"The Lord's Will": Thoughts About Death, Stoicism and Progressive Christianity

I'm currently working on a book entitled Angelic Troublemakers: A Progressive Theology of Spiritual Warfare for Doubters and the Disenchanted. And in one of the chapters I'd like to tackle some issues regarding how progressive Christians respond to the problem of suffering.

As I discuss in the book, among progressive Christians the problem of suffering may be the biggest obstacle to faith, the biggest source of their doubt. And yet, many progressive Christians respond to suffering, death in particular, in ways that have come to puzzle me.

So I'd like your help and feedback. Before I write this chapter I'd like to float some observations to get your reactions. I'd like to test some impressions out. 

To start, by and large progressive Christians recoil at the notion that God is involved with or "wills" suffering. Because if God "wills" suffering, like the death of a loved one, then God is a monster.

And yet, throughout the Old Testament we find expressions of God bringing both "weal and woe" (Isaiah 45.7). For example, this week in my bible class at church I'm doing a lesson on 1 Samuel 1-2, the story of Hannah and the birth of Samuel.

Recall that Hannah is barren. And in 1 Samuel 1.5 it says that the Lord had closed Hannah's womb, which is a source of great suffering and sadness for her. This--the Lord closing her womb--is problematic enough. But Hannah's prayer goes on to pile on the problems.

As we know, Hannah prays to God to open her womb and God answers her prayer. In praise to God Hannah sings a famous song in 1 Samuel 2. And here's a part of her song:
1 Samuel 2.6-8
The Lord brings death and makes alive;
he brings down to the grave and raises up.

The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.

He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
The Lord brings death and makes alive. The Lord sends poverty and wealth.

No doubt the preferential option for the poor is the key aspect of this text--"He raises the poor from the dust"--but there's some theology here that makes many progressive Christians squirm. It is the same theology we see in Job:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”
Again, many progressive Christians recoil at the thought that God would take away our children (recall that all Job's children were killed). And yet, Job reconciles himself to that fact. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Consider also the sentiment of Ecclesiastes:
"There is a time to be born and a time to die."
There is a note of resignation sounded in this line, to say nothing of the stoical tone of the entire book of Ecclesiastes. When it's your time to go it's your time to go. It's God's will.

Consider another text:
James 4.13-15
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 
Again, many progressive Christians recoil at a text like this. "Whatdaya mean, 'if the Lord wills'? God picks and chooses who is going to die on the highway this holiday weekend?"

What I want us to focus on is how the theological sentiments expressed in texts like these--"if the Lord's wills," "there is a time to die," "the Lord brings death and makes alive," and "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away"--were experienced by the ancient Hebrews as something that bolstered and strengthened their faith and how we, by contrast, get knocked for a loop.

"The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" was consoling to the ancient Hebrews. It shocks and ruins us.

Ponder that contrast.

The Hebrews suffered horribly. As in horribly. More than most progressive Christians like myself can even imagine. And yet a people who suffered horribly wrote these texts and found these texts consoling.

By contrast, many privileged progressive Christians can hardly hold onto faith simply because these texts exist.

How screwed up is that?

What's going on here? What can explain this massive theological disjoint between the ancient Hebrews and modern progressive Christians?

My hunch, and this is a key part of the idea I want to float, is that what we are seeing in these Old Testament texts is an expression of what might be called Hebraic stoicism or Hebraic acceptance or Hebraic resignation or Hebraic impassivity. And by such labels I mean the effort to emotionally and existentially reconcile oneself to one's situation in life, especially in the face of suffering, loss and death. In this Hebrew worldview the notion of "the Lord's will" was akin to the Greek notion of fate. Not quite the same thing, but close enough to make the point that the good things and the bad things that happened to you were your fate, your lot, the Lord's will. A fate, lot or will that you had to accept and become reconciled to.

And here's the thing. This stoical understanding of "the Lord's will" has been the default assumption for most of world history. People reconciled themselves to their fates. And the Hebrews had their own version of this. When the ancients said that something was "the Lord's will," even a death of a loved one, they were speaking about this acceptance and resignation to fate.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.
Interlude: Let me pause to make a very important observation. By "reconciled to their fate" I don't mean reconciled to injustice and oppression. Notice in the lament Psalms that the problem isn't death or loss. The problem, over and over, is the enemy, the oppressor. Biblically understood, lament is more about injustice than grief. And note how even in Hannah's story the problem wasn't her closed womb but her oppressor Peninnah: Hannah's "rival [Peninnah] kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat." (1 Sam. 1.6b-7)  
We've almost lost this stoical sense of "the Lord's will," but not quite. How many of us can tell stories here about our grandparents? Many of our grandparents expressed stoical acceptance in the face of loss--from the death of a child to a crop lost to drought--with the simple "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away."

This understanding of "the Lord's will"--as emotionally and existentially reconciling yourself with your situation in life--has been largely lost among progressive Christians. You can't say "If it's the Lord's will" to progressive Christians without them bristling--"What do you mean, if it's the Lord's will!? The Lord wants this one to die and this one to live?"--or descending into a funk of doubt.

And here's the really, really weird thing.

It's not that progressive Christians are afraid of or opposed to stoicism. In fact, given their doubts about things like heaven progressive Christians have to adopt some form of stoicism! Relatedly, many progressive Christians gravitate toward Buddhism or agnosticism, and each of those have built into them their own stoical stance toward death, suffering and loss. Progressive Christians tend toward the stoical. They just bristle, ironically, at biblical and Hebraic expressions of stoicism. Biblical expressions of stoicism--"the Lord gives and the Lord takes away"--fill progressive Christians with anger and doubt. But eastern, philosophical and humanistic expressions of stoicism? Those are cool.

Overall, then, it seems that something has changed, theologically speaking, that has caused progressive Christianity to drift away from the biblical imagination despite their philosophical sympathies for the very view the bible is articulating.

What went wrong?

Well, if you've read any of my three books--what I loosely call my Death Trilogy--you can anticipate what I'm about to say.

Specifically, a part of what has happened is that over the last 500 years in the West our existential relationship to death has changed, particularly among the affluent and privileged.

Advances in technology, medicine and agriculture have increasingly insulated us from death. We also work to push reminders of death out of view. Death is now "pornographic," an illicit and unseemly topic. We've created an illusory and delusional state of affairs where we pretend to live in a deathless world.

Consequently, when death occurs we feel that it is abnormal and alien. Death is experienced as exceptional, a violation of the norm. Death is intrusive, inserting itself from the outside into our lives.

But before the modern era death was an expected and anticipated part of existence. When someone died it wasn't all that surprising, even children dying. Death was normal.

"And if I die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take."

Even children were trained to expect death to come suddenly and soon.  
 
Simplifying, then, our existential relationship to death has shifted from stoicism to shock.

