A Prayer on Theodicy
Another day dawns and it whispers of bad news. Another person dying of cancer, another marriage falling apart, another family whose money has run out, another person’s faith reeling and staggering, another hate-fuelled bomb goes off around the world, another storm strikes killing hundreds…
And this morning, another prayer from Walter Brueggemann’s Prayers for Privileged People. This one is called “On Theodicy”:
We gladly confess: “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.”
That we gladly and confidently confess—
And yet, we notice your creatures not well fed but mired in hunger, poverty, and despair.
And yet, we notice the power of evil that stalks the best of us: the power of cancer, the dread of war, sadness of death—”good death” or cruel death.
And so we pray confidently toward you, but with footnotes that qualify. We pray confidently, but we will not deny in your presence the negatives that make us wonder.
We pray amid our honest reservations, give us patience to wait, impatience to care, sadness held honestly, surrounded by joy over your coming kingdom—and peace while we wait—and peace at the last, that we may be peacemakers and so your children.
We pray in the name of your firstborn Son, our peacemaker.
Such a powerful message; such a battle between idealism and realism..I hope and pray that we will all be strong enough to survive the mundane of what’s real..
I don’t hear any theodicy here, meaning, I don’t hear any justification of the ways of God to humanity or of the presence of evil and suffering.
In his expression, “we pray confidently” I hear a lack of confidence. In that, and in “honest reservations,” I hear skepticism, or perhaps denial of the dissonance. No where in the Psalms do I hear “honest reservations.”
I think Darwin comes closer to “honestly” facing the dissonance than Brueggemann. In addition, Darwin offers a kind of perfect theodicy, one that completely lets God off the hook – there is no God, or if there is one, it is the deist’s God that has been uninvolved since the beginning.
I imagine Dawkins would skewer Brueggemann as easily as he did Rowan Williams.
What is this kingdom Brueggemann is waiting for? Does he believe Jesus is coming back? Does he believe that a state of eternal bliss awaits our souls in death?
What I hear in Brueggemann is a modern moral piety. I do not hear faith. I do not hear honesty.
Brueggemann doesn’t claim to be offering a justification of God here. I see it as simply a prayer about/in light of the concerns raised by the reality of a world which gives rise to questions of theodicy. He is praying honestly about evil and its effects. In that sense, I see it as very much in line with some of the Psalms (Psalm 22 leaps to mind—there certainly seem to be reservations there). He is acknowledging his doubts in the context of faith (as in the passage Deborah quotes below). I’m not sure how or why you would attribute a lack of faith or honesty to such a prayer.
I don’t think that Darwin offers even an adequate, much less a “perfect” theodicy. As I’ve probably said here before, if the problem with theistic theodicies is that they have trouble rendering God in morally intelligible terms, the problem with a Darwinian theodicy (or any reductive naturalistic one) is that it renders us morally unintelligible to ourselves. That’s far too high a price to pay, for me.
I suppose you’d have to ask Brueggemann. From what I’ve read, his seems to be a fairly standard orthodox eschatology, but I can’t speak to his specific understanding of the coming kingdom.
(Incidentally, if I watched the same interview between Dawkins and Williams that you’re referring to, I’m not sure I would so easily grant that Dawkins “skewered” him. I might have questions for Williams as well, but it seemed to me that Dawkins’s editors stopped the tape right about the time the conversation was getting interesting. Maybe there’s another clip I haven’t seen…)
Re:”the problem with a Darwinian theodicy (or any reductive naturalistic one) is that it renders us morally unintelligible to ourselves. ”
Yes, it is true. One can only speak of a Darwinian theodicy ironically because it lets God off the hook by saying God is irrelevant. And I think it is true that the idea of evolution renders morality unintelligible. The idea of the good is just irrelevant. I know Dawkins argues otherwise. I guess I just don’t find his argument convincing.
I wish I understood more your attraction to morality.
We probably saw the same clip of Dawkins and Williams. I only mean that I believe Dawkins skewered Williams in the eyes of those who find Dawkins convincing. I don’t believe Williams is a fool. I would say this though about Brueggemann and Williams: I think they speak so much in metaphor, while using traditional language, that their meanings are obscure. They both sympathize to some extent with liberal theology, but they are much less clear than someone like Tillich or Schleiermacher. With them someone may agree or disagree, but we need not wonder what they meant.
I don’t think my attraction to/emphasis on morality is terribly unique. I just think we have a right and a duty to ask what it means to say that the things that matter most to us in life are inexplicable by products of mindless processes (or elaborate strategies nature has “devised” to trick us into getting our genes passed on). I’m willing to accept a God whose ways I cannot always fathom or even a God whom I protest against. This is, presumably, to be expected given the ontological gap between us. I’m not as willing to accept a position that increasingly renders myself and the things that matter most to me inexplicable.
I agree that your emphasis on morality is not unique. I guess when I say that I wish I understood it more that I could understand why you emphasize it. Most people who emphasize it cannot answer the question why. You may be able to, or perhaps you have to some extent when you say “I’m not as willing to accept a position that increasingly renders myself and the things that matter most to me inexplicable.”
