Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Panentheism and Theodicy: What do we do with the Bible?

In comments on my original theodicy post, Jennifer made several comments like this:
You could reject special providence, but I find it hard to reject the special providence if you're going to hold that the Scriptures contain anything that resembles truth regarding the nature of God

Sure enough, it is a royal mess. You have God dropping pillars of smoke and fire, smiting people hither, rescuing people thither, impregnating a virgin, sending angels here, sending angels there. You have Jesus walking on water, miraculously healing people, miraculously feeding people, and rising from the dead. You have tongues of fire, apostles freed by strategic earthquakes, casting out evil spirits, and raising the dead.

And then you have me sitting here, saying that this sort of behavior poses a logical dilemma that can best be resolved by saying that, in fact, God didn't do those things.

Now it's easy to see how I could maintain this belief and reject the validity of the Bible. And it's easy to see how I could abandon this belief and accept the validity of the Bible. The odd thing is that I'm saying that the Bible is valuable, but that God didn't do all these things that the Bible says God did. If the Bible contains all this misinformation about God, how can it be valuable?

I'm going to begin my answer by making an assertion about the Bible: The Bible was not written by God.

For some people, this statement will be terribly obvious, and for others it will be terribly offensive. For those who find it offensive, I'll just mention the internal contradictions in the text (variations in the number of Solomon's stalls and horses in 1 Kings 4 and 2 Chronicles 9; insects with four feet in Leviticus 11, how long Jesus spent in the tomb, yada yada). But if none of that makes *any* impression on you, please consider the following biblical story from Numbers 31:

"Have you allowed all the women to live?" he asked them. "They were the ones who followed Balaam's advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the LORD in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the LORD's people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man."

And the LORD was displeased with Moses for his lecherous and genocidal counsel, and struck him dead on the spot.

Oh, wait, that's not how it ends, is it? It ends like this...

The LORD said to Moses, "You and Eleazar the priest and the family heads of the community are to count all the people and animals that were captured. Divide the spoils between the soldiers who took part in the battle and the rest of the community."
The plunder remaining from the spoils that the soldiers took was 675,000 sheep, 72,000 cattle, 61,000 donkeys and 32,000 women who had never slept with a man.

I find that offensive. So now we can all be offended.

Really, though, my point is that it's difficult to read the Bible as a Perfect Book provided by a Perfect God. Either God's severely messed up, or the book is, and (based on the theological axioms I mentioned earlier) I have to prefer the latter.

Now if you're still with me, let's go on to another assertion: The Bible is, first and foremost, a collection of stories. It is not a divine rulebook. It is a story about how people - mostly, Israelite people - have experienced God in some unusual circumstances. Like all stories, it was written by a person (actually, many people) with differing goals, values, biases, priorities, perspectives and ethical blind spots. Like all stories, it was written for a particular audience, within a particular society at a particular point in history. This doesn't mean that other people can't read the story and learn things from it, but it does mean that there's probably a disconnect between what the text meant to its intended audience and what it should mean to us.

These two assertions encourage us to approach the text very cautiously and interpret it with an eye to the likely biases of the writers. When a writer says, "God said this," we should read that not as a divine claim that "God said this," but, "I think God said this," a statement that could be true even if God didn't really say such a thing.

This is the generous approach, by the way. The cynical approach would assume that the writer was intentionally putting words in God's mouth to get the God Trump for manipulating people.

So there's one way in which the Bible could be considered true: it's true insofar as when people say, "I heard God say this," we can assert that those people are telling the truth, although it's possible that they could have been mistaken about what God actually said.

But I don't think this goes far enough. The Bible has been revered for thousands of years by millions of people, and seems to capture some deep truths about the human experience of God.

I think this is the sense in which we should understand the Bible to be true. Somehow, it distills many human experiences of God into a single compilation. And so rather than trying to figure out whether we have to be baptized to be saved, or whether God created the world in 7 days, we should be looking for broad themes that are woven throughout the Bible. It's here that we can expect to see God's inspiration, threading hints about Divinity through its disparate stories, occasionally surprising us, continually nudging us toward goodness and love.

