What is this thing we call theology?

The question of god is one of the most important questions one can answer. But how do I communicate that importance to many who can go on living as though the question has absolutely no bearing on life whether one answers it or not? Does the fact that one can possibly lead a completely full life without any input from god or theology indicate the irrelevance and unimportance of those two to (especially theology) to the vast majority of humanity? Can one say that there is more to the importance and relevance of those two subjects than what interests certain personality types?

I’m fascinated by theology and philosophy. I love things that make absolutely no money, but are enjoyable in and of themselves as intellectual titillation. I find that these things that “don’t produce anything” in fact produce culture. When some speak of the flowerings of culture, they sometimes refer to the artifacts that have “productive value” like inventions, but they also mean those priceless art pieces such as Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, da Vinci’s paintings, Michelangelo’s murals, the political thought of Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, and the theology, I contend, of Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and others. These pieces speak to many of the heights of human reason, design and creativity, the possibilities of what can be, possible futures to experiment with, individuality risen above the norm to be fostered and kept by future generations.

Theology is but a mix of philosophy, literature, and poetry devoted to a god. But when I do theology in this day and age, and in my cultural understanding, what am I even doing? What is that to which I devote theology? What is it when I speak of god? I was taught to do theology similar to what Roger Olson wrote about in a three part series on what theology entails and who does it here, here, and here. Essentially, the posts speak to constructing theology almost primarily (in some cases solely?) from Scripture, in dialogue with historical theological tradition, reason, and experience. What happens when one starts with reason and experience rather than revelation and its subsidiary tradition?

Theology runs on assumptions. Most theology has run on the assumption that god exists and that the deity has revealed godself in the bible. If the assumption runs that we’re not sure he exists and we know nothing of a sure revelation, what kind of theology may be constructed? There is a death of god theology that sounds very intriguing to me by its very title (I actually have no knowledge of what it entails), but how does it serve as a theology, a discourse on god? Might theology have to take on a new definition than discourse on god? Maybe discourse on man and his plight? This prospect excites me for it might be new and bring up more for discussion in the history of theology. A modern humanity, groping about in the dark, and yet boldly going where no one has gone before.

Worship and extreme doubt

Source: Life Tabernacle Church
Source: Life Tabernacle Church
My mom got me a worship CD a few weeks ago. I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed it. For one, I have trouble with worship because of all my unanswered questions, with next to no answers. I’m actually sitting here wondering if I have any answers. But the worship CD. When I’m by myself, I entertain all the dark, lonely questions of the universe and am just that—alone. However, when I sing along with this worship CD, I’m serene. I feel secure. I’m thoughtful. I stand on centuries of tradition. I experience what many experience in their cars and in their churches every time they gather. I almost enter a place of “Do my questions even matter?” It’s almost like the bliss state from the recent, horribly cut-short show “V.” But then I get out of my car. Back to my questions. Back to my doubts. Back to cursed responsibilities (my wife and I get in fights about this all the time lol). Back to…reality? Are the feelings I experience while singing or listening to that worship CD merely a response to music, an altered state of reality? The guy on the album does have a smooth, hypnotic voice. If I read the bare lyrics, I know the same experience wouldn’t be there, but is that a bad thing? Can the tension just exist there, and I just let it lie (unresolved questions and what feels like very resolved feelings)? Probably not. I like coherence. I like for things to make sense. Granted, I like my horizons to expand to where formerly disparate things can coexist with the right understanding of them, but I am not in that place for my theological/hermeneutical questions and worship.

And just what are some of my problems/questions? Here are a few, and most of them come through a Christian lens, but with philosophical and theological flavor:

