whytheology

For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Archive for the tag “Christianity”

On Waiting

So recently, I’ve been growing increasingly impatient with this waiting business. It seems like all I’ve been doing is waiting.

For those of you reading this who don’t know, let me give you some background:

As of the writing of this post I currently don’t have a job. It’s not that I’m lazy. I’m also a full time student.

Here’s the thing, though: I have no idea where my family and I are going to be. We may be moving across the country or around the world, but I have no idea where. In 3-4 months some big change is very likely, but I have no idea what it is going to look like. So I’ve been waiting.

Here’s the other thing: it feels like I’ve been waiting for much, much longer. While all of my peers have been out buying houses and “climbing the ladder” of their respective careers, I’ve still been in school. My wife and I have often commented on how it feels like we’re waiting for our “real life” to start. To stop living on a student budget. To get a decent car, and nice smartphones. To start putting money toward the purchase of a house. To finally be “adults.”

Common wisdom, and what we’re often told, is simply to be patient. To wait and see what wonderful plans God has in store for us. Now I don’t think that’s entirely off the mark. Yet something that my wife has been trying to tell me, but which has only sunk in little bits at a time, and something I’ve been thinking about has started to change my perspective. And here’s the result: I’m through waiting.

Changing my outlook

While it may be true that patience is a virtue, or at least one of the fruit of the spirit, we are mistaken if we assume that this means we are called to wait around. Patience, at least as I read the New Testament, is always in the context of relationships. We are to be patient with other people. It is a disposition toward someone, even if that is ourselves. It’s transitive (sorta), not intransitive.

Now, for the sake of my children, I’m glad I haven’t been just sitting around all day waiting for my life to begin before I acted as a parent. Clearly, they aren’t going to wait around for me to get my act together before they learn to ride a bike, or play their first board game, or learn how to read. I can’t patiently wait in that aspect of my life. In the past the result has been that my life felt disjointed. Things were moving so slow on one front (starting my “real life”), while moving so quickly on the other (my family). It seems I got it all out of order. But what if it wasn’t out of order. What if it was exactly as it was supposed to be.

Paul tells the Church, in the letter to the Roman Christians, that whatever it is we are doing, we should be doing to the glory of God. By God’s grace I hope I’m doing that with my kids. But can I be “waiting” for the glory of God. To say yes means that “waiting” is something that we do. But that seems to fly in the face of all experience. The thing is, when we wait we aren’t doing something. Now, granted, their can be purposeful waiting, but this is more of an anticipation of something that is going to happen. It seems to have purpose. So much of my waiting felt without purpose. But if I truly take Paul’s message to heart, what I’m doing can’t be purposeless.

Those drafts of chapters that seem to be bleeding red ink when I get them back. They aren’t wastes of time, they’re me glorifying God in my mistakes and in the small bits that somehow carry through to the next draft. The time spent filling out applications for places that will send me “dear applicant” letters aren’t me throwing time away. It is me pantingly following the course I believe God has laid out for me. If I’m mistaken, well as Martin Luther said “Sin boldly that boldly you may be forgiven.”

Waiting versus Waiting

In his, now infamous, play “Waiting for Godot,” Samuel Becket follows the experience of two hapless men waiting. They’re supposed to meet this guy, Godot, but neither of them knows who Godot is, or what he looks like. To complicate matters, neither of them are entirely sure as to when they are supposed to meet Godot, or even where the meeting is supposed to take place. However, they are both convinced they are meant to meet Godot, and so they wait for him.

Time is somewhat ambiguous in the play, but it seems that between the two scenes a considerable amount of time has passed. Yet the two men, Estragon and Vladimir, are still waiting, finding things to fill their time, and complaining they have nothing to do. At the end of each scene the pair decide that, rather than continue to wait, they will depart. Yet neither of them does. And so they wait, largely not doing anything.

Despite the similarity of sounds in English, Becket was adamant that Godot should not be understood as God (the play was initially written in French and the names largely unchanged; Godot does not sound like the French Dieu). Yet, given the highly spiritual and biblical discussion of the pair, it would be a mistake to assume that there is no spiritual commentary that might be garnered from this intentionally absurd play. For many Christians, we are told that waiting is a good thing. While waiting on the Lord is certainly praised in the Old Testament, perhaps e should be clear. There is waiting and there is waiting.

