Monday, 20 October 2008

The problem of suffering in relation to Job

"I repeat the question. Is the world, considered in general, and as it appears to us in this life, different from what a man or such a limited being would, beforehand, expect from a very wise, powerful, and benevolent deity?"
David Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Atheist)

"I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in his power?"
Job 23 verse 5-6

The problem of evil has always been close to my heart. Particularly because it seems to be a major factor in many Christians turning from their faith.This very nearly became the case for me towards the end of my first year at Uni. I was reading about Dostoyevsky's character Ivan Karamazov in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. The novel describes a conversation between the worldly Ivan and his brother Alyosha (who is training to be a monk).

In one particular part Ivan and Alyosha get into a debate about God, and in this context Ivan brings up the subject of the suffering of innocent children. He references a story that was circulating in the newspapers of the time involving a child who threw a stone at one of the Earls hunting dogs (he was a member of royalty but I can't remember his title so i've just labelled him as 'Earl'). When the Earl finds out that the young boy has injured one of his prized hunting dogs he calls for him and his parents to be brought to him. He then strips the boy naked - infront of his parents - and sends him running accross a field. After a small time lapse he then lets the hounds loose accross the field who tear the child to pieces.

The suffering of innocent children is a particularly bothersome problem for Ivan (and myself) because there seems to be no eventual good that can be got from the suffering of little children. One only has to visit the childrens ward of a hospital or remember the baby incinerators at Auschwitz to see this. His response (in my opinion) makes a laughing stock of any theodicy - (the attempt of believers to explain the problem of suffering away).His response is original in that he doesn't point out the flaws in any believers argument. Instead Ivan says (paraphrased) 'I don't care whether God is respecting human freedom (free will defence), or if he is moulding us into better people, or even if those children go to heaven'.

For Ivan, the horrific suffering of innocent children revulses him so much that the goals God has in mind are irrelevant to him. The tears of suffering children are not worth the price. In other words - the price of our freedom is too high. This leads Ivan to an atheistic position that also acknowledges the existence of God. He essentially says 'I accept God is there, but I stand in judgment on God because there is no goal that justifies the suffering of these children'. I found Ivans argument deeply unsettling as a Christian. Deep down I found Ivan very convincing, and this was different to any other atheistic argument because it said WHATEVER the reason, the suffering of children is far too higher price to pay.

So, after thoroughly depressing you all I will now turn to something more optimistic! Namely, how I came to appropriate Ivans response in my faith. Notice I say 'appropriate', not 'argue against' or 'reject'. Ivans response to the suffering of innocent children is a central part of my faith when it comes to suffering. I accept his challenge and as a result I believe that all Christian responses that try to 'explain' the suffering of innocent children away are totally inappropriate and buckle under the weight of Ivans argument. I found many paralells between Ivans outrage and the book of Job and The Psalms . Yet there was a crucial difference between them and Ivan. They both shared the confusion and outrage at the apparently pointless suffering in the world, yet Jobs response (after raging and arguing with God) is:

"I feel my littleness: what reply shall I give? I had better lay my hand over my mouth, I have spoken once, I shall not speak again; I have spoken twice, I have nothing more to say."

It seems then, that the problem of evil is much more a problem of life than an intellectual problem for philosophers. Yet, in the words of Peter Vardy (my lecturer on this issue) 'in the face of evil we are faced - existentially - with two choices either that of Ivan or that of Job'. They agree in their outrage and inability to explain evil - Job cannot reconcile Gods justice to the suffering he is witnessing and undergoing; Ivan cannot explain the suffering he see's around Him in light of Gods existence. Nevertheless Job says in effect ' I choose to trust and love God DESPITE the suffering that I cannot explain'. Indeed the only response God gives to Jobs anger and questions is the following:

"Where were you when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers?"
Job 38 verse 4-5

I was able to say with Job 'I have nothing else to say' - although when suffering comes my way I'm sure I will take that back. I am at peace with God now, even though I cannot see any way that the suffering in the world could possibly be justified. I haven't even mentioned the crucifixion and It's relevance to the problem of evil but I think I have yabbered enough now.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Fallen? Quotes of Blaise Pascal for thought

The quotes below demonstrate an understanding of the Fall that (to me) is compassionate, rational and hopeful.

