More On Will-y

Consider the following observations from two Christian thinkers representing two different theological traditions (Anglican and Eastern Orthodox):

Fleming Rutledge comments on the recent catastrophe in Haiti:

A frequent response heard from Christians is, “God has some purpose in this.” “Something good will come out of this.” “Haiti will become stronger as a result of this.” In one sense, all these things are true; however, these are deeply wrong responses, both theologically and pastorally….Glib, monochromatic responses to catastrophe should have no place in our faith.

David Hart expresses similar sentiments even more forcefully in a Wall Street Journal article he wrote in the wake of the tsunami disaster back in 2004:

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering—when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s—no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms—knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.

A part of me strongly resonates with these quotations. For the longer I am engaged in the serious study of the Bible, the more and more certain I am about fewer and fewer things. Now this does not mean that I will someday be absolutely certain about nothing! What it means is that the more I study the Bible, (a) the more convinced I am about the central doctrines of the Christian faith, and (b) the less convinced I am about the Bible’s teaching on peripheral issues, such those that used to divide Christians of different denominations back in the 1970s.

I suspect that it is my increasing agnosticism about a variety of biblical and theological issues (for example, the ultimate purposes of God in His sovereign rule over all creation) that causes me to resonate quite warmly with the sentiments expressed in the above quotations—until, that is, I stand back and reflect a bit more on what these writers are saying.

Then I have some real problems with what Rutledge and Hart are asserting about God and human suffering.

Are comments that we Christians make about “God’s inscrutable counsels” really “odious banalities”? Is it truly “blasphemous” to suggest that what happens on planet earth—the good and the bad—“mysteriously serves God’s good ends”?

Well, then apparently Paul of Tarsus was a blasphemer spewing odious banalities, since Christians who utter such despicable ideas traditionally draw their convictions, at least in part, from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28; 11:33-36).

And is it really the case, when all is said and done, that “only charity that can sustain us against ‘fate’”? We hardly needed David Hart to tell us that—the Beatles beat him to the punch(line) four decades ago: “All You Need Is Love.”

Both Rutledge and Hart are, of course, on target in their observations about the sin-soaked world in which we live. We do inhabit a natural environment that is currently in bondage to corruption (Paul had something to say about that, too, as I seem to recall.). And we are a people deeply marred by our rebellion against the Creator.

I particularly appreciate Rutledge’s reservations about the pastoral wisdom of offering simplistic explanations of God’s involvement with natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti. There are times boldly to verbalize the truths of Scripture. There are also times that we pastor more effectively when we keep our mouths shut and simply listen to those who are hurting. And, of course, there are many times that we just don’t know, and we ought to acknowledge as much.

But in the final analysis, I see little Christian hope or optimism left for those of us who, like David Hart, above, would (1) situate the precious promises of Scripture under the rubric of “odious banalities” or “blasphemous suggestions” and (2) confess absolute agnosticism where the intersection of God and suffering is concerned. Such sentiments might set well with the readers of the Wall Street Journal. They would not be very helpful to my brothers and sisters at Oceanside Christian Fellowship.

We gather together on Sundays at OCF desperately longing for a word from the Lord—for “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,” as the hymn writer puts it. Contemporary theologians who dismiss the teachings of Scripture in favor of stridently polemical appeals to a sort of postmodern theological agnosticism leave us with neither strength for today nor hope for tomorrow. Only a word from the Lord—based on God’s promises as revealed in Scripture, and spoken in the context of the gathered believing community—can give us the resources we need to navigate the challenges of our daily lives.

None of us will ever harmonize the God of the Bible with the realities of human suffering in a way that fully satisfies either our intellectual capacities or our emotional needs. But if I cannot find in the promises of Scriptures some confidence that God is in control of this mess—if I cannot see in the crucifixion of Jesus a God who turns garbage into glory, and who will some day do the same with the rest of the horrors of human history, then take me back to my pre-Christian days as a rock-&-roll musician, and let me sing “All We Need Is Love” with John Lennon until the Lord comes back.

Until the Lord comes back? Hey, that was missing from those quotations, too! Perhaps we ought to add “Imagine” to our repertoire, as well.

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2 Comments on “More On Will-y”

  1. Glen Says:

    Maybe just for clarification sake, Dr. Hellerman, would you say then our reaction to calamity (Haiti, tsumanis, 9/11’s, etc.) should be that of James 1:2 in seeing them as trials, or something else?

    I love your way of describing God turning “garbage into glory” but what should the reaction of garbage be explicitly then?

    Sorry if maybe this seems elementary.

    • hellerman Says:

      Glen, this is anything but ‘elementary,’ and I much appreciate your question.

      First, I think that at this juncture some of the sentiments in Hart’s quotation, above, are helpful. I agree with Hart that we ought to ‘hate death and waste.’ Just because God will someday make sense of the chaos of world events, does not mean that they are therefore all intrinsically good. Death and suffering are not, in and of themselves, GOOD. They are the result of sin and need to be identified as such. The great good that God brought out of Jesus’ crucifixion does not negate the evil act that it was.

      Secondly, as Hart implies, we should do absolutely everything in our power to relieve suffering in the lives of others. Charity/love may not be ‘all we need,’ but we certainly cannot do without this primary Christian virtue (in addition to biblical hope) in the midst of heartache and suffering. It seems, in fact, that faith, hope, and love constituted for the early Christians a holistic package of biblical virtues.

      Finally, as for seeing a tragedy like the Haitian earthquake as a ‘trial,’ well I think we have to be careful here. For Christians who survived the catastrophe, and for the Christian families of those who did not, their experience will certainly be a biblical trial of a proportion that you or I will likely never experience. So, technically, yes, James 1 is appropriate text to bring to the table here.

      However—and here is where pastoral wisdom comes in—to tell a person in such a situation to ‘consider it all joy,’ as James does—well, I’ll leave it to the inspired writers of Scripture to speak those kinds of truths to people who are suffering.

      For my part, I’ll reserve my preaching on James 1 for large church gatherings, or individuals in better situations, in order to give these folks the resources to understand their own hardships when they encounter them later on down the line.

      When people are in the midst of suffering, Glen, I think it is usually better to minister to their immediate needs, material and otherwise, and to leave the exhortation to the Holy Spirit. We often really do preach better with our actions than with our words. And that’s coming from a guy who does more than his share of preaching with his words!

      Hope that helps. I feel like a moron among rocket scientists trying to address an issue of this magnitude, so take the above for what it’s worth.

      Thanks for reading. And thanks for commenting.

      Joe


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