Obama is Buddhist?


“God has taken them home.”

So U.S. President Obama accounts for the wanton killing of grade schoolers in Newtown, CT.  But does this view sit well with us?  Does it ease our pain or explain the unthinkable?  And does it present God in a way that encourages trust or hope?

My answer: e) None of the above.

Situations like Sandy Hook are so terrifying that it can be tempting to think that God must be pulling the strings.  We want to believe that someone is in control and that somewhere there is good to be found in it.  Yet ironically, by diminishing human agency and responsibility for evil we likewise strip ourselves of our agency and responsibility for good.

For if this is all God’s will, then really we can do nothing about it: who can resist God?

No.  Far from rekindling hope or even allowing fuller expression of our grief, at best this view results in complacency.  At worst, I reckon it results in despair.

Complacency because taking what is evil and “sanctifying” it (through ascribing it to God) subverts our most natural human responses: should we grieve or feel upset about God’s will?  At best the implication is that our grief and rage are really misplaced—the result of being too limited (or if you theology is more heavy-handed, too sinful) to understand that this is all for some “greater good.”  Ironically again, such a view has more in common with Buddhism than Christianity.

Despair because, faced with this perspective, we must necessarily understand our emotions, goals, and even our children as insignificant—unimportant before the lofty designs of God.  For a god who “calls home” little children via such murderous and seemingly purposeless action is, like a maleficent version of Zeus, a fearful entity indeed.  Before such a God we cannot but despair.

Many reject this god.  And those that accept it?  Well, is it any wonder that so much of evangelical Christianity seems based on fear and rule-following rather than on love and truth?

In reality Obama’s view denies us the very substance that the Psalmist would have us rely upon, both in coming to embrace God and as that which fosters and furthers right relationship with God: the created order, within which we are called to “taste and see” God’s goodness.

Now hear me rightly: I see no goodness in this situation.  It is not something “in light of which” I believe in God but something “despite which” I still believe.  But neither is this a situation where Christians should encourage complacency or despair.  Rather, I think the first step is to recognize that the problem of evil is not simply an issue or even a big issue.  To my mind it is the issue.

And if my personal experience with evil is any guide, the second step is for Christians to stand against it and—in evil’s overwhelming shadow—to tell our tales of how God has acted in our lives to heal and mend us.

And this, I think, is where goodness can possibly be found amid evil: not that God solves our issues or addresses all our concerns, but that in place of evil God offers Godself.  Not through the historical work of Christ or theological explanation, important as these are.  But rather as acts of healing and liberation within our everyday existence that convince our minds, inspire our imaginations, and win our hearts—acts of knowing us more truly than we know ourselves and loving us more deeply than we love ourselves.

So against the view that God’ goodness is invisible or, at best, unfathomable, Christians must not only claim with their words but demonstrate—and attest to how God has demonstrated—in their lived existence that God is good.  And we do so not because of but despite the wanton evil that we are able (and clearly, all too wiling) to inflcit upon each other.

Atheism’s “religious” significance—Part 2


Q:  What might happen if Christians first dialogued with atheists about our points of agreement, rather than disputed our disagreements?

From the average Christian, stunned silence.  Or questions like: What would be the point of that?

The point, actually, would be learning something.  And not simply something trivial about “those poor atheists” en route to witnessing to them, but something deeply true (and perhaps even essential) about ourselves as Christians.

More stunned silence, I wager.  But consider this:

Where the Bible indicates that Christians (and all people) “know in part”1 it is calling for Christians to hold confidence and humility in flexible and variable tension.  Thus “knowing in part” implies that all truth is God’s truth (and not ours, as Christians)2 and therefore that Christians should welcome truth wherever it is found (even, as Augustine notes, within “the teachings of the pagans”3).

Hence the need for “tension”: maintaining suppleness regarding how much confidence versus how much humility we apply in any given situation, with the practical upshot that we cultivate the flexibility to adjust this proportion based on new contexts and new information.

In the most general sense, the result of maintaining this tension (and not assuming that we know all that we need to know about atheists) is that we hold off our criticism long enough to listen.  And in listening we find some shocking similarities.  For example, we learn that even the most ardent atheists are concerned about the same things we Christians are.

So where Bertrand Russell vouches that “‘the good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge’ ” (of which he claims love is the greater)4, a discussion with such outsiders to Christianity embraces considerations (like love and truth) with which Christians may competently and enthusiastically engage.  Moreover, when we attain Bertrand Russell’s goals we are actually faced with “the problem of good:” having to account for and express wonder at truth, and at the reality of being loved and in love.

