Theodicy on the radio

rowan-williamsThe Archbishop of Canterbury sat Saturday morning for an 11-minute interview (requires RealAudio) with John Humphrys of the BBC about the school massacre in Beslan, Russia. Humphrys asked tough questions the entire time (hat tip: Simon Sarmiento of Thinking Anglicans).

Their conversation is an amazingly detailed dialogue about evil, the nature of free will and what it all means for a Christian’s faith. A key excerpt:

In a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate, intervene for outcomes.

Human decisions are free.

Human decisions are free.

Not for the children they weren’t, were they?

The children were held captive. The decisions were being made by others. And that’s how power works in the world, of course, that some are enslaved by the decisions of others.

So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.

It means the ability to make a difference in a situation. Now that also means the difference — the ability, tragically — to use others in the way that these terrorists were attempting to use those children. I suppose the sense that we all have that some kind of line has been crossed here is the almost impossibility of imagining how people can not only calculate that the death of children will serve their purpose but actually to sit with suffering children for days, watching that in a calculating way. And that’s the kind of decision that, yes, you have to call evil.

In condemning the terrorists’ actions, Williams cites not only Jesus’ words about the judgment that will come to those who harm children (Matt. 18:6), but also cites the Qur’an’s warning that “Allah does not love people who overstep the limits” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 87).

The interview is a model of how a religious leader can, amid the most horrifying circumstances, speak on behalf of God’s love and justice.

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  • http://sirman.blogspot.com Doug Sirman

    “In a world in which human decisions are free, even free for the most appalling evil like this, God does not dictate, intervene for outcomes.”

    The bible is nothing if not a history of God’s intervention.

    “The interview is a model of how a religious leader can, amid the most horrifying circumstances, speak behalf of God’s love and justice.”

    Yes, let us thank God for half-assed clergymen, using tragedy for ink. They accomplish so very much.

  • Lee

    I believe that Doug got this one right.

    In fact, great horrors do happen, without any kind of “Biblical” intervention of the kind that Mr. Sirman points to. In Russia now, and in the Third Reich, the USSR, and Kampuchea in the last century, the skies did NOT darken, and angels did NOT appear to break the power of the tyrants.

    We have to take this reality into account when speaking of God …. how DO we account for the freedom that God leaves for the evil to do so much evil?

    Lee

  • Eddie

    Of course it’s impossible to talk about freedom, if we describe freedom as Mr Rowan William did.

    I think of St Augustine talking about freedom, and then it’s a “little bit” more understandable.

    Freedom: is the ability to act well (when you don’t you are not free). Sorry about those who think freedom is the ability to do what I WANT.

    Sorry about those who think freedom is “the ability to make a difference in a situation”.

  • J F Karr

    The interview is a model of how POORLY a religious leader can, amid the most horrifying circumstances, speak on behalf of God’s love and justice.

    Oh, wait! I forgot – we’re all supposed to believe the ABC is an intellectual giant! :-/

  • bill from ohio

    This guy needs a good barber. Especially for his eyebrow.

  • Marion R.

    “So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.”

    John Humphrys is an ass for “asking” such a follow-up “question”.

    And Williams does Christianity no good with his answer, which seems not only to endorse the sneering, nihilistic implication of the “question”, but to do it one better.

    I urge all to re-read that last exchange, and imagine it spoken on the radio. Here’s what the typical, harried modern listener is sure to think they heard:

    “So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.”

    ‘Yes, free will equals power, and this tragedy shows that power is evil.’

    The nation and the world are in a teachable moment and Williams is fudging it with ‘depth, sensitivity, and nuance’. No wonder Christianity is choking on itself in Britain.

    Let’s walk back through this little car crash in slow motion and see at least one simple way it could have been averted:

    Humphrys: “So when Christianity talks about free will, what it actually means is power.”

    Williams: ‘No. But generally when Christianity talks about power it assumes the presence of free will.’

  • Phil Blackburn

    Rowan Williams is a thoughtful man, who tries to give honest, thoughtful answers to difficult questions. Inevitably this allows plenty of scope for cheap attacks, which is probably why politicians avoid doing it.

    ‘Free will’ is the standard Christian explanation for the problem of evil in a world made by a loving omnipotent God. John Humphries simply highlights a weak point, that those who suffer from evil consequences are not necessarily those who made the ‘free will’ choices. That is his job.

    Trying to give even a partial answer to such a question in about 30 seconds may be ambitious, but personally I preferred Rowan Williams’ outline of a fair answer to the ‘blockers’ proposed in earlier comments here. When religious leaders start sounding like politicians we will *really* be in trouble.


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