  • Revelation– Multiple religious traditions claim god or the gods have revealed themselves through a particular tradition. If that is the case, which one is right? They can’t all be right, right? Or can there be elements of truth in all of them, but not the whole in any? What criteria are there for teasing out revelation? Is it a book? Is it particular persons? Is it an impulse or feeling? Is it nature or reason? Is it a synthesis of many things? If there is revelation in the Bible, but the Bible isn’t inerrant, how does one determine what is or isn’t revelation without recourse to some mysterious spirit? If there were revelation, what does one do with it?
  • Religious experience and God– how does one know that the god of experience is the God of the Bible? Is the god of philosophical argument the God of the Bible? Is the god of religious experience a god at all, or merely physical responses to one’s environment or mental state?
  • Theology and culture– how much of Christianity is transferable to a Western context from a first century Palestinian context? Is it merely a product of its time, therefore, something to move past in foreign (gentile) contexts? Is Christianity of yore merely Judaism with Jesus as the messiah? What does that have to do with the plethora of Christianities today? Is the term “Christian” even useful in describing anything, given the amount of qualifiers the many Christian groups use to distinguish themselves?
  • The (in)justice of God– this list could go on for awhile. I won’t speak for other religions’ gods though I’m sure there’s enough injustice to go around. Christianity’s god seems rather doucheish. Rather than answer Job’s questions that emerged out of his pain, he responds with an elitist monologue (Job 38-40); I mean, imagine a being superior to the Jewish god telling him to shut up with his questions after his son died on the cross)
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia
    ; David had to pick a punishment on his people for his own sin (which his god made him do…), because his god said so (2 Sam 24.1-17); the unstable lord of the flood incident (Gen 6.5-8) definitely doesn’t sound like a gal who wishes all to come to repentance (2 Pet 2.9); hell as eternal punishment for a finite number of sins (see many verses here); holding people without the law accountable for some somehow “obvious” but actually oblique natural theology (Rom 1.18-20, 1 Tim 1.9); sexual immorality being the only occasion allowable for divorce by Jesus when domestic abuse and emotional scarring sure seem like good ones to me (Mat 19.9, Mk 10.11); if we take the Calvinist sounding verses at face value god creates some vessels for destruction with no chance of redemption because of his immutably capricious will (e.g., Rom 9.22); forcing a rape victim to marry her rapist (Deut 22.28-29), wrecking people’s lives
    Source: Getty Images
    Moore, OK Source: Getty Images
    (Isa 45.7, Lam 3.37-38, Amo 3.6; attention brought to these vv here), etc. I’m not being original here, I don’t think. I’m sure some of the bloggers I follow here, here, here, and here could list many more. And many Christians have probably had trouble with many of these things like I have, but like I have in my past, simply stuffed them back under a bushel to run back to the fluffy god who loves. Or maybe some have come up with legitimate answers to these questions I simply haven’t heard yet. I’m all ears in the comments section or in email (ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com).
  • Occam’s Razor– I started applying this pretty wildly a few years back. When I’m sick, I used to pray and take pills. Now I just take pills. When I was having trouble in my marriage, I could say myself, sin, and Satan were brewing the perfect storm; I would pray and talk with others on how to solve my problems. Then I just focused on my own problems I brought into marriage, without any reference to sin or Satan, and the problems evaporated. Yes there are still arguments, but they’re constructive and healthy. God and anything metaphysical just seem so irrelevant to my life, because when I concentrated on the concrete, results occurred that were controllable, predictable, and concrete.
  • Historicity of Bible and Jesus– suffice it to say, I have trouble with their historicity. I’ll provide examples if desired.
  • God’s absence– I wrote about this earlier, but I’ll mention it again. Things would be a lot clearer if god did his own speaking, rather than letting everyone else have mere opinions on what they think she means. Instead of liberal and conservative views, theist and atheist views, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, or Baha’I views, cataphatic or apophatic views, we would actually have god’s view on abortion, capitalism, Marxism, politics, essentialism, and anything we wished to ask him if she had the time. But instead the teacher leaves the kids to run unattended on the playground with complete freedom to annihilate themselves or grow morally.
  • I share many of the questions listed in the comments section of one of the Evangelical blogs I follow here.

So I sing along with a worship CD and enjoy myself. Should I take that away? Is it a healthy reprieve from my questions? Or a temporary lapse in judgment? Are the good feelings associated with worship music something to maintain or to disrobe? For my own happiness, contentment, and comfort I’d rather keep the good feelings. But in this case, is my happiness, contentment, and comfort the right thing? Is the right thing, rather, going through the grief process of an old system, and then moving on with life? I invite your responses, friends, foes, and strangers alike. One thing I do believe is that I don’t have all the answers and that many people’s experiences can enrich my own if I give them a platform.

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEvillllllllllll.

(I will be using male and female personal pronouns for god in this post, because it’s far less cumbersome than using “god” over and over or other weird contrivances like “godself.” Also since god’s probably not a dude or a fine lady, she will remain androgynous throughout the post, for we are not 100% of his existence. Also “god” instead of “God” is used because one is a concept, and one is a personal name that seems to give away the answer before the homework has been done. And the homework’s been going on for awhile.)

