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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Theodicy and Eschatology

My friend Richard Kauffman recently made this post on facebook, "When it comes to evil, Christianity doesn't have an explanation. It has an eschatology, not a theodicy."

Richard makes a provocative claim, perhaps a little overstated to make a point. Christianity, of course, has a great deal to say about evil. But ultimately Christian faith is interested in the coming fulfillment of creation, and less in trying to explain the suffering that is. This certainly was the case with the 16th century Anabaptists, an eschatological people, focused on the in breaking and coming of God's reign, and its implications for how we are to live. A persecuted people who had suffering imposed on them through torture and martyrdom did not focus on their own suffering, but on God's salvation.

Evil and suffering have long been concerns of Christian thinkers, and non Christian thinkers who find Christian thought on these matters untenable. But in our time and place, evil and suffering have become the core spiritual scandals, the barriers of many people to faith.

I am intrigued by this. Why is this concern so central for us in the most affluent society the world has ever known? I suspect among those for whom suffering is the norm and not the exception, this theological concern is not so central, at least that reflects my own experience in contexts of great suffering and misery. These are only reflections, and are not the result of scholarly research or study, but I suspect several reasons for the concern for suffering in the face of a good God. One is the fact that most of us live in unprecedented comfort. We forget that, not so long ago, even in our own wealthy nation, children died of childhood diseases with relative frequencies, life expectancy was in the forties of years, food could be scarce, and working conditions for millions were abysmal. We forget sometimes that we live in a time of remarkable abundance, security and health.

Another reason on my suspect list is the consumerist nature of faith in our times. We look at God as a provider of goods and services and ourselves as consumers. In this frame, God becomes a cantankerous shop owner, or an incompetent bureaucrat.

Also on the list is the dissolution of a theology that explains evil. In the Chronicles of Narnia, the question comes up of why Aslan doesn't just make everything right. The wise response is, there is such a thing as evil, you know. I'm not sure popular American culture believes in evil anymore, or in human sinfulness. We have misunderstanding and incompetence, but not evil and sin.

Perhaps the most controversial reason on the list is the self obsession so much apart of our culture. We are quite interested in ourselves. Indeed we find ourselves quite interesting, and God perhaps less so. This self focus during a time of suffering naturally will move us to questions of theodicy.

Finally on my list is the intrusion into the church of a culture of therapy. This is not at all to say that therapy is bad. It's root comes from the Greek word for healing, and it was something central to Jesus' ministry. But when healing becomes the primary task and focus of the church, and its pastors, we train ourselves to focus excessively on human wounds, and neglect to understand these wounds in terms of God's salvation, and eschatological destiny. In this last one I double back to Richard's point. Unless the church recovers an eschatological sense and vocation, theodicy will continue to be its primary scandal.

Critical to Richard's insight, and, I think, to the uniqueness of the Hebrew Bible, is that theological reflection begins, not with creation or questions of origin, but with salvation and redemption, God's breaking into redeem people from suffering. The foundational event of the biblical people is liberation from bondage, suffering and misery in Egypt. Theological reflection on creation, and indeed all other matters, is done through the prism of God's breaking into the world to save. Looking for God to break in becomes the focus for the biblical people. Certainly questions of God's goodness and the triumph of evil are important (why do the wicked prosper?) but the people see them through an eschatological lens.

A marvelous illustration of this thought process is found in John 9, when the disciples ask, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? The disciples question is one of suffering and its causes. Suffering comes into the world through sin in a general sense, but the disciples were quick to specify, particular suffering resulting from particular sin. But Jesus turns their question on its head. No one sinned. Indeed its the wrong question. The man was born blind so that God's glory might be revealed. On the one hand, Jesus might be saying that the purpose of the man's blindness is so God can heal him, but I think this is a short sighted view. Jesus finds the question of causation irrelevant. The only meaning Jesus sees in human suffering is the possibility of God breaking in to that suffering with power to heal and save, liberate and redeem. In short, eschatology. Richard is right. Jesus is not interested in theodicy but in eschatology.

Of course this is a tender topic. As Christians the suffering of others should move us to compassion first and foremost, as it did with Jesus, then theological reflection can come. I do not wish to minimize or belittle  anyone's grief or suffering. But we are wise to remember that there is a bigger hope, and we are inclined to miss it if we are focused on theodicy.