Waiting in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) seems to be not only purposeful, but active. Waiting isn’t sitting around and not doing anything, as is the case in “Waiting for Godot,” but involves seeking, preparation, service. When in Ecclesiastes 3 it says that God blesses those who wait on Him, it couples this with further declarations to seek after God. Waiting, in the Bible, isn’t just sitting around while nothing happens, but is our intentional seeking of God. We search and glorify God in the otherwise mundane, ordinary, and basic.

As Brother Lawrence said,

Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?

and again

We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of him, and that done, if there is nothing else to call me, I prostrate myself in worship before him, who has given me grace to work; afterwards I rise happier than a king. It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God

So there is waiting, comprised of “doing nothing”, and there is waiting, comprised of seeking and following God, of honoring God in the little things, in the minutiae of life. That shift in perspective can mean wonders.

Now, I’m not saying I’ve got it figured out, or that I don’t get frustrated by the empty sort of waiting. I just pray that I can spend more days seeking God’s presence where I am, and fewer promising myself to abandon the empty waiting only to return to it the next day. The truth is, though, that we weren’t made for that empty sort of waiting. We were created to do something, and to wait differently. To glorify God in what otherwise seems like the in-between. We wait with purpose, and we don’t need to wait because God is here, his Kingdom is at work. Perhaps, we don’t really wait, but we act. Maybe my writing now, my failed attempts to get to a final draft of my dissertation, my research that sometimes hits a dead end, maybe it is all far more important than I can possibly fathom. Maybe it’s the same with you.

Advertisements

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.

Weak.

Emotional.

Irrational.

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.

Some Background

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.

Empty Rhetoric

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.

Weep with those who Weep: Responding to tragedy

I’ve been radio silent. I announced it ahead of time, but still I feel like I should’ve said something. In the weeks since I’ve gone on hiatus several tragedies have happened. There was the Boston bombing, the plant explosion in the town of West, Texas, the factory collapse in Bangladesh, the huge surge in intentional violence in Iraq. Then there was this this:

AP photo

The tornadoes and storms that swept through the American Midwest, disproportionately affecting central Oklahoma. In all of these tragedies, this one seemed to hit closest to me. I went to school in Shawnee. My wife and I lived in Oklahoma City. I still have relatives and friends in the Moore/Oklahoma City area. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been a little shaken. Then there’s also the fact that I could see no cause for it.

A friend of mine recently asked me to respond to the tragedy in extended form, preferably on this blog. I wasn’t sure that was needed at first. After all many people could respond to it. They could offer the explanations or the comfort needed. Ultimately, I thought, that comfort and the answers to the “why” should come from God. But I was reminded gently that all of us need signposts sometimes to show us the way, or a mirror because God can’t be looked at face to face in our present bodies. So I hope that I can serve as a signpost or a mirror. This is my effort at that.

My personal Response

Before I get too involved in arguments about evil and so forth, I first want to give my response (if you want to argue with me, skip this section, I’m not offering arguments here). Not only to the Oklahoma tragedy, but to all of these tragedies, and others, this is my response:

This is not the end.

This tragedy does not have the final say. It is not over yet. The end is much better, much more joyous, and will make all past wrongs become right. God is changing this world, and the wickedness and evil and tragedy of the present world will be revealed to have never been. They are real and true and genuine right now, but they won’t always be. God is changing that. There is something else I want to convey:

You are not alone.

Suffer. Weep. Wail and moan. But know that you do not do so alone. Whoever you are, wherever you are coming from, know that God weeps with us. The beauty and joy of Emmanuel is that God comes along side us. Recall that Jesus wept over the death of his friend and wept over the city of Jerusalem. Know now that he weeps over the loss of these tragedies, and weeps for the towns and cities of West, Boston, Shawnee, Oklahoma City, Moore, and others. God is with you, as are others. God has given us a desire for community because these communities help sustain us in the midst of tragedy. When you are lifted up by your neighbor, that is God helping you as well. Above all else, understand that a key message of the cross is that outrageous suffering and pain is not foreign to God, but is something with which God is intimately acquainted. Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me” before declaring “It is finished.” Suffering is not something just to be explained away, but is at the heart of the Christian message. Finally, let me say one more thing:

You are not being punished.

