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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Moving Past the Problem of Evil
A Fairfield presentation

John Milton wrote his great Epic, Paradise Lost, with the goal, as he said, of asserting Eternal Providence and justifying the ways of God to man. This project, as old as men’s belief in God, is called theodicy, which means to justify God, to explain how it is that evil comes into the world created by a Good God. Unfortunately, Milton ends up making a hero of Satan, who flamboyantly enters the story in doomed and dubious battle with nothing but the courage never to surrender his will to the overwhelming power of an absolute tyrant. Milton, however, does not leave Satan strutting in all his emo glory, but does reconcile how it is that God takes the glory even from this evil. Hell, we find, is not a realm beyond the glory of God, but the place where God relegates evil that he might regulate evil to his glory, evil being not beyond the divine but part of it. A universe of death, Milton says, which God by curse/ created evil.

But let us not too quickly blame blind old Mr. Milton. It is not his fault that the justification of God became an apology for evil. It is the fault, actually, of the project. All theodicies end like this - with God as evil, weak, or incompetent. Milton looked at the problem of evil and said God is in some way evil. Woody Allen looked at problem of evil and said that God is either impotent or an under-achiever. These are, I think, the three possible answers.

The problem of evil emerges from the contradiction of Christian dogmas:
God is good.
God cares about humans.
God is all powerful.
God is all knowing.
God is ever present.
There is evil in the world.

The project of justifying God, for someone who is orthodox, is to explain how all of those statements about God can be true, given the fact of evil. There are a number of unorthodox solutions, such as Maltheism which denies that God is good and that he cares about humans, Open Theism which denies God is all-knowing, and post-holocaust theology which denies God is ever-present. If we are willing to give up these propositions about God, then there is no problem of evil. To remain within Christian orthodoxy, though, we must maintain all of those propositions as true, even in a world where evil exists.

Christian theodicies can be grouped into two types: the free will answer, and the purposes-of-God answer.

The free will answer says that evil exists in the world because God gave men free will and with that will men chose evil. That is to say that the Good, caring, powerful, and present God gave men freedom, gave them a will to act against him, and that with that will they chose evil. Or, rather, they created evil by choosing against God. The relieves God of responsibility by saying that it isn’t God who perpetuates evil in the world, but men. God is not responsible for the massacre of children while the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph fled by cover of night to Egypt, Herod is. The problem though is that we were created by God. We were given wills and placed in a world such that we chose evil, we willed against God. Why did humans, made in the image of God, choose evil? There had to have been some flaw in our nature, or our will, or the world, such that evil appeared to us to be the better choice? Only God can be responsible for the fact that the will of Eve was deceivable, that the will of Adam was weak enough to fall. Even Satan, said to be the height of the light and glory of created beings, was contaminated by pride, greed and envy. This leaves us to point out that God created and is therefor responsible for these wills and these beings and this world, such that they begat evil, and to ask, is this the best God could do? Therefor I don’t see how “free will” relieves God of responsibility for evil, or justifies him in the face of it.

Of course, not all Christians believe in free will and there is then another answer to the problem of evil. In fact, even among those who do believe in man’s free will the second answer is readily banked upon. It is after all, probably the most quoted verse of the bible - Romans 8:28: All things work together for good. This position holds that, all right, evil exists in the world but it exists for a purpose and even though we do not know the specifics of that purpose, we know that it is good and for the glory of God. As I recently heard Dr. Burke explain this position, even though there is evil in this world, it’s probably there for a purpose, brings some good result in the future. Evil, that is to say, has a purpose, and that purpose is good and therefor evil is a means to good. I doubt you can go to a Christian funeral in this county without hearing this argument or some version of it. Of course this is not just a Christian argument, but the argument used everywhere people are treated as a means and not the end. It is the argument of tyrants and terrorists, who say their evil is just “collateral damage” and the breaking of eggs for the purpose of an omelet. Which is to say, this argument is hideous. This is not a description of a Good God who cares about people, but about who one doesn’t give a damn about people, who is self-serving, self-aggrandizing, and who is, at least in part, evil.

I suppose some of you figured I was going to give the third Christian answer to the problem of evil. The non-answer answer which goes “how can you judge God? By what criterion can you evaluate God?”

