Is it me or is it him?

Everyone who thinks about God and talks about God is a theologian. Everyone who thinks and talks about what is good and what is true and what is beautiful is a philosopher. Everyone who looks at the created world and strives to understand some part of creation is a scientist.

But some theologians and philosophers and scientists are amateurs, while others are professionals.

In the sports world, the distinction between amateurs and professionals is whether they are paid. Amateurs may accept no money for their performances, but professionals are paid to perform. The distinction in other fields is not so clear. Some very amateur theologians and philosophers and scientists are paid well for what they write, while some very professional people in the same fields go unpaid.

One difference between amateurs and professionals is their awareness of what others in the field have written and said. They have read and thought about the writings considered important in that field. The professional does not need to agree with all that the leaders in the field have written. A biologist does not have to agree with Charles Darwin. (Most don’t.) A psychologist does not have to agree with Sigmund Freud. (Most don’t.) But, as professionals, they are aware of what these past masters have proclaimed, and they are able to relate the thoughts of the past masters to their own work.

A second difference between amateurs and professionals is their careful use of words. They are not sloppy in defining terms; they generally use the same words with the same meanings as those who have been professionals in that field in the past. If it is necessary to coin a new word, or to give a new meaning to a standard word, professionals carefully define their terms so readers will not be confused by the new or changed term.

A third mark of professionals is clarity in communication. They do not ramble and wander about their field, but they explain their ideas in a way most adults can understand. The most brilliant mind is useless if its owner cannot speak and write clearly. When a speaker leaves audience members saying, “That is one smart person. I didn’t understand what was being said, but it sure sounded smart,” the speaker has failed as a professional. Audience members who heard a professional speaker say, “I never thought of that before,” or, “I really learned something today,” or, “That’s the first time I ever understood that idea.”

More distinctions could be found, such as sufficient confidence in one’s own ideas to be willing to hear and discuss contrary ideas, and the ability to debate without resorting to insults and condescending language. But those three are enough to lead into my title of, “Is it him or is it me?” If I am reading a famous book written by an acknowledged master in the field, and I am not understanding what I read, does the fault lie with me or with the writer?

I usually begin by assuming that, if I do not understand, the failure is mine. The writer would not be widely regarded as a professional if no one else understands what he or she was saying. On the other hand, I remember a professor in college saying of Immanuel Kant that Kant took great leaps in logic that lesser mortals were not always able to follow. At the time, I took the philosophy professor’s description at face value. But increasingly I wonder if the professor was warning us that Kant was not exactly professional, that his leaps of logic may be, in fact, holes in his system of thought.

This month I’ve been reading Gregory of Nyssa, a theologian of the fourth century, and I have found the reading discouraging. It seems that Gregory wanders and rambles, repeats himself, and does not communicate clearly. Therefore, I ask myself, “Is it him or is it me?” Or—a third possibility—is this just a bad translation? I have flipped ahead in the book and found shorter essays that may be more focused and professional. The first half of the book consists of a rebuttal to an Arian theologian named Eunomias. Maybe Gregory’s writing will be clearer when he deals directly with theological matters.

In fact, Gregory himself has given me that hope. Last night I read, “But I must hasten on, for I see that my treatise has already extended beyond bounds, and I fear that I may be thought garrulous and inordinate in my talk, if I prolong my answer to excess, although I have intentionally passed by many parts of my adversary’s treatise, that my argument might not be spun out to many myriads of words. For to the more studious even the want of conciseness gives an occasion for disparagement; but as for those whose mind looks not to what is of use, but to the fancy of those who are idle and not in earnest, their wish and prayer is to get over as much of the journey as they can in a few steps.”

In other words, this time it’s him. J.

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Theodicy

A fascinating conversation took place yesterday on the blog “See, there’s this thing called biology…” by InsanityBytes. (You can read it here.) In summary, IB wrote a splendid essay about the perspective of God, knowing all things, allowing his people to make bad choices and to suffer the consequences of those choices. She described God’s steadfast love, his patience with sinners in a sinful world, and his willingness to remain with us even when we are doing wrong over and over again. In response, a commenter raised the image of two horrific sins and, essentially, asked how a good and all-powerful God can watch such things happen and not intervene to prevent them.

