Friday, December 28, 2012

In good company (or, the futility of theodicy)

Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?
by Ann Kim
A version of this post was previously published on the ABPnews Blog maintained by Associated Baptist Press.
Today, the fourth day of Christmas, is the Feast of the Holy Innocents--a feast invested with special significance this year. It was the innocence of the twenty youngest victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, all the ages of my son and his first-grade classmates, which made this latest mass shooting most enduringly haunting.
Their innocence also underscores the incapacities of the major approaches to theodicy for offering a satisfying resolution to the tension between Judeo-Christian affirmations of the goodness and omnipotence of God on the one hand and the ongoing existence of evil and suffering in God’s world on the other.
“Theodicy,” literally a “justification of God” in relation to the observation that all is not right with the present state of the world, is a philosophical legacy of the Enlightenment (Gottried Leibniz first employed the term in 1710). But the questions a theodicy seeks to answer are as old as humanity, for many ancient religions and philosophical systems represent attempts to answer them.
In antiquity and modernity, Christian thinkers have proposed various ways of relating what they affirm about the character of God to the sufferings that mark life in God’s world. Many in the Christian tradition have concurred with Augustine of Hippo (354-430), for whom humanity is to blame for the way things are: people use their God-given freedom to choose evil rather than good, and innocent people suffer as a result. Yet over two centuries earlier Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 115-ca. 202) seemed to suggest that the possibility of suffering was part of God’s good creation from the beginning as necessary for helping people grow toward everything God intended humanity to be, a suggestion developed more fully in recent years by John Hick (1922-2012).
The Reformed tradition exemplified by John Calvin (1509-64) offered a twofold answer: God makes use of some instances of suffering to punish the wicked and discipline God’s people; in all instances God has a good purpose for suffering, but we cannot understand God’s purposes this side of heaven. (Echoes of this perspective are discernible in the public responses of some prominent American evangelicals to the tragedy in Newtown.) Others have proposed that the present state of the world is best explained in terms of a limitation of God’s omnipotence that is either constitutional or volitional—that is, either God is the sort of God that cannot do anything about innocent suffering, or else God can but chooses to be the sort of God that never overrides the free choices of people and their consequences.
In the wake of December 14, such ancient and modern proposals seem insufficient or even outrageously indecent when we use them to try to wrap our minds around our imaginings of what happened inside two first grade classrooms.
People of faith have been trying to wrap their minds around the reality of innocent suffering for a long time. The biblical book of Job portrays its main character as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” The book of Job tells a story inspired by a question: what if a completely innocent person were to suffer unjustly?
It’s a question that calls into question a common assumption of ancient near eastern people: if you do good, God will reward you with health and wealth, peace and security, and a long life. The corollary of that is that if you’re sick or poor or suffering the effects of a natural disaster or dying an untimely death, it must be that you’ve done something wrong and God is punishing you.
That’s not just an ancient assumption. If an earthquake produces a tsunami that kills hundreds of thousands of people in Southeast Asia, it must be because those people didn’t worship the right God. If a hurricane floods a gulf coast city and kills almost 2,000 people, it must be that that the people of that city did evil. If a tornado strikes a convention center while a church denominational convention is meeting there, it must be that God is giving them a warning because they welcome the wrong sorts of people into their churches. If an earthquake levels the cities of an impoverished Caribbean country, it must be because its citizens engaged in witchcraft. And it wasn’t long into the afternoon of December 14 before someone with access to a media megaphone blamed the deaths of twenty young children on America’s supposed “removal” of God from public schools.
Many of the people of God thought like that in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple and the deportation of its citizens to Babylon in 586 BC, which seems to be the time when Job’s story came to be written. But might it be possible that one could live an upright life and still suffer? If that’s the case, what does that say about God and God’s relationship with us?
Job is blameless and upright, one who fears God and turns away from evil—and yet the very things thought to befall the evil as punishment for sin happen to Job. He loses his family and flocks and fields; he loses his health; he falls into deep depression and feels abandoned by the God who to him is silent. Job’s very name means “enemy” in Hebrew, and he comes to see himself as God’s enemy because of his suffering and God’s silence. If good Job experiences such suffering, maybe no one’s exempt.
Yet the role Job plays in this story isn’t fully embodied by Job himself. Job may approximate blamelessness and uprightness, but Jesus is right: “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18) There’s a sense in which Jesus is the “real Job,” a concept the late Baptist theologian James Wm. McClendon, Jr. developed in his Systematic Theology in a section critical of modern theodicies. Unlike Job, Jesus is perfectly blameless and perfectly upright, fully fearing God and turning away from evil without exception. And even Jesus, the “real Job,” the only perfectly blameless and upright person who has ever lived, suffers. If even this one suffers, no one is exempt. It is the reality of our world.
