Category Archives: Theodicy
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Though the Mountains Be Shaken
Collectively, we humans have thousands of fears – fear of loss, harm, abandonment, failure, darkness, monsters under the bed. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve had them all. Fears are the water in which we swim. Fear has ushered many a tyrant into power.
Although one cannot legitimately extrapolate from personal experience to universal applications, for me, the fear of death undergirds all other fears. To be more specific, it is a fear of nonexistence. Fears of abandonment, rejection, failure, and loss of control are the offspring of existential meaninglessness.
Lesser fears cluster in tight groups under the fear of nonexistence. Those clusters spin in circles. Worry leads to self-blame, which leads to shame, which leads to anxiety, which produces more worry. Round and round I go, spiraling downward into depression.
Existential angst, the terror of annihilation and nonexistence, has power by virtue of the fact that, if true, annihilation renders life meaningless. The thought is not original. Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche all went there. Death as the end of all seems to be the default philosophy of the intelligentsia. Bravely facing the darkness and busying oneself with useful projects gives them purpose and meaning. That has never worked for me. I find no joy in either stoicism or hedonism. As far back as I can remember there has been an ache within me – a yearning to experientially know Truth.
Truth corresponds to an external reality. We’ve all heard the parable of the four blind persons approaching the elephant – each reaching their own opinion of reality – the elephant it likened to a rope, a huge snake, a tree trunk, and a leathery wall because one blind person handled the tail, another the trunk, a third a leg, and the last the animal’s side. Each has their own “reality” because none bothered to collaborate with the others or invite outsiders to expand their knowledge. Regardless, an elephant is an elephant.
Truth is not my opinion, nor my perspective. Truth is not superimposed dogma. Although I never have the complete picture, there is nevertheless an external reality that exists regardless of what I believe.
Whatever my personal beliefs about God, God exists. I need not try to prove that to anyone. The evidence is overwhelming when I consider the beauty of the intricate mathematical equations that describe the universe, when I consider the logical improbability of quarks flying from a hot big bang producing rational beings without a prime mover, or when I know in my gut that love is more than psychobiology.
Since God is, it is not surprising that God has made Godself knowable. Galileo argued (in his 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina) that God has written two books – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, which do not, because they cannot, contradict one another, having come from the same Mind, the Ground of Being. There are contradictions between interpretations of the Bible and the natural sciences, but none between the Bible and science.
It is not surprising that a Prime Mover capable of imaging a universe of quantum theory and soul-stirring symphonies is not fully discoverable. I would not want it otherwise. There is joyous energy is the discovery. Both books are amaranthine ceaseless mines of wonder. It is not only about the destination. There is joy and purpose in the journey.
The Apostle Paul was neither the despicable misogynist, the ivory-tower intellectual, nor the religious fanatic imagined by some. He was a man. He had all the same emotions and problems common to humanity. At one point in his life, he was so deeply depressed he despaired of life itself.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)
By “Asia,” Paul is referring to modern Turkey. Two things seem to have collided in his life to produce despair – persecution and hardship in Asia Minor, and news that the community of faith he founded in Corinth had disintegrated into bickering and division. It would seem that Paul felt that his life was useless, that he might die having accomplished nothing. Purposelessness. Meaninglessness. Worthlessness. Existential angst.
What lifted Paul from the “slough of despond” (to borrow John Bunyan’s phrase) to a life – not a life of grim Nietzscheandefiance, not a life of narcissistic indulgence, nor of coercive political power – but to a life of interior freedom, true joy, and eternal purpose, was learning to rely on “the God who raises the dead.”
All of Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. Either Jesus was raised from the dead or he was not. The evidence is again overwhelming:
- A cruel Roman crucifixion
- A certain death
- A sealed and guarded tomb
- Terrified disciples
- A huge entry stone lifted out to reveal an already empty tomb
- Grave clothes wound as if still around a body
- A turban neatly folded
- Bodily appearances to hundreds of people in many different places and under many different circumstances
- Thousands attesting to the reality of the resurrection
- None of them recanting in the face of torture and death
- A faith that exploded across the Neareast, Africa, Asia, and Europe
- Millions of radically changed lives over the next 2 millennia
God raises the dead. God conquers the essential fear. Death, where is your sting? Annihilation, nonexistence is an illusion. Life has purpose. Life continues forever. All of the lesser fears that cluster in bundles under the fear of nonexistence dissipate in light of the God who raises the dead.