And I think it's this existential shift from stoicism to shock that explains why progressive Christians bristle at references to "the Lord's will."

Follow me here. We are at the crux of the argument.

Where death was an expected part of existence--even an accidental death or the death of child--a stoical assumption regulated what was meant by "the Lord's will." "The Lord's will"--if we use that phrase as shorthand for Job's "the Lord gives and the Lord takes way"--meant emotionally and existentially reconciling ourselves to our life situation as it stood, as being our lot, our fate, as "the Lord's will." And this was because death wasn't shocking or perplexing or intrusive. Death was coming to all of us--perhaps even tonight--so why be surprised when it did?

By contrast, when our existential relationship with death shifted to shock death began to appear accidental, intrusive and abnormal. Death shouldn't happen.

So when death occurs it feels like a violation, like an attack. Consequently, in the modern era when death is attributed to "the Lord's will" our only framework is to feel that this is just about the worst and most horrible thing you can say about God. The stoical framework has been lost. "The Lord's will" can only mean for us that God is attacking us, that death is being inserted into our world from the outside.

And here at last we are at the root of why I think so many progressive Christians hear references to "the Lord's will" as being tantamount to the claim that God is arbitrarily and capriciously "picking and choosing" who to let live and who to let die. We are at the root of why we are so existentially shocked by Hannah's prayer in 1 Samuel 2: "The Lord brings death and makes alive."

Notice how the "picking and choosing" complaint places death as something outside the world, as something being inserted into life by "the will of God." Notice in this complaint--"So God is picking who will live and who will die?" (As if it's not obvious that everyone is going to die.)--how the world is assumed to be deathless.    

By contrast, in the ancient worldview where death was inside the system--an expected, normal and regular part of life--a reference to "the Lord's will" in relation to death wasn't introducing something from the outside. A reference to "the Lord's will" simply named life as it was, a mixed bag that included death. "The Lord's will" simply meant that there is a time to live and a time to die. And everyone was going to die. Read Ecclesiastes. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. That's life. You shouldn't expect anything different.

And yet, we do.

Why?

Because of the pornography of death we live with the delusional assumption that death is irregular, accidental and abnormal. Death is an intrusion and an interruption of "normal life." Consequently, to attribute this intrusion to God--as "the Lord's will"--is a theological outrage and scandal.

But it's scandal that has been created by our delusional relationship with death, the assumption that death is not a normal and regular part of life.

Our scandal at the bible and with references to "the Lord's will" isn't a problem with the bible or the "Lord's will" biblically understood.

The problem is with our delusional relationship with death in the modern era.

The Hebrew people suffered horribly. And they were consoled by Job's confession that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. They were consoled because they were not shocked or surprised by death.

There was a time to live and a time to die. This was an accepted truth.

But us?

We are theologically unsettled by Job because death isn't a part of our lives. Death is out there somewhere, waiting to attack us. And attributing that attack to God is blasphemous.

And so we reject Job's prayer.

And become filled with doubts by a people who knew more about death, loss and suffering than most any of us.

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66 thoughts on “"The Lord's Will": Thoughts About Death, Stoicism and Progressive Christianity”

  1. Doesn't the New Testament push us the other way when it speaks of death as the last enemy to be conquered by Christ? An enemy is an intrusive force that enters into one's world as an unwelcome presence. So, in one sense, you see the saints of God "making peace" (?) with death, while at the same time, having faith that it is not a permanent reality.

  2. I remember three of my great-grand parents very well. I recall when one of them died, my great-grand mother, she was brought back home for the viewing. At eight years old I slept over night on the couch in the living room where she lay in state. Jump ahead ten years; my five year old brother dies of a brain tumor. Jump ahead two years; one of my best friends commits suicide. Jump ahead thirteen years; my other best friend commits suicide. Jump ahead seventeen years; my seventeen year old son commits suicide. Jump ahead ten months; my mother dies of cancer. Jump ahead eleven months; my father dies of heart disease. Jump ahead five years; my sister dies of a brain tumor.



    I realize there are others who have lost more than I; but I have lived with my share of death. And the only thing I know to say is that the gap between my experiences of loss and the reality of God is great, yet is part of the mystery that has lifted life out of being taken for granted and has made WONDERING as much of a part of the moment as my breathing. When I pray, "Thy will be done", I must confess it is a mind boggling darkness; however, for me, if there were no "Thy" to bow to, there would be no light at all. "Thy...is a lamp unto my feet" even if it is just a enough to take the next step.

  3. This post was getting kind of long so I couldn't get into everything that needed to be said.

    Death remains an enemy but in the framework I'm describing it's more of a deep problem associated with creation, the way death is embedded in life, than a shock of something coming to us from the outside. So death is an expected part of life--there is no shock--but that doesn't mean that death isn't the last enemy to be defeated.

    Relatedly, his is one of the reasons why I really don't like using the word "stoical." But I couldn't think of another word that describes the sentiment in "the Lord gives and the Lord takes away."

  4. "Death is out there somewhere, waiting to attack us. And attributing that attack to God is blasphemous." Yes.



    The Enlightenment presumption that all can be reduced to reason makes a view that God is good and loving untenable in light of death and suffering (the "argument from evil" in any introductory philosophy of religion class). We've lost confidence in the supporting view that gives wiggle room for faith in the face of facts that are irreconcilable with a loving God's will: "God works in mysterious ways," and "God's will in inscrutable." We reject these former truisms, and lose the consolation of faith in the face of death.


    Also, I think that adversity was formerly viewed as a teacher. Living by the sweat of our brow and acknowledging that we return to dust help us see our place in the world. I think we've lost even a willingness to think that human progress can't overcome all obstacles; so why accept our place?

  5. Yes, the value of humility in a world of self-promotion? Seems like humility seen as a virtue is lost too.

  6. So much to digest in this post. My initial response is that your argument "feels" right--psychologically, socially, historically. The commenter who refers to the idea of Death as the enemy raises a complication. I imagine that this complication could be addressed through a more literary (as opposed to literal) approach to understanding Death. I wonder, actually, if part of the issue here involves the role of literal interpretation of phrases such as "God's will." Perhaps, as well, there is a perceived conflict that arises from the notion of Jesus as friend in contrast to a God that gives and takes away. And, further, I wonder if there is a conflict here represented (psychologically, historically, and hermeneutically) by the nature of the dialogue that necessarily is taking place between Old and New Testament texts and paradigms.

  7. Is part of it that we struggle to hold Job's piety together with his questions/accusations of God? Some of us (progressives?) are more comfortable with anger and questions and some of us (conservatives????) are more comfortable with simple complete trust. And yet Job (and the whole scriptures) seem to hold both simultaneously... Or perhaps each in their own time.

