Search Results for: theodicy

Theology breaks out

virginia tech war memorialThe tragic shootings Monday at Virginia Tech tell a story about life and death, and whenever those subjects are discussed religion will no doubt become involved. Tmatt wrote on Tuesday that the “religion shoe” would soon drop. And as predicted, religion did drop throughout the day’s memorial service.

The memorial service Tuesday for the Virginia Tech community has been largely buried by most of the news outlets covering this tragedy. It is difficult to fault the reporters and editors for the coverage of this horrific event so far, primarily because there is so much that we still do not know and cannot know about the events. As the details of the shooter and the murders come out, that will rightly receive most of the coverage.

But I want to take a moment to reflect on the memorial service and consider the significance of the words said. Coverage of the memorial service has been sparse so far, but there was deep theological meaning carried in the speeches by everyone from President Bush to a leader in Blacksburg’s Muslim community. News stories on forgiveness and determination are going to come along with, sadly, stories about attempts at retribution. Both responses are affected by a community’s religious tradition and practice (or lack thereof).

Starting with The Washington Post‘s front-page article by Michelle Boorstein, reporters are picking up on the bits and pieces of the religious language used by nearly all the speakers:

Citing the biblical Job and his struggle to understand suffering, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told the crowd that violence-weary people around the world are watching Blacksburg.

“As you wrestle with despair, do not lose hold of that spirit of community you have,” he said, asking mourners to help the victims’ families and react in a way that will benefit people watching. “The world needs you to.”

Jeffrey Weiss of The Dallas Morning News asked in response to tmatt’s post if there was a “more logically consistent” story to use in a situation like this than the one found in biblical story of Job. “As a matter of journalism, I’ve swung at the theodicy pitch several times over the years. The stories are pretty much interchangeable, but for the details at the top about the tragedy of the moment,” Weiss says.

It’s a great question, and similar questions could be asked of the other memorial-service speakers. Reporters could also ask the reasons they were chosen to help the community grieve publicly. The answers would say a lot about the Virginia Tech community.

More from Kaine in this transcript of the service:

A second reaction that is a natural reaction is anger, anger at the gunman, anger at the circumstance, what could have been done different? Could something have happened? That’s natural as well, one of the most powerful stories in the human history of stories is that great story central to Judaism, Islam and Christianity, the story of Job from the Old Testament, afflicted with all kinds of tragedies in his family and health, and he was angry. He was angry at his circumstances. He was angry at his creator. He argued with God, he didn’t lose his faith, but it’s OK to argue, it’s OK to be angry. Those emotions are natural as well.

And finally, the emotions of the family members most affected, beyond grief, losing a son, losing a daughter, a brother, a sister, losing a close friend, it can go beyond grief to isolation and feeling despair. Those haunting words that were uttered on a hill on Calvary, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Despair is a natural emotion at a time like this.

Bush’s statement amplified the problem of evil, and made me think that Michael Gerson freelanced a speech for the White House for this occasion.

Virginia Tech is located in the relatively small town of Blacksburg, where I lived in for a summer while working at The Roanoke Times. From my experience, the place is not exactly a town with a church on every corner. But based on my experience there, there is a solid undercurrent of belief. A dominant theme I noticed, and this is probably similar in other college towns, was the strong emphasis on interfaith worship and fellowship. This was represented in the memorial service’s other speakers: Saki Riyadh, a leader in the local Muslim community; Julie Still from Living Buddhism of Virginia Tech; Sue Kurtz, director of Hillel of Virginia Tech; and the Rev. Bill King, director of Lutheran Campus Ministries.

For the purpose of highlighting a religion ghost in the memorial service, I want to compare some of the words spoken by of Bush and Julie Still of Living Buddhism. First, here is Bush:

People who have never met you are praying for you. They’re praying for your friends who have fallen and who are injured. There’s a power in these prayers, real power. In times like this, we can find comfort in the grace and guidance of a loving God. As the Scriptures tells us, don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

And here is Still:

In the words of [Daisaku Ikeda], a well-known Buddhist leader, “when great evil occurs, great good follows, but great good does not come about on its own. Courage is always required to accomplish great good.” Now is the time for us to demonstrate the courage of non-violence, the courage to engage in dialogue, the courage to listen to what we don’t want to hear, and the courage to control our desire for revenge and follow reason.

I am convinced that we are born into this world with an inherit good nature, and together we must restore our faith in humanity. I believe that from this tragedy, courage is the greatest and most endearing honor that we can give in the memory of our loved ones.

