Tuesday, June 28, 2011

God and the Problem of Suffering

There is probably no greater argument for God’s non-existence than the problem of evil. Theodicy, a term used by philosophers and theologians to define the problem of evil, is a problem for theists because if God exists as an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving God, why is there evil and suffering?

The atheist would argue, for the most part, that if God did exist and was all-knowing and all-powerful, then there would not be any suffering. The problem is not a new one, and philosophers have dealt with this question throughout time. Indeed, in the Christian tradition, there have been many attempts to deal with and solve this problem, yet each solution falls short of being satisfactory.

Of course, when speaking of evil being freely done by humans, we can more easily provide a solution to the problem by arguing that humans have free will, and thus human actions to do evil are the choices of those humans. Someone chooses to hurt another human being, and thus the evil being done is by human volition.

But even in these instances, we are faced with a theological problem. For example, although it was the planning and choosing of terrorists to board planes on September 11, 2001, a plan and choice that ended the lives of thousands of innocent people, the questions is, “Why did God not stop them?”

If God is all-knowing, and thus God knows the future, why did God not stop the planes from taking off, or stop those men from boarding the planes? But, even if God may not be considered all-knowing, surely traditional concepts of God tell us that God is all-powerful. If so, why did God not use that power to stop the planes just as they were about to crash into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field in Pennsylvania? Are there things that God cannot know and that God cannot do?

But perhaps the most scathing question about why evil happens concerns the very character of God. If Christians believe anything about God, it is that God is love, and as a benevolent God, we would hope that God would intervene when evil is being done. And yet, there is evil. What does this say about God’s love for humanity, particularly when innocent humans suffer in multitudes? Does God truly love?

An even larger problem is that of the suffering caused by natural disasters. Though humans may have an influence on the way our environment operates, the existence of natural disasters throughout the history of the world serves very well the argument for God’s non-existence. Or, at the very least, if a being known as God does exist, that being does not exist as the God we humans have defined as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving. In this regard, the atheist’s argument is valid.

But perhaps what troubles me the most as a theist who is riddled with doubts and questions concerns the story from Genesis 22; the story of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Now, I know we read this story and say “All’s well that ends well,” rushing past all that happens in the story to the happy ending, but this skirts the heart of the problem we are faced with in this text. God, according to this story, actually commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son in order to test Abraham’s loyalty.

Does God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac match anything we know of God’s character? What kind of God forces this kind of test on a person? Could God not have tested Abraham in another way? Could we say that God, for all intents and purposes, would have been the author of this evil act if Abraham would have gone through with it?

I know, I know, he did not go through with it because “God stopped him.” But what if God had not stopped him? Or, what if God had called out to Abraham to stop what he was doing, but Abraham did not hear God, or he was confused about what to do and he went forward with God’s original command? Would this make Abraham guilty of murder, or God?

All of this might be splitting hairs, but with such an important question as the problem of evil, we need to be as thorough as possible with our questions, and we ought to deal honestly with God’s explicit and active role in evil or at least in God’s complicit and inactive role in allowing evil.

Why? Because the problem of evil is not just an abstract philosophical and theological problem. It is a very personal problem, and none of us are free from suffering. And, when we do experience suffering, life becomes disoriented, and the expression “it feels like my world is falling apart” is very appropriate.

For theists, like myself, however, there is no good solution to the problem of evil, although for me it is easier to see God as not being all-knowing and all-powerful than it is to question God’s benevolence. But though each solution is inadequate, I do think we can follow the pattern of many of the psalms of lament that not only express the anguish of human suffering, but that also offer a model for protesting God’s involvement, or at least God’s neglect.

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” These opening words of Psalm 13 express the honest pain the psalmist feels as he questions the love and providence of God. He takes his anger to God in a bold and honest prayer of accusation, blaming God for forgetting him, for hiding from him, for not loving him.

The reason he can call out to God with such raw and honest language is that God is the only one to whom he can bring his prayers of protest that call out to God for help, particularly when the pain, the suffering, the loss is so overwhelming. Even Jesus, in his most agonizing moments of death, screamed in protest to God, “My God, My God. Why have your abandoned me?”

Theodicy will continue to remain a conundrum. Some have been so confounded by the problem that they have abandoned a belief in God. While I have not reached the point of completely abandoning my belief in God, I am often confused by God’s justice and I can only cry out, “How long, O Lord?”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Inclusive Church: E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Although this phrase expresses a motto that has historically been tied to the United States, when I think of this saying, I cannot help but look further back in time to the Day of Pentecost narrated in Acts 2.

