Sovereign Gold?

[Warning: this is a long post, and a bit of a rant. I get a little heated here; sorry]

As I said in the last post, I find it hard to know exactly what I believe about god and about Christianity right now. But I think there are some things that I can safely say that I don’t believe. Or, at least, are things that prejudice me against the Christian faith, if they can be described as indicative of that faith.

One of the things I realised at l’Abri was quite how angry I was towards certain Christian theologies. There are beliefs within some wings of the church that I find downright insidious and damaging. Some of the ones I find hardest are those held by the Reformed or Calvinist branches of Christian faith.

Now, a friend complimented me last night on how I had managed to write the last post with a ‘profound lack of bitterness’ in my tone. I want to apologise right now if I don’t manage to maintain that attitude here. I am going to try and be charitable, but I don’t honestly know if I will manage it.

One of the biggest issues I have is with the concept of the Sovereignty of God. The idea, as far as I understand it, goes like this: God, if he exists, has to be the biggest, most powerful being conceivable. God created the universe out of his will, and sustains it out of his will. The very continued existence of the universe is because of the present, continuous will of God. But more than that, God, being the biggest, most powerful force in all of creation, is fully sovereign over all of said creation.

Which is taken to mean, in this theological interpretation, that everything that happens, happens according to the will of God. Effectively, ‘because He Said So‘.

In some ways, this is one of the oldest philosophies. The Greeks and the Persians, and all sorts of ancient peoples would look upon a natural disaster, such as the failure of a harvest, an earthquake or a volcanic eruption as the anger of the gods. The Mayan’s would sacrifice people to appease the wrath of the gods. It is an OLD idea.

And even today, to many of us, it is the first, most natural thought when it comes to the existence of a Supreme Being. When sickness or natural disaster, or unnatural calamity afflict us, our deepest hurt reacts, crying WHY?!?

We cry ‘why?’ because we believe there to be someone to blame, someone pulling the strings, someone afflicting us. I find it perfectly natural that reaction in so many of us is to find someone to blame; someone to direct our understandable anger at. I have done the same. I have angrily ranted and blamed God for my hurt and my circumstances in the past.

The problem I have is when you turn the understandable first reaction of a hurting individual into a cast-iron theology, into an explanation of The Way The World Is. This theological understanding of the Sovereignty of God says that everything that happens, good or bad, is the Will of God. Everything. The failure of a harvest, an earthquake, the collapse of the money markets this year, the almost-inevitable victory of Manchester United in this year’s Premiership, the Holocaust.

While it might comfort us in the midst of our pain to shake our fists at God after the death or a friend or relative, to have someone or something to vent at and direct our cries of ‘Why?!’, it doesn’t actually comfort once the blood has stopped boiling. It actually makes the questions harder, deeper. You see, to me, it seems that if you ascribe the cause of every action to God, then you have some real issues when it comes to his nature. A God who causes Holocausts and tsunamis doesn’t seem very nice. I honestly do not know why anyone would want to be involved with, let alone worship, a divine entity that sweeps thousands of unsuspecting individuals away in a ‘sovereign’ fit of pique.

We’re hit with a real dilemma here. The Christian god is supposedly described as gracious and compassionate, as the very embodiment and definition of love. Not loving, but love. Yet there are very few circumstances that the average person can imagine where killing someone could be considered loving. And what happens when we consider sickness, or poverty, or oppression, or the evil, damaging actions of individuals?

Now, the proponents of this theology would probably argue that there are also verses in the bible that speak of gods anger, and of the sinfulness of man, and of gods sovereignty. Well, yes, there probably are. I’m not pretending that there is no rational basis for this idea, that it isn’t a theology that someone of good conscience can hold. I know good people who believe this. I wish they wouldn’t, but they do. I don’t love them any less (well, much less) or value them less as human beings for espousing this belief.

But I have huge problems with the idea. Of what it tells people, of what it communicates about the nature of reality, of this supposedly-loving god. I have a friend who was raped. Another two friends who were sexually abused as children. These friends have been profoundly damaged by their experiences, by the evil, deeply wrong actions of human beings. These events overshadow their whole lives. But rather than giving them comfort or solace, this insidious doctrine lays the blame for these crippling events at the feet of god himself. It says that, because God is Sovereign and only the things that He Purposes happen, that in some way these terrible events must have been His Will for my friends lives. God ordaining rape and child abuse? No thanks!

I have a family member who has been sick, bed-bound, for 8 years now. Eight years, their whole adult life, stolen, and that of their parents who care for them too. Does it comfort me, or them, to think that god has planned this, purposed this, even if it is (somehow) supposedly for their good? No. I think that, if this is gods will, then he’s a real sadistic bastard.

