On Satan and Monotheism: Explanation vs Adversary

I am not a famous scholar and thinker many people track closely with. Few have made a study of how my thought has changed and developed over time. And yet, there are few people who have given all of my work a close reading and have noted some issues and tensions.

One of those tensions is how some early empirical work of mine regarding Satan and monotheism jibes with the arguments I make in Reviving Old Scratch.

In 2008 I published an article in the Journal of Psychology and Theology entitled "The Emotional Burden of Monotheism: Satan, Theodicy, and Relationship with God." The hypothesis of that research was that belief in Satan helps alleviate the burden of theodicy posed by monotheism. The problem of evil is acute in monotheism as God appears to be ultimately to blame for suffering in the world. By positing a Satan, which creates a soft, good vs. bad, dualism, some of that burden is alleviated as some of the bad things in life can get blamed on Satan rather than God.

(Of course, this just creates another round of questions about if God, as the creator of Satan, isn't ultimately responsible for Satan's actions as well. Still, by situationally laying blame on Satan the acute theodicy questions are, at least in the moment, delayed, thereby reducing some of the acute emotional burden of monotheism.)

Eight years after publishing "The Emotional Burden of Monotheism" I published Reviving Old Scratch.

I think one of the more interesting points I make in Reviving Old Scratch is how our compassion creates doubts. Compassion, I argue, is an acid that can dissolve faith.

How so?

Again, it has to do with theodicy, the problem of suffering. Our compassion pulls us deeper and deeper into the suffering and pain of the world, and as we are drawn deeper and deeper into the darkness our theodicy questions grow more and more heavy and intense. Where is God in all this pain? Thus my argument: Compassion pulls us into the suffering of the world and all that suffering creates questions and doubts.

So, how are we to resolve this emotional dilemma, how do we maintain both compassion and faith in the face of horrific suffering? The argument I make in Reviving Old Scratch is that we have to adopt what Greg Boyd describes as the "warfare worldview" of the Bible. The cosmos is a spiritual battlefield and we are thrown into the middle of an ongoing fight. We are not given much information about how the fight started. All we are called to do is pick a side, pledging allegiance to King Jesus and getting on with the work of advancing in the kingdom of God.

In short, Reviving Old Scratch seems to be doing exactly what I described in 2008, what monotheists do in the face of suffering: Push blame onto the Satan to alleviate their doubts about God's goodness and power.

Again, few people know my work well enough to raise this issue with me. But I was aware of the critique my 2008 article would raise about what I was saying in Reviving Old Scratch. "Someone at some point is going to ask me about that Satan article," I said to myself. And some people have.

I have given my answers to those question, but recently I found a really tight summary from N.T. Wright about what I think Reviving Old Scratch is trying to do. Here's Wright (on page 737 in, of all places, Paul and the Faithfulness of God):
The stronger your monotheism, the sharper your problem of evil. That is inevitable: if there is one God, why are things in such a mess? The paradox that then results--God, and yet evil!--have driven monotheistic theorists to a range of solutions. And by 'solutions' here I mean two things: first, the analytic 'solution' of understanding what is going on; second, the practical 'solution' of lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it. In various forms of the Jewish tradition, the second has loomed much larger. As Marx said, the philosophers have only interpreted the world, but the point is to change it.
My answer to the contrast between my 2008 article and Reviving Old Scratch pivots off of this distinction between an analytical and a practical theodicy. As I see it, the 2008 article was mainly about an analytical theodicy, how many Christians create a soft, metaphysical dualism to "explain" evil in the world.

Reviving Old Scratch, by contrast, is a call for a practical theodicy. In the words of Wright, the theodicy of Reviving Old Scratch is a call for "lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it."

Or, as I put it in Reviving Old Scratch, the only theodicy the Bible gives us is resistance.

Basically, the Bible doesn't give us an analytical theodicy, it only gives us a practical theodicy. A call to action.

The big point I make in Reviving Old Scratch is that our attempts to solve the analytic puzzle of evil can be paralyzing. Some of us just can't solve the puzzle, even with a Satan. I can't. For example, as I said above, we ask questions about why God created Satan in the first place and why God doesn't bind and banish Satan right now. Those questions are hard to answer, so they remain open, analytic loose ends that intellectually torment us. The emotional burden of monotheism remains.

So the point of Reviving Old Scratch isn't to answer those questions. Reviving Old Scratch doesn't give you an analytical theodicy like the one described in my 2008 article. The point of Reviving Old Scratch is that, in the face of those open, analytical question, we shift our focus toward the practical theodicy of "lessening or alleviating the actual evil and its effects, or rescuing people from it."

As I describe in Reviving Old Scratch, we still have our doubts, but we can't let those intellectual puzzles cripple our energy and resolve to resist evil in the world. The great temptation for many of us is that we've turned evil into a theological puzzle we have to solve rather than a call to action in the world.

Reviving Old Scratch isn't trying to alleviate the emotional burden of monotheism by viewing Satan as an "explanation." Reviving Old Scratch is a call to face Satan as the "adversary," and issues a call to action.

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