The suffering God (AGSTIWG IV)

I’m somewhat behind with feedback from Alpha, hence dealing with something about four weeks late in my last post. This, therefore, represents something of an improvement, coming as it does only from a week ago as of Wednesday (as I type this bit, it’s Thursday 28th, but the post probably won’t be finished today).

That Alpha talk was “How can we resist evil” and this time, rather than focusing on a personalised force of evil, the focus was on theodicy, i.e. how come evil is permitted to exist. This flowed through into the formal discussion and then into a more informal one I had later while clearing up.

How is it, given that God is thought to be omnipotent and omniscient, but also omnibenevolent, that evil exists? The old choice is between power and goodness; if God has the power to stop evil and does not, then he cannot be good, if he is good and evil is not stopped, then he does not have the power. As the talk noted, this is a problem which has been around since the days of Epicurus. A God who is not omnipotent is, arguably, no God, a God who is not omnibenevolent is, arguably, indistinguishable from a demon.

There are a number of solutions to this logical problem which present themselves immediately.

1. God is not, in fact, omnipotent and/or omniscient. This subdivides:-
1a. God is in fact weak, the thesis of John Caputo’s “The Weakness of God”
1b. God is balanced by a power of evil to which all evil can be ascribed; this has the weakness of either failing to solve the problem (“why does God not defeat the power of evil immediately?”) or positing a dualism in which there is no guarantee of the victory of good; Manicheanism followed that path, but Christianity ostensibly doesn’t, except perhaps for gnostic Christianity, which is officially heresy since the third century.

2. God is not, in fact, omnibenevolent. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods. They kill us for their sport.” (Shakespeare, King Lear, Gloucester).

3. God is omnipotent, but reward and/or punishment is delayed e.g. until a post-mortem reconciliation at which point God’s benevolence can be proved. God ensures fair results without actually preventing evil outcomes, in other words. This does not fully answer the issue of why evil outcomes are not just prevented without invoking one of the other possibilities.

4. Evil is in some way deserved or, at least, repaid. This should perhaps be conjoined with #3.
4a. All evils are actually deserved or will be redressed as a result of actions which have occurred outside our timeframe; the obvious example is reincarnation and karma (this is similar to 3, except that the balancing is both before and after the event).
4b. Evils are deserved, but not necessarily on the basis of actions by the one who experiences the evil; original sin, for instance, can be used to justify any evil occurring to mankind as long as no concept of proportionality of punishment is involved.

5. A greater good is being served than the evil which is permitted to exist; this subdivides:-
5a. Good and evil are two sides of the same coin; one cannot exist without the other and good (and variety) are sufficiently good to justify the existence of balancing evil. This is by and large foundational in Taoism, in which existence is a greater good than either good or evil.
5b. Evil stems from the wrongful exercise of freewill, which is so great a good that it justifies the existence of the evil results. (In order to explain evil which is not caused by humans, this concept needs the concept of free willed spiritual powers).
5c. Evil is part of a teaching technique, and is not fundamental; “what does not kill you makes you stronger” and is therefore ultimately “good”.
5d. Evil is not a thing in and of itself, it is merely the absence of good.

6. Evil is not a thing in and of itself (other than as dealt with by 5d), so the syllogism fails; this can be subdivided:-
6a. Evil is illusory (commonly coupled with “as is good”). This is, by and large, the Buddhist solution.
6b. Evil and good are both relativistic rather than absolute terms, and it makes no sense to talk of evil or good except in relation to some person or thing. What is good for one is commonly evil for another, and it becomes entirely possible that “everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds” (Voltaire; “Candide”), thus giving this some characteristics of a #5 solution.

7. For completeness: “This question is above my pay grade; I can cope with a quantity of cognitive dissonance, and any answer is beyond my ability to deduce.” The book of Ecclesiastes seems to adopt this stance, and possibly also the book of Job, although other conclusions are sometimes reached about a moral in Job.

Many writers combine two or more of these to make up a rather less obviously spartan rationale.

At the discussion last week, there was significant input from someone who found a solution in karma and rebirth. I gather there are Christians who manage to splice belief in reincarnation into their thinking, although I’m not familiar with anyone who does this successfully. It seems to offer a sufficient solution, though, for those for whom it makes sense.