“For it is not true that all reveals God, and it is not true that all conceals God. But it is at the same time true that He hides Himself from those who tempt Him, and that He reveals Himself to those who seek Him, because men are both unworthy and capable of God; unworthy by their corruption, capable by their original nature.”

“The Christian religion, then, teaches men these two truths; that there is a God whom men can know, and that there is a corruption in their nature which renders them unworthy of Him. It is equally important to men to know both these points; and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness, and to know his own wretchedness without knowing the Redeemer who can free him from it. The knowledge of only one of these points gives rise either to the pride of philosophers, who have known God, and not their own wretchedness, or to the despair of atheists, who know their own wretchedness, but not the Redeemer.”

“We can, then, have an excellent knowledge of God without that of our own wretchedness and of our own wretchedness without that of God. But we cannot know Jesus Christ without knowing at the same time both God and our own wretchedness.”

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Hell - I hate this topic!

"Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling."
Philippians 2 verse 12

"Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation."
Isaiah 12 verse 2

The last post was motivated by questions that were posed to me at an alpha course. This post is no different. The doctrine of Hell is a serious stumbling block for many non-Christians and it seemed to be for the people I spoke to at alpha too. It's one of those issues thats to do with the theology of grace, predestination, free will, satan etc etc. In short it tends to get stupidly complicated very quickly. However, I think that serious attention can be paid to the doctrine of hell without it becoming abstract and intellectual. In fact - with a doctrine that concerns us and those we love it would be offensive and wrong to consider it in this way.

Jesus clearly believed in hell and mentions it numerous times. The story of the sheep and the goats is the most famous example of this. It's not a nice story at all! In any case the text does not provide a criteria of those who are saved and those who are dammed. The only soteriology (theology of salvation) we are provided with is to do with Jesus as the supremely good and just judge. I admit that I struggle with the idea of hell, but I struggle with it less when I remember that we can trust God because God is good. Whatever he decides will be fair and good in the strictest sense so we need not worry. Nevertheless the issue becomes rather personal when we are faced with loving and selfless people who are aware of what Christianity is and choose to reject it. Would it be just of God to send these people to hell? The liberating truth is that we are not God! We don't fully know what hell is or who is going to go there, but we can be sure that God knows the secrets of everybody's hearts. I take a certain comfort in this knowledge.

A few weeks ago I was nearly won over to the idea of universal salvation - salvation for all. There are competant theologians who advocate this position but I want to highlight the various thoughts that changed my mind in this matter. My ultimate problem was that universal salvation did not take the gravity of sin seriously. I'm not even referring to the sins of others either, merely my own. The challenge for me was that deep down I knew the seriousness of my own sin - that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence, and that I could only be so through the blood of Jesus. I'm not sure whether hell is nothingness, or eternal pain or whatever but I am certain that it is a place were we are cut off from Gods presence. Deep down I knew that I did not deserve to be in Gods presence and therefore that I needed forgiveness. Universalism destroyed all of this. It said that ultimately we are not so sinful that we don't deserve to be in Gods presence. I couldn't abide this idea - it took away the entire notion of repentence and therefore the entire notion of salvation.

I said this to the person concerned at the alpha course and encouraged them to think about heaven and hell on individual terms. Most of the problems people have with the doctrine of hell occur when they say 'well what about my atheist grandad, or what about this person'. The story of the sheep and the goats shows that we will have to give an account of our own actions before God and therefore we should 'work out our own salvation with fear and trembling'. Timothy speaks of the God 'who wants everybody to be saved'. Hell does exist and it should be characterised as everything that God is not, but most importantly - if we have faith then we believe that God is good and he is more than trustworthy. We are called to acknowledge that we as individuals deserve to be cut off from Gods presence, but once we have established this in relation to ourselves (as I did) we are not authorised to start providing a criteria for who is saved and who is not. Let God convict who he will and if he convicts us let us respond. However let us also acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and therefore it is quite simply not for us to know who is going to heaven or hell. We are only called to consider heaven and hell in relation to ourselves and our own salvation. The gospel will still be preached but as for those who, in the end, will be deemed righteous before God - that is totally and completely Gods decision and not ours. What I hope to have shown is an understanding of hell that is true to my faith but non-prescriptive with regards to everybody else.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Why Christianity? - A discussion with reference to Martin Luther

"Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another’s possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God."
Martin Luther

I've been really enjoying helping at the alpha course at my local Church the past few weeks. I get to jibber about theology to people who don't know me well enough to tell me to shut up so it's great! It's now come to the point at alpha when everyone feels comfortable enough to speak about their problems with Christianity. The most common objections I hear from people are to do with the distinctiveness of Christianity. How has Christianity got more of a right to claim our obedience than the other religions like Islam and Judaism? The second most common objection to Christianity is the doctrine of Hell (and the next post will be about just that). For the time being I will hope to show why Christianity can indeed be properly distinguished from other religions. I'm using Luther because I think he has an astonishingly good grip on the nature of Christian conviction as opposed to other types of conviction.

Luther was writing at a time when the established Church was demanding money from believers for their salvation. Moreover, the Bible was only accessible to those who were educated and could speak Latin. Luthers passion was for the individual to have access to the Bible and thus make up their mind about the gospel independent of corruption and control. He translated the Bible into German so that everyone could have access to the message he was trying to get accross. Luther is one of the main reasons that Scripture is so readily available to us today. I mention this in a discussion of the value of Christianity because I think it sheds light on the spirit of Christian conviction. We are called to make a decision 'for ourselves' and not as such through any mediators whether it be the Church, Priests or Church Fathers etc. In an interview Bono from U2 said 'I was always suspicious of Christianity when I was younger, but I always wanted to know more about Jesus'. Luther would have applauded this attitude and articulates it thus:

"True Christian theology does not inquire into the nature of God, but into God’s purpose and will in Christ, whom God incorporated in our flesh to live and to die for our sins."

We can see then that one of the core prerequisites of Christian belief is that we be individuals before God, responding and acting upon the conviction that he puts in us. This already helps to show why Christianity is unequaled in it's ability to deal with the human condition. Every other religion has an element of gaining 'merit' before God; do this or that and you may gain Gods favour. As the initial quotation at the top of this page shows, Christianity holds that our efforts to be good are a 'dirty rags' before God. Christianity turns the emphasis around; rather than merit leading to peace with God, Christianity impels us to gain peace with God first through forgiveness, and then let our behaviour be an expression of this new found peace with God.

The Christian challenge to other religions comes in the form of a question which could be articulated as follows; given that you regard God as Holy and totally 'other', how do you account for the fact that we all will eventually fall short of the standards we set ourselves?' Is God ignorant in this respect? Of course the answer is no and it seems to me that Christianity is the religion that takes Gods complete holiness to it's logical conclusion. We cannot do anything to please God, we need Gods grace and forgiveness, and this happens through Jesus Christ.

'So then' said one of the people at alpha 'what if someone is constantly sinning? Is it all magically ok so long as I say sorry?' In a way I'm glad this was brought up, it's a central issue in Pauls writings. Paul asks 'So should I keep sinning so that grace may abound? May it never be!' I did'nt want to go off on some abstract theological debate so instead I focused on the Christian idea of repentence. True Christian repentence doesn't secretely say to itself 'sorry God' but I'm going to keep doing this anyway'. Pauls conversion demonstrates this - he moves from persecuting Christians and approving of their deaths, to travelling all over the world preaching the gospel. This to my mind is the true idea of Christian repentence - it can't be faked and it always results in action of some sort. Indeed if someone was to react with this secret motive one would have to ask whether they have even understood the gospel. One of the remarkable claims of Christianity is that human actions have such gravity that it requires the death of God in order to set it straight. Once this is believed, is it even possible to treat our own sin with anything but contempt? Of course the struggle with sin is a life-long struggle, but the point is that true repentence leads to action.