Bush and Still speak of overcoming evil with good and Still says that humans are born into this world with an inherently good nature. As words of comfort, what these words say about the individual’s worldview and perspective on life and death, good and evil, is a story worth following. And as Weiss says, “doing journalism about this stuff ain’t easy.”

Underneath the bonnets and straw hats

Amish straw hats JPGIt’s very hard to write a column about one subject when your mind is locked on another.

So I did something I rarely do yesterday. I switched column topics, even though that meant trying to do extra reading, research and telephone work during a day when I had classes to teach in the morning and the afternoon. I write at night and ship the column to the bureau at dawn on Wednesdays. It’s that “lead time” thing, you know.

The goal, of course, was to write about the Amish tragedy. It was clear that new details would keep coming out all week, but I still thought there was ground to cover from the very first day or two of the story. I knew that the media would, of course, leap into stories linked to “theodicy,” and that’s valid. That is part of the “why” question, after all.

But I was haunted by the question of justice. I know enough about the Amish and the Mennonites to know that this was the other half of the discussion that would be looming in the background, coupled with forgiveness. But who to talk to on such short notice? You can talk to academic experts on the Amish and what they believe, but this rarely gets you inside the minds under those straw hats and bonnets, let alone inside their hearts and souls.

So I decided to try to reach Johann Christoph Arnold of the Bruderhof Communities. This is a Christian group that is very similar to the Amish and the Mennonites in many ways, in terms of European roots, traditions and beliefs. However, they are not opposed to modern technology, especially not the Internet (thus the website link above). I have talked with Arnold in the past and, thus, I hoped he would take my call in such a stressful time. Sure enough, the Bruderhof communities had already sent volunteers down to Lancaster County, Pa., to help counsel and help the Amish handle the media storm. The Bruderhof were also highly involved in helping survivors of the Columbine High School massacre. Like the Amish, the Bruderhof folks do not fit easily into media stereotypes.

Arnold was able to give me some time between my classes. That led to a column that began like this:

The helicopters kept making circles in the air so that the cameramen could keep showing the dairy farms and country roads, the bonnets and wide-brimmed straw hats, the horse-drawn buggies and the one-room schoolhouse framed in yellow police tape.

Soon the facts started going in circles as police recited a litany about 600 rounds of ammunition, a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol, a stun gun, explosives and, later, the killer’s sick collection of chains, clamps, hardware and sexual aids. Witnesses said Charles Carl Roberts IV was angry with God, angry with himself, haunted by guilt, fed up with life and driven by a hellish grudge.

Then journalists began asking questions that went in circles, the questions that nag clergy as well as state troopers. Why? Why the Amish? How could God let this happen? How can justice be done now that the killer is dead?

“Like everyone else, I could not believe what I was seeing on my television,” said Johann Christoph Arnold, senior elder of the Bruderhof communes. While sharing many beliefs with the Amish and Mennonites, the Bruderhof (“place of the brothers”) embrace some modern technology. Still, these movements share European roots in pacifism, simple living and an emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

“The Amish are our cousins so I know some of what they must be feeling,” said Arnold, in his thick German accent. “I know these parents are hurting, I know they are asking questions, but I know that they know the answer is forgiveness. … Tragedy and pain can soften our hearts until they break. But if we trust God this will help us to feel compassion.”

And here is the end:

In this case, the gunman left suicide notes that showed that he was driven by guilt and a grudge that he would not surrender. It appears that Roberts could not forgive God and could not forgive himself.

In the end, this killed him and through him this grudge killed others.

“If you hold a grudge, it will live on in your heart until it leads to violence of some kind,” said Arnold. “If you do not forgive, then you cannot be healed. Forgiveness can heal the forgiver as well as the one who is forgiven. This is what the Amish believe. It will take time, but this is what they now must strive to live out for all the world to see.”

Newsweek: Can atheists save the world?

atheismMuch praise is due to Newsweek for running an article discussing atheism in its Sept. 11 edition. It is a unique way to approach religion’s influence on the country since the terrorist attacks of five years ago. My only complaint was that it mixed a bit too much opinion with the news. But author Jerry Adler snagged some real bits of news here, and his thoughtful 2,100-word article does the tricky issue adequate justice.

The article provides interesting and much-needed commentary on the status of atheism in America, with plenty of back and forth between the believer and genuine unbeliever. I would also like to contend that while the article is about people who promote the idea that religion is silly and should fade into history, it was accurately placed under the “religion” heading. I mean, even the most avowed atheists believe in something.

