” of our moral intuition

May 20, 2014

A recent episode of my favorite TV show, The Good Wife, included a couple of scenes that highlight a potential problem with atheism: If there is no God, there is no objective basis for saying something is right or wrong, or good or bad. Is this a problem? Maybe not for some people, but for most—including even professed atheist Alicia Florrick, Julianna Margulies’s character—it is, as you can see in the following scenes. (The first scene also touches on materialism and the illusion free will.)

Tim Keller writes about this problem in his most recent book:

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it show you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[1]

In this recent interview from the New York Times, philosopher Philip Kitcher makes the case for what he calls “soft atheism,” one which recognizes the worthiness of religion insofar as it promotes the humanist values he champions. There’s much to argue about in the piece, but let me focus on these words:

In the end, a thoroughly secular perspective, one that doesn’t suppose there to be some “higher” aspect of reality to serve as the ground of values (or as the ground of assurance that the important values can be realized), can do everything refined religion can do, without becoming entangled in mysteries and difficult problems. Most important, this positive secular humanism focuses directly on the needs of others, treating people as valuable without supposing that the value derives from some allegedly higher source. The supposed “transcendent” toward which the world’s religions gesture is both a distraction and a detour.

Let’s be clear: his “thoroughly secular perspective” can’t do everything that religion can do, refined or otherwise. Because it can’t explain our strong intuition that good and evil are things that actually exist. Only God can do that.

Of course, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true—at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuitions about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes. Why? A philosophically materialistic answer can’t scratch that itch.

David Bentley Hart deals with the same question in relation to philosopher Joel Marks.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.

God’s “causal relationship” to suffering

October 31, 2013

keller_bookMy reading, my thinking, and not to mention my experience of life over the past few years has led me to an inescapable conclusion: God has, as Tim Keller refers to in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, a “causal relationship” to suffering.

This is not to say, simply, that God causes all suffering: it’s another way of saying that God’s sovereignty implies that God uses all suffering for his good purposes. Therefore, it is perfectly O.K. for us to ask God a question that I used to resist asking: Why is this happening to me? Or Why is this happening now? God always has a good answer to this question, whether we figure out what it is or not. And given that God is God and we’re not, we shouldn’t be surprised when we can’t figure it out.

I was more or less saying the same thing last month on this blog, and in a recent sermon, but I’ll say it again:

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

Yes, he is. Always. I can’t tell you how comforting my friend’s words were to me. God is in complete control of whatever good or bad thing is happening to me. I can say this as a Wesleyan-Arminian, believing both that God doesn’t cause evil and that we human beings have free will. But by all means, God uses evil and suffering to direct history, including our lives within it, according to his purposes.

Therefore, if some good thing happens, God has a reason for it; if some evil thing happens, God has a reason for permitting it. That may sound obvious to most of you, but here’s the sharp edge we have to live with if we believe in God’s sovereignty: If God wants to prevent a particular evil thing from happening, he will do so. Why he does or doesn’t in a particular instance—which is really another way of asking why he does or doesn’t give us what we pray for—only God knows sometimes, but we should trust that God knows best.

After all, young children often perceive that their parents make decisions that are unfair and they ask why they’ve made those decisions. Parents may rightly refuse to answer this question because the child isn’t mature enough to understand. Parents need their children to trust that they know best. To say the least, if this is true in the relationship between parents and children, who relate as “like kind to like kind,” how much more will it be true of our heavenly Father’s relationship to us, infinite to finite.

One thing’s for sure: a God who himself suffers—as we Christians believe God has and does—has paid for the privilege of our trusting him.

Tim Keller says that we must hold these two truths—that God is sovereign and God suffers—in tension with one another. I know, and he knows, that we Christians tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other. In mainline Protestant thought, we err on the side of suffering and minimize sovereignty. (It’s not even close.)

[T]here are an increasing number of theologians who are so glad to emphasize the suffering of God that they lose the idea of divine sovereignty, depicting God as one who is not all-powerful and not able to stop suffering in the world. Ronald Rittgers writes: “The idea that God has a causal relationship to adversity and misfortune is rejected by many contemporary theologians. The notion of God as co-sufferer is welcomed, but the idea of God as agent of suffering is shunned.

