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For and Against God?

The last chapter of my thesis is where I try to make the move from the existence of a strong element of moral protest in the new atheism, to the claim that the whole enterprise can profitably be understood as an attempt at theodicy. As such, I’ve been brushing up on some responses to the problem of evil in Encountering Evil. I came across these passages in John Roth’s chapter on “protest theodicy” this morning, and I’ve been mulling them over since:

Life is outrageous. Hardly anyone will deny that conclusion outright. Tragedy, pain, injustice, premature death—all of these and more waste us away. No explanation seems quite able to still our anger, hostility, and sadness. A theodicy of protest believes not only that such emotions are profoundly real, but also that they are in many cases justified. Any religious perspective that fails to give them expression diminishes the human spirit.

[T]he fact remains: the net result of God’s choices is that the world is more wild and wasteful than any good reason that we can imagine would require it to be. Thus, to be for such a God requires some sense of being against God as well. To defend the good as we know it best—especially to carry out God’s own commandments that we should serve those in need, heal the sick, feed the hungry, forestall violence—we must do battle against the forces that are loose in the world because God permits them.

Among the questions I’m left with are these:

  • In light of the “outrageous” nature of life, what elements ought to characterize our posture toward God and the world he has made?
  • Is a moral reaction against the unsatisfactory conditions of human existence at some level also a reaction against the God who initiated, allows, and upholds these same conditions?
  • Are Roth’s comments just a different way of framing the traditional biblical theme of lament? (Psalm 90, to cite but one example)
  • What, if anything, is gained/lost by framing the matter in this way?

I’m not trying to be irreverent or unnecessarily provocative; however, like many others, I suspect, the events in Burma and China over the last couple of weeks (as in all cases of such overwhelming tragedy) have pushed these kinds of questions to the fore. I think that all of us—regardless of our religious or irreligious persuasions—are dumbstruck at the sight of schools full of children being crushed to death (with the possible exception of Sharon Stone, who apparently thinks it’s karma for China’s treatment of Tibet and the Dalai Lama—it seems that Christians don’t have a monopoly on moronic comments in the wake of natural disasters). All of us, I think, instinctually gasp“this should not be!” Sometimes it hurts to be human, and the burden seems more than we’re capable of bearing.

Whatever or however one thinks of questions such as the ones above, one thing that cannot be doubted, from a Christian perspective, is that God himself knows firsthand that it hurts to be human. Our hope for a day when these kinds of tragedies are no more is based on a self-emptying God who has entered, experienced, and conquered the “outrageous” conditions of human existence in order to redeem them.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Your thesis sounds interesting. I hope someday you publish a version of it. Most of the people I know are atheists. They claim moral objections to God, even to belief in God.

    One way I read Job is that although he never cursed God with his lips, he did curse God in his heart. I think that way of reading Job connects with our feelings in modernity, as you have written about here.

    I think that we may view the conditions of life more negatively than our ancestors. Although I agree with Darwin that there is grandeur in view of life he described in Origin of the Species, that view is a dark view of life, an inherently nihilistic view – so much waste (as he termed it) – so much overproduction, so much death, and no meaning to any of it. I think that view is our contemporary view of life, whether we believe in God or not.

    I think our religious ancestors saw a goodness in life, in creation, that we now strain to see, even in our relative material prosperity. As you have written here, Christianity is founded on hope in redemption. In modernity I think it is hard to sustain that hope. It is hard to believe in grace, hard to believe in God.

    June 10, 2008
  2. Thanks for the kind words Ken. I think you’re right that we may have a tendency to view our conditions more negatively than our ancestors. I find this very interesting because, as you say, our material conditions are undoubtedly far superior to theirs. The goodness in creation that they saw was not, apparently, directly dependent upon their own personal comfort or security. Maybe we have something to learn here…

    Perhaps it has to do with how much of history we moderns can take into our scope. Modern media, etc presents us with so much waste and suffering (a first century Jew likely wouldn’t have had the first clue about what was going on in China or Burma) which has to then be factored in to our worldviews, which isn’t always easy. Having said that, I think that all people at all times have experienced or observed enough suffering to ask the same basic questions. I don’t think hope for redemption has ever been an easy thing, but I think that human beings have always considered it necessary, however it is conceived.

    June 10, 2008
  3. Ken #

    Yes, I think you are right.

    June 10, 2008

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