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 2.6-8The Lord brings death and makes alive. The Lord sends poverty and wealth.
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.
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,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.
and naked I will depart.
The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away;
may the name of the Lord be praised.”
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 4.13-15Again, 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?"
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.”
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.
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.
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.