Posts Tagged ‘Francis Spufford’

Spufford falters on the “problem of pain”

July 7, 2014

spuffordThere’s much to like about atheist-turned-believer Francis Spufford’s apologetic for Christianity, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense. He’s a funny, winsome writer and sharp thinker.

In the chapter called “Big Daddy,” he offers an unconventional but compelling defense of God’s existence based on the way that we human beings so often experience God. By the end of the chapter, however, he raises the logical problem of believing in a God-of-everything, as we Christians believe, versus believing in many gods or no God at all. Believing in a God-of-everything means believing that God is ultimately responsible for evil and suffering. Without flinching, he states the problem as well as any hardened skeptic:

But one point at which you can know you’ve started to believe is the point at which the tentative houseroom or headroom you’re giving to the God of everything starts to have emotional consequences of its own. Problematic consequences; uncomfortable consequences; unpleasant consequences. Because if the bastard does exist, if the God of everything is shining patiently in every room, then you can’t escape the truth that He must be shining in some horrible places. He must be lending his uncritical sustaining power to rooms in which the vilest things are happening. There He must be, obligingly maintaining the flow of electrons through the rusty wires that are conducting 240 volts into the soft tissue of some poor screaming soul in a torture chamber. There He must be, benignly silent, as a migrant worker is raped at a truck stop. There He must be, shining contentedly away, in the overrun emergency room where the children from a crushed school bus are dying.

And when you’ve noticed that you’re ready for the next act in the emotional drama of belief we’re following here. Which is, of course, horrified disgust.[1]

What follows in the next chapter is his response to the “problem of pain.” I like this:

Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently, that this ought not to be a problem for believers, because—curl of lip—we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of—preen—the brave unbeliever. But I don’t know many actual Christians (as opposed to the conjectural idiots of atheist fantasy) who feel this way, or anything like it.[2]

That’s exactly right. Even as a pastor, no Christian doctrine seems less believable to me, in the face of senseless, tragic death, than the doctrine of heaven. It feels like pie-in-the-sky, like escapism. Don’t get me wrong: I come back around to believing in it eventually, but only through intellectual effort. In the face of death, I find comfort instead in the fact that Jesus wept when his friend Lazarus died, even though he knew that he would bring him back to life.

No: death is hard on everyone—on Jesus, on ordinary believers like me, and on atheists. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Beyond these words, Spufford concedes way too much ground to Christianity’s cultured despisers. He sets up many of the traditional defenses of God’s goodness (in spite of the bad stuff in the world) and knocks them down far too glibly. Take this, for instance:

I’ve seen a church newsletter in which the Almighty is thanked for fixing the minister’s car, via a miraculously cheap quote from a garage. But it only takes a little of the cold wind of adversity to blow this stuff away—and only a little thought. For if God was willing to exert Himself over the minister’s spark plugs, but wouldn’t get out of bed to stop the Holocaust, what sort of picture that draw? What sort of loving deity could have the priorities that the cruel world reveals, if the cruel world is an accurate record of His intentions, once you look beyond reality’s little gated communities of niceness.[3]

Not so fast, Mr. Spufford. First, reality is far more prodigal with its “niceness” than you let on here. As N.T. Wright once said, the problem of good ought to be a far bigger problem for unbelievers than the problem of evil is for believers. Why? Because there’s just so much goodness to go around!

When I was in Kenya last year teaching theology and doctrine to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors, some of my fellow “short-term missionaries” visited a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Nakuru. They went to provide food, clothing, and medicine to families who were squatting there. This wasn’t, as my missionary friend Bill told us, Western-style garbage. No bourgeois “freegan” would be found there rummaging for day-old bread. Yet here were families attempting to sustain themselves in this place that was very nearly hell on earth. (The Bible’s word for hell is gehenna, literally a garbage dump outside Jerusalem.) It was horrifying, my friends reported. It drove them to tears.

But here’s what they also reported: young children in the midst of this garbage laughing, singing, and playing—experiencing joy. It doesn’t seem right, does it—in this place so far removed from any “gated community of niceness.” But there you are. Life is like that. Even at its worst, there’s still so much good. Why?

In his paragraph above, Spufford says that since God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to help this minister get his car repaired? Well, there it is: reductio ad Hitlerum. Is there anything we can say in the face of the Holocaust’s enormity?

