Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Faith and Doubt: Psalm 138

I recently counseled someone struggling with the problem of doubt by reminding that person that faith and doubt are not mutually exclusive. God does not, I suggested, expect us to live totally without doubt, and genuine faith does not preclude the possibility of doubt. Instead God makes allownace for our doubt to be expressed in the context of faith. Rather than internalizing our doubt and allowing it to consume and define us, we ought to call out to God in our doubt. "I believe. Help my unbelief." (Mark 9:24)

I found this possibility expressed profoundly in Psalm 138:

I will praise you, O LORD, with all my heart;
before the "gods" I will sing your praise.
I will bow down toward your holy temple
and will praise your name
for your love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.

When I called, you answered me;
you made me bold and stouthearted.

May all the kings of the earth praise you, O LORD,
when they hear the words of your mouth.

May they sing of the ways of the LORD,
for the glory of the LORD is great.

Though the LORD is on high, he looks upon the lowly,
but the proud he knows from afar.

Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes,
with your right hand you save me.

The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your love, O LORD, endures forever—
do not abandon the works of your hands.

This psalm is very overtly about the psalmist's faith in a truly faithful God. It introduces itself with the explicit praise of God's "love and faithfulness" and proceeds to quantify that faithfulness throughout. When he called, God answered. Though he is lowly, God is with him. When he walked in the midst of trouble, God preserved him. God will fulfill His purpose for him because His love will endure. Throughout you see no expression of doubt, only the constant affirmation of God's great works and the response in faith of the psalmist. In view of God's faithfulness, he will praise Him. He will bow down in the temple. He even invites all the kings of the earth to join in. God is faithful and worthy of our faith in Him.

It is jarring, to say the least, to conclude as he does. After affirming in so many ways that God has not and will not abandon him, the psalmist still cries out ironically from his unbelief: "Do not abandon me!" Here faith does not preclude doubt, but allows doubt to find its expression in the framework of this faith. "God, I know you are faithful. Please be faithful." It permits the tension which is always in us to find voice before a God who understands our frailty.

Authentic faith does not necessarily preclude doubt, but it always gives us a context in which to voice our doubt before God. We ought to find comfort in that freedom.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Why Evil: Formulating the Question

Having completed my readings for my course on the problem of evil, I find myself in very much the same place I began. Most of the authors I have been introduced to in the past month have spilled no small amount of ink either to prove that their theodicy is the correct one or to demonstrate that no theodicy is viable (or sometimes even necessary). Though I do not feel like I have gained any great knowledge or insight, let me see if perhaps I have at least developed the ability to better articulate my thoughts on the problem of evil.

The answer to any question is conditioned by the nature of the question itself, and the conundrum that is suffering is no different. The traditional formulation of the problem, which has been repeated by most authors I have read, is structured thus:
  • God is all good
  • God is all powerful
  • Evil exists
The above presents the rational mind with a logical contradiction. After all, if God can stop evil and God wants to stop evil, that evil is cannot be explained. Because it exists, God must either be impotent or nefarious. The problem, stated in this way, has an almost mathematical precision to it and will quickly tie the mind into knots, no more or less so than contemplating the mathematical impossibility of the Triunity of God.

Therein lies the problem. Certainly the logical formulation of the problem of evil is both valid and disturbing, but even those admissions fall short of making it damning. I cannot imagine anyone reclining casually at home on a sofa who contemplates the problem of evil and concludes, “Well that doesn’t add up. God must not exist.” As much as we covet labels like reasonable, enlightened, modern, and logical, no one’s worldview has ever been decimated in a moment by the purely intellectual realization that their beliefs contain a mathematical inconsistency. Anyone who rejects God as the answer to the rational formulation of the problem of evil either never believed in God to begin with (and here, quite clearly, among atheists is where the argument is thought have the most “weight”) or that belief was never more than intellectual assent. Faith, being more than intellectual assent, is undisturbed by mathematical imprecision (or even contradiction).

Perhaps this is why God has never given us the answer key to the problem of evil. Since the problem of evil is not primarily a logical problem, why should He be bothered to furnish us with a logical answer. I have not, by asserting this, done away with the problem of evil. I have merely suggested that when we speculate, the problem is not primarily rational but existential. Put in simpler terms, our interrogative should not be “how” (as in, “how can an omnipotent, omnibeneficent God coexist with evil”) but “where” (as in, where is the omnipotent, omnibeneficent God in my suffering”). It is only when the question of why suffering exists is reframed as an existential rather than a logical conundrum that God condescends to answer it.

The answer to “where” is “here.” An honest theodicy begins with the cross, where God literally entered into human suffering. Surely He was present for the Patriarchs and the Prophets and the people of Israel when they suffered, but in Jesus He was not merely present but a participant. He emptied himself, not merely of power or privilege but of sufferinglessness (if you’ll pardon the made up word). When we suffer and cry out, when our existence has itself become the crippling problem (in a way that our reason never could), we know that we petition, lament to, berate, and praise a God who knows what it is we go through, not merely by virtue of His omniscience but because of His participation in us and our suffering (in order, hallelujah, that we might participate in Him).

When we hear unfortunate stories about people who fall away from faith because of the suffering in the world, it is rarely (if ever) a product of an inability to reconcile reason with evil. Evil is unreasonable whether you believe in God or not. We falter, we fall, we leave because evil has left the realm of mathematics and broached the walls of everyday life. It is the death of our children, our spouses, our parents, our friends that shake our worlds and threaten to undermine their very foundation. It is not the concept that death exists. The problem of evil is a problem of living in evil, and we should formulate the question in this way. Only when we have structured the question properly, can we expect to find a satisfying answer.