Into the Fray: The negative responses to tragedy
Nothing for a month and then back to back whoppers. I guess I’ve got a lot I held back.
I’ve hesitated to write this post. I really have. But I don’t think I can be quiet about it. It needs to be said, and people need to stop being made to feel like idiots or heretics because they don’t fall in line with a specific, narrow interpretation. I’m trying not to sound angry, but I am a little bit. Not at the Bible and not at God, but at the way people twist God’s word.
Some people respond badly to tragedy. I don’t mean they fall down and break down and sink into a depression. That type of response is normal. It’s expected. It means we are people.
I believe the desire to cry out “why,” to weep, to yell, to get angry, to shake our fists at the sky, to pound them into the ground, to tell God “no” while simultaneously asking him to lift us up and hold us is all evidence of God’s fingerprints upon us.
It means we are God’s children.
Maybe it doesn’t make our theology “pretty” but it makes it genuine. We need a messy theology because life is messy and we don’t have it figured out.
But it’s the neat and tidy theology, the one that has it all figured out, the one that has a sure answer for any difficulty, this is the dangerous theology; not because it might be right, because of how wrong and damaging it can be. And how blind it can make us.
We are fragile.
And we certainly aren’t sure.
So how can we claim to have it all figured out? How can the finite claim to even begin to fathom the infinite? We can’t.
But that doesn’t stop the assurances of some.
Earlier this week, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans reacted to what she saw as an insensitive tweet from Pastor John Piper. She reacted emotionally, but, at least on the whole, correctly. As it turns out, Piper hadn’t meant to send the verse that launched Evans reaction out of context and had actually tweeted two verses in succession. They are from Job. Here’s the first tweet:
“Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” Job 1:19
That actually includes a bit of paraphrase from verse 18, but fair enough, there are 140 character limits. And the second
“Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped.” Job 1:20
Eventually Piper deleted the tweets because the first one held in isolation looks like a terrible condemnation on the people of Oklahoma, as if it says “you deserve this.” We can get into how imprudent it was to put the tweets out in this manner (without any indication of a multi-part tweet, and indeed, the appearance from the first one that this is the end; let’s just say an ellipsis could’ve saved a world of trouble), and Piper should have known better as this is not the first time he’s put his twitter foot in his beak. But nevertheless, at least this time, Piper hadn’t meant to be callous. In response to that, Evans issued an apology to her readers, acknowledging that she might have reacted imprudently as well. That’s all fine.
I’m not going to defend everything Evans says, in fact I think I disagree with a fair bit (that’s ok), nor am I going to discredit everything Piper says (Lord knows he has done some really good things). However, I would like to ask if this means that Piper’s previous responses to natural disaster, which Evans highlighted in her initial post, are somehow also excused? I don’t think they are.
The thing is, Piper has a history of blaming victims, telling them they deserved God’s wrath. On one level, yes it’s true, we all deserve God’s wrath. We all rebel actively and engage in open, and sometimes covert, warfare against our creator. But it is one thing to say we deserve God’s wrath, and quite another to imply, or explicitly state, that God is actively pouring out his wrath on people. That takes a level or either arrogance, callousness, or certainty (or all of the above) that I sincerely hope I’m not capable of. And certainly the relationship between Piper (and others) and Sovereign Grace ministries, which has a history of abusing children, something highlighted in Evans post, cannot be ignored. She has a very valid point and we ignore it to our detriment. Still, what I really want to talk about is the response that others have given to Evans.
Bad Theology breeds Contempt
On twitter and in blogs, a number of people rushed to Piper’s aid to condemn Evans, question her belief in Scriptures and God’s Word, and essentially tell her she was wrong. What struck me, though, was that the focus was not primarily upon the context of Piper’s tweets (though that was often mentioned), but rather to what Evans thought Piper was saying. The focus of Piper’s defendants has been that Evans is not wrong for misunderstanding Piper, but because she did understand him. Let me put it more plainly:
Most critics of Evans (this week) do so because they believe the people suffering loss right now deserved what happened and God sent the destruction. According to their theology: God didn’t just allow the tornado, he caused it because he was angry.