  8. rich :
    try looking at Acts18 vs 17 thru 22.and applying it to our Great Society as we sail off into are wondrous future that's always just a step away.

  9. When I pray, "Thy will be done", I must confess it is a mind boggling
    darkness; however, for me, if there were no "Thy" to bow to, there would
    be no light at all.


    A large part of this post is my trying to describe a way to honor sentiments just like this. I've stood beside many grieving people who have expressed consolation in "the Lord's will" and I've struggled with how the way they dealt with their suffering frequently becomes an object of theological criticism by others, the same way we criticize the Hebrews for the things they wrote (like Job). This post is sort of a bridge to say that when someone says "the Lord wills" they mean something different than what we are criticizing.

  10. I think that is exactly right. There is something in the story of Job that seems to get split (as it often does) along conservative and progressive lines.

    Incidentally, in an early draft of this post I wrote about bit about God's answer to Job at the end of the book. And the point I made is that in God's answer you don't get this sense that God is picking and choosing who will die on the highway today. It is, rather, a vast picture of creation. It reminds me of the extended creation scene in Malick's The Tree of Life. Job bows to that huge panorama of creation. The same panorama in Ecclesiastes' A Time for Everything passage. Job bows, in a posture of acceptance, to that vast vision of creation.

  11. then just skip on down to Corinth where Paul spent 18 months and have a look at 2nd Corinthians 5:18.
    a clue?
    ;-)

  12. The reasoning in the post seems spot on or at least headed in the right directionz. I can add only a few observations from my own experience:

    1) i agree with ither commenters re the over-assumptions, the halo, the Western view can cast on life: i.e.g that because certain sets of problems or difficulties can yield to reason, technology, etc. all or most "other" challenges can too, or as easily. In this regard, I can ignore even the obvious cycles of nature. Simple/stupid example for me: I can forever "hack" my life, schedule, java bean, productivity, etc. I can also admit I benefit from regular and deep sleep. There are more honest and deeper examples from my life, other unpleasant facts of life I strove mightily to avoid or hack my way out of, my whole life, but I'll leave those out for now.

    My temptations toward and desire for easy/ier solurions strike me as similar to the shortcuts and lies inherent in the snake's approach in Eden: A) "You will not surely die;" for one. And B) the idea that instead of learning right and wrong over time and in relationship with God, I just eat some fruit and become like him instantaneously; a kind of technocratic hacking approach to divinity.

    2) Speaking of which, add to my Western view the fact that the Christianity I learned was both triumphalist and reductive: x steps to salvation; n steps to an effective prayer life; take the pulpit and share your victories!; we have a program/staff minister, etc for "that" too, brother. Just check in/talk to him-her, it'll get straightened out.

    3) "God's will" and acceptance of fate may induce cringing not only because I am prideful and think I can smart, hack, and program my way out of any challenge but also because they were often the catch phrases employed by domination systems (religious, political, social) to keep me in check. Dont like the decision of leadership? "You might be fighting God..." but even here, I can over-react and cast a halo: I do need to beware when other people attempt to coerce my acquiesence by citing such terms. I do not need to project such motives onto God, creation, existence.

    4) My own forays into Taoism and Buddhist ideas were helpful, maybe even life-changing. There were many ideas, however, that I felt were entirely compatible wifh NT appraoches to the "mind," to patience, to long-suffering. I had to find it, as Isaiah says, through strange words and foreign tongues to really benefit from it, however. Either that teaching wasnt valued in my faith community or I ignored it.

    The book sounds incredible! Looking forward to it and any more ideas you share here.

  13. Regarding #4, that is one of the things I've found most curious, how many Christians find the notions of non-grasping or Wu Wei, which are basically forms of surrender and acceptance, very valuable and vital but bristle at Hebraic expressions of the same sorts of surrender, "the Lord gives and the Lords takes away."

  14. I think the other word instead of stoic used to be the Christian virtue of Hope or a hopeful response. From Job, "long after I'm gone, in my flesh I will see God." That Hope was in the character of God revealed to the Patriarchs, most clearly in the Exodus and eventually completely in Jesus Christ. It is a Hope in the electing God who does deliver his people. I think this is the narrow path that Ameican Christianity (both progressive and much of orthodox) has lost. This world is not about our comfort, but our spiritual growth toward fruition. "We rejoice in our suffering because suffering produces endurance...and character Hope, which does not put us to shame."


    Just one practical remark, I've seen it time and time again, bringing such Hope to fruition always requires a hard submission. And that time of trial is always essentially Jesus turning and asking, "do you take offense at this?...Do you wish to go away also?" In that John 6 scene it is really a question of who do you want on that throne, yourself or Jesus as he has revealed himself which includes the cross.

  15. One element you may have left out: Jesus allowed Lazarus to die when He could have easily healed him of his sickness. He even seems to say as much as commentary. Couple that with stories like the blind man in John 9, and it appears that there's a "suffering for the sake of Divine demonstration" going on.

  16. Thanks for this. It's very helpful to me.

    It's especially helpful as I really don't like the word "stoical" as it really does, as you point out, miss huge parts of the Hebrew lament experience. I don't have a good way to describe Job's surrender at the beginning and the end of the book.

  17. More than just death, the Western world is also hiding from disfigurement, disease, disability. We want not only immortality but sensual immortality. There's nothing unnatural about aging or scars and nothing inherently beautiful or good about unmarred youth. I love your condemnation of our "pretending." For such sophisticated people, we sure do pretend about a lot of things!

  18. Good stuff Richard. A few thoughts.

    1 - Much of what you're saying about the use of "the lords will" seems like semantics. You're using "the lord's will" as synonymous with "that's the way it is". But for those of us who often bristle at the term, that's not the usage that we're reacting to. We're reacting to the "God is actively willing something" sense of the word - most definitely imposed from without and not within, not "natural". It's applied to God's active will in directly causing all manner of natural disasters, death & sickness. It's used to manipulate and control since nobody can actually understand this. Same term, different usage.


    2 - I'd need more convincing that the language of "the lord brings death and life" and "the lord gives and the lord takes away" serve the consoling purpose (because it represents a sort of giving up the illusion of control?) to the Hebrew people that you're representing here. Wouldn't all ancient religions have essentially had the same mentality - all the while trying to propitiate the gods thru their sacrifices?

    There is plenty of language of God actively bringing death (not just in a natural sense) that doesn't seem to be consoling. The comforting part seems to be the "and also life" part - the part that suggests that perhaps death and destruction doesn't have the last word (which is tied to the character of God) and not the resignation/stoic part (at least not directly). But again, often what I react to is the active and arbitrary "God willing" something - a god of absolute and arbitrary power where might is right. "Goodness" loses all meaning and is defined in terms of God's active will and power - it has nothing to do with the kind of "willing" consistent with Jesus (and admittedly the NT doesn't sound nicey nicey all the time).

