Suffering and Stupid Theology

Suffering and Stupid Theology September 4, 2017


I was already planning to share this graph by cartoonist David Hayward well before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, and even before my wife heard some Romanian pastors talking about what God’s aim had been in causing the deaths of their children. It certainly reflects my own experience, but it is still worth stopping to ask why it should be the case that, as suffering gets worse, so too do the theological pronouncements that many people come up with. Is is simply that severe suffering highlights the inappropriateness of theological statements that are made all the time? Or does severe suffering actually puzzle and trouble many of us at such a deep level, and to such an extent, that we grasp at inane platitudes no matter how trite, not matter how hurtful, and no matter how much of a monster they suggest that God, and the person making them, must be? I suspect that it is probably a combination of both. What do readers of this blog think?

The Christian Century featured an article by Peter Marty recently, asking whether God causes our suffering. Here is an excerpt:

The quick answer would be yes. Interpreting God’s sovereignty to mean that God causes all circumstances to occur is a dangerous theological game to play. It turns people into passive subjects of a God who has a penchant for displaying power chaotically. Like marionettes dangling helplessly in thin air, we’d be forced to move through life while a stage-managing God yanks our strings whenever God pleases. Scripture doesn’t lend credence to this idea. Jesus never counsels people to accept their suffering as the Lord’s will. God may work in inscrutable ways, but there’s no evidence that God works in nonsensical ways.

Click through to read the rest of that article.

What are some of the worst and best responses to suffering that you have come across recently?

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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Suffering is traumatic and frightening and theological platitudes are a way people try to make sense of it and make it seem less capricious or scary. I don’t fault people for that; we all need to get through life somehow. Where it starts to be problematic, though, is when people try to comfort others using these platitudes, which is where I’ve seen it be the most destructive.

    If someone works through the loss of their children by coming to theological terms with it, I’m all for it, but I’m not for someone “helping” a grieving parent come to theological terms with it. The best response to suffering I’ve seen is to be there for the sufferer in their suffering and do what can be done to help make the situation as tolerable as possible.

    • //The best response to suffering I’ve seen is to be there for the sufferer in their suffering and do what can be done to help make the situation as tolerable as possible.//

      I think the best people to be there are the people who have already been there because they may know what’s ahead and won’t try to minimize or rationalize the pain.

      //a single act of real compassion can destroy the belief that no one cares & that people are indifferent to suffering.//
      – Robert Grant

      But if there is no body that understands the depths of what one is suffering one stands alone.

      //Trauma initiates a process of deep spiritual questioning and demands that victims take in more of reality than was previously possible.

      Concerns about identity, the value of suffering, the importance of justice and the appropriateness of forgiveness…Recognizing the amount of evil and cruelty in the world…the impact these realities have for images of God and the value of human relationship…Old answers no longer suffice. Priorities are reordered…Responses to these demands requires more comprehensive ways of taking up life.//
      – Robert Grant

    • I agree! If theological explanations help you to get through your loss and suffering, go fill your boots. But please don’t impose your understanding on others facing their own grief. Just be there for them with care and compassion.

  • Thanks for sharing my cartoon!

  • One of the worst recent responses to suffering?

    The Nashville Statement, an anti-LGBT screed released in the wake of the destruction of Hurricane Harvey, designed to draw a line in the sand, not only against LGBT citizens, but against anyone who would support them.

    In a time when LGBT youth face much higher rates of suicide because of the rejection they face; when evangelicals (including many of the Nashville Statement signers) come out in droves to support Donald Trump, a racist, misogynist president with a history of demeaning women and boasting of his sexual exploits; and when the nation faces a surge of outright racism from far right groups such as the KKK, the Neo Nazi’s and the so-called Alt Right …

    … the signers of the Nashville Statement thought this would be a good moment to say:

    “We affirm that it is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism and that such approval constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.”

    Of course, the Nashville Statement is wordy in it’s denunciation of the “sin” of LGBT citizens and their supporters, but fails to mention the sin of evangelicals who have historically supported hatred, abuse (both physical and emotional), and vitriol against LGBT citizens.

