Tag Archives: theodicy

Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon
Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.*  The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it.   The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising.  I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents.  Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:

“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”

In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation –  is theodicy.

Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism.  We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will.  One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil.   That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.

That leaves us in a difficult spot, though.  Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent.  God can do anything.  That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain.  Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church.  Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship.  But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them?  Yes.  And we will, and should, wrestle with that.

But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important.  In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices.  In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion.  Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No.  It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.

I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast.  But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential.   It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.

At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together.  Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults.  We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.

And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!

_____

*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal.  His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement.  One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement.  Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial.  Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.

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Tornadoes, Theodicy, and Calvinism

David Bentley Hart is like Barth to me.  That is, my claims to appreciate his work are far too grand compared to the amount of his work I’ve actually read.  Nevertheless, what I have read of his I have greatly enjoyed.  With the usual Calvinist claptrap being thrown around once more in response to the Oklahoma tornadoes, Hart offers the kind of strong medicine we need.  The following was taken from a Christian Century interview about his book on theodicy in the light of the tsunami, The Doors of the Sea.

On the Calvinist Anxiety Over God’s Sovereignty:

“Frankly, any understanding of divine sovereignty so unsubtle that it requires the theologian to assert (as Calvin did) that God foreordained the fall of humanity so that his glory might be revealed in the predestined damnation of the derelict is obviously problematic, and probably far more blasphemous than anything represented by the heresies that the ancient ecumenical councils confronted.”

What Pastors Should and Should Not Say in Times of Tragedy:

“I honestly don’t know. I haven’t a pastoral bone in my body. But I would implore pastors never to utter banal consolations concerning God’s “greater plan” or the mystery of his will. The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”

So Where Was God?

“Where was God? In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”

God and Haiti

The problem with the title of this post, like the vast majority of late-modern attempts to question God’s existence or goodness on the basis of this or that tragedy, is that it assumes God and tragedy ‘x’ are on equal terms.  Somehow we’ve gotten the impression we can rise above our prejudices and theoretically judge God from some neutral or equal vantage point and render a verdict.  Of course, setting up that question that way is to already render a verdict – against God, and in favor of our own bastardized “reason.”  This is called “the problem of evil,” and as posed, it is no wonder why it has baffled so many people.  Of course, few bother to ask whether this is the way that anyone – let alone faithful Christians – can or ought to approach that issue.  [Edit: For a great example of “traditional” theodicy, check out this post]

Scripture nowhere tries to rationalize suffering the way that we are obsessed with.  In fact, in Job, the example of the protagonist’s talkative friends teaches us that it is precisely the rationalizers, those who try to render tragedy intelligble, whose voice is really the voice of the tempter.   Christians ought not to be in the businesses of trying to pay evil the compliment of rationality.  Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart wrote the following about the Tsunami, words that are even more true now amidst the horrors of Haiti’s tribulation:

[Ours] is, after all, a religion of salvation; [our] faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death…for while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.  And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we also know it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will be revealed.  Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and in such a world, our portion is charity. (In the Aftermath, p. 116)

Our portion is love.  Not reasoning, not questioning – our response to evil, the way to overcome it, is the way of Jesus – suffering love.  Here is a prayer I used in worship this morning, from the General Board of Discipleship worship website:

A Prayer for Haiti by Dr. Pamela Lightsey

O God, we have been stunned once again by an event
Which seems so unnatural and yet is called “natural disaster.”

We have no words to answer the “why” which we feel,
No wisdom to explain away the unexplainable areas of life.

Keep us from attributing this event as a heavenly reprimand,
Or from a certain haughtiness that tempts the distant soul.

Give us to be compassionate and gentle, servants to those in need.
Remind us of your gracious love in the midst of sorrow,
And your ability to work miracles when hope is faint.

We pray for those who suffer in Haiti even now
And for those who await rescue.
For relatives, for the children,
For mothers and fathers,
Sisters and brothers,
Grandparents, aunts and cousins.
For the survivors who question what more they might have done.
And for those who must keep on keeping on, in spite of.
For the leaders,
For those who bring aid
And those who await news.
Strengthen and encourage them we pray.

Now unto you, O God, we take the burdens of this hour and place them in your divine care.
For all you do and are doing, seen and unseen, we give thee thanks, Eternal God of All Creation.
Amen.