God doesn’t seek the death of children. Tragedy is not the result of divine retribution. That was the mistake of Job’s friends. Something we need to understand is that sometimes, quite often actually, senseless evil is just that, senseless. As Jesus said, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This isn’t a divine indictment, or punishment that’s been withheld until now. It just is. And it is tragic. And it is not right. But that doesn’t mean God is absent, and it doesn’t mean that this is the final word.

If you are in the midst of a tragedy, I hope that offers a word of encouragement and hope for you. The Christian hope is not just that things will get better, but that the past will be made right, and we will see God face to face.

My intellectual answer

We ask “why” in the midst of these tragedies because of an emotional need. But the answer to the why demands an intellectual response. That doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid, only to illustrate that our felt desire is for our mental questions to be answered. Know, however, that such an answer is unlikely to satisfy while we are still grieving. So grieve first, and then contemplate. Find comfort in God and friends and family.

With tragedies that are clearly man made, we can usually point to an argument that says freedom is so important that God allows us to make mistakes, or even people to intentionally or callously harm others without interfering. But what about something like a tornado? It may be tempting to argue, as some have, that this is the result of man made climate change and so, ultimately a question of free will again. While there may be some connection between the frequency and intensity of these sorts of disasters to such kinds of change, they can’t explain away all the tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis in the world. The thing is these things happen and will happen no matter how good of a steward we are of God’s creation. So we are seemingly confronted with this dichotomy:

Either God causes/approves of these natural disasters, or there is no God.

Many people, when faced with the idea of a God who, at the very least, approves of such horrendous activity, turn to atheism. But I’m going to offer another alternative. That is to say these aren’t the only two options. In order to understand what this alternative means, I’m going to get a little bit technical.

The Philosophical Side

In philosophy (and in quantum physics to a lesser degree) there is a concept known as ‘contingency.’ The term goes back at least to Aristotle, but it was really in the middle ages where it came into its own. Although Leibniz is often credited with advancing the concept of contingency, I consider his work with “possible worlds” to be a bit lacking. The basis for his work, and indeed the more robust interaction with the concept, can be found in the philosophy of John Duns Scotus.

Scotus argued that there are two categories under which everything falls: contingent and necessary. Primarily this is spoken of existing things. That is things like objects or actions, because to speak of necessary or contingent ideas, things that don’t have any real existence, seems bizarre. So we are talking about things with an ‘ontology’ or being or existence. Necessary things either necessarily exist, or necessarily don’t exist. If it necessarily exists, it always was, is, and has been. If it necessarily doesn’t exist, it never was, is, or will be. An example of the latter category would be a square circle, because by definition he two terms are mutually exclusive. In the former category we might put in certain mathematical concepts (though as I said, that gets trippy and into complex philosophy of mathematics), or, as Duns Scotus put it, God. Now I’m not going to argue that Scotus was correct on that point, or that Scotus wasn’t, that would take too much time and get very technical, and may be difficult to prove either way. What it does do, though, is illustrate that, for Scotus, there wasn’t a “possible world,” in Leibniz’s terms, where God doesn’t exist because God is a necessary being. It’s impossible for a necessary thing to ever not exist, thus there is no “possible world” without God.

If we now move to the contemporary engagement with the concepts of necessary and contingent, which takes place primarily in continental philosophy (the branch of philosophy with historical roots in Continental Europe and distinguished from Analytic philosophy with roots in Britain and America), we find some compelling arguments. These arguments relate to the necessity or contingency of certain objects or actions, but particularly things that have a causal influence upon the world (i.e. an impact beyond themselves).

