(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.
Welcome to the blog of Richard Beck, professor and experimental psychologist at Abilene Christian University (brief vita) and author of Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith.Experimental Theology is available on the Kindle.
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- Death and Christian Art, Interlude
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- Death, Gnosticism and the Incarnation
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- PostSecret, Part 2
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The Theology of Calvin and Hobbes
The Theology of Peanuts
The Angel of the iPhone
Reflections on Gender and the Church
- Call No Man on Earth Father
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- A Letter to My Church on Women's Roles
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- Thoughts on Mark Driscoll While I'm Knitting
- Ambivalent Sexism
- Direct Your Hearts to Her
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The Snake Handling Churches of Appalachia
How Facebook Killed the Church
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- I Am a Worm
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- Here I Am
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- The Exclusion and Inclusion of Eunuchs
- The Second Moses
- The New Manna
- Salvation in the First Sermons of the Church
- "A Bloody Husband"
- Song of the Vineyard
- The Jubilee
Bonhoeffer's Letters from Prision
Civil Rights Family Trip
Demons and The Powers
- Part 1: Thinking about Demons
- Part 2: Evil and Illness in Modernity
- Part 3: Evil as Residual
- Part 4: The Language of The Powers
- Part 5: The Angels of the Nations
- Part 6: Yoder on The Powers
- Part 7: The Spirituality of The Powers
- Part 8: The Inner Aspect of Material Power
- Part 9: Stringfellow on The Powers
- Part 10: Demons in the Gosples
The Midrash of R. Crumb
Theology and Evolutionary Psychology
- Prelude: Galileo's Dilemma
- Part 1: Natural and Sexual Selection
- Part 2: On the Sweet Tooth (and Morality as Dieting)
- Interlude: Emoticons
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Scripture and Discernment
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- Allowing God to Rage
- Poetry of a Murderer
- On Christian Communion: Killing vs. Sexuality
- Heretics and Disagreement
- Atonement: A Primer
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- Discernment, Part 2
- Rabbinic Hedges
- Fuzzy Logic
Interacting with Good Books
- Are Christians Hate-Filled Hypocrites?
- Christ and Horrors
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- The Bible Made Impossible
- The Deliverance of God
- To Change the World
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- I Told Me So
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- Evolving in Monkey Town
- Saved from Sacrifice: A Series
- Darwin's Sacred Cause
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 1
- Evil in Modern Thought, Part 2
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- The Black Swan, Part 1
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- Rapture Ready!
- A Secular Age
- The God Who Risks
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 1
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 2
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 3
- I Am a Strange Loop, Part 4
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- The Moral Circle, Part 1
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Experiments in Quantitative Ecclesiology
The Theology of Everyday Life
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- The Ethics of :-)
- On Snobbery
- The F-word
- Can you sin on a deserted island?
- Ironic Christians
- Everything I learned about life I learned coaching tee-ball
- Gossip, Part 1: The Food of the Brain
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- Sinning in Your Heart?, Part 1: The Morality of Mentality
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- Human Nature
- On Humility
Dogmatism & Doubt: Curing the Religious Disease
Sticky Theology (Why is Bad Theology so Popular?)
- Holiness in Heaven?
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- A Googolplexian Hell
- The Best Ending to the Christian Story: An Exchange with Daniel Kirk
- Universalism and the Bondage of the Will
- Universalism and the Prophetic Imagination
- Universalism and Theodicy
- Universalism FAQ & Answers
- Universalism: A Summary Defense
- Why I Am a Universalist Series (and Resources)
Alone, Suburban & Sorted
The Theology of Monsters
Original Sin: A New View
The Theology of Ugly
A Walk with William James
- Part 1: The Jamesian Situation
- Part 2: Habit
- Part 3: Belief as Vote
- Part 4: Pragmatism and the Emerging Church
- Part 5: Theology is a Fork
- Part 6: Ontological Emotion
- Part 7: Religious Surrender
- Part 8: Introverts at Church
- Part 9: Bubbles in the Sun
- Part 10: Ghostbusting
- Part 11: The Empirical Trace
- Part 12: Saintliness
Preparing for the Cartesian Storm (Free Will & Souls in the Age of Neuroscience)
Musings On Faith, Belief, and Doubt
- Cheap Praise and Costly Praise
- Wired to Suffer
- A New Apologetics
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- High and Low: The Psalms and Suffering
- The Buddhist Phase
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- The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity
- Evil and Evolution: Thoughts on Enns and Smith
- Theodicy and No Country for Old Men
- Doubt: A Diagnosis
- Faith and Modernity
- Faith after "The Cognitive Turn"
- The Gifts of Doubt
- A Beautiful Life
- Is Santa Claus Real?
- The Feeling of Knowing
- Practicing Christianity
- In Praise of Doubt
- Skepticism and Conviction
- Pragmatic Belief
- N-Order Complaint and Need for Cognition
The Theology of Humor
Game Theory and the Kingdom of God
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 1
- A Christmas Carol as Resistance Literature: Part 2
- It's Still Christmas
- Easter Shouldn't Be Good News
- The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Meditation
- Palm Sunday with the Orthodox
- Growing Up Catholic: A Lenten Meditation
- The Liturgical Year for Dummies
- "Watching Their Flocks at Night": An Advent Meditation
- Pentecost and Babel
- Ambivalence about Lent
- On Easter and Astronomy
- Christmas & TV, Part 1: The Grinch
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- Sex Sandals and Advent
- Freud and Valentine's Day
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- The Kingdom of God as Improv and Flash Mob
- 2012 and the End of the World
- Chocolate Jesus
- The Polar Express and the Uncanny Valley
- Why the Anti-Christ Is an Idiot
- On Harry Potter and Vampire Movies