This conversation is a version of a classic theological debate: If God is almighty, good, and loving, then why does he permit evil? Some people conclude that God is not almighty and cannot stop evil from happening, while others conclude that God is not good or loving. Still others use the existence of evil as proof that God does not even exist. One reasonable answer offered by believers is that the existence of evil is actually proof of the existence of God. If some things are right and other things are wrong, then there must be a source of ethics and morality. That source cannot be individual opinion or an agreement by the majority of people, because individual opinions and majority opinions can still be wrong. The Source of ethics and morality must be intelligent and personal, because ethics and morality do not exist apart from intelligence and personality.

Of course some believers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God, and also some unbelievers pay no attention to reason when they speak about God. Each side sometimes uses rhetoric and emotion to defend its position while refusing to consider the evidence for the opposite position. When one side attempts to use reason, the other side often ignores those reasonable statements, determined only to win the argument. Perhaps a Socratic conversation would do more to illustrate what I am describing. In the following dialogue, J is a reasonable Christian defending the propositions that God exists and that he is almighty, good and loving. K is a reasonable unbeliever who doubts the existence of God because of the existence of evil.

J: So you do not believe in God? Tell me about this God you reject, this God in whom you do not believe.

K: I cannot believe in a God who watches as terrible things happen and who does nothing to stop them from happening. I reject a God who has the power to do anything he wants, because that God permits suffering and tragedy and offers no hope to the victims. I refuse to honor a God who watches evil happen every day and never lifts a finger to stop it.

J: I see. I respect you for rejecting such a God. In fact, I don’t believe in that God either.

K: I thought you were a Christian.

J: I am a Christian. I worship and trust in a God who is holy, a God who hates evil, a God who provides for his people…

K: But your God still allows bad things to happen. Either he is not as powerful as you believe, or he is not as good as you believe.

J: How can you know whether or not God limits the power of evil? Who can count the number of times that God has restrained evil, saying, “This far you can go, and no farther”? Not only has God given his Law to the world, he has also threatened judgment on all who do evil.

K: You cannot prove to me that God has limited or prevented evil even once.

J: And you cannot prove to me that God is not constantly limiting evil and preventing greater wickedness than he has allowed. Therefore, we have to set aside the statement that God is doing nothing about evil, since it can be neither proven nor disproven.

K: Still, the fact that evil happens at all casts doubt on the existence of God.

J: Tell me what you would do about evil if you were an almighty God.

K: I would keep it from happening. It’s as simple as that.

J: Would you prevent every sin? Would you stop not only horrific crimes but also petty lies, dishonesty, and general rudeness as well?

K: If I were almighty, I would stop every kind of evil. If I could make a perfect world, then I would make sure it remains perfect.

J: And how would you stop people from doing bad things? When a person first tried to do something that was bad, would you snatch that person out of the world? Or would you impose your will on that person so that he or she was unable to do the bad thing that he or she had planned?

K: Well, snatching the bad people before they do bad things is tempting…

J: In that case, the world would be empty of people, because all of us do bad things every day. You and I would no longer be here to have this conversation.

K: And now you are going to say that making people unable to do bad things is unloving, right?

J: Yes, imposing your will on another intelligent being is unloving. How could anyone be good if no one had any knowledge of evil? When God gives rules, he also gives the ability to break those rules. Otherwise, the rules would have no purpose.

K: I believe it was Leibnitz who said that this is the best of all possible worlds, because if God took away our freedom to do wrong, the world would be less good than it is now. But I can conceive of many ways the world could be better than it is. That must make me wiser than your God.

J: Not necessarily. But we assumed a God who is not only almighty and good, but also loving. If you have ever loved anyone, you know that love makes you vulnerable. When you love, you do not try to control the one you love. Because you love, you give freedom to the one you love. That one can love you back, and can show his or her love in many different ways, or that one can choose not to show you love.

K: So love makes me weak? Perhaps we should become Buddhists and not allow ourselves to love anything or anyone.

