First-, Second-, and N-Order Complaint People

(Just an interlude to my Satan and Theodicy series. This interlude will be relevant later in that series.)

As I've reflected on how people deal with theodicy issues in the church I've come up with a personal formulation to describe what I see in church. I call it First-, Second-, and N-Order Complaint.

Everyone, at some point, confronts the issues of theodicy. We all suffer and at some point we need to understand WHY? Believers are particularly keen to hit upon a suite of answers that fit with notions of a loving and all-powerful God.

Sometimes these questions are acute and personal (e.g., personal trauma). Sometimes the questions are historical (e.g., the Holocaust). Sometimes existential (e.g., pain in the human condition).

As the first round of theodicy questions I call these initial questions FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT.

Whenever I've seen these questions raised in a church or classroom you tend to get a standard, well-worn suite of responses. Call these FIRST-ORDER RESPONSES. Some examples:

1. Free will: Lots of human pain is self-inflicted, God isn't to blame.

2. The Fall: After Eden, the earth is cursed. Thus, the Katrina's and tsunami's of life are our lot, the burden of the Fall brought about, again, by humans.

3. The Symmetry of the Nervous System: God wants relationship and love. A loving companion requires a certain kind of experiential capacity, namely a capacity for love. However, such a capacity demands its shadow side: The capacity to suffer.

4. Satan: As in the book of Job, Satan "attacks" us to test and tempt us.

There may be more, but these four first-order responses tend to come up most often.

Okay, at this point in the conversation people start to sort themselves into two different groups. One group is generally satisfied with these first-order responses. They see the first-order responses as, generally speaking, adequate. These people seem to be quickly satiated, theologically speaking.

However, there is a second group (and I am among them) that looks over the first-order responses and is partly or wholly unsatisfied. The first-order responses strike these people as inadequate. All these responses do is succeed in creating another round of questions. This second round of questions, in response to the first round, I call SECOND-ORDER COMPLAINT. Here are some examples of second-order complaint (numbered consistently with the list above):

1. True, humans do hurt themselves. But much if not most of our of suffering comes not from human hands.

2. Is God just and loving if he visits the sins of Adam upon generations of innocent people?

3. Isn't God selfish in desiring this for himself, particularly given the pain we are subjected to, in order to satisfy HIS NEED to love something?

4. Why would God give Satan such scope? Why doesn't God restrict Satan, making Satan pick on people (angels?) his own size? Why would God allow us to be terrorized by a renegade spiritual agent?

Note that second-order questions are more difficult. They are bothersome. Why? Because second-order complaint starts to move pass issues of suffering and begins to ask questions about GOD, about his character and goodness. And it is for this reason that most church going folk don't want to move on to this round of complaint. These questions are a little too bold. You can question why there is pain, but you can't question God. For some, that goes too far.

In short, when I sit in these conversations I see two kinds of people emerge: a FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT GROUP and a SECOND-ORDER COMPLAINT GROUP. They appear to differ on how adequate they think conventional theodicy responses are as well as in their comfort level in questioning God's goodness.

(Psychological aside: These groups also appear to be different in what psychologists have called NEED FOR COGNITION. High NFC is associated with a need to understand and to solve outstanding intellectual puzzles. Basically, High NFC people think. They like to think. They need to think. Low NFC don't have this inner desire to deeply understand. They don't find thinking all that rewarding.

Note that NFC is different from intelligence. I know a lot of people who are extraordinarily intelligent but low of NFC.

Basically, I think a lot of church conversations get interpersonally sticky due to the competing motives of High versus Low NFC people. Low NFC people don't want to push Sunday School conversations too deeply. They find those conversation unrewarding and unsettling. By contrast, High NFC people want to push the conversation to the next level, to a deeper level.

In my experience, the church is generally a Low NFC kinda place.)

There are responses that can be offered at the second level of complaint. We can call these SECOND-ORDER RESPONSES. However, and I bet you guessed this, the process can continue. We can have another wave of THIRD-ORDER COMPLAINT with THIRD-ORDER RESPONSES. And forth-order. And fifth-order. And so on.

Thus, what I call N-ORDER COMPLAINT, is round upon round of complaint-response.

Some people stop at first-order complaint. Others at second-order. And still others (again, me among them) never stop complaining. We are N-ORDER COMPLAINT PEOPLE. For us, complaint is just a regular feature of the faith experience.

In other writings of mine (see Winter Christianity in my blogbook "Freud's Ghost" or the Summer and Winter Christians article on my ACU webpage), I've used a seasonal metaphor to describe these kinds of believers. I've called them Summer and Winter Christians. Summer Christians tend to have rosy pictures of God. Winter Christians, due to their complaint, have more ambivalent pictures. Schematically:

Summer Christians = FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT people

Spring/Autumn Christians = SECOND-ORDER COMPLAINT people

Winter Christians = N-ORDER COMPLAINT people

What are you?

(BTW, if you haven't noticed, this blog is a kind of a support-group for N-ORDER COMPLAINT people. I suspect that I tend to quickly lose any FIRST-ORDER COMPLAINT readers.)

Happy Thanksgiving! I'll be back next week.