    3 - Regarding the pervasive language of "weal and woe", dare I ask the degree to which these represent an ancient people trying to make sense of their own experience and growing understanding of God? That's a bigger question about the nature of the biblical writings and the degree to which they function as timeless theology and examples or normative behavior (I'm thinking of the imprecatory psalms here).

  19. Honestly, I wonder if the stumbling block is equally along the lines of "God is a person. A person must like and hate what I like and hate. I would never bring death, suffering so I can not accept the God who does." That's why it's easier to accept the eastern, philosophical and humanistic views. They are forces without personhood.


    So yes, Slavery of Death but also Unclean. If I find this thing, death and suffering, disgusting then I refuse relationship with the person who wills it to be.


    One more thought. We tend to subject God to our scientific analysis and categorize him as a being of the highest order (nature) rather than "being itself" (super nature). See Fr. Robert Barron “Aquinas and Why the New Atheists are Right", searchable on youtube. If God is the highest being then we might just be able to plummet the depths of his nature or personhood and understand completely. As God told Job out of the whirlwind, that's not possible.


    Just my take.

  20. I think the personhood angle is a large part of it. What I struggle with is this seeming paradox. The Hebrews had a very personal view of God. And yet, they are the ones who wrote these texts. By contrast, a lot of us work with more Greek conceptions of God (as you describe) and yet we are the ones who struggle with surrendering to existence. It seems to me that that is backwards, as more personal views of God should produce more outrage while more impersonal views of God less so. But it's reversed. Which is what I'm puzzling about.

  21. You are delving into an area of great perplexity. I'm convinced that the "warrior God" of the patriarchs, judges, and early history of Israel creates many problems for us understanding his ways. However, in the days of the prophets we see the nature of God changing a bit with more emphasis on justice and injustice. The God of Jesus appears to be much more merciful and universal in contrast to the vengeful God of the Middle Ages, the national God of today, and gods for everything in early Egypt. The N.T. God does chastise and discipline. But Roman 8:28 does not mean that everything that happens is good. It means that whatever happens to us, we can cause some good to come from it. Many still possess the Calvinist view resulting in people believing that all death is God-willed and that "everything happens for a reason." "We may not understand it now, but we will in the by and by." I believe we are mortal beings, meaning we begin to die when we are born. We also live in a dangerous world full of the consequences of human action or inaction. But this does not eliminate prayer and the possibility of God changing things by intervening in the affairs of people. It seems to me that believing that God causes everything that happens only leads to disbelief, loss of faith, and mental illness.

  22. My intended reply is similar to AlanCK's below and contains a few "maybes." As to why Christians can be open to Wu Wei but bristle at Hebraic expressions of same (or English language portayals of Hebraic expressions):

    1) Christians are not alone is bristling: Job's wife bristled as well (not telling you anything you dont know);

    2) Job's theologian "friends" bristled, but hid it better, masking it in pious mental acrobatics but still displaying an utter unwillingness to accept what happened (seeking instead to describe what they hoped was *really* happening...;

    3) Job bristled as much at those pious platitudes thrown at him by the "miserable comforters" as he did at the afflictions; maybe some of the Christian bristling is similar, bristling at the "God gives/God takes away" language because of the way our individual and collective true hurts can so easily be subjected to formulaic or glib responses from other believers, such that Job's formulation can sound like the same type of superficial dismissal of pain;

    4) As Alan points out, Job made that statement early on; the following chapters of continued suffering and entrenched debate with God himself may demonstrate what such a worldview actually requires of its adherents. There is almost as much suffering in the strength required for the debate, in the prayers, in the battling through the pious platitudes from others, and the loneliness of Job's position, as there is in the series of afflictions visited on Job initially;

    5) So maybe part of the reason why Christians find Eastern formulations easier to approach is because the idea is presented as part of a larger worldview, as opposed to an isolated maxim; or is presented in a context which presents acceptance as a process (much like the entirety of the book of Job does) rather than the the one time decision the "God gives/God takes away" phrase seems to imply.

  23. One other thought re context: when we hear God gives/God takes away, it is easy to hear it as an either/or, i.e. in this given moment (a car ride possibly ending in tragedy, as mentiined in the post; a cancer diagnosis and subsequent petitins for healing, etc), God could give or he coukd take away in the specific moment is what I often think - such that it does seem like a potentially capricious choice on his part and/or failure on mine to merit a better outcome. Whereas a bigger context, or continuum, or worldview which sees God both always giving and always taking away and the event of suffering as a part of that, might the origin of the statement. Unfortunately, as to how to move out of a posture wherein the losses are always so acutely felt, and the gifts so quickly assimilated, I cannot claim much competence, and so often no suggestions.

  24. For me, Eastern formulations were so helpful because of #5 - it's part of a broader world view, one without a personal God and one that actually gives you some tools (like yoga and meditation) to help you reach a place of acceptance, and it is presented as an ongoing process that will always be a bit of a battle. I know for me, it was transformational to learn to observe my feelings without judging whether they were right or wrong. I never found anything comparable in Christianity - except for the mystic wing. I did a lot of centering prayer and spiritual direction from nuns, and there was a LOT of interaction with Eastern formulations there.


    I know what I react (VERY) negatively to is the idea that there is a personal God up there running everything who intentionally wills everything that happens, that He has a specific plan for everyone's life, that He helped Joe in Chattanooga find a job and kept Mary Sue in Houston from getting hurt in that car wreck, but didn't deem the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram worth his time. And I very much agree with #3 that pious platitudes are often used to keep from engaging with pain.


    I could never reconcile reality with a personal God who intervenes directly in the world and answers specific prayers. Once I gave that up (which was a long and painful process), I no longer had a theodicy problem, and life got much easier.

  25. Good point.

    You might look to contemporary non-greek cultures for a comparative analysis. I have read that traditional Eastern cultures reject and accept Christianity for completely reasons than you or I would evoke. A God who brings good and bad, a theology of exclusivity or the concept of eternal torment might not hold nearly as much weight as they do for the progressive. Then again those cultures tend to live closer to death so maybe you're on to something.

  26. Does an open theism perspective contribute anything here? I am thinking of something along the line of Greg Boyd's argument in "Is God to to Blame, Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of suffering". I like the distinction you make between the Hebrews view of death and the modern one, the inside outside distinction as it were. I also like the idea that we shouldn't assume that the phrase "God's will" always means "proximate cause" to use a legal term.

  27. You're right about the Orthodox view keeping death always within one's sightline. It goes along with what Alan alluded to about humility. Humility is not generally something Christians today find appealing. One of the things that appealed to me about Orthodoxy was that it's not expected that Christians will avoid sorrow and distress in this life.