(sorry, I think I might have lost my ‘lack of bitterness’ there)

If you think I’m being ridiculous here, or painting a wrong picture, then I just want to repost this link, to a very senior figure in the Reformed wing of the American church, who is effectively saying that God caused a bridge to collapse and kill people. Why? Because we’re all sinners and deserve to die, and this event reminds of the fact. Effectively, we should all fear and tremble before God, and be grateful that He is so ‘loving’ as to let us live our pitiful existences in the first place.

I’m sorry, no. Just no. I don’t know how to resolve the problem of suffering. I don’t know how to square the circle when it comes to the seeming incompatibility of the sovereignty of god and the free will of his creation. But I do know that my friends were abused by human beings, and to shift the blame to god removes comfort rather than gives it. To say that god ‘ordained’ the action somehow is seeking to find purpose in actions that are evil, wrong and damaging – actions that are inherently purposeless. And it removes the blame from those who should carry it, squarely, on their shoulders.

To blame sickness, or natural disasters on god is perhaps understandable in emotional terms, but in theology or philosophy it simply creates a monster of a deity – an angry, vengeful, petulant god, not in any way deserving of love or worship. If god causes tsunamis and earthquakes, if he afflicts people with sickness deliberately, if he purposes, directs and ordains rape, child abuse, murder, then there is nothing loving in him, and I for one don’t want anything to do with him.

Like I said, I really don’t know what I believe when it comes to the existence of god or the problem of suffering. It may be that the cruelty and hardship of this world are all because of the selfish actions of human beings and the natural movements of tectonic plates – that it is all random and senseless. It may be that god exists and weeps for the brokenness of his creation. I don’t know.

But I do know this – there are some doctrines of some parts of the Christian church that paint a picture of a deity that I want nothing to do with. I don’t find them believable, good, or consistent with the idea of a god that is meant to be the very definition of love. I can’t believe they are true, but if they are, I want nothing to do with them.

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8 thoughts on “Sovereign Gold?

  1. I only saw this after I commented on your previous post.

    Ranting is fine. Bitterness is fine. Being passionate about your ideas is good regardless of whether the passion evokes ‘bad’ feelings or ‘good’ feelings’. Being angry in your own blog is acceptable – don’t apologise.

    If you feel bitter, angry, unresentful or happy and want to put it in your blog, do so.

    You do not owe anyone a shield against your own feelings about your own experiences in your own blog.

  2. this post is an important one. there is truth and then there are idolatries, there is Christianity and then there are a slew of toxic christianities, the question of suffering is a measure of the validity and capacity of a theology to bring life to dead places.

    my feeling is, if we allow suffering autonomy, we will achieve a truly hellish suffering, where the suffering has ultimate victory and the last word, and there is no ultimate good is being worked from these negative turns.

    whereas, if ultimate reality ordained this event, it strips the tragedy of its power, that there is plot towards which this is a serviant part. by disbelieving that god caused the disaster we must then deny any ultimate reality or meaning to anything, or we make an ultimate reality of the suffering itself, the seed and fruit of an exhausting idolatry.

    suffering is not so much in the action itself, the tectonics, but the belief about the event and the value invested, hence buddhism’s desiring nothing, suffering nothing. this leaves one open to a grey, painless joyless existence.

    i don’t know how to be physical, suffer well, in hope. i know god is invoked cheaply by budding calvinists. and i have not found adequate expression for the third way of hope between the two despairs of blind causality and vindictive sovereignty.

    so, am i a calvinist? not self-consciously or consistently.. i thought that two terms at l’abri would sort me out with the predestination/sovereignty question.. certainly it hasn’t given me a soundbite coverall, and neither has it taught me to let this sleeping dog lie..

    • @Phil

      I love debating these sorts of things so I hope you will indulge me.

      Please forgive me but I found it very difficult to understand what you are saying in your comment as I do not speak your brand of religious language so if I have mis-interpretted what you meant I am sorry and wait to be corrected.

      My interpretation of your comments:

      1) “If we allow that a god isn’t responsible for the bad things in life as well as the good then the bad things will be worse and nothing good can ever come from it.

      2) “If we allow the bad things to be part of some ‘plan’ by a god then the bad things have no power.

      3) If we allow that bad things can happen without being part of some ‘plan’ by a god then anything good or bad has no meaning and we start worshipping the bad thing.” (I think I’ve got this wrong but it’s my best guess at what I think you mean.)

      My comments:

      1) I find this rather a depressing thought and difficult to empathise with given my general stance on religion but I will try.