Monday, March 19, 2007

God Exists, God is Good, God is Love

Connor asked:
Could you say a little more about dropping special providence, but sticking with God is good. It seems to me that most people, at least at the gut level, claim God to be good because of special providence, i.e. Jesus (as God) dies for my sins so I'm saved, yanks me out of Egypt, whatever.

That is a bit of a conundrum, isn't it? The Israelites say, "we know God is good because God brought us up out of Egypt". But I'm saying, "if God brought you up out of Egypt, God is not good."

Let me cheat a little and rephrase Connor's question as, "If there is no special providence, how do you prove God is good?"

The short answer is, I can't.

My theology begins with a pair of unprovable statements: "God exists" and "God is good". My theological goal is not to prove these statements. If anything, my goal is to disprove them. I want to see if there is a way to understand the world given that these two axioms are true. While I can and can present arguments for each of them, and can relate my own experiences that reinforce these beliefs, and can relate the experiences of other people that have been elevated to the status of Church Tradition, I'm not really concerned with proving them true. These are things that I simply believe, in the same way I believe that the sky is blue. You could argue the heck out of the proposition "the sky is green", and I could try my hardest to believe it is green, but in the end I simply would be unable to affirm, from the depths of my being, that the sky is green.

Once upon a time, my theology probably operated under the influence of a third axiom, "God regularly intervenes in the world", but I've since decided that this one simply won't jive with the first two axioms and my experience of the world. However, this panentheism project is an attempt to see if it's possible to soften that axiom somewhat so that it still captures an important part of the Christian witness; in particular, I'm seeing what might happen if I changed "God regularly intervenes in the world" to, "God is intimately involved with the world," or "God loves people," or something like that.

So really, these three axioms underpin my assumption that theology is something worth doing. If God does not exist, theology is silly. If God is not good, theology is dark and futile. If God does not care about the world, then why care about God?

But if these three axioms are true, and can be brought into harmony with my experience of the world, then theology may actually be a worthy endeavor.

My theology is not for people who have happy, rosy relationships with God, and who believe things like "God made the world in 7 days" or "God got me a parking space." My theology is for people who are suffering, or who see the enormity of the suffering in the world and are - rightfully - furious with God. If I can present a theology that provides a way to understand God as good and loving within a world full of horrors, then I think I will have done something helpful.

Friday, March 16, 2007


Theodicy (thE-'รค-d&-sE): A vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil.

For those of you who haven't encountered theodicy before: it's generally depressing. In fact, it could be magnificently depressing. So if you haven't already been wondering about God, and evil, and all that, you may want to go read something more pleasant. Like cute overload or something.

Still with me? Great.

Let's start this mess with a few observations about how Christians answer Big Philosophical Questions.

1. When answering the question, "What is God like?", Christians generally make several claims about the attributes of God, among them that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. The Bible seems to support these claims.

2. When answering the question, "How does God interact with the creation?", Christians generally endorse an idea of a God who is intimately involved with the creation, particularly with human beings. Christians also usually endorse special providence, wherein God occasionally interrupts the natural order to do something helpful for people. The Bible seems to support these claims.

3. When answering the question, "Is there evil?", Christians generally say, "yes." Sometimes people say that evil is illusory, or that evil is merely an absence of good, or that all evil is constructive and eventually has positive results, but sane people generally acknowledge that the world is full of evil - sometimes perpetrated by people (murder, rape, genocide), and sometimes perpetrated at random by nature (disease, earthquake, tsunami). Most sane people also acknowledge that often, this evil is so egregious that it destroys people, and it seems patently ridiculous to insist that these sorts of evil (called "Horrors", in a recent related discussion) could ever be constructive.