I linked above to the Wikipedia article on the problem of evil. Suffice it to say that none of the answers there quite satisfy me, although Alvin Plantinga’s attribution of the whole problem to the existence of free will which is taken as a greater good than any evil which might arise from it, coupled with positing a “mighty nonhuman spirit” (of a malevolent nature) to deal with events of “natural evil” such as typhoons (1b plus 5b) maybe goes some way toward a solution, but is of itself unsatisfactory. Why does God not eliminate this spirit, or (if that would prejudice the spirit’s free will) circumscribe the spirit rigidly? What exactly is it about free will which makes it a great enough good to warrant all the evil I observe? Indeed, is free will really possible, or at least possible to the extent which would make it a great good? Also, it must be taken that, as ultimate creator, this is all (including free will and the existence of the nonhuman spirit) God’s doing.

There’s some scriptural support for the view that God creates evil as well as good in any event in Isaiah 45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (KJV – other translations attempt to avoid the word “evil”, probably for theological reasons, but whatever term is used fails to avoid the general point). The writer of the “God of Evolution” blog has just made the same argument from Romans 8. There’s a long potential list, probably starting with the book of Job.

I was quite taken by a few lines in a comment by Susan Frederick to Richard Beck’s blog (blogging about weakness and warfare):- At one point in my own spiritual journey, when considering a sermon I’d heard for the millionth time that “Jesus hung on the cross when it should have been me,” I felt the Holy Spirit present a contrasting thought. “No, the right person was on that cross. God hung there in Jesus because all the suffering in the world ultimately was his responsibility as creator.” It was a strange thought. One I’ve never heard articulated by any preacher or theologian anywhere. But it touched my heart in a powerful way.” In fact, the same concept was articulated by Jack Miles in “Christ, a Crisis in the Life of God”, which I strongly recommend along with “God, a Biography” to which it is a companion.

Susan’s comment, in fact, links to a parting reference made by our speaker that Wednesday to Matthew 25:31-46 (a favorite passage of mine because of its implications); where he went with it was with that which was important being what action we took to relive the suffering because “it could be Christ we were helping”.  He saw Christ as suffering in every suffering person. This issue is then not “what is God doing to stop this?” but “what are we doing to stop this”. In a very major sense I agree with our speaker; it is far more important to combat evil than it is to work out why it happens, at least on the proviso that resistance be nonviolent, as otherwise there’s a risk of creating more evil than is combated. However, I get more from this passage; see later.

In his (warmly recommended) series, Beck is seeking a solution in a combination of “Weakness of God” following John Caputo some way down the path he treads and bringing in a Plantinga-like acceptance of spiritual adversaries (working from Greg Boyd’s “God at War”), rightly commenting that in order to sustain any “Spiritual Warfare” concept, you need a weaker God than the omnipotent and omniscient God of classical theology. Although I incline to say that Charles Hartshorne has demonstrated in “Omnipotence and other Theological Mistakes” that both omnipotence and omniscience are philosophically unsustainable if I’m looking for a quick and dirty exit from a theodicy discussion, I don’t actually see that as an adequate answer. Much as I admire Caputo’s linguistic gymnastics in “The Weakness of God”, I’m not able to buy into that theology myself, not merely because of the raft of scripture confirming God as extremely powerful but because of my own experience, which is inconsistent with a weak God. Accepting Hartshorne’s strictures about the impossibility of true omnipotence and omniscience does not mean that God is not mind-blowingly powerful and mind-blowingly knowing, after all.

The trouble is, for those of us of an inquiring and philosophical turn of mind, the philosophical problem will not go away, and could lead to us failing to act. I go in another direction.

Harking back to “Rather different Answers in Genesis”, I see creation as God creating from himself, thus everything that is is of the substance of and is God (albeit in a very partial way). In the process, he gives away some of his power, that resident in that portion of his creation. This is, of course, a panentheist viewpoint (if I held that God had poured out the whole of his self into creation, it would be a pantheist one, but I cannot escape the experience that tells me that there is more). It is not, however, the panentheism of (for instance) Jurgen Moltman which talks of a withdrawing of God to provide the space in which other things can be, though that can produce somewhat similar results.

This is, in essence, a solution of type 5; a greater good is served. That greater good is not, however, just free will, it is individual existence. Even the inanimate is of and is God, and is permitted existence without (in all probability) having any shred of self-will which could be free, so are “lower” forms of life in which free will is an even more dubious concept than it is in humanity. There is thus no real problem with the criticisms of the concept of free will, for instance from the psychological angle.

