23 February 2010

Lenten Devotions: Weighing In

"10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace." James 3.10-18

At long last, I’m going to weigh in on the Veritas Forum held here at Iowa State last Friday and Saturday. I know, I know – you’ve all been waiting breathlessly. Well, here it is.

Philosopher and theologian Dr. Peter Kreeft of Boston College was the featured speaker on the topic “The Problem of Evil and Suffering” Friday night and “The Difficulty of being a Christian in an Academic Setting” and “Rationality of Belief in God” on Saturday morning. I was really hoping for a thought-provoking, inspiring collection of lectures and conversations that would address some pertinent and timely issues, especially regarding suffering and evil.

Unfortunately, I was ultimately left disappointed by the entire weekend. Dr. Kreeft is a very intelligent man, and he applies his considerable intellect to many important questions. I plan to read some of his works, most notably Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees and Making Sense Out of Suffering, the work many were expecting would inform Friday night’s lecture. It may have done precisely that – not having read any of Kreeft’s published works, I can’t comment one way or another. But what I saw and heard was immensely disappointing to me, both as a Christian in general and as a theologian/philosopher in particular.

At the beginning of the night, the student host welcomed the large crowd and said that all were welcome, including “skeptics.” If I had been a skeptic in the room that night, the end of that sentence would have been the last moment I honestly felt welcome in the auditorium. Instead of a lecture dealing with what I’ll call non-consequential suffering, or suffering that has no immediate moral cause or source (for example, the earthquakes in Haiti, which obviously have geological cause but not moral cause), Dr. Kreeft launched into a discussion of human evil and suffering. In essence, the argument was this: God allows human evil because God allows human free will. Humanity always has the option of choosing evil instead of good. Even Hitler, with all the atrocities he spearheaded, is not a cause for disbelief in God – Hitler is, rather, cause for belief in human causality when it comes to evil. In addition, whenever atheism or agnosticism were raised, there was a very clear sense from Dr. Kreeft that he thinks such beliefs are as much an intellectual failing as a spiritual issue. At one point, he made the argument that “if someone told me that 50% of this audience were Martians, at the very least I’d want to find out if it were true, so I could know who the Martians are.” Apparently atheists and agnostics just aren’t very curious people? This was a major strike against the evening as a whole, in my opinion: opening a lecture welcoming divergent viewpoints is well and good, but if a basic level of respect for divergent beliefs isn’t kept, any welcome becomes worthless in a heartbeat.

I’ll be honest: I found the lecture and questions following it to be scattered, pointless and almost banal. Dr. Kreeft is from the branch of the Roman Catholic church dedicated to the intellectual pursuit of the faith, which of course is necessary, but not the whole of the faith. He also holds to a very authoritarian view of faith, from what I can remember and from this quote, which really does sum up the essence of the Friday lecture in my mind:

‘What is God's Answer to Human Suffering? The answer must be someone, not just something. For the problem (suffering) is about someone (God—why does he... why doesn't he ...?) rather than just something. To question God's goodness is not just an intellectual experiment. It is rebellion or tears. It is a little child with tears in its eyes looking up at Daddy and weeping, "Why?" The hurt child needs not so much explanations as reassurances. And that is what we get: the reassurance of the Father in the person of Jesus, "he who has seen me has seen the Father"’[1]

This is all well and good for those moments of suffering that indeed rise from human rebellion. But what about the families torn apart by the earthquake in Haiti? What about the people still trying to rebuild New Orleans? What about the child whose father abuses her? The husband whose wife steals from him? The parent neglected by her children, tossed into a nursing home and left there to rot? These are the people who live in Job’s circumstances, and even though God reminded Job that God, not Job, is in charge, God also acknowledged that Job’s complaint about his undeserved suffering was right and proper. To my remembrance, Dr. Kreeft never once acknowledged that some suffering is unjust and not the result of any action or consequence, when it was precisely that sort of suffering I was hoping he would address and lead us to ponder and consider.

I’m not saying I have any more answers: I am saying that it seems to me we didn’t even get to ask the important questions. Answering the wrong questions well is the height of intellectual folly, a prime example of theology done for its own sake rather than for the sake of proclamation, and I felt like we spent the entire Forum chasing after the wrong questions and answering them with the sort of intellectual Christian snobbery that always seems to rear its head among the most intense Christian apologists. There was nary a moment of promise or good news to be heard; no mercy, gentleness or peaceable wisdom, which was my greatest hope for the weekend. Thus I’m disappointed, and hopeful that when the next Forum comes around, some more important questions are raised, and some more gracious answers are offered.

Grace & peace,

Pastor Scott

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