That’s not who I know God to be.
My God is patient, and faithful, and longsuffering. That’s what I read in the Bible
So where did their idea of God come from? It came from having it all figured out. This is the neo-Calvinist camp (the “young, restless and reformed” group). Now I may be painting with a bit of a broad brush, but not that broad. Their theology comes from a few key ideas.
1) The Bible is the complete revelation of God.
By this they don’t mean “complete” in the sense that the Bible points entirely to God (as I take it to mean), but that the Bible gives a complete picture of God. Wait a minute. The Bible itself seems to contradict that idea. What about John’s statement that he could not even hope to write down everything that Jesus did and its significance? What about the idea that God will reveal himself more fully when he returns, as it says in Revelation? What about Paul’s statement that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12)? God’s revelation isn’t complete in the Bible. It’s completeness is found elsewhere. It’s found in the historical person Jesus who was the incarnate Word of God and God himself. This revelation reached it’s height in the Resurrected Christ and there were glimpses of it at the transfiguration. But that kind of revelation is too deep for words, and we are still working it out, almost two millennia later. So how do the neo-Calvinists reconcile these types of Biblical statements with their theology? Simple
2) Only those passages that conform easily to their presupposed theology should be taken plainly, all others require some interpretive work.
Granted, we all do this to some extent. The difference is, and this is important, that most of us recognize we might not be right. We are resistant to other interpretations that contradict our own, but we are at least open to the possibility we could be wrong. Most neo-Calvinists, at least of the sort who follow Piper, will not admit to such an uncertainty. They are right and they are sure of it. The hermeneutical efforts that are made, though do not engage with literary genre or the culture of a particular part of the bible, at least not on a fundamental level. Instead they engage primarily with a particular view of Calvin that was articulated at the Synod of Dort (the five points or TULIP) and engage it in the form it comes in from Piper and Mohler and the like. In this form, all other voices must be silenced. Doubts are unacceptable. Why? Because to admit doubts is to give up ground to the secular culture, or to postmodernism (as if that term had meaning), or to liberals, or to atheists and agnostics. According to this sort of theology, Christians don’t doubt, or if they do they keep quiet about it because we can’t afford to show weakness. The result of this sort of thinking leads to the following:
3) The theology, which determines which passages are “literal” and which are not, is one that is systematic, direct, and simple.
I should probably explain what I mean by each of those last three terms.
First “systematic.” By this I mean their theology creates a system that informs all parts of their life, and all parts of their theology. The system goes together. If it falters on one point, the entire theology has to be scrubbed and reworked. It’s interconnected and linked.
It’s direct. It applies specifically and directly to everything in life. There is no uncertainty about a response. When something that would question a person’s faith comes up, there is a simple direct answer to it. No compromise.
It’s simple. I don’t mean that it’s naïve. I mean that it doesn’t allow for any “messiness.” It is applied in such an exacting way that emotion, that human nature, is taken completely out of the equation. It is entirely cerebral. In doing so, it often leads to callousness. Catastrophic events aren’t taken for the raw tragedies they are, but as pastoral problems to be solved. I recognize I have difficulty in not treating real tragedies and issues as problems to be solved, but when I worked with a hospital chaplaincy office I learned one thing very well. People aren’t problems to be solved. The things that happen to people are questions in need of answers. Some issues cannot be resolved before Jesus comes.
Simplicity is really a holdover idea from Platonism. Platonic, and Aristotelian, thinking guided advanced thought in the West (and mid-East) throughout the middle ages. It helped advance scientific understanding. Eventually, though, it had to be abandoned. It turns out planets don’t orbit in circles, nor are their elliptical orbits that perfect. It turns out that cells are pretty wild and unkempt. Yet what has been abandoned in the sciences has held steady in much Christian thought, particularly among neo-Calvinists. The idea that life is messy and often inexplicable is seen as an untenable compromise with the world outside of the church. So they build a tower and isolate themselves from a felt and a messy theology.
