the impossibility of thinking suffering through

The problem of intense and irrational suffering in a world that Christians proclaim as the object of God’s love is a problem that can never be thought through, only thought around. It is a dark mystery which stands as a stumbling block, a choking pain, a stunning blow, to faith, to love, to hope. Yet it never need be a fatal fall.The Christian answer can never be one that has fully thought through the problem of suffering because no human answer survives the complexity of suffering and death, all of them fall to the side. Job’s questions are only answered with a jarringly profound statement of God’s presence. His suffering is not answered, but accompanied in a way that elicits wonder and worship. For Job, that is enough.The Christian answer can never be one that has fully thought through the problem of suffering any more than one can think oneself through the cross of Christ. At the point of God’s death among us, all human answers simply fail. Here is God’s confrontation with suffering and death at the center of the world (which is to say both nowhere and everywhere). We cannot think through this event because it is either our own death or or our own doing. Either way, the cross is the terminus of human thought about suffering. Continue reading “the impossibility of thinking suffering through”

where do we stand? :: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical ground

C.S. Lewis makes several impassioned pleas for the universality of moral instinct in his writings. I’m most familiar with his appeal to the sense of “fairness” in an argument for God’s existence in Mere Christianity, along with his defence of what he calls the “Tao” in The Abolition of Man. At any rate, in both locations, Lewis is appealing to something like conscience or intuition as the ground of ethics. Ethics are built-in. Right and wrong find their foundation in some innate sense within us. That sense is God’s gift, and is ultimately grounded in God’s own moral character.

Of course, acknowledging the lingering wastes of sin in humanity, Lewis argues that our consciences, as well as our inclination to listen to them, are “bent.” We are not whole and healthy, but twisted and shadowy representations of what we were meant to be.

Working on Bonhoeffer’s moral epistemology, it struck me how different the picture that he describes is. For Bonhoeffer, conscience is only the voice of self-defence. Conscience is the tool by which we usurp God’s judgment, and employ it against ourselves and others. With our consciences–our personal knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3)–we alternately declare ourselves righteous and then cast ourselves on to the dung pile. Either way, this is an attempt to shield ourselves from God’s voice rather than God’s voice itself. The natural knowledge of good and evil, is nothing less than captivity to death in Bonhoeffer’s estimation. Continue reading “where do we stand? :: Bonhoeffer and Lewis on ethical ground”

creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food

Despite the contemporary desire to treat it this way, the Bible did not fall out of the sky. Christians are not “people of the book” in the same way that Muslims or Mormons are. The Bible is not eternal truth dictated word for word from the clouds to faithful scribes waiting pen in hand. Christianity’s attitude toward its book is significantly different.

As a starting point, we need to realize that the Bible wasn’t written for us. At least not primarily. Paul was not thinking of you when he wrote (or dictated) his letter to the Romans. We abuse scripture itself if we refuse to let Paul write to his friends at Rome, and recognize this as a conversation that we’ve been allowed in on. And if we start there, we had better understand what his friends would have understood from his writing before we start proof-texting individual verses out of context. That means hard work and study. Continue reading “creeds and criticism (Part III) :: the Bible :: or why reading scripture apart from theology is like eating without food”

creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)

It is the task of history, once the other world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world.

Here, Karl Marx raises his disdain for any story that focuses its attention on an “other world” to ground the meaning of the life we experience. The truth of this world, as Marx sees it, is made of the power relationships expressed through money and control. The truth of this world is the subjugation of the working classes by means of ideology, coercion, and religion – that great opiate by which the masses are kept from demanding all that they deserve in this life.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of man is a demand for their real happiness…. Religion is only the illusory sun about which man revolves so long as he does not revolve around himself.

Properly then, according to Marx, history’s task is to write the real story of what goes on in the world, without reference to “higher” realities or other worlds. The task of history is to set down the meaning of the only world we know in concrete political and economic terms, cutting through all the bourgeois cultural accretions that obscure the real power relationships. Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: history lessons (part II)”

creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)

“I reject any creed that would send the Dalai Lama to hell.” I watched an author of fiction (one I’m quite fond of) offer this phrase at a book release last year. As he spoke, the vast majority of receptive ears were attached to heads nodding in agreement and righteous indignation.