But Rittgers adds, “the God who has no causal relationship to suffering is no God at all, certainly not the God of the Bible… who is both suffering and sovereign. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning.” That is absolutely right. If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless… On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?[1]

I now see how inadequate David Bentley Hart’s treatment of suffering and evil is in The Doors of the Sea. From his perspective, God is completely off the hook for evil and suffering, which is nice, but he gets really fuzzy about God’s sovereignty. In my view, God can and does enfold evil and suffering in his plans for the world.

This is not to say that God causes evil. Rather, evil happens (for any number of reasons, natural and, in the case of the demonic, supernatural), but look what God does with it. God always has the power to prevent it, and one day God will completely vanquish it forever. In the meantime, however, God chooses to do something constructive with it.

Dr. Hart, of course, has perfectly well-thought-out theological reasons for saying that evil is privation—the absence of good—and God therefore makes no positive use of it, but his reasons don’t accord with the overall thrust of scripture. And if I were arguing with him (which I would never want to do), I would be reduced to saying, “Yes, but what about this passage?… What about that passage?” And he would probably attack my doctrine of scripture as Western and Reformed and whatever. At some point, however, we need to put more faith in the Bible than theology.

By all means, let’s be very humble about attempting to answer why bad things happen; let’s not rush to the microphone after every hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or mass murder and say, “Here’s why God permitted this…” (John Piper and Pat Robertson, I’m looking at you.) But let’s not be stuck with a God who couldn’t have prevented this bad thing from happening in the first place!

The fact that God didn’t prevent it means something. We don’t have to know what it means, but be sure that it does mean something.

I said earlier that if we believe in God’s sovereignty we have to live with some sharp edges. We have to test this belief against the worst cases of evil and suffering. At the risk of being accused of “reductio ad Hitlerum,” I refer to what I’ve written on this blog about how Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it to the test: he said in Man’s Search for Meaning that everyone, in the midst of the worst kinds of suffering, always faces a choice: we always get to decide whether this experience of suffering will be harmful or helpful to us; will crush our spirits or enable spiritual growth. He counseled potential suicides in the concentration camps: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Reductio ad Hitlerum or not, we can all agree, I hope, that no one stood on higher moral high ground in saying that than he.

At the risk of tears, let me have Frankl share what he learned:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[2]

Thank God there is always meaning in suffering. If God weren’t sovereign, there wouldn’t be. We would only ever be victims, with a God who stands by powerless—sorrowful and suffering to be sure, but also powerless to do anything.

I simply don’t believe that anymore.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 152-3.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Are evil and suffering part of God’s plan?

October 22, 2013

keller_bookAs I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop. Keller, you see, in addition to being one of our era’s best and brightest Christian writers and thinkers, is also Presbyterian. But not of the hippie-liberal PC(USA) variety: he’s PCA, a Protestant’s Protestant, a full-blown Five-Point Calvinist… or at least he’s supposed to be.

He keeps these doctrinal imperatives close to the vest. Which is as it should be: as with most Protestants, what we usually divide over hardly amounts to a bucket of spit. Presbyterians tend to care a lot more about theology than we Methodists, who are more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

If you’re keeping score at home, however, we Wesleyan-Arminian Christians (which United Methodists profess to be) only agree with one of Calvinism’s five points: total depravity, the T of TULIP.

Wesleyans are suspicious of Calvinism’s strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Their tradition tends to emphasize God’s being “in control” so strongly that they mean God controls every single thing, like a puppet-master. As R.C. Sproul has said: “If there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God.” It’s hard for us Wesleyans to see, if Calvinism is true, how human freedom is meaningful, or how God isn’t the author of evil itself. Calvinists would say we misunderstand Calvinism, just as they misunderstand our view of human freedom when they say we’re semi-Pelagian.