In fact, in reading what takes place in Acts 2 with this early group of followers of Jesus who were waiting on the promised spirit, the very meaning of the phrase E Pluribus Unum comes alive as we read about how a diverse group of people gathered together from various regional backgrounds, and although they spoke different languages, the spirit empowered those there with them to understand their words, signifying not only a reversal of the Babel incident, but more importantly, the unifying work of the spirit.

E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Out of the diversity of people with different backgrounds and different languages, come forth one people. And yet, these believers remain diverse, not giving up their individuality within the fellowship of believers. This suggests that the Day or Pentecost was not a day in which the church was established as a uniformed and static entity, but a day on which the church was created as a living body of diverse members open to the spirit’s movement.

In First Corinthians 12, Paul offers a theological argument for holding together both diversity and unity within the body of Christ. Paul is not requiring church members to abandon who they are individually in Christ. Yet, he is not promoting an irresponsible individualism in which each person seeks his or her own needs and desires above those of others. Indeed Paul seeks to persuade this congregation to embrace diversity as a part of unity and unity as the outcome of the work of the Spirit as the body of Christ works for the common good.

But although it does seem that Paul’s words to the church at Corinth are primarily concerned with the divisions within that church, and the need for them to see the spirit’s work as bringing together diverse peoples into one body, there is also a sense of mission here; mission that drives us to welcome all into the body of Christ. In other words, Paul might not be just concerned with the unity of the church as it now is. He is also concerned that the church remains open to the diverse people the spirit leads into the body of Christ.

We should recall, however, that the believers to whom Paul writes are Gentile believers, and there were no Gentiles in attendance at the Day of Pentecost. Those in the room on that day were all Jewish followers of Jesus. Yet, by the time Paul writes this letter to the Corinthians, the spirit has come upon the Gentiles. But when did the spirit come upon the Gentiles, and why was this significant for not only what Paul is doing, but more importantly for what the spirit is doing?

Although the Gentiles were not present at the Day of Pentecost about which we read in Acts 2, the coming of the spirit onto the Gentiles is also found in Acts, and it all begins with the visions experienced by two men; two very different men. In Acts 10 we read about Peter’s dream of a sheet coming from heaven on which were all sorts of unclean animals, animals he is forbidden to eat because he is a Jew. And yet, Peter is commanded by God in this dream to eat these unclean animals, as God declares to Peter that what God calls clean is indeed clean.

The point of the dream, however, is not so much about food, but about the welcoming of the Gentiles into full participation in the body of Christ. No longer are they to be excluded from the full fellowship of the faith. But Peter seems not to be convinced at first, and so in that same dream, Peter is commanded to go with the men who have been sent by Cornelius, a Gentile who fears God. Cornelius has also had a dream in which God commanded him to send for Peter.

While many have viewed this story primarily as a story about evangelism, this view misses the real crux of this encounter between these two men. Yes, the story does focus on salvation being extended to the Gentiles, as the Spirit of God is poured out on them. But the main point of the story is that God was creating a new and whole people through the welcome of both Jews and Gentiles into the new people of God.

In fact, though we treat this story as Cornelius’ conversion, it is really Peter that is converted; converted to the truth that God’s spirit is not one of division, but one that seeks unity. But perhaps more important than this is the idea that Peter understands that the spirit of God is not just seeking unity, the spirit also seeks to widen the expanse of the people of God to include even those considered unclean by Peter and his Jewish friends.

The world view that Peter had before his dream and before witnessing the spirit come upon Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles was one of exclusion. But the coming of the spirit upon him and upon Cornelius convinced Peter that God was not a God of one privileged people, which would have essentially meant that God was a God of division and not unity. Instead, Peter experienced God as the God of all people.

Again, Paul affirms this idea in 1 Corinthians 12:13 when he speaks of being baptized into one spirit, Jews and Greeks, slaves and free. Or, as he states it another way in his letter to the Church at Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We must understand that Paul is not saying that people cease to be who they are; they do not lose their individuality in the body of Christ, and the church remains very diverse. What Paul is saying is that we cannot use labels to distance ourselves from others or exclude others from the body of Christ, no matter who they are.

What the spirit was doing at Pentecost, what the spirit was doing in the life of Peter and Cornelius, and what the spirit continues to seek to do is to bring the many into one, to break down the wall of exclusion and separation, and to unite people of all walks of life into the love of God. God is not an exclusionary God. God is a God of welcome and embrace who called Peter, Paul, and all of us to seek to welcome and affirm all in the body of Christ.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Jerusalem Should be a City of Peace for People of All Faiths

On May 16, 2011, Glen Beck announced his next rally, which is to be held on August 24 in Jerusalem, calling it Restoring Courage. Beck’s announcement, which came two days after the sixty-third anniversary of Israel’s declaration of sovereignty on May 14, 1948, was in reaction to President Obama’s remarks concerning the need to create a two state solution based on the 1967 borders. Beck, like others, is angered by this decision, and sees this as a move away from U.S. support for Israel.