If a causal influence, or an object/action that exhibits a causal influence, is necessary then the cause of that influence must also be necessary and the effects of that influence must likewise be necessary. This is because the necessary object/action that exhibits a causal influence must exist (there is no “possible world” where it doesn’t exist), so it’s causes and effects must likewise exist. This extends outward to the various other objects as well. In other words, it leads to a deterministic stream of events, at least if something is necessary by its ontos (existence) with respect to its causal influence.

Likewise if something is contingent (essentially “undetermined”) then all of its causes and effects are likewise contingent. This means that a contingent event is linked to all other events/objects upon which it has causal impact in that each event/object is likewise contingent. That leads to a string of contingent events.

When we talk about human freedom, at least how we usually think of it, this assumes something. It assumes that a person’s actions are non-trivial, that is they have a causal impact, that they are intended, as in non-random, and that they are contingent. (It should be noted that quantum physics uses contingency and randomness almost interchangeably and this is where it deviates from the philosophical concept.) So contingency, it turns out, is a prerequisite for human freedom.

In the context of what I’ve been arguing, then, if people are to be free, then that means everything that caused the existence of a person, as well as everything that a person does, must be contingent, or not necessary. It exists contingently. Further everything that affects a person as well as everything that a person affects causally must likewise be contingent. The result of this is inevitable:

Either everything in the created universe is contingent, or none of it is. Either certain events, like tornadoes, are random, or humans are not free. The cosmos is either entirely free or it is entirely bound and determined, and that necessarily so.

Admittedly I’ve simplified the argument a bit (we could get into the longer argument that speaks to things acting as wholes and so something cannot be necessary with respect to ‘x’ without being necessary with respect to every other aspect, but that would be much longer). If you want to get into the longer argument pick up some of the contemporary work on Duns Scotus, or some of the more recent German metaphysicians or non-Barthian theologians.

The Theological Side

Given that argument above (the bolded, italicized one), let’s move from philosophy to philosophical theology. The message of the bible is pretty clear on this point. The created universe must be contingent. If God created the world “in the beginning” then that means that the universe is contingent. If it were not, then God would be bound to create it and, therefore, not genuinely free. But even the most staunchly deterministic Calvinist will agree that God must be considered free if we are to believe that God is truly omnipotent.

Second, all will agree that God does not cause sin, and that, at the very least, the initial act of sin was a free act. If it was a free act then the entire universe must also be contingent. It’s too interconnected. This brings us to the crux of the argument, then.

If the universe is contingent, which the Bible says it is, then we can expect random events, like tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. to occur.

This may not help us understand why this or that disaster occurred, or even why it occurred in a specific way, but it does help us begin to understand why disasters of this sort occur at all. And that is a big step toward reconciling our faith with the reality of the world in which we live.

Why, though, did God not stop this particular disaster?

I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answer to this question. To offer such an answer would be to claim to know the mind of God, and I am finite while God is infinite. We have to acknowledge that while God didn’t cause the disaster, at the very least God didn’t intervene to stop it, at least not in any way of which we know. While I can see the appeal of Open Theism here, that God was just as surprised by the disaster as we are, I cannot affirm it, for I believe God is more sovereign than that. I can affirm a few things though.

At history’s end, God will make untrue every vile and wicked thing, everything that should be a lie will be shown to have always been just that.

God has already shown himself to be victorious in the resurrection.

Suffering and evil will be overcome and have already been overcome.

Terrible things happen. They will happen. That’s entailed in conscious existence. Just because they’re unnecessary, or without a point, doesn’t mean they won’t have a point. The pointless can be turned into purposeful things. If we take to heart the proclamation that we “are coworkers with God,” then we realize that a disaster is not merely a potential crisis of faith, but becomes a potential to partner with God in “making all things new.”

Act

How can we participate with God, “following God’s example” by “redeeming the time because the days are evil”? Suffering and pain don’t have the final say.

Here are some ways to get involved:

You can donate. Donate, time, money, food, yourself, whatever you are able. Here’s a list of ways/organizations to do that related to the tornado.

You can Pray. Never underestimate prayer. God still intervenes and still responds. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his creatures.

You can be available. Sometimes we just need someone to hold us up when our strength is gone. We need that physical touch also. Often the best thing we can do is just sit, listen, affirm, and hug.