      I would tend to argue the opposite. I imagine the two cases with a trivial ‘bad thing’…

      I come home and walking into my building I trip on a loose piece of paving, hurting my hand. I could believe that hurting my hand was just a random event and ho-hum, I deal with it and carry on with life. Or I could believe that hurting my hand was part of something elses plan, a god for example. So which is better, hurting my hand just because I suffered a mishap or hurting my hand because someone / some god wanted me too. I personally would feel worse if I thought someone wanted me to suffer than if it was just random chance that made me hurt my hand.

      Outcome A: So here I am with a hurting hand from a loose piece of paving from where I tripped by chance. I decide I will fix the paving. This means that I will never trip and hurt my hand there again. A side benefit of this is that others will also not trip like I did. I have changed the world in a small way and made it a better place.

      Outcome B: So here I am with a hurting hand from a loose piece of paving from where I tripped because a god wanted me to. I know this was part of their plan because this god is all powerful. I decide that I will go inside and watch tv because if a god wants me to trip and hurt myself they can do that whether I fix the paving or not. I do not bother to change the world as regardless of what I do I could be part of a plan that negates it.

      I submit that Outcome A does not support your argument and outcome B, whilst probably never expressed in as trivial way as I have done, is what the eventual outcome is of that sort of thinking.

      2) I again argue the opposite.

      If bad things happening are part of a gods plan then they *do* have power. They are no longer random chance but purposeful acts that directly affect me. Tripping and hurting my hand by random chance has no power over me. I can choose to do something about it or choose to ignore it. It has no ability to direct me towards some distinct action.

      If something or some god has some plan for me and makes a bad thing happen to me then it will direct me. I have lost choice for I am now a puppet playing a role in someone elses theatre.

      3) As I am not sure I have interpretted your exact meaning in your comment correctly I will hold off debating on this one. On the general theme though I think a lot of personal learning can be gained by trying to seriously answer the question:

      “What if bad thing x was *not* part of some plan?”

      What does that mean? What is the consequence and do I need to do something because of it?

      Kat.
      (Whoa – long comment day today for me)

      • a helmet says:

        Hello Kat,

        I mostly assent to these points:

        1) “If we allow that a god isn’t responsible for the bad things in life as well as the good then the bad things will be worse and nothing good can ever come from it.

        I’m a christian and from a christian point of view, God isn’t responsible for bad things. He is in no way the author of evil. And I agree that there is never anything good to come from evil. A bad tree will always continue to bear bad fruit until it is cut off but never turn to produce good fruit.

        2) “If we allow the bad things to be part of some ‘plan’ by a god then the bad things have no power.

        Evil serves no good purpose. There is no such thing as some mysterious greater good going to come out of evil. Evil is the forever meaningless scandale. God’s character is immutable and so He’ll never approve of evil.

        3) If we allow that bad things can happen without being part of some ‘plan’ by a god then anything good or bad has no meaning and we start worshipping the bad thing.” (I think I’ve got this wrong but it’s my best guess at what I think you mean.)

        I strongly object to the notion that there’s a plan behind bad things. God is almighty, if He wants to reach a certain goal, a greater good in the future, He can well do so without having to utilize the means of evil. The biblical God can accomplish his goals without the need of evil as a tool to achieve his good purposes. So the notion that there’s a plan behind the bad things is contrary to God’s omnipotence.

        Some people would say, the usage of evil itself is part of the good purpose. However, this makes the “way through evil” actually a good thing and something desired by God Himself. In this view, one ends ends up making God to be the author of evil. Yet the biblical God is holy and benevolent and doesn’t delight in the any bad things.

        -a helmet

      • @a helmet.
        can you talk a bit more about what evil is. was the murder of jesus evil? did good come from it? what part, stage, aspect, intention or otherwise makes an action evil? – genuine questions, i’m not just stirring, you speak directly about evil, and i’m not so easy with the concept.

        @kat
        give me a minute i’ve just started trying to write a 1. 2. 3. response, i might leave it for the morning, it began: “i’m sorry for not speaking plainly, i have used derivative l’abri-isms and i am guilty also of obscuring my grammar to blur my meaning to deflect attacks on my emmental argument, if it was an argument. we are here really debating the goodness of god. his nature, goodness and intentions, and I am sure there are others who read this blog better qualified, better read and better experienced – people who have really suffered, who would be better placed to defend suffering under a ‘good’ god. please, others, don’t consider this a closed phil and kat exchange, i will try to re-arrange and rephrase thoughts, but i haven’t meat to add really. …

        .. so you’ve got a helmet to speak plainly in the mean time. while i brew, the conversation might be clarified by separating the oft conflated terms, pain/suffering/evil. i’ll venture these:

        pain – just biology operating in an environment
        suffering – a considered attitude to pain
        evil – a distortion of truth

      • @a helmet May 16, 2009 at 8:50pm.