In the new covenant, there is but one negative commandment and but one positive commandment:
- Do not be afraid
- Love one another
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
(Isaiah 54:9-10 NIV)
I’ve been in the habit of confusing confession with repentance. They go together, but they are not the same thing.
Not only did I confuse confession and repentance, I left out lament. All three are vital and necessary to effect change.
Neither confession, nor lament, nor repentance has to do with shame. Shame is the belief that one is unlovable, beyond the reach of love. Shame is toxic, demonic.
Confession is admitting that what we’ve done is wrong. Not only admitting what I personally chose to do or say, but what the systems I’m a part of have chosen to do and say. I am not an island. I’m a part of an immediate family, a family of origin, a culture, a society, a nation, and a world. At various times in my life, I am a part of institutions, neighborhoods, friendship groups, work teams, and so on.
I’ve done and said things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or just not nice. The systems of which I am a part – those nations, neighborhoods, family groupings, and workplaces – have also done or promoted things that are wrong, unethical, immoral, or simply not very nice.
Confession means I honestly admit that. No sugarcoating; no excuses. To whom do I confess? God and those I have hurt. I confess to God and those hurt by the systems of which I am a part. Confession means apologizing to my wife when I’m inattentive, to my colleague when I’m overly critical, to the Black community for the racism of my privileged station, to Native Americans for the genocide of ancestors, and to the LGBTQ community for the vitriol of my faith community.
Confession is essential because it allows us to realize the harm we have caused. It opens the door for empathy and understanding. It is not meant to leave us down on ourselves, guilty, or ashamed; but instead, kindhearted, understanding, and sympathetic.
Lament is the expression of grief. Lament creates space to grieve the harm caused by neglect, selfishness, greed, bigotry, unforgiveness, or social injustice. If I truly enter into confession, it will produce empathy for the victimized, whether individual or collective, and empathy will express itself in lament.
Confession is not repentance. Lament is not repentance. Confession allows me to realize the harm done; lament allows me to express grief over the harm done.
Repentance repairs the harm down.
As much as is possible, repentance undoes the harm. It aims to make amends, restore, repay, rebuild, reconcile, set things to rights.
While talking heads scream at one another, while dueling protestors shout insults and hurl bottles, while guns are brandished and lies are repeated, we who seek to follow Jesus are called to confess, lament, and repent in order that love, peace, and justice may rain down upon us all.
God (along with those whose hearts were aligned with God’s) was appalled that people who claimed to follow the only true and living God, whose very nature is pure love, would go into the Valley of Ben-Hinnom (later referred to as Gehenna), heat up images of Molech until they were red-hot, strap their live babies onto the images’ arms and work themselves into a frenzy while children fried to death.
Jeremiah 32:35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
In the time of Jesus, Gehenna was the town dump where all the sewage, garbage, and refuge was dumped and continually burnt. It was also where the brutal Romans tossed the bodies of the many people they executed by crucifixion. It was a horrible place of stench, where the fires were always burning and where worm-like maggots lived in abundance.
Some English translations render Gehenna as “hell.” We sometimes hear people speak of “hell on earth.” At times, it can be. Imagine being thrown into Gehenna alive.
Something like that happened to Jeremiah about 600 years before Jesus was born. He was thrown into cistern because his message was deemed unpatriotic. A well connects to underground water; a cistern simply collects rainwater. It is a hole chiseled out of rock. This particular cistern had no standing water in it. Around five feet of mud sat in it. Most likely, people dumped their sewage in it, and perhaps their garbage as well.