The creation of modern State of Israel as an independent state and a home for the Jewish people opened a flood gate of violence that continues to this day, and it created a human catastrophe as nearly a million Palestinians were forced from their homes and became refugees, a number that, according to the United Nations, has increased exponentially. While attempts at establishing lasting peace have been made on several occasions, none have been successful. What is an authentic Christian response to the Middle East question?

Psalm 122:6 commands us to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and clearly peace is at the heart of Jesus’ message that the rule of God has come into the world. Yet, it seems that obstacles to peace for all inhabitants of the land called holy by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, have prevented such long term steps toward peace and harmony in the region. Nothing continues to threaten such hopes of peace like religious extremism.

There has been a longtime extremist movement in an American version of Christianity that has played a key role in shaping U.S. policy in the Middle East, and particularly over the thorny issue of the historic Land of Palestine. While many conservative and fundamentalist Christians hold stringently to the belief that God has ordained the existence of the modern State of Israel, and that Israel should hold onto confiscated land at any cost without regard for the humanity of the Palestinians, none is more vocal than the Reverend John Hagee and his movement, Christians United for Israel. In fact, according to the website of the Christians United for Israel, anyone can sign up to participate in a conference call with Mr. Beck on June 16, 2011.

It does not take much reading or listening to Hagee to understand how he sees history. His view, which is thoroughly apocalyptic and eschatological, sees human history as moving toward a predestined end, and he argues that the modern State of Israel will play a key role in the apocalyptic end of the world. While he seeks to support his view from the Book of Revelation, and from various texts from the Hebrew Bible, he is very selective in his readings, and he reads only from his own apocalyptic position, placing his narrow theological ideas on the text as a systematic grid through which all of scripture should be read.

Hagee’s interpretations of scripture, however, are misguided, and his sermons, accompanied by the colorful, dramatic, and neatly organized charts that disguise his irrational position, are only fictitious expectations about the end times. More tragically, however, he sees apocalyptic war as the inevitable end, and seeks to push the region to that end as quickly as possible.

In spewing his religious extremist rhetoric, Hagee differs little from other religious extremists, who base their understanding of the Middle East conflict solely on religious terms, and who believe the only solution to be a great apocalyptic war in which the followers of God will be victorious over those who are evil. The problem with these positions is that each claims to speak for God and each despises the other as evildoers.

While many Christians, and others, have rightly voiced disgust at the hateful rhetoric of extremists from other faiths, rarely have we heard criticism about Hagee’s rhetoric. Even some conservative politicians have attended and have spoken at his rallies. Yet, Hagee fits the description of a false prophet whose intentions are not for peace in Israel, but for annihilation of an oppressed race, the Palestinians. He is about as far away from the teachings of Jesus as one could possibility get on this issue.

In fact, many folks, including Jews, have questioned Hagee’s support for Israel as simply a means to an end. In a 2009 segment of 60 minutes called “Zion’s Christians Soldiers”, Gershom Gorenberg said, "They don't love real Jewish people. They love us as characters in their story, in their play, and that's not who we are, and we never auditioned for that part, and the play is not one that ends up good for us. If you listen to the drama they're describing, essentially it's a five-act play in which the Jews disappear in the fourth act."

The fact of the matter is that since the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the Palestinians, who had peacefully resided there for generations, have been oppressed, ghettoized, and killed by state sponsored acts of terror. Certainly, extremist Palestinian terrorist groups who have acted in horrible violence against innocent Israeli civilians must be held accountable for their horrendous acts. We must not gloss over these atrocities. But Israel must also be held responsible for the illegal confiscation of land, the oppression of millions of Palestinians who have been forced from their homes, and the killing of many innocent Palestinians by Israeli armed forces.

I am afraid that our religious, political, and media driven culture has so clouded our understanding of the complex issues surrounding the Middle East conflict that we have gravitated to fanciful beliefs and explanations about the region that have no real grounding in scripture, and that completely ignore the teachings of Jesus that call us to be peacemakers. Christians who are concerned about the peace of Jerusalem would do much better by being more broadly informed about the complex issues from experts who have studied the history of the conflict, rather than getting their information from the likes John Hagee and Glenn Beck.

May the God of peace bring shalom, salaam, and peace to Jerusalem for people from all faiths.