Bartlestar Theodica

(A review of Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer (Harper Collins, 2008) and the season 4 premiere of Battlestar Galactica)

It was an interesting experience to finish reading Bart Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem nearly simultaneously with the premiere of season 4 of Battlestar Galactica. In Ehrman’s book, we hear the very personal as well as theologically insightful reflection of an individual who has lost his faith because of the problem of evil. In Battlestar Galactica, we wonder about the identity of the “one true God” who leads the Cylons and is now apparently reaching out to the polytheistic humans through God’s servant, Gaius Baltar, who begins the series in Christ-like imagery, wearing a cloak, with long hair and beard.

Ehrman’s book is a fantastic example of Biblical theology. The author seeks to present the views of various Biblical authors and writings on the subject, respecting their diversity and difference, while also entering into critical dialogue with each one. The problem of suffering is viewed by Biblical authors in a variety of ways, while Ehrman’s own assessment of the problem is summed up nicely in the following quote (p.264):

Are we really to believe that God starves people to death in order to teach them a lesson? That he sends epidemics that destroy the body, mental diseases that destroy the mind, wars that destroy the nation, in order to teach people a lesson in theology? What kind of father is he if he maims, wounds, dismembers, tortures, torments, and kills his children – all in the interest of keeping discipline? What would we think of a human father who starved a child to death because she did something wrong, or who flogged a child nearly to death to help him see the errors of his ways? Is the heavenly father that much worse than the worst human father we can imagine? I don’t find this view very convincing.

The God of Battlestar Galactica is certainly mysterious and inscrutible, and whether this deity is a transcendant spiritual reality or a Cylon, and if such whether this God really exists in the BSG universe, remains to be seen. But certainly the same criticisms that Ehrman offers about our real world would apply every bit as much in the TV series.

Ehrman points out that appeal to “free will”, so popular in modern theodicy, is largely irrelevant in the Bible’s varied treatments of the subject. This is because most if not all of the Biblical authors assume that, whatever freedom humans, angels and other beings may or may not have, God is ultimately in control and responsible for all things. And so it may be the case that the Pat Robertson approach that is so offensive even to most Christians is the closest expression to the way most Biblical authors viewed things – i.e. a selective and, for that reason, in the end rationally unsatisfying interpretation of those events that fit one’s preconceived view as indications of divine favor or disfavor.

An approach that is increasingly popular is one that depicts God as the “fellow-sufferer who understands”. As Ehrman writes (p.272), “Believing in a God who stands beside me in my suffering, but who cannot actually do much about it, makes God a lot like my mother or my kindly next-door neighbor, but it doesn’t make him a lot like GOD.”

In the end, perhaps this is the choice that confronts Christians who do not wish to abandon parental metaphors altogether: Is God to be conceived as an abusive father or as a weak but well-meaning mother? If these are our only options, perhaps it is better to acknowledge that parental metaphors are no longer helpful at all.

The most important point to note is that Ehrman, even though no longer a Christian but an agnostic, nonetheless stands within the Biblical tradition. His view is that expressed in Ecclesiastes (p.276). Life is ephemeral, this life is all that we have, and enjoying the good in life is the best we can hope for.

I also think that the final author/editor of Job is not that far from Ehrman’s view either. Although I think Ehrman has some insightful things to say about the process of the book’s formation, I am not persuaded that the final author/editor was unaware that, through his editing, the statement of God at the end that he is more pleased with Job than his friends gives a divine thumbs up to Job’s questioning. God, according to the book of Job, is presumably more pleased with Ehrman’s honest statement of the difficulties created by human suffering, than with the defenses of his goodness offered by Swinburne, Plantinga, and others.

In view of this, it is appropriate to ask whether, if there is no one “Biblical” view of God and no one “Biblical” view of suffering, then is it not a sense in which it is off (with hindsight) for Ehrman to say that “I finally admitted defeat, came to realize that I could no longer believe in the God of my tradition, and acknowledged that I was an agnostic: I don’t “know” if there is a God; but I think that if there is one, he certainly isn’t the one proclaimed by the Judeo-Christian tradition, the one actively and powerfully involved in this world” (p.4)? Is there any view of God or suffering that could be formulated by Christians that would by definition not Judeo-Christian? Just like the proverbial turtles, the Judeo-Christian tradition is “diverse all the way down”.