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15 thoughts on “First-, Second-, and N-Order Complaint People”

  1. Richard,

    Thank you for a very enlightening analysis of why I am like I am - an N-Order Complaint person. Some friends have told me that God cursed me with always resorting to an infinite regression of "Why?" questions. Also the High NFC and Low NFC positions seem to dead-on from my experience. Is there a way to satisfy the High NFC in church?

    Happy Thanksgiving!



  2. I too, am thankful for the analysis that helps explain my 30 year frustration. I am the pastor teacher who wants to go deeper, and my congregants generally tell me I should be teaching college and seminary. I always figure that folks should be at least as complex as the Apostle Paul was in reasoning with the first century church.

  3. is there a way to lay responsibility for human suffering at God's feet yet retain our view of Him as good and loving? or is satan a NECESSARY component in reconciling a loving God with evil?


  4. Um, thought I'd mention that someone hit my blog while searching for:

    "richard beck" satan

    Guess you're pretty tough on your students, huh?

  5. I vacillate between Second-Order and N-Order. As a high NFC fellow, I feel it's imperative to due some intellectual digging when it comes to my faith. However, I also find it a bit of a burden because ultimately we high NFCers never arrive at answers, just speculations or more questions. Because we can never arrive at answers--know the mind of God--I find I always wrestle with a level of doubt. I wonder if being a high NFC hinders me from a fuller faith. I suspect if God provided a response to all my questions, He would say something along the lines of "Just trust me."

  6. Matthew,
    I don't know how I'd classify Job. I guess I'd like to visit with him after his experiences in the book. How he operate on a day to day basis with God?

    That's funny about the search hit. Me and satan. How nice.

    Hope your holiday was nice and relaxing!

    I'm not sure how High NFC people would function in a church. First, they would have to find each other. Next, they would have to figure out a way to have a class experience that would be mutually edifying. I mean, who could really teach such a group? My suggestion would be that they would function more like a book club, reflecting and discussing provocative books (non-fiction and fiction).

    I'm happy you found the post helpful. I think those of us who teach (both in church and at Christian institutions) know exactly what your experience has been like. It is very frustrating.

    Welcome to the group! We are all charter members! I nominate you as our first President. Paul, our other physicist, can be Vice-President.

    I don't think Satan is, necessarily, a theodicy. My claim is that theodicy concerns are a PART of how he functions in the minds of believers. It's actually a modest claim, but, I believe, an explanatory one.

    I know exactly how you feel. My feeling is this: Our personalities create both our burdens and our gifts. High NFC people are going to bear the burden of doubt. But I also believe that High NFC people are our best evangelists in a post-modern world. Can intelligent, reasonable people actually be Christians? High NFC people blaze this path.

  7. This evening I read Lewis's A Grief Observed, and although I'd read portions of it before, I'd have to say that reading it tonight at times bordered on epiphany. First, Lewis himself was certainly a high NFC Christian, and perhaps that's in large part why I enjoy reading his work. But getting back to the book, I find A Grief Observed more engaging, and ultimately more fulfilling, than The Problem with Pain because rather than philosophizing about pain in a somewhat detached manner (as I often do), he aches with his own pain. In grieving his wife's death, he doesn't attempt to comfort himself with his own speculations as to why there's pain the world--there is no comfort in them. Yet, by the end of the book, he arrives at a sense of peace (not painlessness)without ever receiving answers to questions that us high NFC folks so often pose:
    "Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask--half our great theological and metaphysical problems--are like that ... Heaven will solve our problems, but not, I think, by showing us subtle reconciliations between all our apparently contradictory notions. The notions will all be knocked out from under our feet. We shall see that there never was any problem."

  8. I was reading this article the other day out loud (sometimes I just like to hear myself reading) and my wife chimed in that with the news that I am an N-order complaint person. I love asking questions and complaining about things. I used to ask questions of everything and everyone except God. I feared questioning him; somehow in my mind it had become a sin to question God. Then one day I came to realize that I can question God all day everyday and he does not get upset, in fact I think he is pleased with all the questioning. Because at the end of the questioning he is still there and has answers for us.

  9. Hi, Im from Melbourne.
    The egoically self possessed person is by self definition and self action inherently riddled with complaint; "poor me" being his or her fundamental emotional disposition.
    This essay provides a unique insight into the primary cause/action of "poor me"; namely the sense of god as other.
    The parental/creator deity.


  10. Wow, I think you've hit onto something. I have been deeply dissatisfied with attending progressive Christian churches, because even though they are "progressive", there is very little in church services that isn't superficial repetition of the traditional, orthodox expressions of faith. During coffee hour after the service, no one wants to discuss theology, whereas I would love to dig deeper into the subject matter at hand. Recently I complained in my blog about how so many sermons in ostensibly progressive churches don't make any concessions to those who might question the literalness of Christian mythology. There is not even a nod in that direction. And maybe you've hit it as to why that is--they don't want to ruffle the feathers of those people who are first order compliant.

  11. ha! James' "twice-born," an N-order complainer to boot...a thorough winter Christian, it would seem. God could have made it so much easier, but then I'd miss all the fun.

    Love your blog. Keep it up!

  12. Where are you getting the idea that much/most of our suffering comes not from human hands?

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