Book Review: Activating the Power of the Cross

Today I’m review Tony Evans’ Book Activating the Power of the Cross. I’ll follow the same format as last time. I will note, here at the beginning, that I received a free review copy from Moody Publishers for the purposes of this review. If you want to purchase the book, go to your local bookstore or get it online here.

The book is organized into 4 chapters. The first one deals with keeping the cross as our primary focus always. The second one makes the argument that the cross (of Christ) is a source of genuine authority when so much of that is called into question. The third chapter points to the cross as an anchor in the storms of life. No matter how bad things get, we can have power in the midst of our trouble (i.e. Evans doesn’t make the claim that God simply removes us from our trouble, but that he gives us shelter in the midst of our trouble). The final chapter deals with our call to “come and die” as Bonheoffer famously put it, we identify with Christ in his suffering and death that we might be raised with him.

The Good

Tony Evans is unquestionably a master of illustration. The illustrations throughout are poignant, engaging, and really wonderful. Plus the overall message is one I can really get behind: the cross gives you victory even in the midst of defeat, so long as it remains in our focus.

The Bad

There’s not too much I actually disagree with. There are some things I would have done differently, but I’ll save those for the next section.

The Ugly

Although Tony Evans doesn’t ever come to a position that might be characterized as “health and wealth” some of his language could be interpreted that way by a less than careful reading. Especially the terminology of “activating the power” and getting victory now. I will say that just because some preachers use these terms to promote a mistaken theology does not mean we should avoid these terms, but I would have liked to see a little bit more elaboration and clarity on this point. The book is not very long, so there is space for that.

Recommendation

I’d say buy the paperback (5 out of 6). It’s a concise yet pointed read, and for illustrations one can really not do better than Tony Evans, but I grew up listening to his radio program in High School and College, so maybe I’m biased.

II John Sermon

As I’m getting to the last stages of my PhD, posts will probably be pretty sparse, and less structured (if you haven’t noticed), but here’s a sermon I gave not too long ago on 2 John

James 5:19-20 (Lent Readings)

This is the last of my James series. I’ll update the Calendar link to hyperlink each section to the appropriate reading as I have time. Let me kn0w in the comments if you’ve appreciated the series or what you would change.

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;

20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.

Comment

In the book of Genesis, immediately after the sin of Adam is the incident of the first murder. In that account, the question is posed, one that presses us more than any question except the one concerning our relation with God and what to do with sin: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The response given here by James is: YES! Part of living in community, which is what the church fundamentally is, is watching out for others while they are in the fold, but even more so when they wander from it. We don’t give up on each other because the church is not a holy club, it’s a family. We are our brothers’ keepers, and they ours. We do not work alone. The priesthood of believers means that all Christians are (under the Great shepherd) simultaneously sheep and shepherd. And what we do now, how we act that out, has far reaching consequences.

Question

Have you ever failed in your duty to brothers and sisters who have wondered far? Have you asked for forgiveness? Have you tried to do anything about it since?

James 5:17-18 (Lent Readings)

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.

18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

Comment

As an example of what I spoke of yesterday, James points to the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. He prayed, and something happened. The implication is that his prayer, in some way, had an external and not merely internal impact. Now, in light of yesterday’s passage and the reality of our life, it should be noted that, being a righteous person was because he was following God’s will. It was God’s will to cause a drought and end it, for a very specific purpose. God was calling his children back and they needed to be woken up. Does this mean that if Elijah had prayed no such thing would have happened? I don’t know. I think either God would have worked in a different way, or found a different person, but my hunch is that to ask such a question is a mistake because this is the episode that marks the beginning of Elijah’s entrance into Scripture. We don’t know anything else about him before this. My hunch is that, if Elijah had not prayed, we would simply never have heard of him. That’s not to say that doing God’s will makes you famous, in fact it very often does quite the opposite, but it does mean that being in the will of God means our prayers have a real impact.

Question

Have you ever personally prayed, or known of someone who prayed, for something that seemed near impossible only to have it happen anyway? Who gets credit for it? The person praying or the One to whom we pray?