Jeremiah38 Now Shephatiah the son of Mattan, Gedaliah the son of Pashhur, Jucal the son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur the son of Malchiah heard the words that Jeremiah was saying to all the people: 2 “Thus says the Lord: He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out to the Chaldeans shall live. He shall have his life as a prize of war, and live. 3 Thus says the Lord: This city shall surely be given into the hand of the army of the king of Babylon and be taken.” 4 Then the officials said to the king, “Let this man be put to death, for he is weakening the hands of the soldiers who are left in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of this people, but their harm.” 5 King Zedekiah said, “Behold, he is in your hands, for the king can do nothing against you.” 6 So they took Jeremiah and cast him into the cistern of Malchiah, the king’s son, which was in the court of the guard, letting Jeremiah down by ropes. And there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Hell on earth.
Sometimes, we wind up in a hellish situation through our own choices. A drunk driver faces prison. Hell on earth.
More often, we wind up in hellish situations because we live in a broken world. Our hell on earth might be the loss of a loved one, a chronic ailment, eviction, job loss, debt, addiction, mental illness, divorce, or being victimized by prejudiced people. Maybe it was partially our fault; maybe it was the fault of others; maybe it just happened.
Hell on earth.
We cry out to God. God never seems to answer quite as quickly as we would like.
Most often, God rescues us by using other people. Frequently, they are people we wouldn’t expect.
An outsider rescued Jeremiah. Reminds me of the good Samaritan. This person was gender-neutered – not female, not male. He (they?) was a black African, not Middle Eastern. He was a slave. He had no wealth and no privilege other than the fact that he worked in the government building, so he regularly saw the people in charge.
Jeremiah38:7 When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch who was in the king’s house, heard that they had put Jeremiah into the cistern—the king was sitting in the Benjamin Gate— 8 Ebed-melech went from the king’s house and said to the king, 9 “My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they did to Jeremiah the prophet by casting him into the cistern, and he will die there of hunger, for there is no bread left in the city.” 10 Then the king commanded Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, “Take thirty men with you from here, and lift Jeremiah the prophet out of the cistern before he dies.” 11 So Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe in the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. 12 Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. 13 Then they drew Jeremiah up with ropes and lifted him out of the cistern. And Jeremiah remained in the court of the guard.
I’ve met people who would rather stay in mire up to their necks than accept help from “that kind of person.” I’ve seen very sick patients so full of hatred that they refuse the care of physicians and nurses of color.
Who are the strangers, the “others” in our lives? Undocumented workers? Those who do not speak English? Alcoholics? Drug addicts? Pro-life folks? Pro-choice folks? Young black men? Old white men? The poor? Wealthy? Red Necks? Harvard elitists? Prisoners? Muslims? Refugees? LGBTQ? Democrats? Republicans? Liberals? Fundamentalists?
Each one of us is “other” to someone.
Who are the people in our cities and towns who are living a hell on earth? Are they sleeping under bridges? Incarcerated? In hospitals, nursing homes, or hospice programs? Hiding in the shadows? Hiding in plain sight? Harassed by law enforcement because of their skin color?
How can we lift others out of their personal hells?
Do we, perhaps – some of us – find ourselves in a living hell?
Expect rescue from unlikely sources.
Scriptures are quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
I came to God because of love. I came to fundamentalist Christianity because of fear.
Growing up I had a ton of anxiety. I was what some might call overly sensitive and fairly easily traumatized. Yet, from the time I was a toddler I sensed a divine presence. Occasionally, I found myself in a thin place of connectedness. Once, my room flooded with light and God spoke to me of God’s perfect love for me. I intuited God’s presence and love in scriptures, religious texts, philosophy, literature, music, psychology, and biology. I felt God in sunbeams, crashing waves, 60-knot winds, old men, and Christmas lights. I came to God because of love.
Then I got into church.
A lot of church was great – music, worship, washing feet, baptism, communion, preaching, teaching, laying on of hands, prayer, celebration, dance. It was exciting and fun, refreshing and inspiring.
