Q & R – The Problem of Suffering

So to continue with my new Question and Response series, here is the second question I received from Allalt a couple of weeks ago.  Send your questions through the comment section below or via email to themeekonomicsproject@gmail.com and I’ll do my best to answer them here.

The Problem of Suffering: how can there be suffering in a world micro-managed by a benevolent and omnipotent God? (Allalt)

I like to call this line of questioning, an adventure in missing the point.  The question itself makes some assumptions about God that are simply not backed up by any intelligent reading of scripture. 

First of all the world is not “micro-managed” by God at all.  In my book “Meekonomics; Kingdom Economics from a Love Based Mentality” (Shameless Plug… Buy It Here!) I show that God created the world for mankind to manage, not Him.  Genesis Chapter one says that it is mankind who is to “rule over” creation and in Genesis Chapter two we are given the mandate to “take care” of creation.  What happens next is not an example of how God is less benevolent and omnipotent but the story of mankind coming to terms with the fact that they can do nothing without a mentality firmly rooted in love for one another and creation itself.  (Genesis 1:28Genesis 2:15)

God was already surrounded by angels that obeyed his every wish, what he wanted was to have someone to love him, and you can’t have love if it’s coerced in any way.  If God were to micro-manage the world, as Allalt assumes then love would no longer exist and as the apostle John proclaims “God is Love” (1 John 4:8)

So what then are we to do with suffering?  How do we respond?

The Bible is full of stories of people who faced difficulty in every aspect of life.  (Yet another reason I think it’s true, why would a book intended to show a perfect God allow us to see humanity as it is, warts and all?  But that’s a discussion for another time…) There are stories about how people failed in the face of suffering, and how people overcame it.  But the overarching theme is glaringly obvious to anyone who cares to think about it for more than a few seconds.  God is not “in” the suffering, nor does he “allow” it.  The suffering is a result of a choice made by someone and God’s love is shown through redemption – He is in the redemption business, not the suffering business.      

The Garden of Eden was the only place in history were there was no suffering, and we are on a journey back to that place but the fact that we don’t live there now is not on God, it’s on us.  It is our job to live in a way that points the rest of humanity in the direction He would have us go. 

Bestselling author Phillip Yancey, author of such Christian literature stalwarts as “The Jesus I Never Knew” and “What’s So Amazing About Grace” put it this way when asked to speak at a service for the survivors of a mass shooting at Virginia Tech University.

Do not attempt healing alone…  True healing, of deep connective tissue, takes place in community.  Where is God when it hurts?  Where God’s people are.  Where misery is, there is the Messiah, and now on earth the Messiah takes form in the shape of the church.  That’s what the body of Christ means. – Philip Yancey; What Good is God?

What Yancey was so eloquently saying is that, as Christians it is our job to bring healing to a broken and grieving world.  As I said above, God does not “allow” the suffering, but through His people He does help bring redemption.

Question & Response – The Paradox of Omnipotence

So about a week ago I opened my big mouth and made a bold pronouncement about what I believe to be a delution in the way in which Atheists approach the world.  You can read it here – “Atheist Delutions” 

Well as you can imagine it garnered quite a response, in fact it was the second most read post I’ve written all year.  Out of that post I received one very thoughtful response from a reader with the screen name “Allalt” in which he posed several philosophical questions to the existence of God.  I can’t take the time to answer them all here but it did give me an idea.  I often get questions and comments that are too big to fully explore in the comment section so I’ve decided to add a new semi-regular feature that I’m calling Question & Response – Q&R for short.  Once a week or so I’ll tackle one of the big questions I get with a dedicated post of its own. 

I can’t take credit for this idea though.  Brian D. McLaren, author of such influential (and controversial) books as “A New Kind of Christianity”, “A Generous Orthodoxy” and “Adventures in Missing the Point” does a similar thing on his blog, http://www.brianmclaren.net/.  He explains that its call Question & Response because to call it Question & Answer assumes he’s always right and leads to the assumption that he’s trying end the conversation.  That’s not the point, the point is to further explain a point of view and keep the conversations going. 

