Friday, January 15, 2010

The Motives Behind Robertson’s Theological Lunacy

As many know by now, Pat Robertson, televangelist and aging leader of the 700 Club, has once again spoken from his ignorance about an appalling tragedy; this time inferring that the earthquake that hit Haiti was God’s judgment for Haiti’s past pact with the devil (Robertson's Comments). You will recall that both he and Jerry Falwell came out after the events of September 11, 2001 proclaiming that God was judging America. Robertson continued that refrain after the devastation of hurricane Katrina.

After learning of Robertson’s recent remarks, I commented to someone that I had thought about responding to his theological blunder, but I decided that I did not want to waste my time on this so-called preacher who often acts more like the proverbial crazy uncle that says things that makes the rest of the family cringe. However, after some reflection on his statement, and the growing inner compulsion I felt to remind folks that he is not a legitimate Christian leader, I have decided to offer some measure of response.

Many others have written very well thought out replies to this theological lunatic, and so I do not want to repeat what they are saying. But the question that keeps coming to my mind concerning his way of thinking when he responds to these kinds of tragedies is, “Why does Robertson, and others like him, feel the need to make these sorts of statements?”

I am not really sure I can fully answer this question, but it seems to me that there is some motivation behind these sorts of comments that tells us something more about the way these misguided preachers think. In other words, terrible happenings like the earthquake in Haiti serve as opportunities for these kinds of folks to preach their off-kilter theology, and it seems that they will not allow these opportunities to pass without sharing what they believe about God, regardless of the damage it will cause.

In my opinion, I believe that one significant motivation for Robertson to make such statements is the need he feels to offer a theological cause and effect explanation to such catastrophic events, instead of accepting that these events have natural causes. He feels the need to frame these events as actions of God, for not to do so would scandalize God, at least in his thinking, as less than sovereign over creation. If these events happen because of the way the natural world works, then God must not be in control. Thus, Robertson and his kind must take up the slack for God, making certain that we all know that this tragedy happened because God willed it to happen.

At the heart of this way of thinking is a very anti-science mentality that stems from the battles these religious fanatics have had over evolution versus creationism, or as it is known by its codeword, intelligent design. If science can better explain why these events happen, then science might better explain other realities, such as the origin of the physical world. And that scares the hell out of folks like Robertson.

Yet, perhaps a deeper reason for Robertson stating that things like earthquakes and hurricanes are acts of God’s judgment is that he feels the need to ensure that God remains the supreme God. Of course, by invoking God as the force behind these events, Robertson means the Christian God, and primarily the Christian God that has been fashioned by Western Civilization, and particularly by the Puritanism of early America.

And yet, perhaps at the heart of both the anti-science motivation as well as the need to remind everyone that “God is still sovereign,” is the continuation of the archaic and theologically inept idea that human suffering, even devastating suffering that is set off by natural causes, is the result of human sin. Robertson’s theology is totally predicated on the idea that humans are born into sin and the suffering that comes upon us is a result of being sinful humans. But is this a reasonably sound explanation?

I am not suggesting that we do not sin. The empirical evidence seems clear enough that we do; although I am not sold on the idea that we are born into sin (see my post: Are We Really Born Sinners?). Moreover, I cannot argue against the fact that some tragic events are a result of human sin, such as the atrocities carried out on September 11, 2001. But that was due to the sin of the attackers and not the sin of those being attacked.

For Robertson and his fellow religious conservatives to say that earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters that cause considerable human suffering are a result of human sin does not hold much theological weight, for there is no cause and effect relationship. Whether his statements are explicit or he infers this relationship, he is way off base from a theological perspective.

But if Robertson’s theological explanations are significantly askew, what should be our theological response to the tragedy in Haiti? The problem in answering this question is that we tend to offer overly simplistic explanations to these kinds of things, which is what Robertson himself is doing.

