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.