Epicurus stated the problem of evil in terms similar to this: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?” (Hume, 63).

Evil is a fact we have a hard time evading. It saturates the news and berates everyone’s lives. If it’s not pestilence, famine, tornadoes, animals experiencing pain in the wild, hurricanes, or AIDS, it’s rape, war, fraud, theft, murder, torture, unemployment, extortion, or betrayal. I’ll define evil as meaningless, purposeless, and unnecessary pain. Applied to some of the items above, it is never justifiable to rape someone and it is necessary. I guess unemployment could have a reason—a boss legitimately doesn’t have the resources to pay the staff she once did, and has to make cuts somewhere, but this definitely doesn’t speak for all kinds of unemployment. My definition of evil would also allow for momentary pain to avoid a grander evil. Let’s say someone pushed an old woman out of the way of a bus, breaking her hip and a few ribs. While we’d feel sorry for her pain, most would not call the person who saved her life evil.

Hume states that the deity is assumed to be somewhat similar to humans, but at an infinitely higher degree. “[God’s] justice, benevolence, mercy, and rectitude…is infinite; whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal is happy; therefore, he does not will their happiness. His wisdom is infinite; He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end; But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore, it is not established for that purpose…In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?” (Hume, 63) Put more plainly, if even we humans can see the inconsistency here—i.e., that if the ability and will exist to enact something, then certain outcomes should follow—would not the deity, if she existed, note this inconsistency and want to clear it up? Is there something keeping god’s omnipotence or omnibenevolence at bay?

While some have posited a god with less than godly attributes (a powerful being, but no all-powerful; a moral being like us who isn’t perfect, or is indeed capricious like some of the ancient gods), theists have generally not taken this route. One theistic response to the problem of evil is the free will defense. God allows human beings free will to attain the highest moral good, given that morality has no meaning without the existence of evil. What would an honest person even mean, if there was no possibility of theft, cheating, and lying? What would charity mean if there was no possibility for indifference, name calling, senseless beating, or injustice?

The problem I have with the free will defense is that it neuters god’s free will. I think theists and atheists alike can agree that if god exists, god would have free will that he would exercise it sometimes. So we have free will. Where’s god’s? Does human free will automatically determine that god doesn’t intervene in ANY human action? If that is so, that might throw the problem of god’s omnipotence back at her. In fact, it makes the her look quite impotent. Why would such a being deserve worship if that being has a free will but NEVER uses it? Another related reason for god’s non-intervention is that he has a legitimate reason for doing so that cannot be disclosed, similar to presidents keeping certain intelligence from the public for national security or to the prime directive in the Star Trek universe. Even if this is allowed, what then would people want to do with a god who didn’t help them in their time of need? Friends lend a hand in time of need. Even if god only intervened 2% of the time in human affairs (I’m assuming benevolently here; most theistic faiths leave god wide room for wrath), that would be great.

Another thing that’s hard for me is that the whole problem of evil seems merely a logical/rational exercise. There is hard evidence for evil (which even that is open to interpretation) and that is what humans have to deal with, but then we are arguing about something/someone unseen from what is seen. It almost seems pointless to talk about since this unseen tends not to (dramatic understatement of the millennium) interact with the visible. There’d be no discussion if he showed up. However, even if god did show up, court cases are always pitted against one another using the same evidence, so I guess the problem of evil still would exist. So for now we’re left with conjecture. And conjecture is none too comforting in life’s difficulties.

And the free will argument also only applies to human made evils. What of the evils of nature? Even if we don’t attribute the word “evil” to natural disasters, they’re pretty dang uncool to all living things. And nature’s built that way. If she did design it, why did god design things to go like this, where there are regular seasons for certain disasters (e.g., tornadoes, hurricanes)? Would life have been too boring without these? One could posit that even here, natural disasters provide an opportunity for humans to be altruistic. Let’s say that’s the case. In so doing, what has that made god into? If she created the course of nature to have disasters in seasons or throughout the year, he has also provided opportunity for many people’s free will to be savagely impugned (dying because of a natural disaster that did not necessarily have to be introduced into the created system). In my definition of evil (meaningless, purposeless, unnecessary pain), god’s creation fits the bill. Unless she decides someday to reveal his meaning, purpose, and necessity for inflicting (sorry, allowing to be inflicted) such pain.