    Serious Orthodox theologians have always said that God is at work in ways that are hidden from us, and from the perspective of the Cross and Resurrection, one day we will be able to see how God was able to work good out of all the horrors we undergo in life. I don't think that can be described either as "fate" or "stoicism."

    If you haven't read Fr John Behr's book "Becoming Human", I would recommend that to you. He gave 4 talks last winter covering the main themes of that book, and adding some thoughts not presented in it. The series begins here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jaZmvyzOj04

    Dana

  28. In my mom's side of the family in a five year period, I had three uncles and two first cousins, both my age (16 at the time)and a sister to die in a car accidents and my grandfather died. Since I've had two aunts, my mom's sisters die prematurely. One of a heart attack and one from cancer. Two other first cousins, sisters, both have had cancer. One died and the other has presumably been healed. My remaining sisters have experienced extra hardships. One's husband died of cancer and the other's husband up and left after 27 years of marriage for a younger woman. My brother is HIV positive. When we were young we had two houses burn to the ground leaving nothing but the clothes on our back. Of my mom's only surviving siblings one has Leukemia and the other a Baptist preacher got one of his congregants pregnant and lost is ministry and family. Job ain't got nothing on us.
    Now having said all that I personally have seemingly gone unscathed. But I promise I have suffered. I have also lived a life of fear about what God was going to bring next. It has all made me question everything. I still believe but if God caused it all then why? If He didn't then we are the unluckiest people on the planet. I'm not sure which is best.

  29. There is one huge element lurking in this otherwise excellent post and discussion, the elephant in the hospital ward (if you like): viz., the nature of God and the grammar of God-talk. A good dose of classical theology and the philosophy of Wittgenstein can help treat the theological confusions and existential doubts that plague many Christians in the context of suffering and death.

    For one thing -- well, let the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart teach us (I might equally have chosen the Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe):

    "[T]he most pervasive error one encounters in contemporary arguments about belief in God ... is the habit of conceiving God simply as some very large object or agency within the universe, or perhaps alongside the universe, a being among other beings, who differs from all other beings in magnitude, power, and duration, but not ontologically, and who is related to the world more or less as a craftsman is related to an artifact."

    If we believe in such a deity, an all-good and all-powerful invisible being, then of course we are going to have all sorts existential problems when it comes to speaking of "God's will" in the context of suffering and death. Progressives will accuse such a deity of being a moral monster, conservatives will defend such a deity by exempting him from moral scrutiny altogether. Both strategies have dire theological consequences. Classically, however, this deity is not the God in whom Christians believe. Fr Aidan (Alvin) Kimel, at Eclectic Orthodoxy, spends a good deal of time trying to disabuse us of our errors (indeed our idolatry) on these matters. I recommend his blog for theological detox and therapy.


    Wittgenstein, in turn, to exorcise our linguistic bewitchment, probes the grammar of God-talk. His disciple D.Z Phillips particularly targets the idea that to speak of "God's will" is to offer an explanation of shit-happens. People ask:


    "'Why is this happening to us?' It is important to note that this question is asked after what we normally call explanations have been answered. The mother asks, 'Why was my son taken?' even though she has been given a full explanation of how he was killed. She is not looking for more explanations of that kind. If more were provided, she would still ask 'Why?' What she is looking for now is a way of finding sense in things, given all the explanations. That sense will not be a further explanation."


    That is to say, for the believer "God's will" functions grammatically not as an explanation but as a "mode of acceptance", based on our faith that "God is love", which is not a conclusion reached by empirical testing but rather a presumption held whatever the circumstances -- which of course would be a vacuous belief if God were the kind of super agent dismissed by classical theology.


    Finally, I would just point out that this is precisely the faith that, in the end, comes to Job. Having given up the search for explanation = having given up the notion of God as a demiurge, Job sees that the world is both beautiful and ugly (in affirmation of the one but not in denial of the other), and he -- what? He ec-statically wonders and patiently endures.

  30. Hi Kim,
    I think the thing that bothers me about McCabe and Hart (and other heirs of Aquinas) is how, in my estimation, it just seems so unbilbical, their God bearing almost no resemblance to the Hebrew Scripture. I know that's an old complaint and there are standard responses. We're not going to get to the bottom of that debate.

    I guess my point is that within the Hebrew witness God was very much experienced as a "person" and yet all the stuff I cite in the post. Thus my question: How did they pull off that trick? And if they could pull it off, can and/or should we? And if so, how?

  31. Thoughts:

    1. I think the reason the advice "accept death/fate" seems more palatable to progressive Christians when it comes from Buddhism/agnosticism/Daoism than when it comes from the Hebrew Testament is that, in fact, these traditions are not making equivalent claims. In Buddhism/agnosticism/Daoism, there is no sense that death or suffering are just; they're merely inevitable. In the Hebrew Testament, though, there is a sense in which death and suffering are the prerogative of God; because God is Good and God is Just and God is Merciful, it must be good, just, and merciful for God to inflict suffering. And that's what progressive Christians rebel against: the idea that inevitable suffering and death is good, just, and merciful. It trips the Problem of Evil: how could a thrice-omni and benevolent God create a world in which suffering and death are inevitable? In other words, it's not so much that progressive Christians, or people today, forget about death all of the time (though that may also be a component of the issue), but that progressive Christians are questioning why a good and thrice-omni God would make death inevitable at all. The Problem of Evil isn't a problem in Buddhism, for instance, or atheism, since there's no thrice-omni and benevolent Creator God to introduce that paradox.

    2. Some of the problem is almost certainly (I think) the way in which "this is the Lord's will" has been used to justify evils that aren't inevitable: slavery, patriarchy, famine, measles, imperialism, war, etc. Among progressives generally, progressive Christians included, there is a tendency to question whether things are actually inevitable at all and an urgent moral sense that we must fight against any evil that is not inevitable. I would argue that these are the strongest traits of progressive Christianity's many strong traits and that these traits are true to many strains of the biblical narrative. Progressive Christians also remember, either in their own lives or historically, the many times people have used the Lord's will, rhetorically, to bolster these not-so-inevitable evils; we don't have the same memories about Buddhism being used in this way. As good as all of this is most of the time, these traits and these memories might cause problems when they run up against actual inevitability.

    3. You oscillate between "we" and "they" when discussing progressive Christians. Which do you consider true?
    I'm asking because I wonder how you will position yourself here. If you aren't positioned as a progressive Christian, this book could come off as... more of the same, maybe, where conservative Christians seem to constantly tell progressive Christians how to be Christian.

  32. A seminary professor of mine commented that Job's statement "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away" was actually inaccurate when taking into account the view the reader is given of God's interaction with Satan in the beginning. It was actually Satan who did the taking away. That doesn't solve the age-old difficulty with how we are to view God's sovereignty and goodness: God can receive our ultimate "blame", not only allowing Satan to mess with Job, but inviting him to do so.