During Holy Week many Christians give voice to the reality of our world with a Good Friday recital of Psalm 22. Its opening words are Jesus’ final words from the cross in Mark’s version of the story: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet Christians have found various ways to distance good Jesus from what those words mean at face value. Some point out that later in Psalm 22 the psalmist does declare trust in God, and they suppose that by quoting from the beginning of that Psalm, Jesus is really invoking the entirety of the psalm and its expression of trust in God. But that’s not the part Jesus quotes. Some see this cry as suggesting that in this moment Jesus is bearing the sins of the world and that God the Father, who is holy and supposedly cannot look upon sin, turns his back on Jesus. There are all sorts of problems with that take on Jesus’ cry: nowhere does the text even remotely hint at anything like that, and that interpretation has all manner of problematic implications for how God relates to sinful people like us in our suffering. No, Jesus’ words must mean what they say: they express the paradox that God in the flesh has become God-forsaken. God has fully experienced the God-forsaken feeling of suffering people like Job, who sense in their suffering only God’ silence and absence.
One of my favorite artistic renderings of Jesus’ crucifixion is a 1998 painting by Korean-American artist Ann Kim. Her painting is titled “Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani,” Jesus’ cry from Psalm 22 in the Aramaic language Jesus spoke. The painting is striking in its perspective—most depictions of Jesus on the cross look at Jesus from below, standing on the ground looking up at Jesus hanging on the cross. Ann Kim’s painting looks down on the cross from above. It’s a God’s-eye view of the cross, looking down on an expressionistically-painted, ghost-like naked and hairless figure, face desperately straining toward heaven, sunken eyes wide with terror, and mouth gaping open in a scream that evokes the expression in Edvard Munch’s famous 1893 painting “The Scream”—which many have seen as Munch’s portrayal of the cry of modern humanity, for whom God is dead with nothing to replace God. Kim’s God’s-eye painting of Jesus’ scream “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does justice to Jesus’ God-forsaken agony.
Where was God in Jesus’ God-forsaken agony? Not turning God’s back, not refusing to look on the sin Jesus bore, but precisely with Jesus. Indeed, the suffering Jesus is God. If we believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, that doesn’t cease to be true on the cross. The fully divine and fully human Jesus experiences fully the sufferings of the cross and fully suffers them as God—and so God fully does with us in our suffering. The Holy Spirit that is God’s perpetual presence everywhere in the world is also in particular fully present with Jesus in his sufferings and fully experiences his sufferings, just as the Holy Spirit that dwells within us fully does with us in our suffering. The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is made known to us in Jesus Christ, who according to the author of Hebrews “sympathizes”—“suffers with”— us.
What we Christians have isn’t a solution to the problem of evil and suffering, but a response. It’s the response of the Triune God to the reality of a suffering world. God responds by being fully present with that world, suffering with that world, lamenting the God-forsaken experience of that world and doing something about it. It’s also the response of God’s people, who are called to do what God does: to be present with suffering people, suffer with suffering people, and lament their seemingly God-forsaken suffering—which is to agree with God’s perspective on the injustice of their experience and to join God in doing something about the injustice of their lot in life.
In the Job story, Job’s friends don’t get a terribly sympathetic portrayal. When they hear of Job’s suffering they come to be with him, but they feel compelled to say something, and when they do it’s not very helpful. (There’s a lot of that going around.) They’re sure Job must have done something to bring such suffering on himself, and they tell him so. But something else Job’s friends do is underappreciated: Job’s friends were with Job when everyone else had abandoned him. And that’s all we have to do: we don’t have to have the right thing to say to help people in their suffering (though we can assure them God is with them and joins them in their suffering). All we have to do is be with them, and when we do so we embody the presence of God. And if we are with them, we will share their suffering, and we’ll find ourselves crying out to God in lament over it and motivated to do something to join God in working against its causes.
When people suffer, they’re in good company. They’re in the company of Job, who was renowned as good and suffered anyway. They’re in the company of Jesus, who was perfectly good, and suffered anyway. They’re in the company of the Triune God, who suffers as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the sufferings of the cross and in the sufferings of everyone, who laments their sufferings and works against the causes of their sufferings. When people suffer, Christians are called to be part of that good company as the body of Christ on earth.
That’s how God and God’s people respond to the sufferings of this present world. It’s not a theodicy, but something much better: it’s the Good News.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Musings on theodicy after Sandy Hook

