Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti: why can't we just say "We don't know?"



There has been much analysis of the "Christian perspective" on Haiti and therefore on the wider issue of suffering in the media and on the INTERNET over the last few days. Some of it as we know has been disturbing to many Christians and seems to reveal an understanding of God many are not at all in sympathy with.

I have begun to wonder whether in some quarters there is a knee-jerk reaction to say something, anything, rather than remain silent: perhaps a desire to jump to God's defense in the knowledge that some searching questions will be asked about a terribly difficult and sensitive issue. "Why does God allow suffering?"

To some extent some people may feel pressured to speak and perhaps others think on their feet as they speak. The press can be very assertive, particularly when they sense weakness and all too often silence is interpreted as weakness. What we seem to have had is a number of people speaking before a period of quiet reflection and the theological quality of what they have said has been questionable and therefore picked up by the media for that very reason. Damned if you do and damned if you don't it seems.

In the light of the responses of people like Pat Robertson and Albert Mohler which have been judged by many to have been inadequate or downright insensitive, I am starting to wonder why it isn't alright to say "I'm sorry, I just don't know" as the Archbishop of York did. After all, it isn't as if there is a standard doctrine on suffering and different Christians offer different theologies.

What follows is, therefore, a slightly truncated Yr 10 GCSE module on suffering and Christianity.

It seems that there are three types of suffering in the world:
* Suffering caused by natural disasters
* Suffering caused by evil human actions
* Suffering caused by random events

Christianity has little trouble rationalising suffering caused by evil human actions because it can talk about Free Will. The bottom line is that we all make moral choices and if God were to intervene everytime things got out of hand and a bad moral choice was made there would be no free will and we would be merely robots pre-programmed by God to do his will. No, Free Will is a risky strategy on God's part: a gift that illustrates our true humanity and which we must exercise with the utmost caution.

The other two types of suffering cause Christians immense problems and, as we have seen, cause some to make things worse. There is no recourse to Free Will to explain an earthquake or a heart attack, so what can Christians say? What are the theologies available to us?

The technical term for an explanation that justifies suffering alongside the existence of God is called a Theodicy and the two major ones, the Augustinian and the Irenaen both have major weaknesses.

St. Augustine's Theodicy relies on the doctrine of the Fall. Now I have to express some embarrassment here as I confess that it wasn't until I was preparing this topic for a Philosophy of Religion A Level lesson that I realised that much of the doctrine of the Fall is inferred. We all know the Adam and Eve story. We all know that this is a story about disobedience and the consequences of sin. What I hadn't realised because I was so familiar with the doctrine and had absorbed the teaching over a long period of time, is that the prequel is hardly Biblical and that there is a lot of special pleading about the story of the fall of Lucifer which Augustine pretty well relies on to make his case. (I suppose it's because I studied Milton's Paradise Lost at A Level that I never noticed the absence of this story in scripture.)

In short Augustine sees suffering as a direct consequence of the Fall, both Lucifer's and Adam and Eves's and argues that the fabric of creation was compromised by the sin of their disobedience. That is an essential point because suffering, as we know, can exist without human sin as in this dreadful tragedy in Haiti, but it has to be a consequence of "Original Sin." The fabric of the universe was compromised. This is also essential to argue that God did not create sin or suffering because everything he created was ex nihilo - out of nothing and not ex materia out of something, and there is, therefore, no possibility of God creating evil and/or suffering because what he created out of nothing was therefore effectively created out of himself. Creation had to be perfect for Augustine and sin and suffering are serious inconveniences to that idea. This was the doctrine of the church for hundreds of years. It is what is called a "soul deciding" theodicy. This, I guess, is the theology which motivated Robertson and Mohler.

An older theodicy, and one which is gaining a lot of support of late, is that of St. Irenaeus. He never wrote a systematic theology of suffering and it has been the contributions of more recent theologians such as Hick and Swinburn who built on Irenaeus's ideas which have joined up the dots.

The Irenaen view is very much that humanity was not created perfect and needed to mature spiritually in order to reach the moral image and likeness of God. That can only happen if we face sufficient challenges in our individual and corporate journies along humanity's time line. The world we live in has to be a suitable environment for character building, and that requires suffering. Again, God does not intervene because of Free Will. It is what is called a "soul making" theodicy. This theodicy makes much of the idea of "epistemic distance" between the point of creation and the moment of spiritual maturity: we could not be immediately aware of God's existence and so had to discover it along the way. Our spiritual maturity must be significantly distanced from the creative process. Given that the current theory is that it was 70,000 or so years ago that we start to see evidence of the sort of human creativity which suggests the beginning of awe and wonder in cave paintings, this has become quite an evolutionary theodicy and so is not attractive to those who have a creationist worldview. Its main weakness is that of scale: how much suffering is required for spiritual character-building? There seems to be a disproportionate amount of suffering about to achieve the desired outcome.