  33. and/or should we?

    I would like to hear more of this. In the post proper, you seem convinced of the Hebrew Testament's impulse toward quasi-stoicism. If you have reservations, I feel like I'd trust your argument more on an emotional level if you gave more voice to those reservations.

  34. I like the distinction you make between the Hebrews view of death and
    the modern one, the inside outside distinction as it were. I also like
    the idea that we shouldn't assume that the phrase "God's will" always
    means "proximate cause" to use a legal term.


    Yeah, that's what I'm getting at. I'm glad that came through. Not sure if it's a helpful way of thinking about things, but getting to the heart of what I'm after.

    Regarding open theology, I do think the Hebrews had an open/relational view. But again, that's the weird paradox we're exploring. An open view would, you think, predict less resignation, because God is open. A less relational view, the impassive God of classic theism, should predict more resignation. And yet, it often seems that the opposite happens.

  35. Regarding (1) that's what I'm wondering about. I don't know if the Hebrews saw God as uniformly "good" the way progressive Christians mean by "good." That disjoint is at the heart of what I'm trying to explore.

    Regarding (2) I agree. I tried to deal with some of that with the Interlude in the post. But your point about the fuzzy boundary between inevitable and not-so-inevitable evils is well taken.

    Regarding (3) it's both. My general rule of thumb is to preach at yourself and your people. I'm a progressive Christian which means I don't write much about or pay attention to conservative Christians. I hope the book is not more of the same, but in relation to this post I don't know if this materiel is even going to make it into the book. Part of the reason I'm floating some stuff here.

  36. I also don't like the terms fate or stoicism. I'm working hard to find a term or words to describe the sentiments in the texts I cite in the post. "The will of the Lord" is, perhaps, the best way to say it but it's got too much baggage.

  37. Well, but the concept how one relates to a person of authority has also changed drastically since the time of the Hebrew Bible, hasn't it? Or it changes depending on the society one lives in. The relationship with a human king has historically often been similar-- you could rage against a king, and in the human world kings could sometimes be overthrown if too unjust, but most cases the king still had a majesty and authority that trumped your more limited view and concerns. In most cases what the king merited was your awe, not your judgement.

    On the other hand, it was Plato, a Greek living in a democracy (even if he took a dim view of democracy), who said that God could not possibly be like the gods of Homer, because no divine being to whom we owed awe could possibly be so petty and small-minded (I can't remember if he extends the argument to the role of God/gods in death or suffering....I tended to avoid Plato when I could...but I think he does, because God is the ultimate good and so can't be involved in suffering? Anyway.)

    We live in a democracy (-ish). We expect to judge our leaders and we expect them to make their case for what they do, and to some extent we expect a morality from them that reflects our morality. And I think it's very hard especially for progressives to not relate to God as another citizen in their democracy (and thus not as a being or person inherently deserving of awe, respect, or deference based on essence, but an abstract collection of electable virtues or issues most suited to a particular "office," that of God). I don't know why it seems to be different for many conservatives living in a democracy-- although these also tend to be the people that opt out of democratic norms very deliberately in many areas of their lives (more hierarchical parent-child and gender views, for example. Whereas progressives will often try to have more "democratic" parent-child and gender norms).

    I still think there is still something "other" about God, something "majestic," something that inspires worship, awe, AND anger, but NOT rational consideration. But I have a very hard time convincing progressives (let alone atheists) of this, because it feels like (or just is) an abdication of reason. And I don't have a great answer to what makes it different from the conservative view that wants us to just accept a lot of vindictiveness or violence in the "person" of God.

  38. I agree. What I'm wondering is how that general avoidance of death, disfigurement, disease and disability are affecting our theology in various ways, in this case the shock we experience when we encounter suffering and the way that shock affects how we respond to a phrase like "it was the Lord's will."

    To be very clear, I'm not saying a theology that attributes suffering to God's will isn't deeply problematic. What I'm trying to trace out is the line between what is theologically problematic vs. emotionally problematic. Because if our emotions are off in some way our emotional reactions to some theological sentiments might also be off. And a lot of us respond to theology emotionally.

  39. It seems that in the NT Jesus is always working for life; death and suffering are seen as the enemy. The "stoic acceptance" may have been the best people were able to do at the time. I think Jesus reveals a God who is set against suffering and death but also promises hope for life beyond death. We are called to work to alleviate suffering, though there may be times when all we can do is accept unavoidable suffering and trust in God.


    I would agree with challenging the "Stoic Hebrew" idea if they literally believed God was responsible for all things, but I could understand people who accept "the Lord's will" if what they mean is that they don't understand but that they still trust God.


    I'm not sure what to make of the shift in our attitude in the last 500 years. It seems good to try to alleviate suffering as much as possible, but sometimes people cross over into extending life without much purpose, or refusing to acknowledge our limits as humans.

  40. Regarding (1) yes it is semantics, same words different meanings. That's sort of the point of the post, how a phrase like "the Lord's will" might have meant something different (semantically) than how we mean those exact same words. The whole post is sorting out those semantic differences.

    Regarding (2) my use of the word "consoling" is a poor choice. These theological sentiments prompted acceptance, resignation or surrender. But consolation? Likely not.

    Regarding (3) I agree that this might have been the expression of an ancient understanding. But here's my thing, these ancient peoples suffered more than most of us and they seemed more existentially resistant than many of us, especially in the face of death. So I don't want to default, as I think a lot of progressives do, into thinking that anything we find problematic in the OT has to be rejected. Maybe, buried beneath it all, is a nugget of wisdom we might want to learn from. This post is a tentative exploration in that vein.
    That beneath something that shocks and offends us is pearl of wisdom.

    Of course, all this might end up being a useless exploration. But that's why we call it experimental theology! You have to try some ideas out to see how they work.

  41. Isn't the question at least partly pastoral? How do we lead and shape our community into this kind of faith without becoming, essentially, Job's 'friends'?
    My instinctive response is liturgy since I have often found myself saying or singing with enthusiasm 'the Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord' with a congregation at a time when someone telling me that my situation is God's will might have made me want to vomit.

  42. Job's friends believed his suffering was a punishment for his sins. Which is a very different thing from what we are discussing. That is, to say "the will of the Lord" is different from saying "the Lord is punishing you because of your sin." Job, as I read him, accepted the former but rejected the latter.

  43. May i suggest How? It may sound simplistic, but when I observe that which is greater than myself, greater than any community, nation or world of us, I see, not only being, but life, mind, wisdom and love, Not a list, but a unity. Reality, in this way, becomes God's "flesh and blood".