I hope so—because by the standard of the Holocaust, nearly everything that happens in the world is trivial. Certainly, nothing in my little life rates God’s care or attention! Spufford complains about spark plugs, but please… he’s stacking the deck. “If God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, why would God intervene to save the life of a child afflicted with leukemia?” “If God didn’t intervene to save the lives of six million people, why would God intervene to save 300,000 people from the Indian Ocean tsunami?” And forget about 3,000 in the Twin Towers on 9/11!

By this logic, if God didn’t intervene to stop the Holocaust, God doesn’t intervene to do anything. Ever. At this point, the New Atheist are nodding approvingly: “That’s what we’ve been saying for years!”

All that to say, I hope we have some response to Spufford’s logic. Because if Spufford is right, the idea that God answers prayer is a joke—despite what our Lord teaches us repeatedly about the subject. In the face of senseless tragedy in his day, Jesus said seemingly harsh things like, “Unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.” Needless to say, Jesus had a far more robust understanding of God’s sovereignty and providence—and, to say the least, he knew more about these matters than Spufford or I.

So, perhaps the second thing I need to say in response to Spufford is, let’s be humble about what we think we know about suffering and death. This is an important theme of Timothy Keller’s profoundly good book on the subject, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, which came out last year.

Third, we need to remind ourselves, as C.S. Lewis points out, that the scale of suffering is irrelevant to the question of God’s justice.

Suppose that I have a toothache of intensity x: and suppose that you, who are seated beside me, also begin to have a toothache of intensity x. You may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now 2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x: search all time and all space and you will not find that composite pain in anyone’s consciousness. There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.[4]

Lewis isn’t minimizing suffering and evil; he’s merely pointing out that if you’re going to become indignant about six million dying in Hitler’s death camps, you have no less reason to become indignant about six people in a trailer park getting flattened by a tornado.

Also, before we become indignant on other people’s behalf, let’s ask ourselves about believers in God who actually suffered in the Holocaust. Read, for instance, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for MeaningDid these believers experience God as not “getting out of bed” to help them? Of course some did, I’m sure. But many didn’t. Why? What sustained them?

For that matter, what does it mean that the most comfortable suburban Christians (or ex-Christians) become the most indignant about the suffering of others? My pastor friends in Kenya see far more suffering and death there than most of us do here, yet they’re, in general, far more faithful. In fact, in my experience as a pastor, the most advanced believers get the least worked up about their own suffering, often perceiving God’s hand at work in their lives, answering their prayers, and blessing others through them. Would Spufford tell them they’re wrong to feel this way?

Besides, who says God didn’t “get out of bed” to stop the Holocaust? He did stop it, through men like Dwight Eisenhower and the fighting forces of the United States, among many others. “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/ He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Amen! This hymn writer rightly understands how God works in history. “The mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small.”

Speaking of which, here’s another aspect of heaven (and hell) to which Spufford gives short shrift (at least so far): vengeance belongs to God, and he will repay. In eternity, justice will be fully and finally done. Those six million lives lost in the Holocaust will be avenged.

Finally, in my own experience, here’s what I know for sure: most of the suffering that I suffer I bring on myself. It’s not caused so much by external events as my response to those events. As a friend of mine reminded me earlier this year, “Pain is inevitable; suffering is a choice.” In my own experience, I can’t argue with that. Can Spufford?

Maybe he’ll answer that question before the end of the book. I’m not encouraged so far.

1. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 84-5.

2. Ibid., 92.

3. Ibid., 94.

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 116-7.

Giving guilt its due

May 14, 2014

spuffordWhen someone says, as my fellow ordained UMC pastor Jason Micheli has said, that God doesn’t care “at all” about our sin, I disagree not simply because the Bible says otherwise—which, granted, is reason enough—but because it doesn’t do justice (literally) to our sin and guilt—my sin and my guilt, thank you very much.

In his most recent book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense, English author (and Anglican Christian) Francis Spufford gives voice to the way that sin and guilt have made him feel, which is exactly the way it makes me feel. And no one, certainly not Jason Micheli or Herbert McCabe or Thomas Aquinas, can convince me that I feel this way without justification—and that from God’s perspective, everything is A-OK. I know everything is not A-OK about me. And the fact that it isn’t matters to God. And by God’s grace he’s working to change me. And it hurts sometimes. And I’m glad it hurts because, like good old Bactine, that’s how you know it’s healing you.

For someone like Micheli to pat me on the head and say, “The way you make yourself right with God is to recognize that things are already right,” is no comfort at all. It doesn’t ring true to my experience.

And I’m obviously not alone in feeling this way.