James 5:13-16 (Lent Readings)

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:

15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.

Comment

The main thrust here is that no matter what our circumstances, happy or sad, troubled or free, we should be in communication with God because it “availeth much.” However, this passage does raise some issues. What about the times I prayed in faith and the sick weren’t healed? Do I simply have to wait until they are “raised up” on the last day? On the one hand it is tempting to say that our prayers merely change us, but not God (I think C.S. Lewis said something similar), but that doesn’t seem to be the case with this passage. Here, it seems that our prayers do accomplish something. That it is important to bring others into the prayer and fervently pray. So how do we reconcile the disconnect? I don’t know for certain, but I have an idea. I think of it like I think of my relationship with my (still very young) children, after all, Jesus taught us to think of God as our Father. Now, when my kids ask me for something, I will do everything in my power to get it for them (or do it for them), at least most of the time. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have other plans, I very well may have and they were good plans, but there are certain aspects of those plans that can be done other times, or the particular aspects of which may be open to change (you want Strawberry Jelly instead of Grape? no problem). Yet, other times it is not in my children’s best interest for me to fulfill their requests. If they want another cookie at dinner, sometimes I need to say no because the sugar makes it hard for them to sleep, and they’ve really had a large meal. Sometimes it’s even trickier. For example, my daughter likes to get herself stuck in places and ask for help. Sometimes, I leave her there for a bit because a) she really can get it out and its good for her problem solving skills, or b) she needs to face (at least briefly) the consequences of her actions, or c) sometimes I’m doing something else. Now, I’m not suggesting God is ever busy doing something else, but I am suggesting that, in some way, perhaps a way we can’t see or even begin to comprehend (my kids don’t understand the complexity of sugar and how it affects sleep and future health issues), but that doesn’t mean it’s not for their betterment. Remember, we have a full eternity with God coming up, that’s the ultimate benefit of prayer. Sometimes, it may be in our best interest, in a way we can’t begin to fathom yet, for God to say “no,” even for our fervent prayer. Yet in that prayer, the “no” is still for our betterment.

Question

Have you ever had God say “no”? What might that situation look like if you put it in terms of a young child to a parent who says “no”? Do you think that our relationship with God can still be improved through the “no” answers that God gives to our prayers? In what ways?

James 5:10-12 (Lent Readings)

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

10 Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.

11 Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.

12 But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.

Comment

Now, near the end of the letter, James reminds those to whom he writes that the end of days is near (in light of the resurrection we are always in the last days). And in light of the eminent presence of Christ we are encouraged to endure in the midst of persecution, just as the prophets who were each intimately acquainted with God in the Old Testament. And that even Job, who may not have enjoyed the same intimacy as even the prophets, could endure, so much more should we. The final verse, which at first glance looks out of place, is an attempt to make it more practical. Rather than a legalistic rule to follow (as some do, particularly those who have problems with pledges and oaths in court), this is a principle in the face of persecution. All too easily those being persecuted could have found ways to avoid their persecution by deceiving those who were against them, only they thought it was not sin if they did not technically lie. Rather, James is encouraging them to be courageous. They need not hide who they are (as this ploy would likely be discovered), or make odd oaths as certain Pharisees and Sadducees were (swearing by the gold of the alter rather than the alter, etc) whom Jesus criticized. Instead, the Christian should be marked by integrity in all things, particularly in the face of persecution.

Question

Do you experience persecution? How does it compare to that of the prophets, most of whom were killed? If they can endure theirs, does it help you to endure yours? Have you ever been tempted to hide your faith to avoid persecution? How did you feel about your actions if you gave into the temptation?

James 5:7-9 (Lent Readings)

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.

Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.

Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.

Comment

James here now makes another appeal. This time he is appealing on the basis of the nearness of God. Because God is near, we are already in the last days. Because we are in the last days, we should be patient. This is the hardest part, between when the work is done and the harvest time. Christ has done the work. It is only ours to wait for the harvest.

Question

Do you sometimes get impatient waiting on God? What can we learn from how a farmer has to wait for a good crop yield?

Post Navigation