Alder tracks the responses of Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins to the 9/11 attacks. All three have, in one way or another, argued that religion is outdated and that “the five-century-long competition between science and religion is sharpening.” Adler contrasts the beliefs of Harris, Dennett and Dawkins with those of the vast majority of Americans.

This was the most illuminating exchange in Adler’s extremely well-written article:

But Dawkins attempts to show how the highest of human impulses, such as empathy, charity and pity, could have evolved by the same mechanism of natural selection that created the thumb. Biologists understand that the driving force in evolution is the survival and propagation of our genes. They may impel us to instinctive acts of goodness, Dawkins writes, even when it seems counterproductive to our own interests — say, by risking our life to save someone else. Evolutionary psychology can explain how selfless behavior might have evolved. The recipient may be a blood relation who carries some of our own genes. Or our acts may earn us future gratitude, or a reputation for bravery that makes us more desirable as mates. Of course, the essence of the moral law is that it applies even to strangers. Missionaries who devote themselves to saving the lives of Third World peasants have no reasonable expectation of being repaid in this world. But, Dawkins goes on, the impulse for generosity must have evolved while humans lived in small bands in which almost everyone was related, so that goodness became the default human aspiration. This is a rebuke not merely to believers who insist that God must be the source of all goodness — but equally to the 19th-century atheism of Nietzsche, who assumed that the death of God meant the end of conventional morality.

But Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. “If there is no God, why be good?” he asks rhetorically, and responds: “Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God’s approval and reward? That’s not morality, that’s just sucking up.” That’s clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn’t prove anything about the existence of God. But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

atheismI didn’t mind Adler’s editorializing as much as I would have on a subject with more practical implications, such as abortion or marriage policies. The debate over atheism is fairly basic. One either believes that God does exists or he does not. Also, in long-form journalism some liberties will be taken. Saying that one side’s position is clever is stating opinion, but it helps the reader walk through a tricky subject.

News coverage on atheism is difficult to find these days, largely because there is so little happening in that area. Also, the development of ideas, while very newsy in my mind, does not lend itself very aptly to the breaking news story the same way a development in science or medicine does.

The argument that atheism is out of vogue in America and does not deserve much coverage or commentary is not adequate because, as Adler clear points out, there are intelligent people proposing arguments for which Christian scholars still don’t have good answers (Alder highlights the “theodicy” problem). Some journalists have the privilege of covering the development of ideas, regardless of how popular those ideas are.

p.s. For more to chew on in the atheism debate, check out this cartoon.

What did you want to know about Woody?

scoopWhen I was in college, about the time that the Earth’s crust cooled, there were two kinds of moviegoers at Baylor University, the world’s largest Southern Baptist institution of higher learning. There were the people who went to Woody Allen movies and the people who did not.

My strongest memories surround that silly, at times gleefully pretentious, comedy called Love and Death. It offered his early hit blend of nihilism with solid one-liners, and it was not afraid to go over the edge again and again and again. However, there were times when the theological absurdism seemed to have a hint of content. At times, it seemed like Allen was actually asking serious questions. Then it was time for another silly sight gag.

All of this built up to the sincere seeking in Manhattan and, finally, the intelligent darkness of Crimes and Misdemeanors, when Allen put God on trial and seemed to want a verdict. I was a reporter in Denver at the time and one Orthodox rabbi preached an entire sermon series on that movie. It deserved it.

However, the heart wants what it wants, says Woody, and there was a moral cliff dead ahead. But I still know traditional Christians — you’d be amazed at one or two of the names — who pray each day for Woody Allen’s conversion. There was a time when it seemed like he was a God-haunted man.

Is that still true? I am sorry to say that the recent Washington Post profile by David Segal does not give us many clues. The empty void is there, but it has no name or shape. The new comedy Scoop sounds just as empty. Here is the summary:

The 70-year-old writer and director has been musing about life, sex, work, death and his generally futile search for hope, and frankly, mere depression hardly seems like the right response. Flat-out terror is what is called for here.

Yes, the world according to Woody is so bereft of meaning, so godless and absurd, that the only proper response is to curl up on a sofa and howl for your mommy. Alternatively, you could try the Allen approach, which is to make a feature film every year and try, however briefly, to distract yourself from the darkness.

Now, there are scholars and even theologians who have studied this side of Allen for years. They are not hard to find. Type “Woody Allen” and “theodicy” into Google and you’ll find some interesting things.

But Segal leaves us at the surface, with a few hints of the demons that haunt this aging child of the sexual revolution.