J: Love does not make you, or God, weak. But it does make you, and God, vulnerable. Whenever you grant freedom to the one you love, you risk disappointment. But the disappointment of loving and not being loved in return is less than the sorrow of having no one able to love you at all.

K: So in love God permits people to do any bad thing they choose to do?

J: We have already discussed the possibility that God limits evil in the world.

K: Well, if I were an almighty God, I would at least limit evil far more often than your God limits evil.

J: Again, what would you do to the evildoer? Would you just pluck him or her out of the world?

K: If the evil was bad enough, yes I would. At the very least, I would take away all the murderers, those who torture others, the rapists…

J: How will you decide, then, which rules you will enforce and which bad deeds you will allow?

K: Any action that harms another living being will not be tolerated. The bad deeds that have no victims could be allowed.

J: Does that include careless mistakes that harm another living being, or only premeditated evil? And what of the neglect to do good? If one person starves and thousands are guilty of not giving that person food, will you remove all the thousands?

K: Once again you are painting me into the corner where the world is empty because every person has done something that harmed another living being in some way.

J: If we include careless mistakes and neglect to do good, everyone in the world is indeed guilty. But even seemingly petty bad deeds, such as shoplifting a piece of candy or telling a small lie, could be considered harmful to other living beings.

K: Maybe the best thing, then, would be to change the world so that no person can harm another living being. Whenever one person does something that is wrong, that person suffers, but no one else suffers for that bad deed.

J: That is an interesting thought. Consider a world where no one can hurt anyone else. Consider the perfect justice of everyone suffering exactly as he or she deserves, receiving the penalty for his or her bad deeds.

K: That world sounds better than this world.

J: Of course if one person could never hurt another person, then no one could ever help another person.

K: I don’t see how that follows.

J: If my deliberate cruelty, or my carelessness, or my failure to do good things could hurt no one but me, and no one else could be the victim of what I did, then no one would have any problems that he or she did not deserve.

K: Of course.

J: So no one would starve unless he or she deserved to starve, and no one would suffer unless he or she deserved to suffer.

K: Still true.

J: Then how can I do anything to help the hungry if they deserve to be hungry? How can I act to reduce suffering if all those who suffer deserve their suffering?

K: But we would still be able to help the people who deserve our help.

J: But that would be no one. Every single person would be getting exactly what he or she deserves—no more and no less.

K: Justice does tend to work that way.

J: Instead of creating a world of perfect justice, the almighty God created a world where people can hurt each other, but where people can also help each other and do good things for each other. People can be evil, but people also can be good.

K:  But God is not good if he allows people to hurt each other and does nothing to stop them. I know you said maybe he sometimes stops evil, but far too often he does not stop it from happening. Bad people get away with bad deeds all the time.

J: God has promised a Judgment Day when everyone will receive what he or she deserves. God has an eternal prison for those who break his rules and do not care about the harm they have done.

K: That Day has not happened yet, and believing that it will happen has not stopped people from doing bad things today. And your God just sits on his hands and watches, waiting for that Day while people suffer every single day without deserving to suffer.

J: You do agree, though, that it is better to live in a world where people can do good things even if that does make it possible for people to suffer?

K: I suppose so. I don’t see how that gets your God off the hook, though.

J: Suppose that, instead of sitting on his hands, God decides to come down and get involved in this world of suffering. Suppose that he even decides to find out how it feels to suffer.

K: I don’t see how that would make any difference.

J: That’s because you are not thinking about the way that people can help each other in this world. Because God became a victim of evil, he is able to rescue the victims of evil. Because he suffered, he is able to help those who are suffering.

K: I don’t see any evidence that such a thing has happened.

J: Surely at some point you have heard about Jesus giving his life on the cross.

K: I thought that was done to forgive sins. I don’t see any rescue happening on that cross. It helps the criminals but not the victims of the crimes.

J: Jesus suffered and died to take the penalty for every sin, every bad deed, even every careless deed and every sinful inaction. Being God, he was able to pay once for all the bad deeds of history. Now, because Jesus took that penalty, no one deserves to suffer. Every person has been rescued from receiving what he or she deserves, and instead every person can receive the rewards that Jesus earned by obeying all the rules.