So you’d think that reading a book about evil and suffering from a Calvinist perspective would cause all kinds of alarms to go off within this Methodist’s brain. But it’s not too bad. It’s quite good, actually. The most overtly Calvinist statement I’ve encountered so far comes on page 117:

Often we can see how bad things “work together for good” (Rom 8:28). The problem is that we can only glimpse this sometimes, in a limited number of cases. But why could it not be that God allowed evil because it will bring us all to a far greater glory and joy than we would have had otherwise? Isn’t it possible that the eventual glory and joy we will know will be infinitely greater than it would have been had there been no evil? What if that future world will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost? If such is the case, that would truly mean the utter defeat of evil. Evil would just be an obstacle to our beauty and bliss, but it will have only made it better. Evil would have accomplished the very opposite of what it intended.

I can’t see anything objectionable here. Can you?

God isn’t causing or even conspiring with evil (as I might fear a Calvinist would imply). Evil isn’t really good, if only we could see it in light of eternity. Evil is really evil, and God is defeating it twice over: not simply at the end of history when “all shall be well and all shall be well,” but by using evil (against its will—because we remember Satan) to make that end even better than it would otherwise be.

Christians already agree that God does this with the cross of his Son: He transforms the world’s greatest evil into the world’s greatest good. Had Christ won his victory over sin and death in any other way, would his victory have been as sweet? Keller, if I’m reading him correctly, is merely saying that God does this with all manner of evil.

That seems to be what Paul is getting at when he talks about Creation’s being “subjected to futility… by the will of the one who subjected it” in Romans 8:20-21, and “all things working together for good” in Romans 8:28.

How will God “wipe away every tear” in our own future resurrection if we can still look back and grieve for the evil that happened to us or through us. If, in eternity, we can’t look back on injustice, evil, and suffering and say, “I can see now—even if I couldn’t see at the time—how God was transforming that horrifying event or episode into something good,” won’t we continue to be injured by our memories? Otherwise, wouldn’t God have to erase our memories?

If God doesn’t use evil as part of his plans for our lives, how are we able to grow from our experiences of evil—which many of us undoubtedly do? We Christians often look back on the suffering that we’ve endured and say, “While I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, I’m glad it happened to me, because I’m a better person as a result.”

This idea—that evil and suffering are part of God’s plan—is anathema to David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian who wrote a book on the subject, The Doors of the Sea, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. To his credit, Keller deals with Hart’s book directly in a lengthy footnote on page 341. In one of Hart’s most powerful illustrations, Hart sympathizes with the character Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, who isn’t a Christian, “rejects a God who might be using suffering in any way to bring about a ‘greater good.'” Hart believes that he is fully justified in doing so.[1]

Keller, by contrast, says that Ivan demonstrates a self-righteousness characteristic of modern man, “who is sure ahead of time that on Judgment Day, God could not reveal any insight or wisdom that Karamazov has not already thought of.” Further, Keller writes:

It is important to hold this truth—that suffering is something God hates—together with the teaching that God is sovereign over it. If we refuse to believe that God’s suffering and evil are ever part of God’s plan, we not only turn our back on a fair amount of biblical teaching…, but we also are left without the comfort that God is somehow working in actual experiences and incidents of evil. Nor will we have much incentive to think that God might be teaching us something so that we can grow through it.[2]

I’ve read Hart’s book. I wrote on this blog about how much I appreciated it and have returned to it often. What’s clear to me now—a few year’s down the road—is that Hart hasn’t done justice to what the Bible says. It’s tempting to say that this is because Eastern Orthodox theology, of all major streams of Christian thought, is furthest from the Bible (which I believe is true), but I assume that anyone named “David Bentley Hart” isn’t as thoroughly Eastern in his thinking as that. I suspect that like many systematic theologians, he’s more systematic than this often messy and sometimes paradoxical book that we call the Bible permits us to be. God isn’t easily systematized, to say the least.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 341.

2. Ibid.

Being grateful for suffering

October 10, 2013

keller_bookI was reading a fellow United Methodist pastor’s blog recently. This pastor (whom I haven’t met and isn’t in my annual conference) is currently preaching a sermon series on “reasons for doubt,” or something like that. He’s very clever, and I’m sure he’s going to close the loop and explain all the good reasons for actually having Christian faith. His blog posts in anticipation of his sermons, however, left the loop open, if you know what I mean.