I am open to the possibility of being profoundly wrong. When I was gathering sources, I found there was enough to write a pretty lengthy paper on, so I went with going over only a few general sources. There’s probably some stuff I missed. Maybe I even misrepresented something on accident (In the future, if I do subject blogs like this, I will spend more time with the subject to give it a fair treatment. For now, I’ll stick with individual books and reflect on them.) If you want the sources I was going to look at on the problem of evil, email me at ilostmyprayerhanky at gmail dot com. If you have positive or negative comments, leave them below. If you have a book or article I should read, just tell me about it in the comments. I already have enough to read as it is. Unless it’s too dang profound for me to ignore. Just be honest with me. You don’t have to be respectful in your comments if you wish, but expect respect from my end. I’ve tried to put my trolling ways behind me.

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Works Consulted
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998. pp. 58-66

Quinn, Philip L. “Philosophy of Religion.” In Robert Audi (ed.) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp. 696-700

Yandell, Keith E. Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction. Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 1999. pp. 123-165

O Father, Where Art Thou?

One of the biggest experiences I’ve had in Christianity is God’s absence. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” While one can do this for a very long time, it puts the work on our shoulders for God to show up. It says that I have to do all the work. Reasons for him not showing up might be me not seeking hard enough, failing to have the right motives, having sin in my life, etc. These are all our responsibility. Why not a little reciprocation in this relationship? Maybe that’s too human an expectation in a divine-human relationship, but come on. Why doesn’t he “draw near” as in actually keep appearing in history, rather than consigning himself to occasional appearances a VERY long time ago, knowing full well that history gets muddied so easily?

Using an example from I forget where, if I hear my young child crying in the woods for 19 days and don’t reveal myself, I’d probably be considered a terrible parent. I mean, granted that it’s not a Vulcan rite of passage, I’d let my son know where he could find his family so he’d have security. No birthday cards, no letters, no phone calls, no tweets from the guy. Just words written back yonder. Even a violent revelation would at least show his person. I guess, to me, relationships take work, and there doesn’t seem to be much work going on on the other end. I’m finally asking him to go to counseling with me and he won’t give an answer. Even a “no” would be better than silence. Maybe I make too much out of these biblical metaphors- God’s people being God’s bride, sons, children. I cry out with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Many people of God whisper, “How long, O, Lord, until your coming?” Sure, I guess God is considered sovereign, and so he gets to do what he wants. Why doesn’t he show up every once in awhile, though? He’s the king, right? He just feels like a deadbeat dad to me.

How about every 10 years, no every generation, he gives a state of the cosmos address like the American president does every year? This would let us all know how far we’ve deviated from him and clear up unnecessary diversity of opinion. Maybe rather than let his kids do all his talking for him, he could talk for himself. What are his purposes in staying hidden? Does it simply indicate his non-existence? Is he afraid of rejection? Would he get too annoyed with the questions?

Jesus told his disciples that it was good he went away so that his Spirit would be with everyone, that he would guide them into all truth. If this is so, why do we have so many voices for God which conflict with one another? No one can with full finality say, “Yah that guy or gal is speaking for God,” because we simply don’t know. We can say God’s revealed himself fully in Jesus Christ or the Bible or some revelation, but when it gets down to it, that makes things very sticky. Interpretation is involved in all things. A little time has elapsed since Jesus’ first came to the block. Much history has occurred, many languages have come and gone, many new and quite workable ideas have come since then. I mean, he’s been gone at sea so long, is it just time to say he’s dead and move on? It’s not like he has a captain sending him off to various parts of the universe against his will, so where is he? He’s omnipotent and omnipresent, right?

I don’t want to have to wrestle crumbs from the dogs (have my experience of God be mediated through history, literature, people, psychological experience, contrived worship settings). I want to eat at the table (unmediated experience, like Abraham, Jacob, Moses). Except he’s not at the table, in the room, in the house, on the block. He went to prepare a place for his people. How long does that take? The universe took six days. Does that just mean this will finally be the best of all possible worlds? Could he at least be a good carpenter and give us updates on our mansions? I don’t want the mansion, though. I just want to hear his voice, to know that he gives a rip. I’m like the kid with rich parents: I don’t want all the stuff they give just so they won’t have to hang out with me.

If anyone has any thoughts related to this, or you’d just like to say “hello,” leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.