I once found this a compelling case, but now oppose this answer to the problem of evil for a few reasons. First, we must judge him lest we accept as God something which isn’t God. How else can we separate idols from the true God, separate God from false doctrines about God, from theories and projections of ourselves. Second, the criterion for judging God is God’s revleation of himself. If God tells me that he is Good, is love, is just, merciful, powerful, and so on, and I talk about God as if he is weak, brutal, arbitrary, and merciless, then one or the other of us must be wrong. Third, I reject this answer because it’s a really horrible thing to say to someone suffering or in pain from the effects of evil.

Now I don’t want you to think that I’ve made these answers up. For this reason I want to mention a Southern Baptist seminarian I know, who attempted to “answer the God-critics” last year in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Southern Baptist seminarians, I think it’s safe to say, are less prone to heresy than was John Milton. His agreement, as to the problem of evil in regards to the dead and the devastated on the Gulf Coast, was 1) maybe they had no right to be there and so it was their own fault; 2) the area was a cesspool of sin and deserving the judgement of God and so it was their own fault; 3) maybe it was God’s will for these people to die and/or God has the right to kill people; 4) maybe it wasn’t evil.

Lest you’ve forgotten, this is not a theoretical question. Where theological debates about the Trinity, or the divinity and humanity of Jesus certainly have consequences, the problem of evil begins with the consequences and those consequences have names and faces. In my case,* a theodicy is what I’m going to say to my friend Marie, who was raped last fall and doesn’t think she can tell her parents because of how devastated they would be. The problem of evil has the name of John, who will live the rest of his life with schizophrenia. A theodicy is what I’m going to say to Mathew, who sat in the snow on a ski slope for 30 minutes waiting for an ambulance as his 22-year-old fiancee died. It is the face of Cathrine, who’s cries when she remembers how her son, my childhood friend, died in a fireworks accident. I don’t bring you these ghosts of my pain to shock you, or to stake a claim to pain. I am sure each person here has, in their lives, pain and evil and hurting people. What I’m saying is don’t forget them. Do not give any answer to the problem of evil that you wouldn’t give to them, that wouldn’t be credible when directed towards their pain, and their suffering. This is not a theoretical question and yet those Christian answers are theoretical answers. This is the test of any answer, any theodicy - does it cause an ethical response to the suffering? Does it cause us to act more like Christ?

To this point let me re-tell a story:

There once was a man riding from Jerusalem to Jericho, and on the way he was beset by thieves. They stole everything he had, leaving him naked, beaten, bleeding, and dying. Laying there, in mud and pain, he moaned “I have been forsaken by God.” A Christian passed and hearing him said, “God is not responsible for this. This evil came into the world by free will, God has nothing to do with it.” A second Christian passed and hearing the man he said, “this, like all things, will work for good. Be content knowing that this evil will be the means for good.” And in saying so he sided with the thieves. A third Christian passed, and hearing the man he chided him, saying “who are you to judge God? Is God to be held accountable to you?” Finally a fourth Christian passed and hearing the man he said nothing, he had no explanation for how it was that a Good, caring, knowing, present and powerful God could let this happen. So saying nothing he took the man and bound his wounds, carrying him to an inn and paying for his care. Now which of this four, do you think, acted rightly? Which of them went the farthest to justify God in the face of evil, in the face of pain?

I don’t have an answer to the problem of evil. I don’t have a theodicy. And I don’t have a way of making the question go away. My answer then, is to bracket off the question. I assert that God is good, cares for us, is all powerful, ever-present and all-knowing. I know that there is evil in the world and I don’t know how rectify that with the existence of my God. I am, in this sense, agnostic. I just don’t know. What I do know is that my answer to the problem of evil is unimportant. All the answers I know of or have ever heard are withered and weak, make a mockery of God and trivialize pain. But I am not required or called to answer the problem, or to make the question go away, but only to follow Christ in reaching out to the suffering. Granted, one could give any of those the standard Christian answers to the problem of evil and also act to care for the suffering. There are many, I’m sure, who do, and may God bless them. I encourage those Christians, though, to abandon those answers and embrace the actions. Let God justify God and let Christians act as if they see the face of God in the face of men.