This is ultimately the reason that Taylor’s book is so unsettling. His history of our ideas about the “good” suggests that the idea of the good has a history, but no external reference point. It is explicable only on the basis, as Darwin suggested, of “chance and necessity.” The unwillingness you and I and Taylor and everyone feels is perhaps the resistance to chaos that Eliade described, the chaos that is “chance and necessity.”
The other very interesting implication of Taylor’s analysis is that our ideas of goodness, even of benevolence, are often oppressive – to others and to ourselves. Perhaps God opposes morality on that basis. Perhaps that is why God is not just.
I don’t know if I have an answer to your question that doesn’t resemble others I have given. For me, questions about what life is supposed to be about, how human beings ought to live, etc are the most important that can be asked and our ability/tendency/proclivity/inability not to ask them as human beings is highly suggestive.
I don’t find Taylor as unsettling as you do. For me, tracing how our conceptions of the good have evolved over time does not necessarily lead to or require the further claim that they have no external reference point or that they owe their existence to nothing more than “chance and necessity.” I think human beings have an innate moral instinct that can be (and is) shaped by the vicissitudes of history. To show how this is expressed differently (sometimes better, sometimes worse) over time doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist nor does it have anything conclusive to say about the source of its origin, in my view.
In defense of his way of living Rousseau wrote: “Empty logic-chopping will never destroy the close relation I perceive between my immortal nature and the constitution of the world, the physical order I see all around me. In the corresponding moral order, which my researches have brought to light, I find the support I need to be able to endure the miseries of my life. In any other system I should have no resources for living and no hope when dying.”
In the same essay Rousseau lamented the doubts that had troubled him, doubts about the moral order that as a younger man his “researches … brought to light.” In a sense, Taylor’s analysis is like Rousseau’s analysis of his own life and decisions he and others made about how to live. Rousseau was unsettled in the way that Taylor’s analysis has the potential to unsettle. Or, as Yeats wrote, “the centre cannot hold.” Eventually Rousseau gave up the fight with his doubts. He asked rhetorically, “When death is already at the door, is it worth learning how we should have lived?”
That’s a great quote.
I hear Mark 9:24,
Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Thanks Deborah. I think this is certainly a prayer that many of us resonate with…
Prayer, religion, theology, freedom, justice, belief, conviction- all the world’s most complex nuances, are truly quite simple to conceive, so long as we manage to recognize, respect and resonate to the idea that the moment we love, we become unlimited.
I find the prayer somewhat lacking, and perhaps disingeniously so. Ironically though, at least as it applies to Ken’s criticisms, it is the cheap liberalism of it’s content that I find most disturbing.
Suffering as implied by the examples outlined by you, Ryan, at the beginning of this post require a better response than offered by Brueggmanns prayer. What is his point? Is it a better Christian prayer because it tacitly acknowledges that other people suffer unjustly. Does he offer any real sense of the pain! The poverty!! Does he really mean to quantify such suffering as a ” negative that makes you wonder”!!
Fuck off. If that is what you think describes real suffering, than you have led a charmed life.
Yes, I can see how crude profanity, vicious criticism, and merciless judgmentalism directed at the prayer (not a theological argument, not a comprehensive description of general or personal suffering, not an attempt to prove a “point,” not any number of other things that prayers do not claim to be or do) of a stranger is a much more helpful, morally sensitive, authentic, and illiberal response to real suffering.
Thanks for setting Brueggemann (and those of us who resonate with his prayer) straight.
1 Vindicate me, O God,
And plead my cause against an ungodly nation;
Oh, deliver me from the deceitful and unjust man!
2 For You are the God of my strength;
Why do You cast me off?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
3 Oh, send out Your light and Your truth!
Let them lead me;
Let them bring me to Your holy hill
And to Your tabernacle.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
To God my exceeding joy;
And on the harp I will praise You,
O God, my God.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God;
For I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance and my God.
David lived with ‘negatives that made him wonder’ out loud:
Why do You cast me off?
Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?
The prayer you find so disturbing, is welcomed by God. We know this because He said so, and He never lies.
In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.
He is not so much as interested in the use of adequate literary devices as we are. He hears our prayers, the passionate ones, and the quiet ones, the confident ones and the ones that come out awkward and weak. In fact, a groan will do.
Only He knows the depth/strength of our conviction and of our pain.
Normally, I don’t debate with people I don’t know. And I don’t need to ‘win’. I will say this though–
Telling someone to F-OFF because you don’t like the way they pray is ‘cheap’ and could be considered ‘liberal’ indeed.
I’ve done it too.
I was mad because I was suffering.
Thank God for grace, we all need it.
My crude comment wasn’t meant to be directed at you Ryan or for that matter Mr. Brueggmann, though it clearly reads as such. I’m sorry. It was anger at what I find to be an offensive response, through prayer, to suffering.
Last week we buried a dear friend who at 48 gave his wife a good night kiss, went to bed and didn’t get up in the morning. He leaves behind a deleriously traumitized wife and 5 bewildered children under the age of twelve.