        Odd – I don’t seem to be able to reply underneath your comment so that the thread is easily navigable. I wonder where this comment will end up? Oh well. Hopefully it will be all right.

        Hello a helmet :-).

        1) I don’t think the situation is as simple as “there is never anything good to come from evil”. I think there are things that are good that come from evil. I think evil makes people do good things all the time. Things that they would have never done or contemplated doing if they hadn’t been exposed to evil. (I hate using the words good and evil because they are so subjective and to me always have a religious connotation but in the absence of any better ideas for words to use instead…). I’m sure there are several times in your life where you witnessed something or were exposed to something, maybe an injustice of some sort, that made you think and made you act. I’m sure that you did not act in an evil way after witnessing that evil and hence continue the evil? Did you do something good?

        2) Evil by it’s definition is the opposite of good. But, in witnessing evil we can do good (see above). Hence good can come from evil.

        Your comment:

        “Evil is the forever meaningless scandale. God’s character is immutable and so He’ll never approve of evil.”

        My interpretation of your comment:

        “Evil is always bad and god doesn’t approve of it. And because god is unchanging has never approved of it”.

        Ok. We’ll see where this takes us…

        3) You state the problem.

        God doesn’t do bad things and does not approve of them.
        But god is omnipotent.
        So god could stop the bad things happening but doesn’t.
        So god doesn’t approve of bad things but not enough to stop them from happening.

        OR

        A bad thing happened.
        God would not intentionally do a bad thing.
        So god can have no intention for any good that came of it.
        So people can be good without god.

        4) “So the notion that there’s a plan behind the bad things is contrary to God’s omnipotence”.

        I am not sure what you mean here as this does not make sense to me. God is all-knowing but not all-knowing enough to know that a bad thing will happen? God knows that a bad thing will happen but doesn’t purposely plan it but neither does he/she/it stop it? Can you elaborate here as I don’t think you mean what you wrote?

        I am sorry if this sounds pedantic but because I am not fluent in the religious language you are sometimes using (business and engineering / scientific I can just about handle 😉 ) I am studying your words in detail to get your meaning (I’ve used dictionary.com a lot today 😉 ).

        @Phil May 16, 2009 at 9:39pm

        Your questions regarding the understanding of what exactly evil is are good ones. As I said above, ‘evil’ and ‘good’ are such subjective terms in my opinion. One person’s ‘massively evil’ is anothers ‘not so much’.

        You are right. It is late and minds are getting sleepy. Probably not the best time to have a serious debate 😉

        Goodnight,

        Kat.

  3. I’m not sure if this is really in response to any of the other comments, but a couple of thoughts have come to mind.

    I don’t believe God intentionally inflicts suffering/pain upon his people. I could give all sorts of glib explanations for natural disasters etc, but you’ll have heard them before. But the important thing is that originally, God created humans in his own image. We were perfect beings. Then came The Fall & evil/sin undermined God’s perfect creations. We are not perfect, we always have the power to cecede from God, but, he never stops loving us.

    Could God stop man from committing sin & inflicting pain? I don’t know. On the one hand, I’d immediately say yes – but that it would be up to the person committing the sin to come to God. (Even as I write that, it sounds like sentimental Christianity!) Do ‘Christians’ hurt others? Most definitely yes – so this would disprove my first idea. Therefore is everything in God’s plan?

    Yes, I’m what you might call a crazy, charismatic evangelical, so I’m biased. I’m not an evangelist or theologian, I don’t know the answers. I can look back on the very worst moments of my life & see how good has come out of them – that may be the luxury of hindsight or the will of God. That doesn’t mean that I believe God would inflict rape or abuse someone simply to encourage a formative experience. I believe in a loving God, not a wrathful, vengeful God.

    One thought that’s just come to mind, in response to Kat’s question of “What if bad thing x was *not* part of some plan?”, is that perhaps because God is loving, he sees when we are hurt, and tries to do the best he can to resolve it. The image that comes to mind is of a child that falls over and scrapes its knee. A parent can do nothing to stop it, but can help with the aftermath – cleaning the wound, sticking a plaster on it, kissing it better. Yes, that’s simplistic and the illustration wouldn’t work if you stretched it further, but it’s an idea worth considering.

    But if my God is a loving God, why does he allow us to get hurt and suffer??

    And there we are, back at the question of whether God can control evil. I don’t know. You ask difficult questions Andy and I doubt that we’ll ever come to a conclusion, but I hope you manage (at some point) to make peace with the questions. It’s really difficult reading all this, but don’t stop out of fear of sounding angry/bitter, it’s so important to challenge and be challenged.

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