  • This theological fatalism has been going on for a long time. Why even when humans cause the suffering and slaughter, the human leaders who did so assign their actions to God. Abraham Lincoln late in the Civil War said that God was the cause of the war and that God would continue as long as God chose to do so! Lincoln grew up in a Calvinistic family. He rejected the religion but kept the theological/philosophical fatalism.
    Other American leaders also considered that whatever happens is God’s will–Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Alexander Hamilton, etc. (even though they belonged to different, even contrary religious views!)

    Recently, I came across an audio tape from a famous Christian minister of my parents’ church back in the 1990’s. Same hard determinism. David Hocking said someone had asked him how he/she could “know the will of God”?
    Hocking answered, “Did it happen?”
    “Then it is the will of God.”
    He included that evil is the will of God, that God uses evil to bring “glory” to himself. Every natural disaster, disease, trial and tribulation is the will of God.

    Then there’s John Piper, R. C. Sproul, Matt Chandler, Martin Luther, John Calvin, of the Protestants, etc., and Janzen, Augustine, etc. of the Roman Catholics. I thought that Aquinas was an excepting, but recently a Roman Catholic leader claimed that Aquinas has a similar view of determinism to Calvin.
    I didn’t believe him so he had me read a section of Aquinas’ doctrine. Whew…

    And a Jewish book I recently finished by Rabbi David Zaslow claimed that G*d “created evil.” I was so shocked that I started doing a google search and found that other Jewish rabbis also claimed that G*d “created evil.”

    And, of course, one of the central teaching of orthodox Islam is “al-Qadar,”
    Qadar means that Allah has decreed everything that happens in the universe. That’s why Muslim scholars claimed the death of a couple hundred thousand Indonesians a few years ago in the tidal wave was the will of Allah.

    And. last but not least, a very large number of famous atheists also claim that everything that happens, every disaster, every horrific action of humans has been determined by the Big Bang, or the Cosmos, etc.
    That’s why that biologist Jerry Coyne claims that murderers and rapists “aren’t morally responsible,” and neuroscientist Sam Harris states that even if the cosmos happened again a “trillion” times, we would do exactly the same thing because we are puppets (in his infamous podcast “Tumors All the Way Down.” Others such as plant biologist Anthony Cashmore sound even more extreme. He claims that no human has any more choice than a “bowl of sugar.”

    And, then we mustn’t forget the fate of the ancient Greeks. Poor Oedipus, etc.

    I am baffled why so many human leaders through out history do choose the determinism card. (Maybe they had no choice;-)

    • David Evans

      Sam Harris is surely wrong. Quantum mechanics implies that even if you could set up the universe with the same initial conditions, its history would have diverged from ours by now. At least some of the crucial mutations that led to the evolution of humanity must have resulted from radioactive decay, and when a particular nucleus will decay is strictly unknowable.

      • I think so, too, though I am not a professional scientist.

        I do think evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould is more likely correct when he said that if the universe came again, humans, probably, wouldn’t even show up. Gould said we got “lucky.”

        Jacques Monod, also, closes his book Chance and Necessity stating that we humans came about by “pure chance.”

        But for some reason, quite a few leaders of late think that hard determinism is the only possible answer.

  • Oscar Scott Oliver

    God anointed Job to act as priest for his tormentors. Also when the apostles asked Jesus who sinned about the man born blind, Jesus response was basically, “What does that matter, the man needs to be healed.”

    A corollary issue is about prayer. We might pray for a person’s salvation or a problem with some kind of addiction. A catastrophic accident happens and the person changes. We don’t think twice about it because who are we to judge God’s methods? God is a loving, gentle and kind Father and he knows all things. You mean he couldn’t find a better and more gentle way? I know that God has changed me in gentle ways. Larry Dossey has written a book about being careful what you pray for something. I would change that to, “Be careful HOW you pray for it.” The “what” is usually based on good intentions. That’s why Jesus taught us to preface our prayer with, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

  • Pat68

    FYI…Peter Marty’s article is only available to read to subscribers.