One blog post presented what he thought was the best reason for not believing: human suffering. To illustrate, he quoted one of his blog readers who told him about her sister’s severely retarded adult child who can’t care for herself and requires the round-the-clock assistance of “underpaid, overworked” caregivers.

Why does God allow that kind of suffering? she asked.

I’m tempted to ask about whose suffering—the mentally handicapped child’s or the people who are made uncomfortable by this child’s disability?

Regardless, my fellow pastor agreed that that his reader asked an excellent question. He went on to say that the only thing that’s ever called for in the face of such suffering is silence.

Really? Only silence? Ever? Granted, we Christians can easily end up saying dumb things in the face of suffering, but I asked him in the comments section of the blog post if he thought there was ever a time and place to offer a Christian response to human suffering. If we can’t say anything to make sense of it then let’s just throw out the entire field of Christian apologetics, because I agree with him that suffering is the best reason not to believe in God.

Anyway, we went back and forth about it, and I regretted commenting in the first place. No one has ever suggested before that I’m glib about suffering or evil. I’m hardly one of those “everything happens for a reason”-kinds of people, as anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows.

This blogger justified his position by quoting David Bentley Hart’s Doors of the Sea a lot, which I’ve also read. While I know it’s cool to be Eastern Orthodox these days—and I certainly wouldn’t want to argue with David Hart—I much prefer C.S. Lewis’s Problem of Pain. Although Lewis’s profoundly good book has been criticized for this reason, Lewis says what needs to be said: Suffering isn’t always bad. In fact, it has the potential to be very good for us. And God is happy to use it for our good.

(To Hart’s point in Doors of the Sea, this doesn’t mean that God needs evil and suffering to accomplish God’s purposes in this world; merely that he uses it for our good.)

Because God’s providential hand is always in our suffering, whether God causes it or not (and, biblically speaking, who can say God never causes it?), I’m reluctant to feel indignant about it on someone else’s behalf. Indignation is the prerogative of the sufferer (there are plenty of Psalms about this). Sometimes indignation on behalf of sufferers might be inappropriate—even in the case of the severely retarded child that the blogger discussed.

Does this child not also have the image of God within her? Is her life, even in its current condition, not sacred and imbued with with meaning, purpose, and dignity?

If she were capable of answering for herself (assuming she isn’t), would she not agree that her life is good in spite of her suffering?

My point is, I disagree that suffering is some kind of trump card against which faith and reason have no say.

I just started reading Timothy Keller’s new book about suffering, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. So far in the early chapters, he gives voice to some of my concerns about my fellow pastor’s blog post.

He says that in our secular age we human beings tend to believe that freedom and personal happiness give life its meaning. Since there’s nothing beyond this life, according to this worldview, suffering can only be seen as an unwelcome disruption. It can’t be a part of what gives life its meaning.

He contrasts this with traditional or pre-modern cultures, in which the meaning of life is achieved “not only in spite of suffering but through it. If patiently, wisely, and heroically faced, suffering can actually accelerate the journey to our desired destination.”[1] In these cultures, the responsibility for suffering resides mainly with the sufferer: it’s up to the sufferer to make something out of it; to learn from it; to grow from it.

This isn’t unlike what psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl argues in my second-favorite book on suffering, Man’s Search for Meaning. In Frankl’s experience, when faced with suffering, human beings always have a choice: they can choose whether the experience will provide an opportunity for spiritual growth or not. Frankl would frequently counsel with fellow inmates at Auschwitz and Dachau who felt hopeless enough to consider suicide (which was rampant in the camps): “You want to kill yourself because you no longer expect anything out of life. But life still expects something out of you“—even if, he adds, it’s only to face the gas chamber with courage.

Frankl wasn’t speaking as a Christian, although he would likely agree with me that when he writes that life expects something of us in our suffering, he also means that God expects something of us.