My point, in conclusion, is that the correct Christian response to the problem of evil is not to act like theologians, but like Christ. Dr. Reist is found of telling a story where a praying priest, despairing of ever getting help from God, looks at his crucifix and yells, “don’t just hang there, say something.” Looking at Christian theodicies I despair, and I am saying, “Don’t just say something, hang there.”

*all names are changed

Points clarified in questions and answers:

I do believe that there’s answer to the problem of evil, that there is something that God says or can say to himself that explains the existence of evil. Given eternity and the possibility of infinite knowledge God could reveal the solution to us. For this reason also I do not hold that the question is wrong to ask, but that all the answers I have heard or have thought of are wrong.

I’ve conflated pain and evil more than they probably should be.

Even if the answers weren’t the wrong thing to say to someone suffering, they would be troublesome because they detract from the character of God. That is to say, even when disjoined from the ethical concerns these answers create more problems than they solve.

Jesus does say that the blind man was blind for the purposes of his glory. I don’t know how to deal with that.

I do not think the end of Job gives us a theodicy beyond “there is an answer, but it is beyond your comprehension. Glorify God.” I think the fact that Job is declared to have been righteous means that his demanding answers was not wrong.

I am uncomfortable with any theodicy that is abstract, which is not good as an answer to someone in pain, and think that all theodicies should end up urging us to love God, and love our neighbor.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Jesus Christ and Josey Wales
Reimagining the Christic “Sacrifice” through the American Western

Preliminary comments:
1. All Christians, by definition, agree that the crucifixion of Jesus, incarnate God, was an act in time with redemptive consequences. However, among Christians there are two theoretical debates – who and how.
2. These debates are, literally, besides the point. The question adressed here of how redemption happened or happens is important only inasmuch as it moves one towards a better understanding of Christ and that that understanding moves one to respond to redemption worshipfully.

1. There are various debated explanations as to how Jesus’ death is redemptive.
A) The Romans responded to the early Christian’s claim of crucified messiah was “so what?” (Justin Martyr quotation.)
B) My father, who did not grow up in a religious home, was baffled when he first heard of “Good Friday,” asking “If Jesus was a good guy, why do you call the day he was executed good?”

2. All of the explanations of the how of redemption are metaphors.
A) Legal justification metaphor. (C.S. Lewis/Chronicles of Narnia quotation).
B) Ransom metaphor. (St. Anselm quotation).
C) Bride metaphor (Quotation? God/man, dieing/undieing inversions).
a) These metaphors are not mutually exclusive.
b) Each specific metaphor has specific problems
i. A) seems to over-credit or normalize the system we need redemption from.
ii. B) seems to be a Manichean sort of dualism between God and Satan.
iii. C) doesn’t necessitate death or go beyond Christ-as-example.

In being metaphorical, the explanations for the how of redemption are not primarily or necessarily theoretical or theological.
1) Consequently, we are free to mine any field which might give us profitable metaphors.
2) Therefor let us here turn to literature, looking for a profitable metaphor to explain how redemption happens.
A) Literature is full of “Christ Figures,” that is, a character who parallels Jesus Christ in that he or she is messianic, of a higher or divine order, preforms miracles, imparts grace or forgiveness, brings about a new age, or is killed in a way that redeems others.
1) E.T. is a Christ figure in that E.T. is more evolved and therefore of a higher order, imparts wisdom, and marks the advent of a new age of peace and understanding.
2) William Wallace in Brave Heart is a Christ figure in that Wallace is of a “heroic” and thus higher order, preforms miracles (of a sort), brings about a new age, and is killed in a way that redeems others.
(Note: Science Fiction films are filled with redemptive themes and Christ figures and, in the opinions of some scholars, took in the 70s and 80s the socio-cultural place of the 40s and 50s Biblical epics of DeMille and others. Mel Gibson’s films are filled with Christ figures and almost every character he plays is tortured in a pivotal scene (What Women Want may be the only exception).

3) We are going to look at the American Western for a Christ figure and a Christic “sacrifice” metaphor.
A) Because I like Westerns.
B) Because it gives me an excuse to watch Westerns.
C) Seriously, because the Western is definitive for America’s understanding of itself and everything else. If one wants to understand America one only needs to understand this genre, from “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s Wild West Show to the first Western film Cripple Creek Barroom to High Noon to Clint Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns to Star Wars to Kevin Costner’s Open Range a few years ago. Or, to put it another way, the Western is ever-changing genre illustrating the American psyche as it changes from the Indian Wars and Westward expansion to “Roaring 20s” to the Cold War to the late Cold War to the present War on Terror.