Earlier last night before I responded to this post, I spent time with a new friend. A dear lady who has spent a life time struggling with poverty of spirit and rejection. She doesn’t know if she has the will to go on any more and as close as she has tried to be to the Lord in her lifetime, even her spiritual life feels dry and empty. For her it is all beyond cruel right now and she is literally at her wits end.
Somehow reading and re reading a prayer that speaks to “noticing” stuff isn’t quite right, with “footnotes that qualify” because there are “negatives that make you wonder”….it struck a nerve…man if that’s all that I’m sharing in makes me feel and inspires me to do, then f me too!!
I don’t mean to be vicious or merciless but people in the throes of great suffering need more than platitudes. They have a right to expect better from their brothers and sisters. They have a right to expect better from their God.
Deborah, thanks for Psalm 43 and a compassionate rebuke. Both are much appreciated.
Paul, it sounds like you are walking with some people through some incredibly painful situations, and I can appreciate that this is very difficult for you personally. I also have walked with and listened to some very tragic stories over the last little while. It was these stories that drew me to Brueggemann’s prayer in the first place.
My reaction to your comment may seem strong, but I don’t think you or I or anyone else has the right to treat the prayer of a brother or sister so callously. This is a real human being’s response to the pain of the world. We have no idea what concrete people and events this prayer responds to. We have no idea what actions for good and for comfort accompany it.
I remain absolutely mystified as to how you see this prayer as offering “platitudes.” Are the Psalms full of “platitudes” as well? Is “noticing” suffering and acknowledging doubt to be scorned? Does it preclude active involvement with people in pain? Is it incompatible with active resistance of evil and suffering? From what I know of Walter Brueggemann, he is deeply involved in working for social justice among the poor and downtrodden in his community. From what I know, this is a prayer that is offered out of a place of deep personal involvement in the pain of the world.
I’m left wondering what you think would be a less “offensive” response, through prayer, to suffering? You say people have a right expect “better” from us and from God. Give me an example. How would a prayer do this?
Thanks for the thoughtful response, Ryan. Much appreciated.
I guess my concern with Mr. Brueggman’s prayer, is that like Ken, I don’t hear truth. I don’t hear any of the real agonies of suffering. I don’t hear a sharing in the suffering and a responsibility to help alleviate it’s wrath. I hear a patronizing call that acknowledges pain and doubt in incredulously benign terms while counselling a context of glad and confident confession. I’m sorry, that is so unreal to me.
And yet you and Deborah are right. Who am I to judge the moral character of Mr. Brueggmann’s prayer, as you say, “treat the prayer of a brother or sister so callously”. I am wrong in that regard. I have sinned.
With that in mind I wish to say no more regarding my opinions on the matter, as Deborah offers, the prayers I find so offensive can find favour with God.
With regard to other points you make, in psalms I at least hear real lament, real abandonment, real pain, real complaint. On the cross I hear our own Lord’s last words and I hear anything but a prayer of confidence towards the Father.
Life has been like that for me at times, a seemingly unbearable cross. Life is like that every day, in every moment, to someone somewhere, known or unknown. The only prayer I can imagine having any meaning to a soul in great distress is one that reflects the depth of her agony, the depth of her abandonment, the depth of her contrtion, and the depth of her need for grace. I don’t think it is a prayer one commits to memory for future reference. I’m certain it is a prayer all wish never to have to pray. It is this kind of prayer that I believe will allow for God’s “better”.
Prayers that will effect a right response from the community are ones that are supported by action. Words alone are not enough, we must pray what we can pray but we also must do what we can do. In fact we must also pray for the Lord to give us the strength and wisdom to sustain us in our efforts to help alleviate suffering. Our prayer is incomplete and dishonest, if, given we have the opportunity to help, we choose not to and only to pray.
I still don’t get it. I don’t get how this prayer is “patronizing” or “incredulously benign,” how it lacks truth or honesty, how it doesn’t demonstrate (sufficient?) agony, how it doesn’t lament (genuinely enough?) like the Psalms, or how it implies a lack of willingness to go beyond words and alleviate/share in suffering.
I just don’t get it.
Thank you all for sharing. I have very much enjoyed reading all of your postings.
The phrases I cited in earlier posts along with the context of glad confession seem disingenious to me and divorced from real suffering, while at the same time I assume you find them to be understated and poigniant. You know what, Ryan I hope your right and I’m wrong. Certainly, I have to believe Mr. Brueggmann never intended to have his prayer affect people the way I am affected.
That being said I still think the gross nature of suffering out to and does offend us on a much deeper level then indicated by this prayer.
Wish I would have said it more like this in the beginning.
Knowing he is actively serving to bring relief to suffering,(as Ryan stated, “…he is deeply involved in working for social justice among the poor and downtrodden in his community…”) tells us that his prayer is NOT insufficient at all. His actions speak, adding to the words he used in this prayer to address suffering.
There are all kinds of excellent and passionate prayers being spoken by people who do nothing.