So without further preamble, he’s Allalt’s first question, at some point in the future I’ll try to get the rest but for now he’ll just have to be content with one response.

“Can God Create a boulder so heavy even he can’t lift it?” 

The short answer is YES. 

But in order to understand the short answer I have to give a long one.  I (and most Christians) subscribe to the doctrine of The Trinity in which God exists simultaneously in three “persons”;  the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

I’ll explain them in reverse. 

The Holy Spirit is just what it sounds like.  As a spirit being God has no physical form and so the question of whether or not He can create a boulder He can’t life is irrelevant.  Without physical form He couldn’t lift a pebble let alone a rock or a boulder.  The Holy Spirit works within the hearts and minds of people.  If the Holy Spirit moves one of his followers to go out and lift a boulder he will also provide the “strength” and tools to do so – things like bulldozers, cranes and dynamite would probably be helpful in this situation but at the end of the day, God is not physically doing any of the lifting so the question is irrelevant.

The Son is the historical person of Jesus Christ.  Now some Christians reading this may take issue with my assertion that Jesus was a historical person and is not “living” today, others may take issue with my assertion that Jesus was indeed God.  My view on all of that is a discussion for another time but the point is that as a physical person Jesus was limited to the normal size and strength of an average man.  So again, yes, he could create a boulder so large he couldn’t lift it.

When discussing the nature of what we call the Father we need to get a bit more metaphysical.  I believe that God the Father exists outside of time and space as we know it.  Therefore limitations to his physical form, whether human or spirit are not the kinds of things that even need to be considered.  Existing outside of physical reality means that any intervention within physicality is at once both bound by the laws of nature and can occur super-naturally.  The question of whether or not he could move a massive boulder would depend on which form he chose to take when he entered the physical world, if he enters as a man, like Jesus he would be limited to the logical limitations of a man, as discussed above but if He enters as an earthquake, a rushing wind or a fire as he did when he appeared to Moses and the profit Ezekiel that’s a different story.  God is not limited by physical reality in any way, until he chooses to enter our physical world and then only limited to the extent that his chosen physical form is limited.  So the answer here is again yes, but he could just change his physical form into something else that could, i.e. the flow of this river is taking too long, time for an earthquake.

I don’t expect I’ve really changed Allalt’s mind or given a definitive answer to the question but that’s the best I’ve got.


Atheist Delusions

I love a good theological or political debate.  Arguably (or should I say debatably) that’s what this blog and my whole purpose for writing is all about. 

Now I’m no theologian, politician or even economist and I can accept when I may not have all the answers.  That’s why I love the process of debate, when done well everyone learns something and we all come away better informed, even if we can’t agree.

That being said, I can’t stand atheists.  Not because I think they are wrong but because, for the most part they suck at debating.

In my experience atheists fall back to one intractable position, that of “prove it and I will believe” or “I will believe nothing without empirical evidence”.  And to be honest that is an unassailable position so long as you can prove your own position using the same set of criteria. But atheists can’t do that, instead they will invariably respond with something along the line of “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist because I can’t prove a negative,” which is essentially saying that you can’t prove your own position and for the purposes of that kind of debate an admission of defeat. 

Now of course, I’m going to get comments on this, lots of them saying that I can’t prove my position either and that’s true so really the Atheist versus Theist debate from a scientific point of view at least is dead in the water.   

And that’s why I can’t stand atheists – they turn the debate into something it isn’t. 

You see the debate isn’t about provable science, it never has been.  Indeed most of what we call “science” today would never have developed had it not been for the work of many devout theists.   No the debate is about philosophy and “science” or what we can prove physically has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy.   

Unless and until atheists recognize that their position is actually a philosophy and not a provable scientific fact then the debate is a non-starter and I’m not interested.