There are, of course, both elements of many of the type 5 solutions and elements of other solutions wrapped up in that concept. In particular, it is very compatible with type 6 (evil is not a thing in and of itself) solutions and type 1 (God is not all-powerful) solutions; though there is less necessity to posit other spiritual forces in order to make it work, conceptualising the actions of groups or other strictly speaking nonsentient parts of creation as animated by spirits in the way of Walter Wink, William Stringfellow and John Howard Yoder does meld very neatly with it.

Lest this be thought to be too much a type 2 answer, i.e. God is unfeeling, let me point out that in this concept-space although everything is done by God, everything is also done to God. Elie Wiesel wrote “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows…”. And that is where Matt. 25 takes me. Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “.

I take very little literally, but that, I take literally. It is not just that the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the sick or the prisoner might be Christ in disguise, it is that they are all God, undisguised.

We suffer, any one of us suffers, any part of creation suffers: God suffers.

Hebrews, PSA and dishwashers

A few weeks ago I found myself trying to multitask in the kitchen at the Alpha course I’m helping with, loading and unloading a commercial dishwasher while trying to explain to another helper why I really don’t buy into PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) as an atonement theory. Now I’m a man, and multitasking is therefore not something I’m good at, so I wasn’t giving the theology as much attention as I should have, nor was I able to recall the exact wording of Hebrews with my hands full of plates. In fact, I haven’t yet given Hebrews sufficient detailed attention, as I’ve tended to think that it speaks specifically to Jewish Christians, among whom I do not number.

James quoted Hebrews to me, but in a very general way – under the Levitical system of sacrifices “without blood there is no forgiveness”, and I suggested that if that were what the writer was saying, then the writer was wrong in terms of the Levitical system, because not all sin offerings involved animal sacrifice – it was perfectly possible to sacrifice grain (Lev. 2:1-16; 6:14-18; 7:9-10; 10:12-13). There the conversation ended, because for him it was not viable to suggest that any part of scripture was mistaken.
Sorry, James. I do try not to argue outside the hermaneutical assumptions of those I’m talking to, but on this occasion I wasn’t giving you my full attention.In fact, the relevant passage is Hebrews 9:22, which reads “Indeed, under the Law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (NIV). The word “almost” is crucial, particularly as in the Greek it probably governs the whole sentence, including “there is no forgiveness of sins”. A better translation might be “One might almost [say that] under the Law everything is purified by blood and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (some translations do render it this way).What the writer of Hebrews is therefore saying here is not that there was no possible alternative to a blood sacrifice in order that sins should be forgiven, but that a blood sacrifice was very clearly a valid way in which sins could be forgiven under the Levitical system.

There were others, though. Fire (Lev. 13:52,55; 16:27; Num. 31:23; Water (Exod. 19:30; Lev. 15:5; 16:26,28; 22:6; Num. 31:24); Incense (Num. 16:46-48); Intercession (Exod. 32:30-32) and Prayer (of confession and contrition) (Ps. 32 and 51). By the time Hebrews was written, confession, contrition and making amends was already becoming the primary model for sins being forgiven.

Indeed, the Temple sacrificial system was not the primary system for Jews in the diaspora. Granted, the fact that it was there, and was observing the high holy days (in particular the feast of the Atonement, to which a lot of reference is made in Hebrews) was comforting both in a vicarious way, by dealing with atonement in respect of unknown sins and as a hope of eventual attendance there. But it wasn’t the centre of their day to day religious practice; that was the home and secondarily the synagogue or hall of learning. Judaism had found an accomodation for working without a Temple during the long Babylonian exile and during the period of return before the Temple was rebuilt, and it wasn’t any more absolutely vital.

What I arrive at is the conclusion (with which I think the author of Hebrews would agree) that there really was no absolute necessity for sins to be forgiven via a blood sacrifice to end all blood sacrifices. This is good, as I would have extreme difficulty in respecting a deity who did demand this as the one and only way of being forgiven. This is one of the many reasons why I do not like PSA as a theory of the principal importance of Christ; it demands that I see God as something I know he is not.

On the other hand, it was probably high time that blood sacrifices were ended as a means of seeking forgiveness for sins (and for other purposes), and seeing Jesus’ death in that way was a viable image for one part of the complex argument of Hebrews. It had been high time when Psalm 40:6 and Hosea 6:6 were written. Or Amos 5:21-24.

Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. Forget sacrifices, unless they are of yourself in imitation of Christ.

And God saw that it was good part III – the Christ event and supersession

Continuing the theme of divine intervention (or the lack of it) from the last two posts, in which I am jamming on a theme of “God saw that it was good”, I suppose I should advance somewhat beyond Genesis 1-3.

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been working through Douglas Campbell’s “The Deliverance of God” . It’s a source of some embarrassment to me that I haven’t finished it yet, but in my defence I should point out that Campbell quotes extensively in Greek without transliteration or translation, and significant parts of his argument rest on fine points of Koiné Greek grammar. When I started, I couldn’t even reliably transliterate Greek text! That has changed, but much of my reading has been progressing with a parallel text Greek and English translation open on my laptop. It’s going to take a few more weeks yet, even though I’m into the closing stages of his argument.

I should mention that when Campbell uses the term “Deliverance of God”, he means deliverance effected by God, not God being delivered from something.

Campbell subtitles his massive (1200 plus pages) book “An apocalyptic rereading of Justification in Paul”. To summarise, Campbell attacks the accepted understanding of Romans, and in particular Romans 1-8. A brief overview is here, Richard Beck’s 12 part blog is here. Neither of them gets to the end!

The alternative reading of Romans which Campbell proposes is that Paul’s gospel is participatory and liberative and not, as is commonly put forward, a scathing critique of Judaism coupled with “salvation by faith only”, that faith being commonly understood as accepting Jesus as… and at that point, what you accept him as is debated.

I’ve engaged a little with Romans previously, in which I chiefly focused on Rom. 3:25b-26 “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” as the NIV translates it. Campbell would not translate it that way, having a different concept of Paul’s thrust in the whole section. I previously noted that, far from concentrating on our righteousness, and saying that we were, though faith, deemed to be righteous, Paul is saying that it is God who is in need of being shown to be righteous; Campbell allows me to advance the idea that “he himself” still refers to God, and that the balance of the passage should read “is righteous and is justified by the faithfulness of Jesus”. Thus the passage would be “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that God is righteous and is justified by the faithfulness of Jesus”.

This agrees well with Beck’s version of Rom. 22: “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

God is not therefore in this passage, in the “event” which is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, delivering us. He is delivering himself from our misconceptions.

But Campbell would also argue that Paul is saying that by participating in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we have a route to God; in this God is also delivering us. This fits extremely well with Paul’s “Christ in us, us in Christ” language elsewhere in his writings.

Campbell’s rereading is itself an attempt to deliver us from misconceptions, which he spends the early chapters of his book outlining in detail as problems with the conventional reading. What he then proposes as a solution is radical; significant parts of the text of Romans become his reciting of (and lampooning of) the arguments of another preacher, one whose gospel Paul disapproves of, and who he thinks either is in Rome or may shortly be there. Campbell sees Romans 1-8 in particular as an ongoing exchange between Paul speaking with his own voice and Paul’s voicing of a version of his opponent’s teaching.

This gets me to the nub of a really major problem I have always had with Romans, the apparent denigration of “the Law” throughout Romans 2-8. To read this using the “orthodox” reading of Paul is to view the Torah, the law of Judaism, as a snare and a delusion, to be overcome by faith in Christ and left behind. My problem is this: if we are to accept that the Torah is God-given as “the Law”, if we then turn round and say that it is ineffective as anything other than a “stumbling block”, we are either saying that God has tricked his chosen people by advancing it or that God failed to realise that no-one could actually follow it (as Paul appears in the standard reading to allege in Rom. 3:9-20).

[In passing, I would say that Rom. 3:9-20 should not be read as indicating that it is not possible for an individual to follow all of the 613 mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah. Apart from anything else, this is patently untrue, as almost any committed adherent of Judaism will be happy to assure us. What has not been practically possible is that ALL Jews follow all of the commandments; this is a statement about a nation, not a statement about individuals. Judaism, incidentally, would agree with this interpretation today; there is a hope that at some time in the future, all Jews will be observant.]

On the standard reading of Romans, I am left with three options; either the Hebrew Scriptures were a fraud or product of non-Godly inspiration (a Gnostic, Marcionite interpretation), or God was a trickster, or God was frankly not very far-sighted, let alone not omniscient, and made a mistake in giving Israel the Torah. None of these is acceptable, and this is another example of my arguments from “and God saw that it was good”.