Regardless, I’ll quote the relevant passage from Spufford. He later includes enlightening illustrations about the lives of penitent slave-trader and “Amazing Grace” author John Newton and British Field Marshal Montgomery. Spufford’s message is that guilt is a good, necessary, and inescapable fact of human existence. It’s not an overreaction on our part: we ought to feel guilty, even as we avail ourselves of the resources of Christian faith that enable us to live with it. (Note: Like it or not, Spufford uses profanity in his book, and in the following excerpt. What we might call “original sin,” he calls the “Human Propensity to F— Things Up,” which he abbreviates as HPtFtU in his book.)

He precedes this quote by talking about the recent popularity of serial killers on TV, in movies, and in novels. These stories appeal to us because they place evil safely outside of ourselves.

But HPtFtU is in here, not out there. The bad news is bad news about us, not just about other people. And when the conviction of it settles in, when we reach one of those states of our lives where the sorrow of our failure hangs in our chests like a weight, and waking up in the morning is painful because every time the memory of what’s wrong has to ooze back over the lovely blankness of the night—you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever been there—then, the idea that it would help to cling to a cozy sense of victimhood seems as silly as it would be to try and fight off the flu by waving a toy lightsaber. The bad news, at those moments, feels like the whole truth about you. It isn’t. It is only truth about you. But the way back to the rediscovery of the rest of what’s true begins with the admission that you really are guilty of the particular bit of HPtFtU which is making you feel like shit. If you don’t give the weight in your chest its true name you can’t even begin. It’s guilt that drags at your steps, it’s guilt that paints the morning black. In my experience, in times of intense misery it’s letting your guilt be guilt that at least stops you needing to accuse yourself; and in better times, in times of more or less cheerful ordinary muddling through, I’ve found that admitting theres’s some black in the color-chart of my psyche doesn’t invite the blot of dark to swell, or give a partial truth more gloomy power over me than it should have, but the opposite. Admitting there’s some black in the mixture makes it matter less. It makes it easier to pay attention to the mixedness of the rest. It helps you stop wasting your time on denial, and therefore helps you stop ricocheting between unrealistic self-praise and unrealistic self-blame. It helps you be kind to yourself.[†]

Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Emotional Sense (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 34-5.

No theory of the cross should make us the “good guys”

January 28, 2014

I’ve been outspoken on this blog and in sermons over the past few years about my support for the good, old-fashioned “penal substitution” theory of atonement. It argues that on the cross Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins, dying our death and experiencing our hell—in our place, so that we wouldn’t have to: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Indeed, when I hear “In Christ Alone,” I want to hear the couplet: “And on the cross where Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied.” That sounds like great news to me.

In the last Billy Graham television special, Christian hip-hop artist LaCrae put it like this: “Jesus lived the life that we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die.” That sounds exactly right to me. I’ve used that in sermons since then.

Still, to say that I believe in penal substitution isn’t to say that I believe that that theory exhausts the full meaning of the cross. By all means, throw in some Christus Victor and even a dash of Abelardian Moral Example (because it does move us by the power of love it demonstrates).

I’m with C.S. Lewis who said that it’s less important to know how the cross reconciles us to God than to know that it does. And, I would add, it’s important to know that whatever the cross means, it means that something objective has happened that takes away our sins, and it doesn’t simply depend on our subjective response to it. Because if it depends on my response (aside from saying “yes” to the gift of forgiveness that it affords), I’m in trouble.

So for my brothers and sisters who object to penal substitution (usually because they object to some caricature of it as “cosmic child abuse”), I would ask them to at least agree with me that the cross represents something objective. I don’t know of a better alternative to penal substitution that makes more sense of the full scope of scripture.

In this blog post, Scot McKnight puts his finger on one interesting problem with the Moral Example theory and its variants (so popular in mainline Protestant circles):

But the Abelardian and Girardian have an oft-missed sinister side, even if you may object to my saying so. In these theories we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death. We end up being the good guys, the victims, while the bad guys — Roman and Jewish leaders, the gutless disciples, the whole damned human race — are the ones who put him there. We, on the other hand, know better. We’re innocent, they’re guilty.

We are not the authorities, pockmarked as they are by injustice; we are for justice, and we see Jesus as suffering a colossal injustice. We tell a story in which we side with Jesus against the world and against the sinners and against the perpetrators of injustice. We thereby become guiltless and just. The opposite of what the cross’s message teaches. We end up where the Holocaust perpetrators were: we see in the leaders those who killed God. But not us, we are on Jesus’ side. We find Jesus as our model for sacrifice for justice. He becomes a moral example — not against us but as one of us.