4) The hero-gunslinger of the Western at first appears to be an objectionable Christ figure.
A) The hero-gunslinger is violent.
B) The hero-gunslinger is a fallen human, esp. in the more recent “revisionist” or anti-hero Westerns, e.g. The Wild Bunch and The Unforgiven.

There are three ways in which the hero-gunslinger exeplifies the Christic action that results in redemption, which might be helpful in reimagining the how of redemption.

1) The hero-gunslinger protects and defends weak strangers without personal benefit or without or beyond reason.
A) Josey Wales gathers a motley and rag-tag caravan, which slows him done and leads to his death.
a) A hostile and biggoted old women
b) A retarded girl.
c) A distrusting Cherokee.
B) Shane protects farmers that disgust him. (Quotation.)
C) John Wayne in The Searchers protects those he considers to be the enemy, who are tainted by the very evil he's fighting.
a) A half-Anglo, half-Comanche boy.
b) A culturally Comanche girl.
c) An estranged family and their stupid neighbors.

Imaginations: The hero-gunslinger-Christ gathers to himself the weak , the dispossessed, and the unlikable, becoming one of them.

2) The hero-gunslinger engages in the system of violence in order to overthrow that system, taking all of the violence upon or into himself.
A) John Wayne’s Searcher takes scalps, and is equal to the brutality of the Comanches. He is a man who, in hating the Comanche's brutality and ugly life, hates his own violence.
B) Josey Wales is a “bush whacker” who guns down a score of men and who is falsely said to have killed between 50 and 100. He is portrayed as a man, to quote another Eastwood film, who knows that "it's what people know about themselves inside that makes them afraid."
C) Shane learns the peaceful life of the hard-working farmer, but restraps on his gun in order to meet as an equal the mercenary killer hired by the rancher to drive out the farmers.

Imaginations: By partaking in violence, the hero-gunslinger-Christ ends violence. He, quoting the New Testament, “brings the kingdom of God by violence, takes it by force.” The most violent part of the Western is always the final showdown, which brings about the self-desdruction of the violent system and results in a new age of peace, a new Eden or Kingdom of God. The hero-gunslinger-Christ uses violence in an inverted way, to protect the peaceful, end the reign of brutal force, and move the violence to consume itself.

3) Despite pleas to stay, the hero-gunslinger always dies or leaves, lest he recreate the system of violence and bloodshed.
A) Shane doesn’t come back but rides over the hill. (“Shane! Come back! Shane!”)
B) The last shot of The Searchers shows John Wayne outside the cabin from inside the cabin, framing him in the cabin door and showing him almost ritually removed from the home to which and for which he’s brought peace.
C) Joesy Wales eventually stays in what one character actually describes as “New Eden,” but only undergoing a ritual death and resurrecting as a new man, the non-heroic John Williams.

Imaginations: The hero-gunslinger-Christ takes all of the violence into himself, and then rather than becoming a new king which would necessarily be of the same likeness as the old king (The King is dead! Long live the King!) takes all of that away into the outer darkness or grave. By this inversion, from power for the sake of power to power that undermines and ends the power structure, he leaves behind him a space for a new sort of epoch, a kingdom of peace. With the hero’s literal or figurative death the age of death ends.

Summary: Using the American Western’s metaphor to explain how the Christic act brings redemption, we say that Christ gathers and defends the weak and worthless, engages and subverts the structure of power, and dies to create a space for an epoch of peace or the Kingdom of God.

Conclusion: This metaphor has the advantage of not over-crediting the rules of the system which Christ will overthrow, of avoiding a Manichean dualism, and of explication why Christ had to die.

This metaphor has the disadvantage of being about cowboys, who no one takes seriously.

Qualification: The claim here is very limited, claiming only that this might be a useful way to reimagine how Christ’s crucifixion was redemptive and that even if it isn’t, it may spur us to evaluate and consider what metaphors we do accept and use.


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