Yet, a reasonable and faithful theological response to such human suffering calls us to deep reflection about human suffering and the place of God in that suffering. It calls us to look at the cross of Jesus to learn the practice of protest against God that Jesus voices at his death, as well as to embrace the idea that the cross serves as a reminder that when humanity suffers, God suffers with us. In this sense, instead of God being the judge who sends this catastrophe in judgment for sin, God should more appropriately be viewed as living in the midst of and suffering with these victims.

But perhaps more importantly, this event must remind us of two theologically sound ideas. First, life is a gift and it should be lived in such as way that we value not the things that rust and decay, but that we value that which is eternal. And second, these kinds of events must remind us that we live in solidarity with those who suffer, and as such, we are called to do all we can to lift them up out of their despair and pain to find strength and hope. In other words, instead of invoking God’s name in judgment, we are more theologically sound by invoking God’s name in love and compassion.

For me, Pat Robertson is the poster child of misguided and ignorant theology. To put it mildly, he is a theological idiot. I hate having to waste my time on responding to his comments and I hope that most people will ignore his remarks. But, to those who believe he represents Christianity and the Christian God, let me say clearly that he does not.


Allison said...

Dr. Smith,

You've written an excellent post - one I could have written myself! (Only not as well, but the sentiments are the same.) :)

I really appreciate the articulate and thoughtful assessment of the whole situation: Robertson's proclamation, the motives and theology driving such behavior and the observation of sound Christian theology's response to the tragedy in Haiti. I mentioned to a friend recently, "WWJD?" to which I provided my own answer, "not what Pat Robertson or Rush Limbaugh are doing."

It's my growing opinion that the only good in Christianity is Christ. It's the "ianity" that seems to create insanity. Your post shifts the focus to the good, not the insane. Your insight resonate with me, and I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog. Thank you for writing on this.

Best regards,
Allison Sumpter

Anakna said...

Drew, your comments on Pat Robertson are not wasted and very much appreciated. Even here in the Philippines, Pat Anderson is a very popular guy and so are many other TV evangelists like him. Their influence on the ignorant is something we can not dismiss lightly (there are 90 million of us with 55% having access to TV and 75% to radio). For us guys with little or no formal theological training beyond church catechism, I find it troublesome, sometimes, in reconciling my beliefs with the pronouncements of people like Pat Anderson. (This is one reason why I read your comments and refer these to my friends. Not only are your comments current but they are written in a way that I can understand these without being overwhelmed by religious jargon.)

My country is a favorite place for natural disasters – typhoons, earthquakes (we have 200-250 earthquakes a day), floods, drought, exploding volcanoes… I think we have more than our share of these disasters probably making us the most “disaster-smart” people on earth. (And we also hold world records in man made disasters). If these natural disasters are expressions of God’s punishment on the Filipinos, then we must be the most God forsaken country on earth. In the Philippines, foreigners are baffled by the silly smiling face of the Filipino after a disaster. Tears may be falling and there may be sadness in the eyes but there is a small hint of a smile which says “life goes on and we will survive.” It is not that we do not suffer nor feel profound sorrow… but based on experience we know that even the effects of the worst natural disasters will pass and life goes on.

Of course there are a lot of people who take advantage of the situation – i.e. looters, robbers, hoarders. But in general we come to feel and actualize what being Christian means in the midst of mass suffering. I also notice that there are more people going to church after a disaster. Of course I am not implying that we welcome more natural disasters for these will make us better Christians! –hehehe.

Thank you for your comments.

John King said...

Dr. Smith,

I agree with your perspective completely.

However, I must say that I give credit to the fundamentalists like Robertson for having steadfastly resisted the modern worldview of scientism and reductionism that has no place for God. Unfortunately, they have put in its place a conscious, literalistic, biblicism that lacks credibililty and leads one to a intellectual ghetto of irrrationality or atheism.

But it is easy to be "against". The harder task is to find a postive way to express our belief in God and to adequatly express his relationship to the world and how he acts in our lives. I, for one, am still on journey related to this task. Maybe, because we are human, we will always be struggling with these questions, but I still hope for a clear, rational explanation of our faith and of who we say that Jesus is.

For me, so far, I find that the theology of Hans Kung, Marcus Borg, and Philip Clayton to be the most helpful for me.