The Last Superstition

Ever since I started tweeting and blogging my thoughts on economics, politics and religion I’ve noticed that there are a few topics that always get a strong reaction, no matter when I post them.  Usually these reactions come from complete strangers who I believe are trolling twitter for key words so they can jump down the throat of anyone they disagree with.

Case in point, a couple of weeks ago I posted a quote from a book I’d been reading about the philosophical history of the atheist position and how many of the so called modern atheists aren’t being true to their own origins and are misinterpreting or simply ignoring the early philosophers position on theism.  Even if early philosophers like Plato and Aristotle don’t lead directly to an Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) mono-theism they at least leave the door open for a singular cause to the universe, which in turn leads rationally to a mono-theistic god like essence.  Nothing is more offensive to an atheist apparently than to point out that some of their great heroes where essentially theists. 

Here’s what I tweeted; 

“Atheists tend to read only each other’s books and not the work of the religious thinkers they are supposedly refuting.” – Edward Feser “The Last Superstition”

That simple statement prompted a flood of criticism from a few atheist trollers not because they claimed to have actually read any religious writing but because they thought the term “religious thinker” was an oxymoron.  How ridiculously arrogant can anyone be?  Remove the word religious from in front of thinker and you have essentially removed millennia of history from the development of human society.  It wasn’t until 500 years ago, at the earliest, that any contributions to science were made by anyone that did not receive significant support from religious institutions.  And I’m not just talking about the Catholic Church here; Muslim scientists in the middle-ages were in many cases far out stripping their Christian counterparts to the west.       

Yes the church did seek to suppress some ideas that were threatening, everybody does, just look at the endless debate over global warming, but the truth always wins out and the church now acknowledges their mistake. 

The fact of the matter is that modern atheist thought is standing on the shoulders of theists who pointed to a singular cause of the universe.  No amount of ignorance or attempts at re-writing history is going to change that.  You can search for a scientific explanation all you want but at the end of the day the scientific method, which depending on who you talk to was either developed by Ibn Alhazan a Muslim or Galileo Galilei a Catholic, is based on cause and effect and therefore always leads back to a singular or final cause.  And final cause in turn leaves the door open to a rationally defensible mono-theistic philosophy. 

You can put air quotes around the term “religious thinker” all you want, history doesn’t lie.

I have NOT seen the Lord.

I can still remember the first time I read the story of Doubting Thomas.  I can’t have been much more than 10 or 11 years old.  My parents gave each of my siblings a Bible of our own on our 10th birthday and encouraged us to begin studying it and asking questions.  Like any good evangelist my Dad told me to start with the book of John.  I didn’t understand why at the time but I was a good kid and I did what I was told. 

Like most Bibles my Children’s New International Version broke the chapters and verses down one step further into headings of a few verses at a time.  So I decided that I would read one heading a day.  What with the demands of a busy childhood, school, sports and other activities that idea lasted about as long as my ten year old attention span and I was soon down to reading one heading a week if I was lucky.  But I didn’t give up and a after a few months as I was approaching the end of the book of John I read a passage with the heading Jesus Appears to Thomas;

 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

   But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.  [John 20:24-31]

As the ten year old me read that passage for the first time I was struck by the simplicity of it.   Here I was reading through a book that has confounded scholars and theologians for centuries, a book that I hardly understood half of but when I read this, as a child, I immediately got it.  And after months of dutifully following my father’s instructions I understood why he told me to read this book first.  Thirty years later the meaning of this passage is even clearer to me today, but the core of my initial understanding hasn’t changed. 

Why?  Because even at ten years old, I could relate to Thomas.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have prayed for God to “show yourself”.  We all have been told that Jesus was the incarnation of God but we all want to see him, experience him, and learn from him in person.  If only we could have been there and been with him in the flesh all of our doubts and concerns would be answered right? 

That’s not the case though is it?  We read in all four Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament that people doubted Jesus and his disciples all the time.  They questioned his authority, they misunderstood his teaching and they argued with him constantly.  Even the Gospel writers themselves took years to reflect on their lives with Jesus before they were able to articulate and record what they experienced.  

