The Right ex-Reverend Eric MacDonald is kindly getting me up to speed on Christian theology. He’s recommended to me a series of books that cover the huge diversity of Christian views, although I’m always mindful that those represent the ideas of rarified academics rather than of most religious folks themselves.
My latest read is Introduction to Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives (1998), edited by Roger A. Badham. I so excited! The chapters include descriptions of “postmodern paleoorthodoxy,” “postliberal theology” (why is everything always “post”?), “correlational theology and the Chicago school,” “process theology and the current church struggle,” “black theology,” “womanist theology,” and “feminist trinitarian epistemology.” Why do I torture myself so? Must I read Duns Scotus next?
At any rate, one thing I already know, from a pre-read scan of the book, is that the writing is dreadful. Either theologians don’t care about whether they express themselves clearly, or they obfuscate deliberately to hide the awful fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about. I’ll render a verdict later. But here’s a sample from the very first page:
Most denominations are finding themselves to be somewhat latitudinarian reflections of the dynamic currents swirling through both church and culture as we approach the third millennium. New and old lights, as it were, vie side by side in attempts to define future direction.
English translation: Theology has no idea where it’s going.
“Somewhat latitudinarian reflections”? What are they? And is there such a thing as a static current? “As it were”? As what were? This dude badly needs to read Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English language.”
Bad writing aside, I am at a disadvantage reading this stuff, for I keep approaching it like a scientist. Every time someone makes a claim about God, I ask myself, “How do you know that?” Such is the unbridgeable gap between science and faith, for the honest answer to that question is always, “I don’t!”
Here’s an example. The editor, Roger Badham, admits frankly that Christianity was complicit in the evils of the Holocaust and other persecutions, and then takes up the thorny problem of why a supposedly good God allows evil to exist at all. Bear with me as I reproduce his theodicy-based solutions:
A central question that haunts both Jewish and Christian post-Holocaust theology is that of theodicy. Why, if God acts in history, was the Holocaust permitted to happen? A God who has the power to intervene, but who does not, surely stands indictable of injustice. There are many attempted solutions: The classical Greek model of God is of a Being beyond time, an unrelated Absolute, immutable and static. Immutability and omnipotence remain at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of God, but he stresses that God is in all parts of creation, and is by no means removed from it. Schubert Ogden claims that God’s “body is the whole universe of nondivine beings”: therefore, all creatures are effected by God and effect God, and experience levels of freedom. Paul van Buren, adopting this process model, argues for the self-limiting character of God through the creation of self-determining agents, after which even power is social—shared between God and humanity in covenant together. God’s power is not absolute, but is relational and persuasive, and can therefore be profoundly frustrated. Because God is relational, God is affected by, and suffers with, creation. Tillich’s Kierkegaardian approach is compatible: If moral freedom is an inseparable trait of being human, for God to restrain evil would be synonymous with taking away our humanness. God has provided us already with every gift possible by which the Holocaust was to be prevented. [JAC: I am not making this up.] Tillich moves away from personalist or supernaturalist assertions about God as a superbeing or agent, and speaks instead of God as the ground of Being and as Being itself. God is therefore perceived as the ground of agency rather than as an agent, which profoundly changes one’s theological view of God. Put differently, H. Richard Niebuhr insists that “responsibility affirms—God is acting in all actions upon you. So respond to all actions upon you as to respond to [God’s] action.”
Now I’m not going to go through these “solutions” and criticize them. We’ve done that already. And some of them don’t even make sense, like the “ground of Being.” I want to make just two points. First, as the editor notes, there are many attempted solutions. Indeed: this paragraph has at least five. So if you’re interested in understanding why there is evil, and you consider these and all the other solutions, which one is the right one? And don’t say that the only thing that matters is that there are solutions, for the different solutions make importantly different claims about the nature of your god.
There is no way of knowing, no way of deciding among them. Such is the briar patch that ensnares you when you do theology.
Second, do any of these people ever consider the alternative and more parsimonious hypothesis: “there is no problem because there is no God”? If a scientist were writing this, she’d first have to adduce evidence for a divine being, and for its nature, before showing how that being comports with evil.