Sic ’em (politely and constructively)!

Sic ’em (politely and constructively)! September 8, 2012

Tony Jones blogs for Patheos at Theoblogy and he’s put out an open call for tough questions for Christians. Quoth he:

I’m not afraid of doubt. I, myself, am a doubter. But I consider a large part of my vocation as a Christian theologian to proffer intellectually honest answers to the big questions of faith.

So this series is for everyone who doubts. It’s for your friends who are agnostic and atheistic. It’s a place for them to email me a question, and get an honest answer — even if the answer doesn’t necessarily show Christianity in the best light. It’s a place for you to submit the biggest hurdle you have to fully giving yourself over to the Christian faith.

Send him your questions and feel free to crosspost them here.  Hemant Mehta’s let his readers know about this, too, so there should be a pretty large number of questions in the mix.  Therefore, I’d suggest asking only questions to which you don’t think you know the answer.

For example, you can ask “Why don’t you follow the laws in Deuteronomy, hypocrite?” but it’s a pretty common question, and you’ve got a pretty good guess that Tony will say “There’s a new covenant, and the old way of relating to God and the old way of showing love through obedience has been transmuted.”  If you think that’s an unsatisfactory answer, skip the lead-in question and jump straight to the follow-up that actually interests you.

Don’t ask a question that you think will produce a boring, dumb, or hackneyed response.  Ask the question that actually springs the bear trap, so you don’t have to wait to snipe from the comments.  Or ask about an aspect of Christianity that leaves you confused.  Have at him!

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  • Completely off-topic, but something worth a mention in the conspicuously absent Quick Takes:

    Very much in line with earlier posts of yours regarding intellectual honesty, &c.

  • It would be good to know more about his background, but one question I’m always interested in asking traditional Christians is, “What happens soteriologically to people who lived their entire lives without hearing of Christianity or hearing it explained adequately? Why will it happen that way?” Mormons have an answer to this -the possibility of conversion after death- and I recently learned about the Catholic idea of “invincible ignorance,” but I’m always curious about Protestants.

    • An evangelical Protestant who goes to my school believes that those people will simply go to hell. I’m not sure if he believes it was “meant” to happen or something, I didn’t get all the details.

      • The answers will be as varied as the particular Protestant tradition. Saying ‘Protestants believe’ is like saying ‘humans believe.’ Depends on the tradition. Some would no doubt say that. Others would allow for different possibilities depending on their denominational backgrounds (or lack thereof).

      • At my old Christian Union a dude used to stand outside the building and shout, “Come to Christian Union or go to Hell!”
        He was 13 so it wasn’t as outrageous as it sounds but, looking back, it’s still funny.

  • At the risk of being a wet blanket, something just seems wrong about the approach Leah is outlining here. This whole “sic ’em” or “try to trip him up!” thing, as if the whole conversation is a game with points, and the object is to win.

    I think it should at least be admitted that if you walk into a conversation trying to stump someone or win points for your team, what you’re doing can’t rightly be called conversing or being open to new ideas. It’s closer to “refined trolling”.

    • leahlibresco

      Sorry, my phrasing was not the best. He asked for hard questions, and I want you to go in pre-stumped: go in with questions that you don’t know the answers to and are genuinely curious about. They’re the best kind of hard question.

    • Ted Seeber

      He is Tony Jones. For those who haven’t encountered him before, he is a self-described “Emergent Post-Modern Protestant” whose theology is more based on what he thinks Jesus would have actually wanted him to do than what the Bible says.

      Don’t take marital advice from him. He’s divorced himself, and his advice about totally rejecting the Bible’s admittedly outdated advice about marriage nearly caused a divorce in my family as well.

      But other than that, he’s a pretty good dude to ask questions of and get really weird answers back, from a subsect of Christianity that few of us have had experience with- the Christians who have psychological PTSD against stepping foot in a church.

  • deiseach

    Leah, I apologise in advance because this is completely off-topic and it should go under the marriage/Sondheim discussions, but I only re-discovered this poem recently and I have to share it. Delete it, move it, go “what the hell?” afterwards as you like. (This also demonstrates why Paris, and not Dublin, is Ze City of Luuuurve, since this is the Irish notion of a love poem).

    Quarantine by Eavan Boland

    In the worst hour of the worst season
    of the worst year of a whole people
    a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
    He was walking – they were both walking – north.

    She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
    He lifted her and put her on his back.
    He walked like that west and north.
    Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

    In the morning they were both found dead.
    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
    But her feet were held against his breastbone.
    The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

    Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
    There is no place here for the inexact
    praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
    There is only time for this merciless inventory:

    Their death together in the winter of 1847.
    Also what they suffered. How they lived.
    And what there is between a man and a woman.
    And in which darkness it can best be proved.

    • Irenist

      “this is the Irish notion of a love poem”
      What about “Cuirt an Mheán Oíche”? Now there’s an Irish poem about marriage….

      • deiseach

        Yeah, but “Cuirt an Mheán Oíche” basically says don’t marry, or else you’ll be a cuckold and/or saddled with another man’s child to raise as your own; rather, take your pleasure from women when you can but stay out of the bounds of matrimony.

        It takes the position that Irish women are all sex-starved, that Irish men don’t want to marry but would rather be priests, and that if Irish men do marry, Irish women will have affairs. Or if you’re a single Irish man, you can look forward to being hauled before the fairy queen of Munster to get a whipping for your refusal to marry and/or satisfy women’s needs.

        Romance is very much the last runner in that horse race.