Inner monologue: “Who could possibly be so stupid as to send the Dalai Lama to hell? What group of people could possibly hold a set of beliefs that would send such a man to such a place? They must be ridiculous! The Apostles creed is bunk! We’d be better off if it were never repeated again!”

So… wouldn’t we as a species make it a few steps further along our evolutionary journey if we dropped the self-righteous possession of truth in pretty little formulas? Weren’t the creeds the attempt of the powerful majority in the early church to subjugate all dissenting opinions? Who in their right mind would want to follow such a legacy? Continue reading “creeds and criticism :: hellfire and history (part I)”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer :: violence and responsibility

I wanted to make the paper [Bonhoeffer and Violence] I’ve written most recently for a seminar on Bonhoeffer available. (If Bonhoeffer is a new name to you, let my friends introduce him). The paper tackles a major question that cuts across both Bonhoeffer’s biography and his theology:

What is a fellow who can say the following sentence doing involved in an assassination conspiracy? “There is no thinkable deed in which evil is so large and strong that it would require a different [i.e. a violent] response from a Christian.” This question looms large in many ways, especially as both Bonhoeffer and questions of violence have appeared in the conversation with Casey lately.

I’m sure that you’ll see more Bonhoeffer here soon, he and I are spending a lot of time together these days as I write my thesis on his moral epistemology (i.e. the answer to the question, “How do we know what to do?”).

Seven Stanzas at Easter :: John Updike

Resurrected Christ
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

[Written for a religious arts festival sponsored by the Clifton Lutheran Church, of Marblehead, Mass.]

friday’s guilt, saturday’s solidarity :: thoughts on responsibility

This post continues a converation I’ve been in over the last few weeks. See more here and here.

I was born into a rich (by global standards) white family in the hills of Colorado. I began existing in this world in 1981. I emerged into a part of the world (into a structure) where people live in privilege, (for the most part) unknowingly on the backs of others. I didn’t come to realize all the links in the system (and I still don’t know most of them) all at once. Through high school and college I learned more and more.

Am I ontologically guilty by virtue of being born into privilege? I don’t think so. Continue reading “friday’s guilt, saturday’s solidarity :: thoughts on responsibility”

herds more words

I’d like to draw your attention to a little feature I just added here. As I talk with people, occasionally they ask for a copy of some of the papers that I write. I’m not sure whether people actually read them, but I get asked frequently enough that I thought I’d make a few of my better academic efforts available here. You’ll notice a link on the left to a page called “essays and papers” (clever, eh?).

At present, there’s one paper that wrestles with the theological meaning of creatures dying on our planet long before humans were around to sin. What does it mean that God seemed to have created a universe in which death plays a role? Secondly, there’s a paper on the poet G.M. Hopkins. Without being a mystic, he seems to see Jesus everywhere. Jesus appears in his poetry in really unexpected places. The paper explores his understanding of God’s presence in the world, especially in light of the incarnation. It deals with one of Hopkins’ main influences (a really great medieval monk) John Duns Scotus

of enemies and evasions :: truth and consequences

As much as we expect him to, Jesus never discards the category of “enemy.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; Invite your enemies to the table; go and be reconciled with your enemy” etc. I’m sure that many other people have reflected on this with greater depth and insight than I will be able to. Nevertheless, here come a few brief meditations.

Jesus had enemies. There were people who wanted to harm him, wanted to take his life. There were people in Jesus day who knew what he stood for (or thought that they did) and couldn’t stand him. He had a program, an agenda, a point. When he said, “follow me” to his disciples, it was because he was going somewhere, and he thought it was important that they come along. Having enemies means standing for something definite, something concrete, something that cannot be denied even at the cost of alienation. Living in the tension between truth and sinfulness, humanity lives in enmity. Continue reading “of enemies and evasions :: truth and consequences”