Ascribing those parts of Romans 2-8 which seem to give this impression to Paul’s lampooning of his rival preachers teaching is a very attractive alternative!

I am not keen on supersessionism in any form, however, and I do not think that Campbell, or Beck interpreting Campbell, manages to avoid this. I take it that in giving the Law, God proposed an adequate way of approaching him, albeit for Judaism only. If it were not adequate (which is at the root of all supersessionist concepts), we would again be faced with the trichotomy of false revelation, trick or failure of foresight. It’s for this reason that I assume in interpreting New Testament Scripture that it doesn’t generally seek to set aside the Hebrew Scriptures, but to build on them and extend them (notably, to non-Jews without the need for prior conversion to Judaism, which need for conversion Campbell thinks is the essence of Paul’s adversary’s gospel). If it does set anything aside, it is either (as circumcision and dietary law) something which his audience were not obligated to, not being Jewish, or it is something which was situational and not of eternal validity (which Christianity generally holds to be the case for, for instance, the whole sacrificial and ritual system of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and a substantial amount of other law, for instance not mixing fibres in cloth or crops within a field).

This is, for me, a general principle. I do not hold (I cannot hold, in the light of my personal experience) that Christianity is the only valid path to God. All major religions, I have found, have their own way of expressing the root experience of God which is commonly described by the term “mysticism” and with which I am familiar. This clearly includes Judaism, quite independently of the absurdity of regarding the system in which Jesus himself operated and on which all the New Testament writers based their own writings as being inadequate. If Paul were genuinely being completely supersessionist, I would be forced to say that in that, he was in error.

However, I don’t actually think he was, at least not in this instance. I note the words in Rom. 3:1 “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way…” and despite where Paul then proceeds to take the passage, I think he may have meant that bit in respect of himself. He does, after all, boast elsewhere of being an observant Jew, indeed a Pharisee, a student of Gamaliel. Equally clearly, he thought that for him, at least, Christ was the answer rather than just his Judaism.

Not based on Campbell (at least not obviously), another radical treatment of Paul has been written by Daniel Boyarin in “A Radical Jew”. In that, Boyarin takes Galatians as offering the “primary” statement of Paul’s theology and interprets much of the remainder in the light of that (quoting Dunn rather a lot). It’s a different route to reinterpreting Paul, but one which is broadly compatible with Campbell’s. It also is at some pains to try to avoid any suggestion that Paul is being supersessionist, and, I think, succeeds reasonably on the first level reading of the text.

[I thoroughly recommend reading Boyarin in this book and also in “Border Lines”, which deals with the progressive separation of Christianity and Judaism. I have to admit that when reading him, I have occasionally thought of the “Goodness Gracious Me” sketches with the character deciding that lots of things – well, pretty much everything we might regard as “English” (or anything else) is, in fact, Indian. Here’s a clip where he decides the Queen is Indian; elsewhere the same is said of Superman. In Boyarin’s case, he’s deciding that everything in Christianity is, in fact, Jewish. While I think he goes a little too far, I think this is a good corrective to those of us who are tempted not to read the New Testament as the product of Jewish writers writing about a Jewish Jesus; he shows very well how New Testament ideas flowed naturally out of Judaism, taking one path from there, and how modern Judaism flowed equally naturally taking a slightly different path.]

However, Boyarin eventually arrives at the verdict that Paul was, in fact, being supersessionist not in discarding Jewish Law, but in eliminating any difference between Jews and non-Jews; in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28). Paul was not in Boyarin’s eyes being supersessionist in any other way. Boyarin’s complaint was that the “chosenness” of Jews was effectively demolished by Paul’s inclusivity, and with that I cannot argue.

And if you’ve been reading between the lines, you’ll have noticed that I may have earlier been advancing something like a variant of Paul: “in Christ” there is neither Christian nor non-Christian.

Does that shock?

It probably should, bearing in mind the exclusivity found so often in Christianity, generally based on a few passages in the Fourth Gospel. It probably doesn’t shock so much as Paul’s “neither Jew nor Greek” might to Jews, as the elimination of their chosen status and of their distinctiveness in following the Torah is in Jewish eyes tantamount to elimination of Jews – in other words a form of genocide.

At least I’m not proposing genocide!

Still no tricks (And God saw that it was Good II)