        • deiseach

          Though there is the very beautiful and touching poem by the 13th century poet Muireadach Ó Daláígh My Soul Parted from Me Last Night” on the death of his wife (sample verse):

          “O men check me not; the sound of
          weeping is not forbidden; bare and cruel
          ruin has come into my house –
          the bright brown glowing one is gone.”

          This is the sensitive work of a man who went into exile into Scotland and founded an important family of Scots bards – because he had to go on the run after axe-murdering a tax collector.

          • It was illegal to axe-murder tax collectors in medieval Ireland? Frickin’ nanny-state.

    • Emily

      Oh my goodness. That is totally unrelated to this post but it’s left me crying in public.

  • Darren

    My Question – Cross Posted

    Others have written up the Problem of Evil better than I, but I gave it my best shot…

    This question falls within the category of “The Problem of Evil”, although my preferred variant is, “Why gratuitous suffering”. An oldie, but goody. It is this question, more than any other, that caused me to conclude that my Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God worldview simply could not be correct. It was the crack, the first tiny wedge, and the subsequent deep questioning that reduced the edifice of my faith to rubble proceeded logically from it.

    Why Malaria?

    Malaria is caused by a parasitic organism, a Plasmodium, carried by a mosquito vector. It kills, roughly, 1 million a year. Out of that million, a disproportionate amount are children 5 and under (could never find a reliable figure, so let’s just say 50% and move on), and almost all from poorer, tropical locales.

    So, being a God of infinite power, knowledge, and love, why create the Malaria parasite?

    If you are a specific creation Christian, then God made the special effort to create the Plasmodium parasite, and thus is responsible for a million (senseless) deaths a year, more or less.

    Now, perhaps what God really created was harmless, but due to the Fall the Plasmodium parasite mutated and became dangerous. Still does not get God off the hook, though. Having perfect knowledge, God would have known precisely how each of his creations would have changed after the Fall, and so by choosing to create them in the first place, God is still culpable, to say nothing of having built into each organism the mechanisms needed post-Fall, and the transformation scheme needed for the metamorphosis, etc.. Besides, there is still the whole Flood episode, where God again chose to save all five pathogenic species of Plasmodium within the put-upon bodies of clan Noah.

    God the watchmaker? Again, still culpable. “It wasn’t me who killed him, your honor, it was the bullet. I never laid a hand on ‘im.”

    So, a world exists where a million humans die every year, say half children under 5. Why?

    The Plasmodium parasite appears to have no purpose, from a scientific basis. It does not have to exist. It does not have to kill. The developed world eradicated it long ago and life did go on. Birds still flew, mosquitoes still bit, people still died. Just not from Malaria.

    Free will? For God’s glory? To give humanity the opportunity to demonstrate charity and justice by helping the less fortunate? Satan?

    Free will? Does not hold. Eradication of Malaria violates Man’s sovereignty or some such? Does not explain why it was created in the first place, or why it was created to be pathogenic, or to disproportionately attack the young and the poor.

    For God’s Glory? So, when humans end Malaria, this will somehow demonstrate God’s goodness? Seems rather a high cost in lives to prove that God is a good guy, and how exactly was he involved? Apparently it was more glorious for God to inspire mankind to eliminate Malaria in the U.S. and Europe, than in Africa, but God will get around to them sooner or later…

    Builds character? As this is what many of the other answers amount to. “We are somehow or other better off for having to struggle against Malaria.” Well, I think that is debatable. And I am unsure whether the 500,000 dead children a year are comforted by the improvements in our character their sacrifice secured… Also, apparently equatorial Africa and Asia are most in need of character building, or perhaps it is the industrialized world that needs the character, and Africa and Asia just get to make the sacrifice? They’re good sports…

    Satan? Maybe it is all the Devil’s doing. Again, as covered under the Fall and the Watchmaker ideas, this does not remove culpability. Satan is a created being, with a certain nature. God created that being, and that beings nature, in full foreknowledge, so all subsequent actions are still on God’s plate. Add to this that all Satanic activities are explicitly allowed by God, as in light of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, any action that occurs could only occur if God wills it.

    More so than tidal waves (byproduct of a natural process), floods (same), wars (Man’s evil), or what have you, the existence of and malevolence of Malaria is the best example I know of “Gratuitous Suffering” (from a human-centric view, at least, which gets around the debate of whether or not animals count as moral agents).

    I, as a materialist, reductionist, Darwinian Atheist have a perfectly reasonable, consistent reason for “Why” Malaria. I have yet to encounter a Christian who does.

    I look forward to your answer.

    Respectfully submitted.

    • Ted Seeber

      VERY good question. I’d be extremely interested in seeing how Tony answers it.

      How a Catholic answers it is: No suffering is ever gratuitous for those who believe in the Communion of Saints. Rather, all suffering is heroic, and while we should do whatever we can to reduce it’s load, and to hold up each other in courage, *all human courage is valuable*, and thus, all suffering is valuable.

      Even that which you subjectively have labeled senseless. Maybe ESPECIALLY that which is labeled senseless by materialists.

      But seeing how post modern emergence came not from a Catholic tradition, but more from the Pentecostal, I’ve be very curious to see Tony’s answer. Because without the communion of saints- without the idea that courage in the face of suffering will be rewarded and you will continue to be a part of the human family even after death- I just don’t see a good answer.

      • Ted Seeber

        Oh, and if we’re ever able to exterminate Malaria- WE SHOULD. The problem is, can we do it without exterminating humans in the process?