My blog post "In good company (or, the futility of theodicy)" appears today on the ABPnews Blog hosted by Associate Baptist Press. Next week I'll post the full text here on Ecclesial Theology. In the meantime, here's an excerpt:

It was the innocence of the twenty youngest victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, all the ages of my son and his first-grade classmates, which made this latest mass shooting most enduringly haunting.

Their innocence also underscores the incapacities of the major approaches to theodicy for offering a satisfying resolution to the tension between Judeo-Christian affirmations of the goodness and omnipotence of God on the one hand and the ongoing existence of evil and suffering in God’s world on the other... (read the full post on the ABPnews Blog)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus

Ecclesial Theology is a little late in calling attention to the most recent book by my former Campbell University colleague and fellow Texas native (and North Carolina transplant) Adam C. English, having been preceded by significant media notices and interviews that have included The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and North Carolina Public Radio. Readers of this blog who weren't yet aware of The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra (Baylor University Press, 2012) will want to check out the book's web site and order a copy. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus establishes Dr. English as a scholar of wide-ranging interests who communicates the import of his research compellingly to the contemporary church and its culture, provides yet more evidence that Baylor University Press has emerged as an academic publisher that successfully advances first-rate scholarship in a trade market, and furthers the trajectory of Baptist theological work that engages the tradition of the whole church as the heritage of Baptists and all other Christians.

Monday, December 10, 2012

40 Great Books on Missional-Ecumenism

I'm grateful to John H. Armstrong and the Act 3 Network for including my book Ecumenism Means You, Too: Ordinary Christians and the Quest for Christian Unity (Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2010) in the organization's recommended list of books on the church, mission, and unity: "40 Great Books on Missional-Ecumenism."

Interested in reading Ecumenism Means You, Too? Order the book directly from the publisher or via Amazon (paper and Kindle formats available).

Friday, December 7, 2012

Ambrose of Milan, Advent hymns, Charles Wesley, individual eschatology, and ecumenism

5th-century (or possibly contemporary?)
mosaic, Basilica of St. Ambrose, Milan
Can a brief blog post possibly tie all those things together?

Today (December 7) is the feast day of St. Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339-397), regarded by many as the "father of Christian hymnody" due to his role in popularizing the singing of metrical liturgical hymns in the Western church. I've frequently invoked Ambrose's hymns in my Christian Theology courses to illustrate the lex orandi, lex credendi ("rule of praying, rule of believing)" principle of the coinherence of the church's liturgy and theology, for he composed numerous hymns that reinforced Nicene orthodoxy at a time when its reception in Northern Italy was in doubt. Many of these hymn texts are included in the hymnals of various Christian denominational traditions today, including the Advent hymn "Savior of the Nations, Come" that was later popularized through a German translation of its Latin text by none other than Martin Luther. (My personal favorite Ambrosian hymn in English translation is "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright," a recent choral setting of which may be heard here.)

Speaking of Advent hymns, yesterday evening I continued my custom of introducing the unit on "individual eschatology" in my Christian Theology II course with Charles Wesley's hymn "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending" (a nice choral rendition of the hymn by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir may be heard here). It's one of the few eschatologically-themed hymns included in North American evangelical hymnals that treat the return of Christ in terms broader than the occasion for eternal life in heaven, and its stanzas help the class place individual eschatology within the context of the preceding unit on cosmic eschatology.

For the past five years the singing of that hymn has powerfully recalled to my mind one of the most meaningful ecumenical gatherings in which I've ever participated. The December 2007 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance-Roman Catholic Church international theological conversations in Rome coincided with an ecumenical worship service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Charles Wesley. The members of the Baptist and Catholic delegations were privileged to attend this service at which both Walter Cardinal Kasper (then President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright spoke and during which we sang several of Wesley's hymns, including the well-known "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling" as well as "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." We were reminded that something Baptists and Catholics share in common today, beyond many other things we discussed that week, is our mutual reception of the heritage of Wesleyan hymnody in our services of worship.

With controversy over language regarding the participation of the Jews in the crucifixion of Jesus in a proposed text for a renewed Latin Tridentine rite mass very much in the news then, as we walked from the Basilica back to our bus after that service several of us were discussing the seeming anti-Semitic overtones in the second stanza of "Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending." As I suggested to my students last evening, while it's probable that Wesley had the Jews in mind in the second stanza ("Those who set at naught and sold him / Pierced and nailed him to the tree / Deeply wailing... / Shall their true Messiah see"), it's also possible to hear stanzas two and three as referring to the same group of people: for we, sinful yet redeemed humanity, are simultaneously "those who set at naught and sold him" and "his ransomed worshipers" whose twofold response to the coming of the Lord is both "deep wailing" and "endless exultation." For what it's worth.