You may disagree with Frankl, but you have to admit that, as someone who witnessed and suffered some of the worst evil in human history, he arrives at his convictions while standing on the highest moral high ground possible.

Regardless, if we simply live according to our modern worldview, these words about suffering surely sound like nonsense. As Keller writes, if the “meaning of life is individual freedom and happiness, then suffering is of no possible ‘use.’ In this worldview, the only thing to do with suffering is to avoid it at all costs, or, if it is unavoidable, manage and minimize the emotions of pain and discomfort as much as possible.”[2]

Keller describes a book by Andrew Solomon called Far from the Tree, about parents coping with a child born to them who isn’t like them—”but instead is deaf, a dwarf, has Down’s syndrome, is autistic, or is chronically ill or disabled in some way.

Solomon presents a series of well-written and sympathetic case studies of families who have faced each of these conditions and more. These children always represent a crisis to the family into which they come, and yet Solomon’s bottom-line finding was: “This book’s conundrum is that most of the families described here have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid.” This, of course, fits far better with the ancient cultures’ understanding of “the sweet uses of adversity,” of suffering as not the interruption of a life story but as a crucial part of a good life. One of the most interesting things to a reader is to see how often religion slips into so many of the descriptions of how families came to terms with their children. This is true despite the fact that Solomon himself is not religious and has no such agenda.[3]

So perhaps suffering is only a good argument against God for those on the outside looking in? For many people in the midst of it, God proves himself to be a “very present help in trouble.”

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 22.

2. Ibid., 23.

3. Ibid., 71-2.

Hart on the difference between God and fairies at the bottom of the garden

July 2, 2013

I don’t expect that this David Bentley Hart essay will be of interest to anyone who hasn’t paid attention to new atheist arguments against God’s existence. But I have, and if you have, too, you’ll know what Hart is talking about when he describes the following:

And yet any speaker at one of those atheist revivalist meetings need only trot out either of two reliable witticisms—”I believe neither in God nor in the fairies at the bottom of my garden” or “Everyone today is a disbeliever in Thor or Zeus, but we simply believe in one god less”—to elicit warmly rippling palpitations of self- congratulatory laughter from the congregation. Admittedly, one ought not judge a movement by its jokes, but neither should one be overly patient with those who delight in their own ignorance of elementary conceptual categories. I suppose, though, that the charitable course is to state the obvious as clearly as possible.

Good for Hart: bringing his fierce intellect to bear on specific arguments, such as they are, that the New Atheists make. Hart’s problem so far is that he’s been too indignant to engage much of what New Atheists actually say. When he gets going, however, he writes helpful things like this:

Belief or disbelief in fairies or gods could never be validated by philosophical arguments made from first principles; the existence or nonexistence of Zeus is not a matter that can be intelligibly discussed in the categories of modal logic or metaphysics, any more than the existence of tree frogs could be; if he is there at all, one must go on an expedition to find him.

The question of God, by contrast, is one that must be pursued in terms of the absolute and the contingent, the necessary and the fortuitous, act and potency, possibility and impossibility, being and nonbeing, transcendence and immanence. Evidence for or against the existence of Thor or King Oberon would consist only in local facts, not universal truths of reason; it would be entirely empirical, episodic, psychological, personal, and hence elusive. Evidence for or against the reality of God, if it is there, pervades every moment of the experience of existence, every employment of reason, every act of consciousness, every encounter with the world around us.

To be an intellectually rigorous atheist—a philosophical naturalist—requires metaphysical commitments in every facet of life, Hart argues.

For the one reality that naturalism can never logically encompass is the very existence of nature (nature being, by definition, that which already exists); it is a philosophy, therefore, surrounded, permeated, and exceeded by a truth that is always already super naturam, and yet a philosophy that one cannot seriously entertain except by scrupulously refusing to recognize this.

It is the embrace of an infinite paradox: the universe understood as an “absolute contingency.” It may not amount to a metaphysics in the fullest sense, since strictly speaking it possesses no rational content—it is, after all, a belief that all things rest upon something like an original moment of magic—but it is certainly far more than the mere absence of faith.