Where Was God? An Interview with David Bentley Hart

Oklahoma tornado (Source, CNN)

I offer you this excellent theological rfelecction by American Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, in the context of the current fierce theological debates around the virtual space on Piper’s usual insensitive comments about God punishing people in disasters, what may be called his ‘abusive theology of “deserved” tragedy’ (as Rachel Held Evans calls it), as rooted in what Scot McKnight calls a view of God’s ‘meticulous sovereignty’.

It was published initially in The Christian Cenruty. It is copyrighted, so I will give you only the beginning of ti. You can find the text in its entirety at the link I provide.

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It’s often said that three claims of the Christian tradition — “God is omnipotent,” “God is love” and “Evil exists” — present a logical contradiction. One of the claims has to be revised. Do you agree?

If by “evil exists” you mean that evil possesses a real substance of its own, and that it therefore exists in the way goodness exists (or, for that matter, a tree, a rabbit, an idea or a dream exists), in point of fact Christian tradition has usually denied this quite forcibly. Patristic and medieval thought (drawing, admittedly, on Platonic precedent) defined evil as a privation of the good: a purely parasitic and shadowy reality, a contamination or disease or absence, but not a real thing in itself. This, incidentally, is a logically necessary claim if one understands goodness and being as flowing alike from the very nature of God and coinciding in him as one infinite life.

That said, there surely is no contradiction between God’s omnipotent goodness and the reality of evil. It may seem somewhat trite to invoke the freedom of creation as part of the works and ends of divine love, or to argue that the highest good of the creature — divinizing union with God in love — requires a realm of “secondary causality” in which the rational wills of God’s creatures are at liberty; nonetheless, whether the traditional explanations of how sin and death have been set loose in the world satisfy one or not, they certainly render the claim that an omnipotent and good God would never allow unjust suffering simply vacuous. By what criterion could one render such a judgment? For Christians, one must look to the cross of Christ to take the measure of God’s love, and of its worth in comparison to the sufferings of a fallen world. And one must look to the risen Christ to grasp the glory for which we are intended, and take one’s understanding of the majesty and tragedy of creation’s freedom from that.

In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov famously points to the brutal killing of children and proclaims that he refuses to believe in any God who has arranged the world in such a way that it entails such suffering — regardless of what “meaning” can be attached to it. What does a Christian say to Karamazov’s protest?

Actually, what Ivan ultimately refuses is not belief but consent: he will not acknowledge that there is any justice, any glory, any truth that is worth the suffering of a child. If he were merely a truculent atheist, he would he a boring figure. Instead, he is a rebel against the divine order, and intends to remain a rebel even if that order should — in some way transcending his finite understanding — prove to be perfectly just. One might very well read his protest not as a brief for atheism, but as a kind of demythologized Gnostic manifesto, an accusation flung in the face of the demiurge.

Still, the pathos of his protest is, to my mind, exquisitely Christian — though he himself seems not to be aware of this: a rage against explanation, a refusal to grant that the cruelty or brute natural misfortune or evil of any variety can ever be justified by some “happy ending” that males sense of all our misery and mischance.

In a sense the whole of The Doors of the Sea was a response to Ivan’s “rebellion” — and indeed a kind of endorsement of it. What I would say here is that it is important to understand the terms of the argument clearly: Ivan assumes — in good late-l9th-century fashion — that the eschatological horizon of history and nature is, in a very direct way, the consummation of a process wherein all the apparent contingencies of history and nature have an indispensable part to play. For him, the Christian promise of the kingdom of God is the promise, as well, of a final justification not only of those who have suffered, hut of their suffering, and of the part suffering plays in bringing the final kingdom of love and knowledge to pass. This is what he finds intolerable: the notion that the suffering of children will prove to have been meaningful, to have had a purpose, to have been in some sense a good and necessary thing; for him, the suffering of children is an infinite scandal, and his conscience could never allow it to sink to the level of some provisional passage through darkness on the way to some radiant future.

Read HERE the whole text.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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