Here is the sad ending (and this is about as deep as things get):

Thanks to Woody Allen, a couple of generations of nebbishy non-jocks were able to get dates. He created the archetype of the nerd who lands the babe. Can he look back on that achievement with some joy?

“No. Because I was always the guy struggling on the outside to get in. I remember being in Chicago and I was invited to the Playboy mansion. This was a long time ago. And this bevy of beautiful girls was there and I couldn’t get to first base with any of them. And this guy I was with said, ‘They only talk to me because I’m with you. I can go to bed with them because I’m with you.’ And I am me! And I’m not in bed with any of them.” …

“For me, being famous didn’t help me that much. It helped a little. Warren Beatty once said to me many years ago, being a star is like being in a whorehouse with a credit card, and I never found that. For me, it was like being in a whorehouse with a credit card that had expired.”

Yes, that is a funny line.

But it is also sad. Actually, it is more than that. That’s the point.

Would it be too much to ask Allen a few serious questions? In the past, he used to ask them on screen.

Candidate Pat Robertson, in brief

PatRobertsonimageLate yesterday afternoon, I received a call from Godbeat veteran Alan Cooperman of the Washington Post, who was working on an update about the status of the National Religious Broadcasters and the Rev. Pat Robertson. I don’t think it would hurt to say that he wanted to know if I would talk about some of the things that have been said about the czar of The 700 Club on this website, which I assume means this post, this one and especially this one.

It also seems that it’s hard to find powerful evangelicals, other than the quotable Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who are willing to say much about Robertson today. People are not rushing to defend him and they are not eager, perhaps thinking about that cable-TV niche audience, to go on the record criticizing him, either. I told Cooperman that, in this case, theology will eventually trump politics. Many traditional Christians are very upset about the warped theology of what Robertson has been saying about prayer, God, Israel and other related topics (even theodicy).

Anyway, a story by Cooperman did end up in the paper today. Here it is (please scroll down):

If evidence is needed that the Rev. Pat Robertson’s shoot-from-the-hip approach to world affairs has embarrassed some of his fellow evangelicals, it comes from the recently concluded convention of the National Religious Broadcasters.

Robertson, 75, a longtime member of the NRB’s board of directors, failed to win reelection despite good odds: He was one of about 36 candidates running for 33 seats, NRB President Frank Wright said.

Wright said the elections usually hinge on the relative strength of radio, television and Internet broadcasters, so Robertson might have lost simply because he is a TV guy. But Wright acknowledged that there also was dissatisfaction with Robertson’s recent call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his assertion that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke was God’s punishment for the ceding of land to the Palestinians.

“I would say that there was broad dismay with some of Pat’s comments and a feeling they were not helpful to Christian broadcasters in general, but by no means was there any broad effort in our association to dissociate ourselves with him,” Wright said.

Robertson did not reply to calls for comment.

I say, 33 seats and only 36 candidates?

Here is my question: This strikes me as a rather important story if (a) Robertson is a very power mainstream evangelical and this shows cracks in his power or (b) he has, in fact, lost most of his mainstream political and cultural power and this is proof of that. What is the scenario that turns this into a brief, without a headline? Robertson fatigue?

By the way, the top brief in this news item is also interesting. Personally, I think the most important questions concern Pope Benedict XVI’s “brand of Roman Catholicism.” I refer to the lead on that brief:

Still reeling from the attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry’s brand of Roman Catholicism during the 2004 presidential race, 55 House Democrats issued a joint statement yesterday on the central role that the Catholic faith plays in their public lives. The signers said they were fed up with being labeled “good Catholics” or “bad Catholics” based on one issue — abortion.

Another source for Katrina news & views

hdr rightIf you are interested in news and commentary about the theological issues linked to Katrina, the Anglican Web Elves up north — wise guys in multiple meanings of that phrase — have started a blog that includes all kinds of useful links. This is the CaNN site, which stands either for Classical Anglican Net News or Clergy Against Nabobs of Negativism. I can never remember which is right. Wait, that last one would be Clergy Against Nattering Nabobs of Negativism, which would be CaNNN.

Today’s offerings can be found here. If you want to jump back to digests of previous editions — they are updating the contents every few hours — then you need to start at the home page and scroll way down. It does not appear that they have created an actual Katrina index page for all of the materials that they are collecting.

In terms of truth in theological advertising, be forewarned that this is a niche news site for a pack of quite traditional Anglicans. But right now, they are rounding up all kinds of viewpoints on this hot topic. For example, here is the official post listing the Katrina relief efforts that are recommended for atheists and skeptics. Once again, note the crucial role played by the “P” word:

A Call to Action from American Atheists

“All we have is each other . . .”