K: If that is supposed to bring an end to suffering, why are people still suffering?

J: We have not yet reached the Day when the final results of what Jesus accomplished are revealed. From that Day on, this world will be perfect, and no one will suffer. But now God is patiently waiting for that Day.

K: And why is he waiting?

J: He is waiting for more people to find out what Jesus did for them and take the benefits of his sacrifice. He is waiting for more believers to enter his kingdom and be set free from all suffering. In a sense, he is waiting for you.

K: Waiting for me to do what?

J: Waiting for you to acknowledge his victory over evil and to trust his promises. Waiting for you to stop resisting his kindness and to start celebrating your place in his victory.

K: And God lets other people suffer while he waits for me?

J: It’s a bit more complicated than that. He calls on his people in this world to resist evil, to stop doing bad things and to oppose those who do bad deeds. The actions of his people to make the world better are part of God’s victory over evil. Sharing the good news of his promises is also part of his victory.

K: Well, God is going to have to wait a little longer. I still cannot accept the evil he allows to happen in this world.

J: I hope you are right that it will be only “a little longer.” God has not only tolerated the bad deeds of other people. He has tolerated every bad deed you have ever done as well. Jesus paid to redeem you, and God wants to include you in his victory. He knows that you hate evil, and he hates evil too. But he is willing to tolerate the existence of evil, defeated as it is, for a little longer so he can increase the joy of his eternal victory celebration with more redeemed sinners gathered into the fold.

 

Soren Kierkegaard

He was a theologian, a philosopher, a poet, and a public figure. He tried to use his personal experiences as metaphors for the life of Christian faith. He sought to reform Christianity in his homeland, but he ended up confusing both believers and unbelievers. He is called the father of existentialism, although he probably would recognize no relationship between his writings and the existentialists of later generations.

Soren Kierkegaard was born in Denmark in May 1813. By virtue of his birth in Denmark and his baptism, he was officially a Christian citizen of a Christian land. The state church in Denmark was Lutheran, but its schools of theology and philosophy were heavily influenced by the great thinkers of the time, particularly Hegel. Many common Christians reacted against the state church with a movement called Pietism, which stressed an inner, emotional relationship with God. Kierkegaard’s family was drawn toward Pietism and it is reflected in his writings; but Kierkegaard opposed both the philosophic Christianity of the state church and the sometimes shallow and prosaic thinking of the Pietists.

Kierkegaard wrote his Master’s thesis on The Concept of Irony, with regard especially to the person of Socrates. Much of the rest of his writing, both published and private, reflected his interest in irony. Kierkegaard wrote many of his greatest works under pseudonyms, which was not unusual in the nineteenth century—Samuel Clemens wrote as Mark Twain and Charles Dodgson as Lewis Carroll. But Kierkegaard employed a series of pseudonyms, each using a different approach toward communication and toward understanding truth. In this way, he experimented with various ways of dealing with the conflicts within the Christian teachings of his time, without necessarily committing himself to any one approach. If Kierkegaard were alive today, he likely would have six or seven WordPress accounts, each under a different name, each publishing different messages, and probably debating one another in the comments of each blog.

Under his own name, Soren Kierkegaard published “Edifying Discourses” throughout his writing career. These were devotional essays, not in the sense of one or two page reflections on Christian topics, but more as lengthy (twenty pages or more) approaches to faith and Christian living. He wrote in the style of his time, not with short declarative statements, but with complex sentences that enabled him to relate a number of intertwined thoughts and themes. Although his writings are not easy to understand, they are worth the effort to read, for much of what Kierkegaard wrote nearly two hundred years ago applies to faith and Christian life today.

At the same time of his “Edifying Discourses,” Kierkegaard wrote a series of works that were semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical, somewhat philosophical, and somewhat theological. These include Either/Or, Fear and Trembling, Reflections, and Stages on Life’s Way. Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regina Olsen, to whom he was engaged for some weeks, apparently inspired much of his thinking about total commitment to God, renunciation of the world, the meaning of Christian faith, and the power of love—human love and God’s love. Fear and Trembling also marks the first of three great pre-Freudian psychological works, also including the Concept of Anxiety and The Sickness unto Death. In these three books, Kierkegaard explored the meaning of faith in the life of a sinful man, the need for God’s grace to bring, not only forgiveness of sins, but reconciliation to God and discovery of the true self.

