Saturday, February 10, 2007

Heavens to betsy

I've written a little lately about books I've been reading, but what about the books I haven't been reading? Specifically, what about the book my wife is reading about Chinese Christians in the early 1980's, The Heavenly Man?

Because I'm not reading this book, I only know what my wife tells me. And basically, she tells me that it sounds kind of like the New Testament. Church leader gets put in prison, hears a voice, his hands are loosed, and he walks out of the prison, making a miraculous leap to the top of a wall and a miraculous leap across a sewage-filled moat to complete his escape. Back home, his wife has had a vision that he has been captured, and the church has been praying and fasting on his behalf.

Yeah, sounds like the New Testament. But the Book of Mormon sounds a lot like the Old Testament.

I say that, not because I have any good reason to believe these things didn't happen, but because I'm kind of afraid that they did.

Why am I afraid?

I'm afraid because thousands of African Christians didn't walk away from their murderers.

Because thousands of men, women and children didn't walk through tsunamis unharmed.

Because 6 million Jews didn't walk out of Nazi death camps.

In other words, I'm afraid that I'm going to believe that these things actually happened, which will force me into Dostoyevsky's corner, where I have to admit twin propositions like:

1. God exists and acts in the world

2. God only acts on the behalf of those who tickle God with prayers, or fasting, or whatever gets God off.

For me, this is the basic problem with special providence and supplicatory prayer. Can we call God "good" if God only rescues those who recite the proper incantations ... or are lucky enough to have wives back home, reciting the incantations on their behalf? And if this capricious, megalomaniacal God really were the God of the universe, could we morally justify worshipping it?


scoots said...

I think maybe stories like that can only make sense if you assume that God only acts for God's sake rather than for ours. So Peter got rescued in Acts not because God particularly favored Peter (who might have been tempted to choose getting his throat slit then and there rather than his later crucifixion) but because Peter was going to do something God wanted to accomplish –– and because God wanted the church to know that that's what God was most concerned with.

If God's purpose was to accomplish something in China, then maybe he had a purpose for this guy he busted out of prison, assuming the story is true.

In America, on the other hand, the only things (for the most part) preventing us from doing God's will are the trivialities we waste our time with and our own laziness and greed.

That doesn't get us out of the Dostoevsky dilemma entirely, because it still means that God specifically chooses not to save people like the tsunami victims. It would mean that God perhaps chooses to spend God's efforts on spiritual matters rather than physical ones –– which I would say is an incredibly dangerous claim for Christians to make, because it lets us rationalize our refusal to help suffering people.

It's also not a very nice thought to have about God, but then I'm not one to insist that God's actions meet our approval.

But if we're going to compare with the book of Acts, we have to come to terms with the basic disregard that Acts shows for its characters. People come onto the scene, accomplish something, and then disappear from the discussion. Peter, for example, after he gives his speech at the Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15, is never mentioned again.

There's a kind of funny story about Beverly Gaventa, a PTS prof who wrote a commentary on Acts a few years back. While she was working on it, someone asked her what her thesis was concerning the book. Her response: "It's about God."

If you'll let me beat up on theological straw men for a minute here, this is where popular books like Jabez and the Purpose-Driven™ Life totally miss the point. They get our attention by describing spirituality as if it's about us. We have this existential crisis, and we want to know what we're here for; we want our lives to have meaning.

But maybe God doesn't care if our lives have meaning. Maybe I'm supposed to be one of a group of people who simply attend my particular church each week, and God's grander work only includes me in some marginal way that I wouldn't be very impressed with.

Maybe, also, God chooses not to act to prevent suffering. That probably should infuriate us, although on the other hand we hardly have the right to feel that way considering how consistently we choose not to act to prevent suffering. That's not a defense of God, who really should be better than us on this score, but rather a suggestion that our feelings about how things go in the world aren't our best guide to truth.

Matthew said...

I think maybe we differ the kind of behavior we expect from a good God.

I tend to think that the same rules for goodness should apply to all beings. So to depict God as a being using other beings as means to an end is to depict a God who is, in my opinion, not good. To depict God as saving only in cases which will advance God's own spiritual ends seems to be another facet of the same problem.

To say that God does not act to alleviate suffering seems OK, and may even be the most natural conclusion to come to. But it causes me trouble when a person wants to follow that up with exceptions like, "except for when God healed Aunt Betsy." Because then we have to come up with a good guess as to *why* God would save Aunt Betsy, and not the millions of other people who need saving.

Paul said...

Oh yeah...

life_of_bryan said...

I'm inclined to believe the guy's story. After all, have you seen the nifty wall-climbing & flying moves in those killer Kung-Fu movies?

Someone who finds themselves composed of equal parts theologian, political satirist, philosopher, and scientist is likely to play mental kickball with such a topic. Like the kid who takes the washing machine apart, and instead of putting it back together, ponders why it was together in the first place. Admirable pursuit my good man. I myself am equal parts Far Side, Mad-Libs, History Channel, and bathroom humorist. My life observations are every bit as relevant as Will Rogers, but for some strange and unfair reason, deemed far less credible.

On a side note, this weekend Richland Hills Church of Christ - reportedly the largest CoC in the country - officially began their Saturday night instrumental worship service as an outreach-minded alternative to traditional Sunday acapelly services. Assisted Living centers across the Bible Belt were notably abuzz with disgusted ramblings, overflowing bedpans, and the occasional curse word. The service was very crowded, and no demons were directly observed escorting participants straight to Hell -- although it was only the first week. This reporter maintains his stance of being passionately against anyone who is passionate about anything.

Paul said...

To expand on that, I meant that a view of God as Puppeteer pulling the strings doesn't work. The result is endless "apologetics" to try to explain that the contradictions aren't really contradictions.

But since they really are, even apologetics ad infinitem won't resolve 'em...

Matthew said...

"Richland Hills Church of Christ - reportedly the largest CoC in the country - officially began their Saturday night instrumental worship service"


Keep those reports coming! Let us know if you see any demons!