Saturday, July 28, 2007

the veil of self-sin, pt. 2...

"Self is the opaque veil that hides the face of God from us. It can be removed only in spiritual experience, never by mere instruction. We may as well try to instruct leprosy out of our system... We must bring our self-sins to the cross for judgment. We must prepare ourselves for an ordeal of suffering in some measure...

Let us remember that when we talk of the rending of the veil we are speaking in a figure, and the thought of it is poetical, almost pleasant, but in actuality there is nothing pleasant about it. In human experience that veil is made of living spiritual tissue; it is composed of the sentient, quivering stuff of which our whole beings consist, and to touch it is to touch us where we feel pain. To tear it away is to injure us, to hurt us and make us bleed.

It is never fun to die. To rip through the dear and tender stuff of which life is made can never be anything but deeply painful. Yet that is what the cross did to Jesus and it is what the cross would do to every man to set him free... God must do everything for us. Our part is to yield and trust... We dare not rest content with a neat doctrine of self-crucifixion. Insist that the work be done in very truth and it will be done.

The cross is rough and it is deadly, but it is effective. It does not keep its victim hanging there forever. There comes a moment when its work is finished and the suffering victim dies. After that is resurrection glory and power, and the pain is forgotten for joy that the veil is taken away and we have entered, in actual spiritual experience, the presence of the living God." - A. W. Tozer

Thursday, July 26, 2007

the veil of self-sin...

"This veil is not a beautiful thing and it is not a thing about which we commonly care to talk... the self-sins are self-righteousness, self-pity, self-sufficiency, self-admiration... and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins - egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion - are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders, even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. I trust it is not a cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requisite for popularity in some sections of the church... Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice." - A.W. Tozer

Sunday, July 15, 2007

sketching a theodicy...

In my Philosophical Theology II class (which just ended), we spent a considerable amount of time discussing various theological approaches to the problem of evil. One of the things our prof. asked us to do was to sketch out a preliminary theodicy of our own. I am going to post mine here (edited a bit for space) in order to hopefully get some feedback. So, here we go... it's a bit long, so bear with me... :-)

As I begin to think through my own theodicy, I find that I have the most in common with the “free will defense.” The primary reason for this is my desire to hold onto three things: 1) Christian orthodoxy, 2) Rational practicability, and 3) Existential hope. I wish to remain logically consistent and biblically sound, recognizing that my hermeneutic will have a direct affect on my theodicy.

It is important, as Barth was fond of saying, “to begin at the beginning.” Therefore, I will begin my theodicy with a brief description of the problem of evil. God, as traditionally understood, is both all-powerful, and totally good. And yet, evil exists. While some have opted to respond to this problem by denying God’s omnipotence or God’s goodness (or God's existence!), I believe that both of these can continue to be affirmed without making God culpable for the existence of evil.

First, we must examine the traditional Christian understanding of God. God, in order to be God, must contain all God’s attributes in their totality. To be sure, we should, as Bloesch implores, always remember that God is not contained in attributes, nor captured by any human terminology. (Bloesch, Donald. God The Almighty, p. 34-35) Any sentence that begins with “God is…” necessitates a predicate that cannot be adequately expressed in human terms, because of God’s infinite and inscrutable nature. However, when we do attempt to speak of God, Christian faith must guard against dualism, which means we are caught in a contradiction: We cannot say, for example, that God is both “good” and “evil” because we do not believe in a God who appropriates those terms haphazardly. God is ultimately good.

So then, how can we describe God? We can say that “evil,” rather than being an attribute in opposition to “good,” is instead the absence of good. Without resorting to monism, I believe that it is possible to develop a Christian understanding of evil as the absence of goodness. This, I suggest, is the case with every Godly attribute – its inverse is not an equal but opposite attribute, it is a lack; the absence of what could have been. Of course, this begs the questions of how evil got here and who is responsible for it. If we say that God contains the totality of God’s attributes, then if God causes or permits evil, God seems to lack total goodness, which means that we have to come up with an entirely different definition of God.

Is it possible to maintain the traditional Christian concept of God without attributing evil to God? Yes; we need not assume that God is to blame for evil. This is, in my view, because of the nature of the universe. If the Christian view of God is correct, one very interesting question is, how can anything at all in the universe exist? Christians believe that God created ex nihilo a distinct universe which is contingent upon God, and that God did so as an outpouring of God’s love. But if God is all in all, wouldn't everything that exists somehow be an extension of God-self, making it impossible for a distinct universe to exist at all? The response is that somehow God has chosen to limit God-self, in order to create a universe that is distinct from God.