But God didn’t make the world as a machine. God made it alive and unpredictable. God doesn’t function like a robot, whose responses can be predicted and easily explained, but as a living, breathing God, an untamed lion, and infinite power who meets intimately with the finite. God understands our weakness, he sympathizes with our pain, he weeps at the grave of a friend. He does not say, “Well I guess old Lazarus deserved it, after all he was a terrible sinner. God must have killed him because he was rightly angry.” No. He weeps. Then he says that death does not have the last word. He violates the simplicity of our theology by offering alternatives we never even though possible. That’s what my God does. That’s who my God is. My God is the faithful one. The one who loves. The one who is slow to anger, abounding in love, long-suffering from generation to generation. That’s my God.
To garner support for their position, many neo-Calvinists garner the best rhetoric they can muster. If they run out of arguments they declare an honest seeker to be a heretic and wash their hands of them “fare well” is the cry. So sure of themselves are they that they cannot fathom being wrong. Often there is a resort to quick and pithy rhetoric that is entirely empty.
Such was the case with one particular blog post I want to address; think of it as a case study. One of the more notable critics of Rachel Held Evans’s recent blog post was Douglas Wilson, who is most well-known for his debates with the late Christopher Hitchens. Wilson quotes from G. K. Chesterton and then applies it to the recent hub-bub. The salient quotation from Chesterton is as follows:
If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat
Wilson goes on to say that Evans has, in effect, “denie[d] the cat.” As I said, rhetorically it sounds great, not to mention the air of smugness that seems to accompany it; the one that seem to say “I’ve got it figured out and you’re an idiot.” In the context of the blog, the rhetoric is such as to shame you away from questioning it (whether or not this was consciously done). But if we push past that and actually examine the argument we see that there is either a case of begging the question or a false dichotomy, depending on how you analyze it, both logical fallacies.
The post assumes, in this scenario, that either there is no God, or God is the cause of suffering. That is a false dichotomy. Incidentally, it’s the same false dichotomy set up by the atheist. Many in the neo-Calvinist camp seem content to say that God is the cause of suffering, and not in an indirect sort, but directly; because God is angry with us; and he is just in being so.
Then we have the callousness. Wilson says “The sovereignty of God is a hard shell case that carries and protects the tender heart.” See that. We’re supposed to be callous. We need it in order to be protected. After all, why would I want to be hurt by someone else’s suffering? There’s a selfishness behind such callousness, though we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by a theology that glorifies hedonism. But that’s not how “agape” works. Agape is, of necessity, self-sacrificing. It is altruistic. A theology built around hedonism assumes that God is selfish and we are selfish and those are good things because, somehow, they drive us close to each other. It’s no wonder there is a reluctance among many neo-Calvinists to help the poor, unless it be from duty (which is selfish after all), or to glorify the capitalism preached by noted atheist Ayn Rand. Again, I’m willing to remove the intellectual insulation from my heart to let it broken by what breaks the heart of God. Doing so, however, does not mean I deny that God is enthroned. God is still King of the cosmos, even when we weeps with us.
To see Wilson’s argument as begging the question we simply need to reframe the dichotomy. The option is either that there isn’t or there is a God. That is a valid dichotomy. The “begging the question” comes in when we say, as Wilson seems content to say, that if there is a God, then he must be the cause for suffering. Hang on a second. That’s exactly what is at issue here. I am under no obligation to accept that scenario. By refusing to accept I am not, as Wilson indicates, denying the reality of suffering (or “denying the cat”). I am simply saying there is another cause for the suffering. It might be the case that some suffering, maybe even most suffering, is indeed senseless. That doesn’t mean God isn’t sovereign or helpless or surprised. It does mean I don’t have it all figured out though.
And I don’t.
I don’t have it figured out.
And that’s ok. I’m still learning. I’ve got all of eternity to learn.
God teach me.