Doubt is natural when it comes to these things.     The ten year old me took comfort in the fact the Jesus did not rebuke Thomas for his doubt.   He simply gave him the evidence he was looking for and then proceeded to bless those who believed without physical evidence.  The forty year old me has grown more comfortable with the questions even though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wish I had more answers. 

Many of my best friends are atheists.  I get it.  I understand their desire for evidence.  I even support the efforts of scientists to find more answers to the questions of our physical world.  But I am quick to point out that where the questions of science and philosophy overlap science alone will never be able to give a satisfactory answer.     

I also like to remind my atheist friends that the father of the scientific method was a  Muslim by the name of  Ibn Alhazen who was quoted as saying; 

Truth is sought for itself [but] the truths, are immersed in uncertainties and the scientific authorities are not immune from error. [Ibn Alhazen; Aporias against Ptolemy 1025 A.D.]

We are all Doubting Thomases to a certain degree.  It’s best if we’re honest and up front about it.  Because as John’s Gospel reminds us, we are blessed when we believe what we cannot see.   John wrote his account of Jesus so that “you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. [John 20; 31].

The End of Faith Pt 2 – An Exercise in Missing the Point (Book Review)

I liked this book.  Sam Harris is an intelligent and articulate thinker and writer.  He lays out a very compelling argument for people to enter into reasoned debate about tribalism in a globalized world.   We need more thinkers, philosophers, theologians, atheists and deists on all sides to enter into this discussion if we are to understand one another and learn how to live together on this rock we call planet earth.

But Harris’ core thesis; that Faith in an unseen God is unreasonable and must be expunged from our consciousness if we are ever to ahieve lasting world peace, is overly simplistic and completely misses the mark.  Yes religious tribalism is bad but that has little or nothing to do with faith. Harris knows this and tries to have it both ways when discussing spiritualism and mysticism but completely glosses over or ignores it when discussing the major world religions.

I’ve seen this argument time and time again from both atheists and deists alike.  It’s a red herring.

No theologian or philosopher worth his salt will waste any breath attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God.  The “evidence” we have either way is circumstantial at best and you either believe that it points to God or you don’t.  There is no smoking gun and there is no DNA on the body.  Just like the OJ trial 15 years ago and the recent Casey Anderson verdict it’s un-provable so move on.

Therefore; what is at issue here is not faith but religion itself.    After exhausting the limited argument for or against the existence of God, which usually takes nothing more than a single paragraph, what most authors on both sides of the debate (Harris included) are left with is a discussion about the value of various religious dogmatic positions.

Let me be perfectly clear here.  While religion requires faith, faith does not require religion.

What Harris does is give an explanation for the end of his faith but does not provide any evidence that would lead others, who didn’t already share his view to end their own.  What we’re left with is a 200 page argument about various religious practices that are incompatible with a tolerant, pluralistic society but any further attempt to link religion with faith falls flat.

By the end of the book Harris appears to abandon all pretence when discussing mysticism.  Somehow in Harris’ view a mystic who believes that the world can simply be experienced without the need for any scientific analysis, or has he puts it, concepts, is more rational than one who attempts to connect concepts with unexplained experiences through, for lack of a better term, faith.

The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism).  Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time.  It is the denial – at once full of hope and full of fear – of the vastitude of human ignorance. – Sam Harris; The End of Faith

To be fair, Harris doesn’t actually use the term faith here, he blames it all on religion but the implication is clear.  Somehow the “faith” of a mystic is more rational than the faith found in religion, and while this may be true in many cases and may be a reason to abandon your religion, it is not a reason to abandon faith.

I am sure at this point many of my readers are going to want me to continue this line of thought and become an apologist for one faith
tradition or another.  I’m not going to do that.  If you have read any of my previous posts on religion in general and Christianity in particular you know where I stand on this.  While ultimately I do wish all atheists would become Christians the first step in that very long journey is to first recognize the rationality of Deism we can discuss the particulars of faith later.