But the mainline liberals and the conservative fundamentalists pushed back. Hard. The tribe I joined, at the time I joined it, was warm, accepting, tolerant, and loving. It was neither liberal nor conservative. As the decades rolled on, however, it became increasingly inflexible, dictatorial, and pejorative. Unperceptively, I became dogmatic, judgmental, and theologically confined. To gain and maintain acceptance with my tribe, I distanced myself from all the other tribes. I woke up one morning and realized I was a militaristic bigoted ideologue quick to condemn a very many people.
Unconsciously, I had become gripped by fear – fear of judgment, fear of divine wrath, fear of hell, fear of rejection. I feared being rejected by my primary mentor and by my tribe. I knew what would happen. There’d be no formal hearing, no appeal, no ecclesiastical court, but I would be functionally excommunicated and effectively shunned. At some level I thought God would join my condemners. Fear of rejection drove me deeper into intolerance, toxic escapist eschatology, untenable cosmology, and reactionary political views. I turned my back on most of the world out of fear that a handful of fundamentalists would turn their backs on me. They did anyway, and I was, just as I feared, excommunicated, shunned, rejected, and demonized.
It hurt me deeply. After all, I am deeply sensitive. Gradually, however, as the hurt healed, I discovered that that which I had feared, that which had indeed happened, was a divine gift. I came to God because of love. I descended into fundamentalism because of fear. I came up into the light because I rediscovered God’s infinite love.
Doubt, Faith, & Freedom
Gleanings from Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Sacrificing freedom in exchange for happiness is the devil’s bargain. God created us in God’s own image – with freedom to choose goodness freely, rather than with the base obedience of a robot. Free choice can only exist where there is doubt. Where there is certainty, there is nothing to choose. The QED of Euclidian geometry leaves no room for choice.
Jesus offers no proofs; scripture offers no proofs. Scripture points to Jesus and Jesus guides us with his life, image, and teaching. We must choose goodness freely in the face of doubt. Choice made in the face of uncertainty, however, always leaves open the inevitability of making mistakes, which leads to guilt and regret. Desperate to avoid guilt and regret, many people choose to surrender their freedoms to totalitarian ideologies championed by demagogues who honorifically talk of “freedom” while redefining freedom in selfish and intolerant ways. When we flee guilt and regret, we fail to recognize that they are divine gifts of guidance. We confuse guilt with shame, which is long-lasting, deep-seated and toxic. Our need to be right supersedes and short-circuits our experience with divine love.
Secularists erroneously define “faith” as blind belief in something some authority has told us. That might include such things as a religious narrative, the myth of a Christian nation, the myth of redemptive violence, the lie of white supremacy, a belief in an inevitable evolutionary utopia, racialized capitalism, or narrow-minded nationalism. For the Civil religionist who is immersed in the homogenization of the American myth retold in Christianeze, “faith” means acceptance of a nationalistic triumphalism coupled with an escapist eschatology that often results in a lifestyle diametrically opposed to the Sermon on the Mount.
True faith, however, is not blind belief in a religious or secular authority. Nor is faith the absence of doubt. Conversely, genuine Christian faith cannot exist without doubt. If a thing is absolutely certain, there is nothing to choose. That, however, does not mean that we cannot know anything. Clearly, both goodness and badness exist in our world. Torturing children is wrong. It is good to savor the beauty of a rose. True Christian faith begins when we choose to love life.
For me, that process includes:
- A deconstruction and rebuilding of my theology, my philosophy of life, my religiophilosophical worldview. The jingoistic warrior god of vengeance is being replaced with the true and living God revealed in Christ, whose essence is perfect unconditional love.
- Discovering, embracing, and loving my inner child with the help of therapy and spiritual direction.
- Hanging around knowledgeable people who are helping me see the wondrous beauty of nature.
- Purposely looking for the imago Dei, the image of God, in others, and asking God to enable me to love others – all others.
- Learning to be comfortable living in the liminal space of uncertainty, of not knowing with absolute assurance, of recognizing that I could be mistaken, being open and teachable.
With fresh inner freedom, seeing (as for the first time) the marvelous beauty of God, others, creation, and myself, I daily become increasingly convinced of the essential truth of Christianity and the presence of Trinitarian Love. Settling into Abba’s arms, I have peace and joy and no need of being right.