AMERICAN ATHEISTS urges all fellow nonbelievers to contribute to the rescue and other humanitarian efforts in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. A number of secular, non-religious aid organizations are active in this relief campaign. They do not incorporate a religious message in their operations, discriminate on the basis of religion, nor do they proselytize to those vulnerable people currently in need.

AMERICAN NATIONAL RED CROSS (Founded by Deist-Unitarian Clara Barton)


NETWORK FOR GOOD (has numerous listings for helping groups, both religious and secular)

HUMANE SOCEITY OF THE UNITED STATES! (Our winged and four-legged friends need help, too!)

* OTHER CHARITIES will be listed as we learn about their legitimate participation in the relief effort. Everyone [contributing] should be aware of scams; unfortunately, not all “charities” are legitimate and have a proven track record. Also, there are “religious” outreaches which do not proselytize as part of their efforts to help others. If you have a suggestion for an established, reputable secular humanitarian group that is worth of our support and would like to see it listed here, contact and we may be able to include it in this list. The list will be found at

I am sure there are denominational relief agencies that are anxious to be included in the non-proselytizing list. I’d like to see that list myself.

On the other side of the aisle, I am waiting — tell me if I have missed one — for a major newspaper to note the excellent job that some very, very conservative believers are doing in dissecting the theological arguments of the “God poured out His wrath” on New Orleans crowd. “Theodicy” is a very tricky business and, as C.S. Lewis liked to say, there really are people who should avoid trying to read and explain adult books.

Meanwhile, let me note that journalists may want to bookmark some of these sites in their browsers. When it comes to tropical storms, we are already up to the letter “O” and North America is still weeks away from the peak of the hurricane season. Sorry to bring that up, but it’s true. And Pat Robertson hasn’t even gotten busy — yet.

Is Al Gore's God aiming these hurricanes at Florida?

God_vs_bush2Some of you may remember that, while stuffed inside my shuttered concrete and metal fortress West Palm Beach fortress, I sent out a missive the other day on the theological implications of being hit multiple times by hurricanes in the space of a few weeks.

It included the following lines that were went in jest, sort of. Maybe. Maybe not. I am not a Calvinist, so I can say it is all a mystery.

God shows up in quite a few of the news stories during hurricane season, but, so far, no one has put in print the question that you actually hear down here on the sidewalks and in the pews. The question is simple: Why is this happening? Close behind that question is this one: Why is God doing this to us? And then this one: Was it something we did? Why is Pat Robertson mad at us this time?

In the past few days, more than a few people have sent me the graphic that accompanies this post, which has been floating around in people’s email listservs. Has it actually been published anywhere? It proposes a somewhat partisan explanation for what has been happening to Florida, in light of the 2000 election. It is sort of Pat Robertson for Unitarian activists at

The thing’s pretty funny, if you ask me. However, look at one tiny detail on that pre-Jeanne map — that blue-tinted Palm Beach County. Let me assure you, as a resident of this fair locale, that we have not been missed by the storms. (Wait, I need to save my work because I think the campus computer network is still shaken by storm damage. There, I’m back.) Also, St. Lucie County as been pounded.

So, while I have questions about the fine details in this map, I stand by my statement that the whole subject of theodicy and hurricanes is fair game. Some one ought to take it seriously.

And that someone is not columnist Mark Morford of the San Francisco Chronicle. Still, I have to admit that he gets off some funny lines in his “Does God Hate Florida? After four brutal hurricanes, why aren’t Bush evangelicals talking about the Almighty’s wrath?” Here’s the opener:

You know it’s true. You know if, say, San Francisco had just been blasted by not two, not three, but fully four lethal trailer-park-eating earthquakes, why, the Right-wing Bible set would be yelping with barely disguised joy.

Of course they would. They’d be jumping up and down and saying I told you so and pointing to Volume 18 of “Left Behind” and claiming that this was, of course, God’s wrath upon the sinners and the gays and the heathens and sodomites and the tofu eaters and the Toyota Priuses and the yoga studios and the anal sex and the incense burners and the Zen meditation centers.

Ha ha snicker, they’d say. Serves you right, they’d sneer. Shoulda voted Republican, they’d add.

And so forth and so on, paragraph after paragraph (some of which are actually funny), while adding zero content to the discussion. Maybe, even though he is a columnist, he could have tried interviewing an actual theologian or two, offering competing perspectives. Just a thought. The religious left is easy to find out there, but, hey, the Southern Baptists even have a seminary nearby. Give ‘em a ring.