  44. Do you think belief in God's goodness is specifically progressive or more broadly contemporary? My sense is that it's the latter, but I might be wrong about that. Also: is Kierkegaard's knight of faith, who is beyond morality, relevant here? I know that I, as a progressive Christian, found that idea difficult: as much as I am a fan of existentialism, I was upset by a call to move beyond morality. I don't know; I find I'm much more drawn to a good weak God than a morally-neutral powerful God (or a morally-neutral weak God). And I don't see the focus on benevolence as an infusion of Greek philosophy so much as an organic consequence of the Gospels, but maybe I'm too blinded by the Greek philosophy to realize that.

    The more I think about it, the more I think the rhetorical history is going to be the real stumbling block, here. I think progressive Christians are worried, a lot, by histories of oppression--which is to say, histories of some people depriving other people of well-being, choice, and life (in that they die earlier than they otherwise would). Any God that can be identified as doing the same is going to look more like the oppressor than the messiah to someone with those concerns. So the more I think about it, philosophical issues like the Problem of Evil are really secondary to or restatements of identifying God as opposite Jesus in the well-being:liberation:life::suffering:slavery:death dichotomies.

  45. Further to that:

    I think the problem you're going to have articulating this vision is that progressive Christians are strongly wedded to a liberation theology/social justice Jesus, so much so that that's the only reason many of us are Christian at all, as you pointed out yourself. It is nearly impossible to accept a God that isn't good when you're in that position. Or, as a question: what would be necessary to accept a God that isn't good [in the way we imagine]?

  46. Let me add to the discussion another powerful example of Hebraic resignation or stoicism or whatever we want to call it.


    I think it's a beautiful and haunting poem, but I think a lot of progressive Christians recoil at it. Which goes to making my point.



    Psalm 90
    Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    in all generations.
    Before the mountains were brought forth,
    or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

    You return man to dust
    and say, “Return, O children of man!”
    For a thousand years in your sight
    are but as yesterday when it is past,
    or as a watch in the night.

    You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
    like grass that is renewed in the morning:
    in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
    in the evening it fades and withers.

    For we are brought to an end by your anger;
    by your wrath we are dismayed.
    You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence.

    For all our days pass away under your wrath;
    we bring our years to an end like a sigh.
    The years of our life are seventy,
    or even by reason of strength eighty;
    yet their span is but toil and trouble;
    they are soon gone, and we fly away.
    Who considers the power of your anger,
    and your wrath according to the fear of you?

    So teach us to number our days
    that we may get a heart of wisdom.
    Return, O Lord! How long?
    Have pity on your servants!
    Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
    that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
    Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    and for as many years as we have seen evil.
    Let your work be shown to your servants,
    and your glorious power to their children.
    Let the favor[d] of the Lord our God be upon us,
    and establish the work of our hands upon us;
    yes, establish the work of our hands!

  47. This progressive loves it! I need to believe that when I laugh and cry in awe, the cosmos laughs and cries with me.

  48. It will take a long time to digest all the conversation but I think it is a good one. The timing is personal because my wife just told me she feels like her faith is at low tide because of the abundance of injustice in the world and the seemingly endless ineffectiveness of the church, spinning our wheels locally so to speak, at least in her view.

    This is probably repetitive so I will be brief. Does permission imply guilt in our minds? Do we blame God for standing by so to speak in the face of injustice. Is it possible to view God like a force of nature and thus impersonal in calamity and blessing, because it feels like this is what Stoicism seems to offer? Whereas we have come to expect personal relationship from God and so we ask questions and struggle in hope of change rather then resigning to our fate. In the last decades we have become much more aware of our surroundings due to the internet and perhaps our false ideals and ability to change the world have been rightly questioned and found wanting. Are we just seeing more clearly now how abandoned we are by God and crying out, like Jesus in the garden, that despite all the power of healing, mercy, forgiveness of sins and literal miracles that we have failed and now all we have left is to walk as witnesses who speak the truth into the thing we fear most, death. Or do we just fear being alone, because death is the great divide that threatens to separate us from others.

  49. Another random thought. Death used to prove we are not like God, a mark of our failure so people had to reconcile with that truth. An early death meant you were farther from God, a long life meant you were closer. Now we live in a new truth, that to become like God we 'must' die so we face the question of how we die instead of when as our defining question. If God has changed the rules so to speak for reconciliation I think we have to question whether the old practices and ways of relating are still applicable because by practicing them we may be unconsciously dismissing the what Jesus did.

  50. I generally see Job as rejecting as much his friends' need to explain as their actual explanations.
    Either way, I still think that in our contemporary context, some of the issue is around how we communicate or use or talk about this theology as much as it is the theology itself.

  51. Christy,
    Thanks for this reply and your thoughts. I agree: any tools that help to reach a place of acceptance and which view acceptance as an ongoing process and a battle are extremely helpful.

    Also, learning to observe my feelings without judging whether they were right or wrong has been transformational for me: so many sources helped me and continue to help me with that, Rumi, Buddhist ideas, attempts to learn meditation practice, necessity and experience (the hardest teachers of them all...). I also have yet to find comparable specific help in Christianity - although some of the language in Hebrews regarding access to the throne, Jesus' unique ability to understand what we go through, his qualifications as great high priest get me/got me some of the way there, I suppose. Certain thinkers in Christianity help as well - not only here but among Orthodox and Anabaptist/Mennonite writers.

    What I find doubly interesting in your comments is the fact that I've recently been having almost the opposite problem: I was more or less happily buzzing along without, or "post-" a personal God, but he, or ideas about him, refused to stay out of the picture - my stumbling across this blog and the discussions here being only one example.

    I offer this observation not at all as a challenge to yours, by the way, but simply as a grateful response.

    What is perplexing to me is that one dynamic in my life - a certain kind of suffering, if you will - at times leads me to conclude - in what seems to me completely reasonable and justifiable ways - that no personal God who intervenes directly in the world and answers prayers - exists. Or, if he does exist, allows me to conclude he is capricious, has his favorites, I'm not one of them, etc. The very same dynamic/suffering - or relief from same - can, on the other hand, drive to me to spontaneous and specific prayer. And all of that says nothing about how what goes on in the rest of world can produce similarly conflicting responses in me. For these and other reasons, by the way, I find your Joe, Mary Sue, and Boko Haram illustration to be very well put.

    I realize there are many and varied ways to dismiss what I am saying here: believers may view my first reaction as weakness; non-believers may view my second reaction in the same terms. What it actually is, what it actually means (to me) - who must live with this struggle and not just label and dismiss it - I do not yet know so, in part, in the meantime... I try to observe even those successive and contradictory feelings of mine without judging whether they were right or wrong.

    Giving myself permission to walk sometimes in faith and sometimes in non-belief - not judging one or the other (yet) - has made all of it much easier. No answers, I guess, at this point - just process. For now, at least.