The downside to this is that creation is necessarily limited, finite, less than total. Creation can thereby be described as a divine “withdrawal” in which “perfection allows something other than itself to exist.” (Davis, Stephen, ed. Encountering Evil, p. 155) This withdrawal means that the opportunity, at least, for what we call “natural evil” is inherent in the universe. Scientific evidence indicates that our universe is very old, and very dangerous. In fact, there are a myriad of fine-tuned measurements that are necessary for life to exist on earth. It is difficult to grasp the true nature of the universe. But one thing seems quite clear: the world, as we know it, will not last forever. Eventually everything will break down, or burn out, or dissolve into the chaos out of which the universe was apparently formed.

Applying this to theodicy, what can we say? That the universe exists in such a way that it is “out to get us?” Is God to blame for creating this finite reality? Before we go down that road, it is worthwhile to remember that “natural evil” involves no inherent ill will towards humanity. In fact, without the existence of sentient beings, there would be no reason to classify the world as "evil," as the word would contain no significance. What we call natural evil is the inherent tendency of a finite creation to decay and return to chaos.

Here, I take an Irenaean, rather than an Augustinian, approach. The Genesis narratives are not literal accounts of creation; instead, they are allegorical sagas, which, though rooted in historical (and pre-historical) reality, should not be taken as word-for-word fact. While I do not abandon the concept of “original sin” entirely, I believe that it should be viewed primarily as an existential event resulting from our finitude and our human inability to respond properly to that finitude. I concede that some sort of spiritual “fallen-ness” afflicts humanity, but I do not presume it is the cause of the world in which we live.

Still, we must face the fact that evil does happen in our world. How is God not to blame? In order for creation to have a meaningful or genuine existence, that universe must be “other” than God. As such, it will be, in some way, a finite universe which will necessarily allow for the possibility of evil. So the question of why God would allow such a world is based upon the false assumption that there can be any existent universe which does not include the possibility of natural evil. It is pointless to ask why God didn't create a “perfect world.” Could I be "Geoff" in a universe that was already perfect and complete? I would, it seems, only exist as a feature of God, without any ontological capacity to respond to anything, including God. We might as well say that the universe shouldn’t have been created at all. Such a response is a non-answer, because how can we, as creatures, say with any consistency that it would be better if we did not exist?

But, it might be argued; surely God could have made a world with less natural evil? Perhaps, but this assumes a world requiring an incredible amount of cosmological “fine-tuning,” given that the world in which we live is already one of astounding distinction. And, it should be mentioned, one of astounding beauty. Our world is already better suited to life than any world known to us (as opposed to “the best possible world”). This also raises the additional question of just what kind of a world would satisfy us. At what point do we agree that there is “the right amount” of natural evil? How is this not simply an infinite regress to the “perfect world?” And, how would we be able to make any decisions necessary to moral, or even rational, growth if there was not some type of natural evil? Would a world without the law of gravity, for example, make any sense?

Even if such a world were possible, how can we be sure that our actions would not influence it in such a way that further natural evil would be the result? But now we are moving from natural evil to moral evil. How much of our exposure to natural evil is entirely unrelated to our decisions? It is impossible to say with any amount of precision, of course, but we must not avoid the question. Was hurricane Katrina primarily to blame for the deaths in New Orleans, or was it poor planning on the part of those who built the city? We must tread very carefully here; I do not for a minute want to minimize suffering or blame any victims, innocent or otherwise, for a tragedy in which they have experienced loss. But human freedom does play a role, I think, much more than we like to admit.

It is here that I find Davis’ "free will" approach to be most helpful in explaining the problem of evil. The basic idea is that human beings have genuine freedom which, although not entirely independent from God’s sovereign will, is nevertheless the type of freedom which allows for an authentic response of the human will. God does not coerce human beings; God’s will is carried out through free human responses. So, does this mean that when we do not seek God we frustrate God’s will? Only inasmuch as we lengthen the amount of time between God’s initial creation and God’s final revelation. God is not caught off guard or perplexed by our human decisions. God recognizes every decision we make and accounts for it, not only in patient love, but also in preparation for a final judgment and restoration.