When Paul said 'those who are in Christ are a new creation' he wasn't just referring to the inner condition of man, he is also suggesting that there is a noticeable difference in their behaviour with someone who has given their life to Christ. A recent Tim Hughes Song sums up the Christian response to forgiveness; 'free to be, free to give, free to love you'. Christians are free to love God in such a way that although their efforts are indeed a dirty rags before him, he accepts them in love because we are forgiven by Christ.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Scripture - to rule or to serve? - A discussion with reference to Karl Barth

If you ever take the time to read the beliefs section in Protestant Church's they nearly all say - 'We believe in the Bible as the infallible word of God'. This is usually the very first thing they say about their beliefs. This has always confused me, primarily because it is such a vacuous thing to assert on it's own. None of the Church's statements spell out what they actually mean by the assertion that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. In any case they are still articulating their beliefs about Scripture first and before they articulate their beliefs about Christ. This has concerned me for quite some time. Surely any Christian Church owes its existence and beliefs to Jesus Christ, and as such, should articulate these beliefs first. I think the current prejudice towards Scripture before Christ is wrong. Its should be the other way round. Scripture points to and attests to Jesus Christ and as such is subservient to Him.

John 1 verse one tells us that 'in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God'. From the outset then we can see that the notion of the 'Word of God' is only properly appropriate to Jesus. It is important to remember this in a discussion of the purpose of the Scriptures. Jesus Christ is the 'way, the truth and the life' in such a way that all Scripture serves the purpose of confirming and witnessing to His Lordship. Below is an extract from Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics which I think opens a Christian discussion of Scripture very well.

"What counts is that the Bible speaks and is heard. Again, the Bible cannot do it merely as the book of the law of the Church's faith and order. To the degree that it is treated as such, it is in fact, controlled. Lke the apostles, it does not will to rule but to serve. And it is where it is allowed to serve that it really rules; that it is not betrayed to any human control. It is not a prescript either for doctrine or for life. It is a witness, and as such it demands attention, respect and obedience - the obedience of the heart, the free and only genuine obedience. What it wants from the Church, what it impels the Church towards - and it is the Holy Spirit moving in it who does this - is agreement with the direction in which it looks itself. And the direction in which it looks is to the living Jesus Christ. As Scripture stirs up and invites and summons and impels the Church to look in this same direction there takes place the work of the Spirit of Scripture who is the Holy Spirit. Scripture then, works in the service of it's Lord, and the Church becomes and is apostolic and therefore the true Church."

This is a brilliant piece of Theology regarding the purpose of Scripture. The ultimate purpose of Scripture is to attest to the supreme Lordship of the 'Word made flesh'. This is such a simple precept at the core of Christianity, and yet so many Church's, in my experience do seem to be guilty of this 'controlling' of the Scriptures to fit their own distinctive doctrines. Martin Luther, the great German theologian was very much aware of this danger of bending the Scriptures to fit our own ends rather than Christs.This leads him to apply a general rule of interpretation of the Scriptures which runs as follows; if a book of the bible is not Christ centered then it is not part of Canon. On this basis he rejects the book of James and its assertion that 'faith without works is dead'. Luther insists that the majority of Scripture insists over and over again that justification before God comes on the basis of faith through Jesus Christ and not works (see the entire book of Galatians, Hebrews, Romans, Ephesians if your in doubt!). I applaud Luthers spirit on these grounds and actually think he is being a responsible Christian in insisting on the grace of God (Jesus Christ) over and against everything (even Scripture) if it does'nt conform to the Lordship of Christ.

I would disagree with Luther's total rejection of James, but that is another issue altogether. Luther's challenge is that we worship Christ and be aware that we don't turn Scripture into an idol. I would agree that the Scriptures are the word of God, and that the very large majority of the Scriptures are reliable in themselves. Nevertheless I acknowledge that the authors of Scripture didnt write in a cultural vacuum and as such Scripture has small parts that are not applicable in the same way that they were then. This does not detract in the slighest from the claim that the Scriptures should be our first reference point for authority in all matters - I believe they should. It does however challenge the view that the authours of the Bible were incapable of error during the intense inspration they underwent in order to compose the various parts of Scripture. They were sinful men like us, and although I believe in the complete inspiration of Scriptures I deny their total inerrancy. This is because the belief in the total inerrancy of the Scriptures is very dangerously close to Idolatry. I am not going to waste time in this discussion going into which parts of the Bible I do not believe are Christ centered (and I don't believe there are many). The important thing to take from Barth's theology is that the bible is a servant of the true 'Word of God' who is Jesus Christ and insofar as Scripture is written by man (albeit inspired man) we should know how to interpret Scripture - that is, in light of the Lordship of the Son of God. Jesus is himself the Way and this demands that we understand all things in subjection to Him, including the Scriptures who serve to witness to his Lordship. Ultimately though Jesus is the man who 'destroys all categories' and in this way non of our concepts can fully incaptulate everything that is the phenomenon of Christ. It's worth trying though!