Such approaches mask their inner reality: self-righteousness.

To use the words of Francis Spufford, in Unapologetic, we make the crucifixion scene “a story about a special shiny person, whose side we’re all on as we listen, being abused by especially evil persons.” He says such an approach to the crucifixion scene is no longer about Jesus being crucified but Jesus being crucified. He’s innocent, we know it, and we’re for him. Cheer the just man on, folks, cheer him on! Raise a toast for justice as activists for justice!

But the cross contains another message: that we, each of us, because we are sinners and hate to be confronted with the utter sickness that stains us, are the ones who put him there. To read that narrative well is to see ourselves as complicit in the condemnation of the innocent man.

The only “theories” of the cross that make any sense of the cross then are theories that begin right here: I am guilty of that death.

Lennon’s “Imagine”: the My Little Pony of philosophical statements

November 5, 2013

imagine

Last year I said some unkind things about an artist I otherwise admire, including the following:

Having said that, his legendary peace anthem, “Imagine,” is air-headed mush—I mean lyrically speaking. The song’s melody rules, and since music is more important than words, I’m hardly immune to the song’s virtues. I understand, emotionally, why the song is so well-loved.

But the words… Ugh!

The song contends that without countries and religions—with the misguided nationalism and fanaticism that sometimes attend to them—we would have nothing to “kill or die for,” which is obviously nonsense. This can be seen with just a tiny bit of reflection. After all, which came first: countries and religion or killing and dying?

And now, along comes Christian apologist (and Brit) Francis Spufford to out-do me. Even if I didn’t agree wholeheartedly with the author’s sentiments, I know great writing when I see it. This excerpt comes from this book, which I will now have to purchase.

For a piece of famous fluffiness that doesn’t just pretend about what real lives can be like, but moves on into one of the world’s least convincing pretenses about what people themselves are like, consider the teased and coiffed nylon monument that is “Imagine”; surely the My Little Pony of philosophical statements. John and Yoko all in white, John at the white piano, John drifting through the white rooms of a white mansion, and all the while the sweet drivel flowing. Imagine there’s no heaven. Imagine there’s no hell. Imagine all the people living in–hello? Excuse me? Take religion out of the picture, and everybody spontaneously starts living life in peace? I don’t know about you, but in my experience peace is not the default state of human beings, any more than having an apartment the size of Joey and Chandler’s is. Peace is not the state of being we return to like water running downhill, whenever there’s nothing external to perturb us.

Peace between people is an achievement, a state of affairs we put together effortfully in the face of competing interests, and primate dominance dynamics, and our evolved tendency to cease our sympathies at the boundaries of our tribe. Peace within people is made difficult to say the least by the way that we tend to have an actual, you know, emotional life going on, rather than an empty space between our ears with a shaft of dusty sunlight in it, and a lone moth flittering round and round. Peace is not the norm; peace is rare, and when we do manage to institutionalize it in a human society, it’s usually because we’ve been intelligently pessimistic about human proclivities, and found a way to work with the grain of them in a system of intense mutual suspicion like the U.S. Constitution, a document that assumes that absolutely everybody will be corrupt and power-hungry given half a chance.

As for the inner version, I’m not at peace all that often, and I doubt you are either. I’m absolutely bloody certain that John Lennon wasn’t. The mouthy Scouse git he was as well as a songwriter of genius, the leatherboy who allegedly kicked his best friend in the head in Hamburg, didn’t go away just because he put on the white suit. What seems to be at work in “Imagine” is the idea—always believed by those who are frightened of themselves—that we’re good underneath, good by nature, and only do bad things because we’ve been forced out of shape by some external force, some malevolent aspect of this world’s power structures. In this case, I suppose, by the education the Christian Brothers were dishing out in 1950s Liverpool, which was strong on kicks and curses and loving descriptions of the tortures of the damned.

It’s a theory that isn’t falsifiable, because there always are power structures there to be blamed when people behave badly. Like the theory that markets left to themselves would produce perfectly just outcomes (when markets never are left to themselves) it’s immune to disproof. But, and let me put this as gently as I can, it doesn’t seem terribly likely. We long to believe it because it’s what we lack. We dream of the peace we haven’t got, and to make ourselves look as if we do have it, we dress ourselves up in the iconography of heaven we just announced we were ditching. White robes, the celestial glare of over-exposed film: “Imagine” looks like one part A Matter of Life and Death to one part Hymns Ancient and Modern. Only sillier.

Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, pp. 10-13

[Thank you for the heads up, Derek Rishmawy.]