Sunday, January 17, 2010

Human Suffering in Haiti ~ and my Faith

The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake is iconic in the philosophical and theological discussions of evil and suffering. The Hatian earthquake threatens to surpass Lisbon in death toll, perhaps rising into the top ten earthquakes in the category of human casualties. We are confronted once again with the age-old theodicy problem: How can we account for such incredible suffering in a universe purportedly created and governed by a God who is loving and good.

It has been my contention that no world-view, whether theistic or non, can skate on this issue. No philosophy, no theology, has integrity if it ignores this elephant in the room, the problem posed by suffering and evil. Today, as I view dump trucks discharging their faceless, nameless loads into mass graves, I am sometimes amazed at the indifference of some believers who claim this huge affront to faith does not faze them. The comment threads on this site are littered with such cavalier dismissals. Many other believers are guilty of a greater atrocity, blaming the victims of tragic disasters for exciting the Posieden-like anger of a vindictive God. Still others take the easier hand-in-the-sand mentality: what I don’t think about can’t threaten me!

Lisa Miller, Religion Editor at Newsweek, commenting on the suffering in Haiti, has raised the question again in her column, Why God Hates Haiti, The frustrating theology of suffering. Read it. Ask the hard questions.

Some Christians react defensively when I call them to consider the problem of evil. They perceive me as attacking their faith. Of course, they are correct. A faith which does not take into account the horrors of evil and suffering ought to be attacked. But my purpose is never to destroy faith. Rather, I seek to build faith that is rational, robust, reality-based. Arriving at such a faith may involve a good deal of illusion dismantling. Is it worth the risk? For some, such an examination may result in the complete crumbling of faith, as it did for Bart Ehrman. It is my experience, however, that most Christians who engage is this perilous work of critical thinking, asking the hard questions, emerge on the other side with a faith that is more vibrant, more reliable, more defensible. For me, it is the only kind of faith worth possessing.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Retroactive Curse?

I’ve been involved in an interesting discussion over at Undeception. In this post, Steve discusses how William Dembski, one of the foremost proponents of the Intelligent Design movement, has embraced Old Earth Creationism. That is, he understands the incontrovertible evidence for the age of the earth. And he knows that such evidence includes a history of suffering and death on our planet before the dawn of man. While he still rejects evolution (acceptance of evolution in Dembski’s case would apparently spell the end of his employment at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is a philosophy professor), his acceptance of the geological and paleontological records creates a conundrum for his theology: billions of years of suffering and death on our planet prior to the dawn of man. More importantly, all of this death occurs before the Fall of man. And Dembski’s theology posits that death and suffering are included in the curse which resulted from the sin of Adam and Eve. No problem, according to Dembski. God merely set a curse upon Creation in anticipation of the Fall.

This is like blaming that the man who struck a match at 3:30 in the afternoon for thereby causing an early morning fire on that same day. Except that God is all-knowing, and apparently therefore it is perfectly rational that the curse resulting from Man’s sin might extend backward for billions of years. And thus does Dembski solve the theodicy riddle (how can evil exist in the creation of a good God?) in his book, The End of Christianity. Blame the extinction of dinosaurs on Adam! Eve eats an apple, and trillions of preexistent bacteria die over billions of years. Of course, such a view wreaks havoc upon common sense notions of cause and effect, which lie at the foundation of all science. If God plays such a huge cosmic trick with the sequence of events, can a scientist like Dembski really trust anything in the natural order?

Dembski has effectively rewritten Genesis 2:17 to read, “For in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely set into motion a whole set of retroactive physical, spiritual, and biological laws including the eventuality of death, laws which will not only henceforth govern your lives and all Creation, but actually have already been governing Creation for 13.7 billion years. So, verily, don’t eat thereof. On second thought, maybe you should eat because if you don’t you’ll really screw things up.” And he has altered the grammar of Genesis 3:14-19, effectively replacing a string of straightforward future tense verbs with past perfects. Exactly how does this solve anything for a man who has so much invested in literalism and inerrancy?

Dembski’s commitment to a literal reading of an inerrant Genesis 1 compels him to reject evolution (God created each species “according to its kind”). His insistence upon a literal understanding of Genesis 2 and 3, (and thus a literal Adam and Eve) lead him to reject common descent. But unlike other Biblical literalists, he cannot square the geological and paleontological record with six-day young earth Creationism. The resulting theological dilemma has Dembski contorting Biblical literalism beyond recognition.

Christians who take seriously their faith must deal with the issue in some way. It won’t go away anytime soon. So I am asking my believing readers, How do you solve this dilemma?

o I avoid science, thus shielding myself from all the potential difficulties of squaring my chosen beliefs with hard facts.

o I avoid the philosophical issue of the problem of evil. If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t effect me.

o I avoid the theological issue of death before the Fall. If I don’t think about it, it doesn’t bother me.

o I accept Dembski’s logic. It is the only way to hold together my acceptance of Biblical inerrancy in the face of the vast fossil record showing a long history of death and extinctions prior to man.

o I reject Dembski’s solution as irrational. I accept Biblical inerrancy, but have another solution to the dilemma.

o My view of reality compels me to redefine how God reveals truth, and I do not read the Bible as the literal, inerrant “Word of God”.

Or do you have a different approach than one listed here?