    In any case, as I mentioned above, I relate all this not to challenge your destination point on such matters, but in response to your honest sharing - which I appreciate and which rings true for me on so many individual points. Thanks for posting.

  52. I am a progressive Christian, and here are my thoughts:

    - There is much about death that we understand now in ways that would have been unintelligible to ancient Hebrews. Further, we are incredibly efficacious (so it seems to us) at avoiding, delaying, or preventing death until old age. Note that this is the common view of middle class or better Americans (for an example of the type of stoicism that the poor seem to live with because they are NOT efficacious, see Tirado, Linda (2014-10-02). Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America (p. 6). Penguin Group). Earthquakes are not caused by God's will but by plate tectonics and we can design buildings that will withstand that, tsunamis are not God's judgment but the result of earthquakes and we can design warning systems for that, we understand cancer like never before and we have eliminated some versions of it and while it seems to be wired into the very nature of DNA, there is a lot of hope that we will be able to treat it, war is caused by nations not by God... in short, we know what kills people and it is not God.

    - In fairness to one of your points, I think you are spot-on with regard to our modern efforts to eliminate death from view and to make it theoretical. I would say that if the "fear of death" is the cause of sin, we moderns are increasingly fearful, and increasingly sinful as a result! The irony here is that ancients (and many in today's world) had a DEEP understanding of death... they lived with it as a fact of life. We carefully shield ourselves from it and while we understand its causes and solutions, it is not a fundamental fact of our daily existence (in middle class America).

    - Jesus is the lens through which we see God and regard the Hebrew Testament. While Jesus DOES imply some judgment here and there, his dominant theme seems to be love. So I really discount the Hebrew view that God is the cause of troubles and death. Where Jesus DOES imply judgement... say the coming judgement of Jerusalem,,, he seems to imply that judgment will be the predictable cause of the path they were on... as if to say "keep doing what you are doing and the Romans will crush this place"... it seems more like real-politic to me than wrath-of-God warnings. I see Global Climate Change as a similar form of judgment... stay the path and we will destroy our planet... come together in community and we might just save it. For me, the Spirit seems to be nudging us in the direction of the latter and takes no action with regard to the former... God always acts in love, never in destruction.

    - To personify a Godly cause for earthquakes, tsunamis, cancer, wars, etc seems horrible. Right away you get questions like "How is that good?" just as you suggest. It also seems contrary to the Gospel.

    - As a progressive I DO see a human hand in a lot of the death and destruction of the world. For this, I take the William Stiringfellow/Walter Wink view... there are more forces at work in the world than God's: The Pentagon, Monsanto, Nigeria, ISIS, the Methodist Chruch, etc, etc, etc. THESE are the forces that cause (or do not stand up to) Climate Change, War, Human Trafficking, etc. God's Force seems WEAK in the world... He works THROUGH deeply flawed humans who are themselves part of the problem... but His Force is always one of healing, reconciliation, and restoration. Paul is right... it is not flesh (nor God) but the powers and principalities that are at the center of our fight.

  53. Do you think belief in God's goodness is specifically progressive or more broadly contemporary?



    I would hazard that it is not 'G*d's goodness' that is at issue as much as what 'goodness' means at all. I would suggest that the ancient Hebrew's definition would be quite different from ours. The problem I think we all have is how to reconcile the G*d they write about, which reflects their view, with the G*d who reflects ours.

  54. 'And become filled with doubts by a people who knew more about death, loss and suffering than most any of us.'

    So, I wonder about this statement. In fact I think it might lay at the heart of it. They 'knew' loss and suffering more than us, but they did not know 'about' it, which may be at the root of their stoicism. Perhaps their stoicism was a product of ignorance, a sort of G*d in the gaps lament. They had no idea why some people got sick and others did not, or why sometimes houses collapsed or weather happened. That they do not extend this stoicism to things they knew were within their power, like injustice or oppression, may gives us insight. As more and more things are now in our power to control, the bastion of stoicism recedes. I am not convinced that this is the result of a delusional relationship with death, as much as so many things that used to be considered 'inevitable' and resigned to the 'will of G*d' (is this just an ancient version of 'Shit happens?') turned out to not be so. Somewhere along the line, however, this stoic reaction got turned into something far more insidious. Rather than being a lament about the state of things, it became a theological weapon, and G*d was made complicit in people's suffering. That, I think, is what Progressives push back against.

  55. how many Christians find the notions of non-grasping or Wu Wei, which are basically forms of surrender and acceptance, very valuable and vital but bristle at Hebraic expressions of the same sorts of surrender, "the Lord gives and the Lords takes away."



    Isn't this just a question of agency? Accepting things as they are, which includes suffering, is one thing, attributing that suffering to the will of G*d is something else, is it not? The story of Job is problematic because the things he suffered were not inevitable - they were orchestrated. And the makes all the difference. The G*d portrayed closer to Diocletian that Jesus, does it not?

  56. What is wrong with our Promethean aspirations? Look at what they have accomplished. I don't think the ancient Hebrews were any more humble, they simply pushed back against what they had the power to push back against: injustice and oppression. That was certainly a radical idea. They had no way to push back against sickness and death. You only resign yourself to that which you have no power to resist. Generally speaking the people who see great moral value in living by the sweat of our brow are those who live the sweat of other people's brows. Resignation to fate has always been a favorite tool of the oppressor over the oppressed.

  57. I am perhaps more politically progressive than theological (but still certainly left of most evangelicals), but my brief reaction on this, and many of other attempts to formulate a theodicy by progressives, like delegating the source of suffering to other people, Satan, etc., is this: we are merely making a small decrease in the moral depravity of God. So death isn't a shock, it is an expected. Great, but even if expected, dying (early) is still tragic, so maybe we have reduced God's guilt by 30%. Blame humans as delegates of God's will, and maybe we get another 20% reduction in the darkness of his tyranny. But we can make all the fractional reductions we want, but being a little less depraved doesn't vindicate. From my perspective, we ultimately have to look for some positive value (and substantial value!) of these tragedies that transcends what we immediately see, rather than just looking for fractional reductions in the clear negatives. I can only attribute this to a vast transcendent value of the great story, narrative that God is weaving, that can actually create a positive to outweigh and justify the tragedies he has willed.

    Anyway, that being said, this is another fantastic post, and I love hearing your perspectives. Few authors make me wrestle with these ideas like you do, great job, and thank you.

  58. I think it's true! Too amazing for words! A work of art amost expresses it; w/
    mozart, bach I am already in paradise!

  59. Thanks for that. I'm less interested in being right than just thinking about stuff. So it's great to have readers who enjoy that part of it as much as I do. The whole "experimental" part of the blog.

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