Kierkegaard’s towering great works are the Philosophical Fragments and the ironically titled Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, which is several times as long as the work to which it is a postscript. The Fragments was Kierkegaard’s clearest statement of the meaning of Christianity to that time, although it is often overlooked in favor of the Postscript. In these works, Kierkegaard stated that “truth is subjectivity.” This does not mean that truth is relative, or that it is different for each individual. It means that truth is not significantly true if it does not matter to the believer. For example, if you are not Japanese and have no dealings with the government of Japan, the truth that Tokyo is the capital of Japan is probably not significant to you. You know it is true, but you do not treat it as a Truth. Kierkegaard spoke against those writers who contemplated the truths of Christianity without treating them as significant truths, but merely used them as starting points to wander into deep thoughts far removed from Christian Truth.

Kierkegaard did not believe that it is necessary to prove the existence of God. He found every such truth to be evidence of a lack of faith rather than evidence of Christian faith. In so doing, Kierkegaard compared Christian faith to a leap into the unknown, trusting the promises of God without requiring proof as a prelude to faith.

At this point in his career, Kierkegaard became a public figure in Denmark much as the Kardashians are public figures today. People did not understand what he wrote, and they did not try to understand. Instead, the newspapers mocked his posture, his wardrobe, and other aspects of his personal life. Instead of defending himself, Kierkegaard used the experience of public ridicule to expose the problem of what George Orwell would later call “groupthink.” Kierkegaard insisted upon the importance of the individual against the demands of society. This led him to emphasize the Pietistic notion that individual faith matters more than church membership. As a result, Kierkegaard’s later writings constitute attacks on what today would be labeled “organized religion,” although these attacks were interspersed with continued devotional discourses which contain some of the most beautiful and meaningful expressions of faith and Christian living that he ever produced.

Kierkegaard is considered difficult to read today. He used the writing style of his time, and often parodied that style in his effort to undercut the prevalence of Hegelian thinking among the professional writers of his time. At the same time, no reader can understand Kierkegaard without first comprehending the Biblical themes that inspired him, as well as the writings of Martin Luther and of the Lutheran theologians who followed Luther. Kierkegaard’s writings cannot be meaningfully reduced to a sentence-a-day calendar. Many of the quotes of Kierkegaard that appear in later writings are taken out of context, ignoring the approach of the pseudonym under which he was writing, or missing the surrounding context which supplied meaning to the individual statement of a single sentence.

For those interested in starting to learn how Kierkegaard wrote, I recommend two of his shorter works. The first is Fear and Trembling, written during the time that Kierkegaard was obsessed with the Christian significance of his broken engagement. Using the account of Abraham, who was commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice to the Lord, Kierkegaard discussed the significance of doing what would otherwise seem wrong because the Lord commanded it. The second is The Sickness unto Death. Here Kierkegaard discusses the meaning of sin, of redemption, and of faith, all in context of his earlier writings (including the Concept of Anxiety and the Philosophical Fragments), but in a way that successfully stands alone. Read with the presupposition of the truth of Christian teachings, and with confidence in the truth of the books of the Bible, these works express a genuine and deep Christian faith and a thorough understanding of what it means to exist as a Christian in a largely-unbelieving world.

The twentieth-century existential writers considered themselves heirs of Kierkegaard, although he would have disagreed with most of what they wrote. Drawing on the themes of the importance of the individual, and the need for a subjective relationship with the Truth, those writers overlooked the Christian and Lutheran voice in Kierkegaard’s works and largely miss the real meaning of what he was communicating. In one sense, Kierkegaard would feel vindicated by this reaction; he frequently reveled in the knowledge that he was widely misunderstood. On the other hand, Kierkegaard appreciates the “single individual whom I can call my reader,” one who patiently follows Kierkegaard on his winding paths of communication and finds the treasures of Christ’s Gospel hidden in various places along those paths. I hope that, for this title of his reader, I am qualified. J.