Nevertheless there is another important strand of theology here. I have been trying to get my students to understand the problem at the heart of the debate: Christians teach that God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful. Critics of Christianity counter that you can have any two and suffering makes sense but not all three. ie: God loves us and he knows about suffering but he can't do anything about it, God knows about the suffering and has the power to do something about it but he doesn't care or God loves us and has the power to do something about suffering but he doesn't know about it. Irenaeus seems to deal with this because implicit in his theodicy is the idea of God voluntarily laying aside his omnipotence and not intervening when he could.

I suppose we each of us lean towards one or other of those worldviews but I don't relish the idea of interpreting either to a hungry media pack.

Of course we have the book of Job to muddy the waters. This is not a historical book (although many will insist that it is). It is a morality tale and is a subversive one at that as it alludes to God and Satan wagering on the outcome of Job's suffering: will he remain faithful to God or will he denounce him? Many question its place in the canon of scripture for that reason alone. It offers three solutions to the problem of suffering, all suggested by Job's "comforters". Suffering is a test, suffering is a punishment and suffering is part of God's wider plan which we mere mortals can not hope to understand. None of the solutions show God in a particularly good light which is another black mark against the text.

My own personal problem with these three arises more out of their deployment by the conservative/fundamentalist wing of the church and my suspicion that they are plattitude answers in that context. If you subscribe to a worldview which sees obedience to the letter of scripture as an essential tennet of faith, you aren't going to delve particularly deeply into reading between the lines of what appears clear and obvious on the surface. I struggle with people telling me that Haiti is God's punishment but who can not go the next step in explaining why, or who can not accept an alternative perspective because that challenges their understanding of how God works in the world.

In this context I was much taken with the letter to Pat Robertson from Satan (in reality Lily Coyle of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune) which noted certain inconsistencies with the earthquake-as-punishment theory: ... when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth - glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox - that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it - I'm just saying: Not how I roll. Makes perfect sense to me.

Now suffering as a test: I have no problem accepting that our faith in God is tested through suffering. I am just not sure that the randomness and the scale points to a deliberate act of God. What sort of God is this that such Christians believe in? This to me outlines the phenomenon of the "Old Testament Christian", the one who sees God in the way the people of ancient Israel saw God - a God of vengeance and punishment, a God in a perpetual bad mood and a God who comes over as capricious and something of a tribal totem. God hasn't changed but I think our understanding of him has since those days - or should have which brings us back to epistemic distance and the process of spiritual maturity.

Suffering is part of God's wider plan and is therefore beyond our understanding. That, of course, may well be true (who am I to claim to know the mind of God?) but it sounds terribly patronising and I have been patronised by far too many Christians over the years to accept what appears to be an intellectual cop-out. I may not know the purposes of God in suffering but I'm prepared to meet him half way and give it a try. Just a little insight please?

Jesus suffered so we know it is part of the human experience. I am quite sympathetic to that viewpoint and find it comforting to know that Jesus is my fellow sufferer. I'm not sure I would want to try that one out on the citizens of Port au Prince right now though.

In the end it is the non-interventionist view of God that most appeals to me but which goes against much of what I have been taught about the nature of God. Creation is morally neutral: it does not have the capacity to get up one morning and decide "Today I'll do an earthquake." Creation does not have the capacity to make moral choices. One explanation suggests that God has made the universe and leaves it to follow its natural course guided by the laws of nature. Archbishop Sentamu was starting to follow this line of argument on Thursday's Today Programme: the flood which kills some people now fertilises the land for others in the future; the earthquake which kills many now is from the same forces which create the land we and future generations live on. How can God intervene? How would he choose the well-being of one group now over the well-being of the other group in the future? To me this is quite Irenaean and, although I am not entirely happy with it, I'll come down off the fence now and say that despite its problems I am with St. Irenaeus and his theodicy.

However all of this seems totally inadequate as a first response to suffering of this magnitude. If pushed I'll simply say "I'm terribly sorry, I really don't know" and stick with Giles Fraser by acknowledging that despite all the problems there is a gut reaction for God inside me.

However, if you're still interested - seriously interested - in a month or so's time when the heat is off the topic, let's go for a quiet beer and I'll share some of what I understand about the Christian perspective on suffering.