Next, where Christians can acknowledge that the atheist’s demand for proof of God’s existence amounts to a common need to “taste and see” God’s goodness (“common” because such experiences of God not only strengthen but create faith), Christians learn not to subordinate experience and sense perceptions to theology.5

So rather than disputing atheists with Scripture Christians can agree, in our post-Shoah world, that God’s love must “show up” in opposition to evil.  Thus instead of disdaining the human need to validate–and the created ability to perceive–goodness in our lived experience, Christians can foster dialogues about what counts as goodness in the ‘here and now’.

Last, given that “no one is born a Christian”6 and that God approaches humanity in creative and surprising ways, Christian must not insist that atheists “think like them” before these outsiders can understand or love aright.

Rather, productively dialoging with outsiders requires Christians to recognize their own conversions (i.e., the situations and understandings that enabled new experiences of God’s truth and love for them) as the gold standard that underwrites their arguments and validates their theological viewpoints.  Thus defending our Christian convictions requires not theological but personal explanation (which in turn contain theological, philosophical, psychological, historical elements and so forth).

This personal content is not superfluous but is intrinsically necessary as that which renders our philosophical arguments and theological viewpoints plausible and enticing to those outside of Christianity.

So by listening to atheists Christians first understand that they have misjudged how much we share in common with them.  Second, the conversations arising from an awareness of shared interests are less disputes fueled by our need to defend God’s truth (and to present biblical truth claims) as dialogues explaining our experiences of God’s truth and love (as our personal, embodied examples of biblical truth values).

To conclude,

When we first dialogue with them, Atheists then become people that need to be understood and loved rather than enemies that need to be contradicted, defeated, or converted.  In other words, we are able to treat them as God sees them: tremendously valuable and worthy of respect… just like us.

Hell is… good?


Eternal damnation is good, because God is good.

For Christians like John Piper, God alone defines goodness, such that something is not good and so God does it.  Rather God does a thing, and so it is good.  Thus integral to questions about Hell is deciding (and how we decide) who God is, and deciding (and how we decide) what constitutes goodness.

Some Christians describe Piper’s perspective as a ‘high view’ of both Scripture and God’s sovereignty.  This high view amounts to prioritizing Scripture as the exclusive informer on this issue and, typically, identifying God exclusively as a sovereign or king.

Interestingly, for many Christians the “exclusivity” here is neither an option nor even a conscious choice, but is simply what is: their culture offers no other options, or excludes other options as (nearly) heretical.

Piper’s position (and the ‘high view’ of scripture that undergirds it) is thus handy because it intellectually “solves” any apparent contradictions with how God acts (or fails to act) and our understanding of God as infinitely good.  For Piper “it’s all good” with God, including Hell.

The problem is that intellectual solutions do not necessarily equate with either personal solutions or actual, real solutions.

More pointedly, Piper and others would insist that we take ourselves ‘out of our skin’ (or else harden our skin to rock) so that we do not feel loss as loss or hurt as hurt, and so do not perceive the notion of eternal punishment for finite actions as sadistic injustice.

The problem is that Piper is playing on one register while ignoring the other, and this in two ways.

On the one hand, he is taking a thoroughly modernist approach in prioritizing reason above the emotions, senses and other faculties.  For our emotions and senses clearly offer valuable information in everyday life (both to supplement and, at times, correct our reason) and are depicted in the Bible as essential to understanding God—humans are called to “taste” and “see” God’s goodness!

Thus true human understanding requires the use all our faculties that, for Christians, are God-given.

On the other hand, the exegetical basis on which Piper stands is remarkably one-sided.  By depicting God as primarily sovereign he ignores great swathes of the Bible that portray God as father and parent.  Re-stating Colin Gunton’s point, Piper is prioritizing the will to love.

Ironically then, by viewing God primarily as sovereign (with the goal, perhaps, of defending God’s ‘full divinity’) Piper denigrates our God-given humanity through falsely reducing us to rational beings who act according to our wills.  Even more ironically, this also strips God of so much of God’s own character, for God is love.  Piper’s position at best ignores this crucial point, at worst it imperils it.

For example, many people have abandoned Christianity because the goodness of God is contradicted by eternal, unending suffering just as it is when God doesn’t “show up” in the face of the hurt, loss, or evil in human existence.

Yet Piper’s view only compounds the issue because, according to his ‘high view’ of Scripture, God doesn’t need to “show up.”  To insist on such would reduce God to a puppet, not a king.  And on the injustice of eternal punishment, Piper and crew would likely side with St. Anselm: humans merit infinite, eternal punishment because they have transgressed an infinite majesty.

No, not so.

What I want is not a God who (purportedly) makes sense as a construct, but who loves me in ways that make sense in (and through) my lived existence—a God before whom I can sing and dance, and that I can adore as my children adore me: with joy.  Because no matter how powerful, clearly understandable, and awe-inspiring this God may be, I won’t bow to a tyrant—I won’t worship a beast.

We need a God who answers not with words, but with God-self; who answers not just our cries (or criteria or critiques) but ourselves.  Nothing less will do.