From the perspective of Western philosophers, this slice of worldview is fraught with peril. More specifically, it is internally contradictory. The answers to the questions can't all be right ... one or more of them must be wrong. This is where theodicy starts to show up. People - both Christians and non-Christians - notice what appear to be contradictions in the standard Christian story about the world, and so someone has to resolve the contradictions.

In general, there seem to be three ways that people go about doing this.

1. People deny the question has any validity, whether because it is immoral to question God in this way, or because God's ways are mysterious and incomprehensible, or what have you. Really, no discussion can be had after this point.

2. People try to define terms in such a way to dissolve the contradiction. So, for example, someone might claim that all-good does not mean that God ought to rescue children trapped under the rubble of a building collapsed by an earthquake. Or they might claim that all-powerful does not mean that God can do things that are inherently contradictory, and then show that intervening on behalf of abused children would raise an inherent contradiction.

3. People try to find a leg of the argument that they can let go. So, for example, process theologians might claim that God does not really fit the traditional descriptions: that God's moral character is developing just like a person's does, so the claim that God is all-good is simply inaccurate. People who are unwilling to deviate from the traditional description of God might try to give up a different leg, perhaps claiming that evil does not really exist, or if it does, God is not responsible for creating it or intervening to fix it.

Now, a few final observations:

First, the "problem of evil", as it has often been called, raises for atheists no analogous "problem of good". The problem of evil arises specifically because theists claim that a certain kind of God exists, and that this God has a certain kind of relationship with the world, which seems incompatible with the existence of evil. On the other hand, people who claim that there is no God need not explain why God allows evil, and they also need not explain why, if God does not exist, there is good. The painfully simple atheistic answer to that question is that good is not contingent on a God.

Second, in my estimation, the problem of evil is the strongest single argument against worshiping God. If God does not exist at all, it's ridiculous to worship. If God does not provide for followers, why worship? If God is not good, why worship? In fact, if God is not good, we may have a moral obligation *not* to worship. To make matters worse, this is a visceral argument. People can brush off a claim like "the ontological argument for the existence of God is invalid", but it's harder, rhetorically, to brush off the suffering of millions of people over millions of years.

Some people manage to do it, but it's harder.

As a result, it is absolutely necessary that Christians do good theodicy, theodicy that not only can be accepted by those in the Christian community, but those outside as well. And as others have said before, people outside the community can't take you seriously if your answers won't stand up to Auschwitz.

I've recently decided that, for me, the moral contradictions in the problem of evil trump all the other problems. I absolutely accept the claim that special providence is incompatible with perfect divine goodness: A god who delivers money to American churches but fails to rescue children from Indonesian tsunamis cannot be a good god.

But I also am incapable of dropping the claim that God is all-good. I am simply incapable of releasing that belief. So I have to drop something else ... and to me, the thing that seems most droppable is the doctrine of special providence. So I have to claim that when money arrives in the mail, or when I get a good parking place, or when a friend's cancer disappears, God hasn't intervened or done anything out of the ordinary.

Obviously, this move puts a new burden on me, first to explain how I can understand the Bible to be true in light of this doctrine, and second to explain some other way that God might relate to the world. And it also doesn't solve the problem of how God could be morally justified in having created a world that allows for so much horror. I'll talk about those things in a later post.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

I swear

I'm going to get around to posting a real post. Regardless of the hot water leak in the slab of my house, I really am going to have some free time this week.

But this is just too rich.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Question #6: Regarding Walter Reed Medical Center

Which would you rather give for your country, your legs or your life?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Question #5: Punctuation

Continuing our series of odd questions ... quick, is the following sentence correctly punctuated?

Come in and enjoy a home-style dinner with all the fixin's!

Definitive Answer from Casey:
"Though it looks wonky somehow, I think it is. "Home-style" is not in the dictionary, so it's hard to say if it should be a hyphenate, and though "fixin's" looking like an improperly placed possessive, it seems like a proper conjunction."