More than that, we can say about human religious ideas in general that, since a plethora of concepts and insights were offered in humanity’s “Axial Age”, for the most part we have been recycling and shuffling these ideas in response to progressing scientific knowledge and changing cultural trends. As science makes the idea of a God who controls all that occurs unnecessary (and in some cases difficult or implausible), and our greater awareness of what occurs in the world makes a God who controls it all seem profoundly immoral, perhaps the time has come not simply to move in the direction of Ecclesiastes and declare “agnosticism”, but to revisit Ecclesiastes, reshuffle and reformulate our ideas, and develop a “Christian agnosticism”.

I wonder whether Battlestar Galactica, with all its profound moral questioning and provocative explorations, will offer something interesting and insightful by way of its theology and theodicy.

In the BSG Season 4 premiere, entitled “He That Believeth In Me”, a more relevant verse would seem to be “Whosoever seeks to save his life will lose it…” Gaius Baltar moves from an unwilling Messiah disgusted by the gaudy Hindu-style flashing votive lights surrounding his picture, to one who seems genuinely willing to give up his life to save another. The “one true God” has yet to be explored fully as a concept on the show, but in the mean time, interesting questions continue to be asked about how we live our lives and what matters most to us.

The show has a surplus of messianic figures. Laura Roslin took on such a role for a while with her visions. So did Bill Adama when he claimed to know the way to Earth. Presently, in addition to Baltar, Kara Thrace may also be. She has returned in a brand new copy of her ship, perhaps recalling the return of Apollo from the ship of light in the original series (dressed in white). Kara has returned from the dead. And although we’ve heard that she is the “harbinger of the apocalypse”, as Ehrman points out in his book, the same could be said of the historical figure of Jesus, whose outlook appears to have been an apocalyptic one awaiting the “end of the age” and the dawn of a new one, the kingdom of God.

The show looks forward to a “new heaven and a new earth”. But what will that future hold? Will it be paradisical? It is hard to imagine such a trite ending to a series like BSG. Perhaps it will turn out that BSG is offering a myth for our age. The humans and Cylons seeking Earth will turn out to be our ancestors. And the challenge of the story will not be to believe that we really did come from elsewhere, but to embody in our present existence the hope of a better tomorrow, in which it doesn’t matter whether one is evolved or intelligently designed. What matters is valuing people as such.

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  • Ehrman gives us a classic theodicy where his reality and the evidence of it is no longer compatible with the understanding of God that can be adduced from either the texts with which he wrestles, or the theological traditions that he references.At the end, I would like to ask Ehrman if there is any value in reforming those presuppositions to find some harmony between the idea of what God ought to be like versus the realities one experiences in the world? If one could have an alternative picture of God that is compatible, what would that look like and is it justified, or of any value? This like of questioning seems to find value in Nietzsche’s and Pullman’s rendering of death of God. Perhaps even Altizer.

  • “Believing in a God who stands beside me in my suffering, but who cannot actually do much about it, makes God a lot like my mother or my kindly next-door neighbor, but it doesn’t make him a lot like GOD.”Not having read the book, I don’t know how seriously he addresses theologies in which God is not seen as omnipotent (such as process theology). However, it really seems from the casual dismissal found in that quote that he is imposing his own, narrow concept of what “God” must be, inherited from his evangelical background. He seems to assume that if God isn’t characterized in the way that evangelicals characterize “him”, then it can’t be “God”. He really comes across as someone who never really grew beyond evangelical theology; instead, as I like to put it, he just changed teams. This is a problem with a lot of ex-evangelicals, I think.

  • On the one hand, Ehrman mentions in passing having spent some time in a “Liberal Christian” context on his way from conservative Evangelicalism to agnosticism. But it is unclear how long he stayed there, and how if at all he thought differently about God in that context. It certainly seems like alternative ways of thinking about God – whether Tillich or Whitehead or any other – were not explored much. He mentions reading Kushner’s book twice, once in his conservative days and then now. I won’t try to guess what he did or didn’t think about in the absence of information from Ehrman himself. But certainly there were places where his understanding still seemed to be shaped by the conservative Evangelical framework he no longer consciously adheres to – e.g. in his apparent assumption that Paul held to a penal substitutionary view of the work of Christ.If only Ehrman had a blog, we might find answers to these questions…

  • I remember in the Terry Gross interview, he mentioned the substitutionary atonement doctrine, and seemed to just take for granted that this was an inherent Christian doctrine.