Quotations of Karl Barth for thought:

"Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God as other teachers of religion do. He is Himself the way"

"In the Church which is charged with this ministry the committment of the member is beyond computation. There is no possible place for idleness, indifference or lukewarmness. No appeal can be made to human imperfection where the claim is directed to the very man whose incapacity and unworthiness for this ministry is known and admitted even when he is charged with it, without altering the fact that he really is charged with it. If there is no escape in arrogance, there is no escape in pusillanimity or indolence."

"Apart from and without Jesus Christ we can say nothing at all about God and man and their relationship one with another. Least of all can we say that their relationship can be presupposed as that of a covenant of grace. Just because it is a covenant of grace, it cannot be discovered by man, nor can it be demonstrated by man."

"It was no mere fabrication when the Early Church was accused by the world around it of atheism, and it would have been wiser for it's apologists not to have defended themselves so keenly against this charge. There is a real basis for the feeling, current to this day, that every genuine proclamation of the Christian faith is a force disturbing to, even destructive of, the advance of religion, its life and richness and peace....No sentence is more dangerous or revolutionary than that God is One and there is no other like him."

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Blaise Pascal on Doubt

A discussion of the Theology of Blaise Pascal in relation to doubt.

Blaise Pascal characterises the despair of the doubter as one who says the following:

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. .... I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another.... I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.”

He goes on to argue that because Christianity proposes affirmative answers to the purpose and ultimate telos (end) of our lives and the world, it therefore demands the attention of the doubter, especially the one who seeks to know the truth and thus end his doubt. This is worth remembering when discussing with atheists and agnostics. Their ultimate answer as to the purpose of life, revelation and the hope that stems from this is a resounding ‘not sure – maybe’ or even a flat ‘no’. How often do we hear people say ‘ I would like to believe but....” It is to this ‘but’ or ‘no’ that Pascal turns to his attention and says that a person could only have a legitimate problem or ‘but’ with God and Christianity if ‘they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction’ and still been left in despair or lack of faith. Indeed Pascal maintains that an open hearted and genuine search for the purpose of our lives in Christianity cannot leave us wanting. Moreover, Pascal contends that the only reason a person boasts about their apparently vain search for God is because they have not searched in complete sincerity of heart and have not treated the matter with the gravity it deserves. The issue of faith ‘concerns ourselves and our all’ and should therefore be approached as the single most important thing for us to find an answer to. According to Pascal it is only when we don’t do this that people say they have searched for God in vain. An honest, true search for God will lead us to him. Pascal wants people to pursue Christianity for what it is and not what we make it to be, and he contends that when we do this we will never be disappointed.
So then, after this rather rushed and sketchy overview of Pascal – what does he encourage the doubter to do to cure his doubt? Rather unsurprisingly he calls for them to attend Church, and to seek advice from Christians who have been ‘cured’ from similar doubts and to imitate their attitude towards it. He suggests that this will hopefully lead a person away from doubt and towards faith. “But this is what I am afraid of” could be a response of someone in such a position – nervous to make the first moves of faith. It is in this context that Pascal provides his wager argument (which is commonly misunderstood as an argument for the existence of God). Pascal reasons the following in response to this; given the doubters despair and their inability to solve the riddles of their own existence and the world, surely they have nothing to lose and should thus ‘bet’ on the existence of God and the pursuit of his will over and against a worldview which gives them no closure, no answers and no consolation. The answer for Pascal is obvious; bet on the existence of God; to whom/what else could we go?