Humanity, in its finitude, has succumbed to its own potential for evil. Christians do accept a spiritual element of reality which has been affecting the creation since its inception. To what extent those “powers and principalities” are responsible for natural or moral evil we can only speculate. What cannot be denied is that human beings made, and continue to make, bad choices, based upon our inherent sinful attitudes. These attitudes, I would suggest, are both individual and collective, and may be properly classified as a “fall.” But Christian thought insists that it didn’t have to be this way.

It is important to carefully parse out what is meant here. On the one hand, the reality of finitude made it extremely unlikely that human beings would not sin. On the other, Scripture indicates that there was, and is, an intimate connection between God and people – a connection centered in the event of Jesus Christ – which provided, at least initially, the promise of a world in which humanity would not succumb to temptation. Should we call it “innocence?” I am not certain, but what seems clear is that, very early on, humanity failed. But this was not a failure for which God was unprepared. In fact, God knew the inevitability of human failure and planned, before the creation, for the salvation of humanity and the restoration of all creation.

The free decision of humanity to reject God’s offer of intimacy and live on their own terms has resulted in thousands of years of ever-increasing moral evil. This is not simply a matter of personal evil; the moral evil of humanity long ago reached a level at which it might easily be called cultural or national evil. Evil now permeates our existence as humans to such an extent that it is difficult to say where good ends and evil begins. The “knowledge of good and evil” has turned on us and is now showing its true nature: Such knowledge cannot be contended with by anything short of that which already contains complete knowledge, that is, God. Since we are not God, we are trapped in a reality in which we cannot avoid doing some evil, no matter how hard we try.

So, if we say, “God created humanity, so isn’t God responsible for their actions?” we are minimizing our own freedom in an effort to shift the blame. But shifting the blame for moral evil onto God provides little consolation, because this means that either God is evil or impotent, or human beings have no genuine freedom. In either scenario, we lose. However, by accepting our freedom, and the responsibility that goes along with genuine freedom, we actually find ourselves inhabiting a world where there is an actual possibility of a positive outcome. All of this is, of course, contingent upon God’s ultimate redemption of creation, and God’s deliverance and restoration of all that has been affected by evil. If we do not believe that Scripture is correct when it says that God is going to reconcile everything in Christ (which is not to be necessarily equated with universalism), then any attempt at a theodicy is an exercise in futility.

Much of what I have said here may seem of little value to someone who asks about the suffering of even one innocent child. What can be said in response to the gratuitous evil which falls upon those who least deserve it? To this I can only say that any response to the vast expanse of the experience of suffering in our world must be treated with the utmost care, recognizing that, in Christ, God apparently experiences suffering equal to if not greater than human suffering. The flaw in Karamazov’s claim is that it equates any suffering with torture. But torture is moral evil caused by humans, and should not be simply equated with evil in a cosmic sense. If so, we can only say that God is torturing us in simply giving us life in a less-than-perfect world. Such an anthropomorphized view of God inevitably leads to nihilism (any anthropomorphizing of God is a grave error!).

As Christians, we can offer compassion and shared sorrow in relationship with others, as well as the hope of God’s final restoration of what has been lost through evil. No, this does not change the fact that evil happens, but it does mean that we believe evil does not have the last word. No matter how difficult it may seem, we can continue to believe that God is both almighty and good, because to do otherwise is to settle for a God that is, in the end, no God at all.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

heat wave + philosophical theology = whew!

Wow, it's hot today... Seattle's in the midst of its "summer heat wave," which happens every year, around this time, for about two weeks. Temps get up into the '90s and everyone complains because there are no air conditioners out here. Seriously. Most houses don't have them, because you only really need them for about two weeks. But right now there's a lot of whining :-)

Anyway, I am halfway through my Philosophical Theology class at Fuller NW, and we have been discussing the "problem of evil," and I hope to post a couple blogs on that soon. But first, the other day we discussed a "proper" view of Christian philosophy, and here is what my professor proposed. I am curious to see what other philosophically-oriented Christians think of this approach:

  • A Thomistic form: One should distinguish philosophy and theology and not confuse them. Philosophy and theology have difference audiences. The former speaks to the academy, the latter to the church. They have a different primary norm. Philosophy’s norm is to be faithful to reason and common human experience. Theology’s primary norm is to be faithful to revelation, or Scripture. They also have a different primary focus. Philosophy focuses on "fundamental questions of reality" (ontology, epistemology, etc), while theology, while drawing on conceptions of such primary issues (as is done in systematic theology), directs itself to more specific matters of faith (Christian life, worship, the Church).
  • An Augustinian content: Faith and reason must be viewed as being intimately connected in some way. Christian philosophy acknowledges its presuppositions. Every type of philosophy, or any discipline for that matter, has presuppositions, intuitions, etc. These basic intuitions cannot be deduced or proven in rigorous faith. They are the result of “gestalts on reality” or “gestalt switches,” and are usually rooted in paradigmatic life experiences. However, one should not necessarily distinguish them too sharply from reason.
  • A Tilllichian purpose: Theology draws upon the insights of philosophy, such that Christian philosophy offers an important service to the Church. Christian philosophers ought to recognize the responsibility that comes with such service.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

brief update + Barth post #3...

Ok, it's a been a couple weeks and I know I promised more blogging, but... such is life! :-) I finished my Philosophical Inquiry class at Mars Hill Grad School (no affiliation with the church), taught by Dr. Carl Raschke. It was very enjoyable and I learned quite a bit about several modern/postmodern continental philosophers... I now have to get my assignments done for that class, and in the meantime, I have now started my Philosophical Theology class at Fuller NW, taught by Dr. Dan Stiver.

Our primary focus for this class will be questions of faith vs. reason and the question of evil. I'm excited because these are questions that really intrigue and trouble me, and I am glad to have an opportunity to examine them more closely in an academic setting... always keeping in mind, of course, that what really matters is how ideas can be applied in the real world of pain and doubt. Anyway, I have a two-week vacation from work, which is great, except I'm not really on vacation! haha. But at least I can sleep in a bit later than usual...

Anyway, I wanted to get back to posting about Barth, and so I thought this would be a good time to do just that. So, what follows is a quick recap and some of my thoughts re: Barth's Doctrine of the Word:

Barth views the Christian faith, and indeed all of theology, as nothing other than a direct result of God's revelation; this revelation comes through the three-fold Word of God, which consists of Jesus Christ (the Word incarnate), Scripture (the Word written), and the witness of the Church (the Word proclaimed). Volume 1 of the Dogmatics focuses on Barth's Doctrine of the Word.

Barth begins by reminding us that we must start with God, and not ourselves, in developing Christian theology. This means starting with God's revelation, and not falling into a philosophical system that has an anthropological and/or historical foundation which leads to, as he puts it, "a purely human possibility" of knowing God. So how do we avoid this error? Barth explains that the standard for our knowing must remain "the Word of God revealed as Holy Scripture when it is in the context of embracing the Word of God revealed in Jesus Christ..."

Now, admittedly, this still seems rather vague. Barth points out that God does speak in mystery, and yet, every time God reveals Godself, Barth says that we can know this intellectually, spiritually, personally and purposefully.

The Word, he says, moves from knowledge to acknowledgement, which is a form of deeper knowledge. But acknowledgement is only known through itself, and this occurs through the experience of faith. But, unlike theological "liberalism," this experience must be judged by the three-fold Word.

So, Barth would say something like this: "You claim to have had an experience of God. Has it pointed you to Jesus Christ? Is there anything in your experience that is contrary to Scripture? And does it bear witness to the Word as faithfully preached in the Church, locally, worldwide, and throughout history? If there is a question regarding any of these, we must question the degree to which the experience is a genuine revelation of God's Word.

Barth is quick to point out that there is a difference between what one can speculate, and what one can theologically teach as doctrine. We must focus on the three-fold Word, and if it is ambiguous, it cannot be doctrine. This does not mean there is no room for change, but if there is a case where speculation is gradually seen to be a truer revelation of the three-fold Word, we must be very cautious before we simply jump from speculation to dogma. Such a process is often difficult to ascertain, and in the meantime we must bear witness to Christ as our first priority! And, we must continue to ask for clarity, both as individuals and as the Church.

There is also some vagueness within the three-fold Word itself. Barth is not willing to give priority to one form of the Word over the others. But this seems to contradict his strong Christological focus: Barth himself appears to give priority to the Word incarnate (Jesus Christ). This same dilemma shows up in Barth's approach to the Trinity: He sometimes implies that there is a hierarchical relationship within the Trinity, but he would never have admitted such a view, because he does not want to separate out the immanent (what God is) and economic (what God does) aspects of the Trinity.

My prof. for the class, Bryan Burton, suggests that Barth may have been intentionally vague at these points because he was trying to remain strictly Trinitarian in his theology, which forced him to be rather nuanced in these areas.

Ok, that's it for now...