Saturday, October 08, 2011

God and Disabilites 2

The second part of "God and Catastrophes," which I have deceivingly labeled, "God and Disabilities."  It is in there... wait for it...

God and Catastrophes 1
God and Catastrophes 2
... We are suggesting here something in between these two extremes.  We are suggesting that God largely does let the natural world continue in its normal sequence of cause and effect.  Sometimes the pressure in the tectonic plates builds up to such an extent beneath the surface of the earth that the plates slip and the reverberation shakes the surface so much that buildings fall on thousands of people.  Or maybe this happens under the ocean and a tsunami kills 10,000 people.

Sometimes a body of matter going down fifth street at such and such a speed comes into contact with a body of matter going down second avenue at such and such a speed.  Neither driver had evil intent, but one of them ran a stoplight by accident.  And now both of them are in the hospital.  Maybe one of them is dead.

We have argued that the deaths and suffering of these individuals is not evil because no one caused them to happen as a matter of evil intent.  We are now arguing that while God allows such things to happen, he rarely if ever directs them to happen.  Catastrophes are not generally God's punishment of some group for their sin or God trying to teach us something.  They are God allowing the normal sequence of cause and effect play itself out, this feature that he created as part of the world.

Again, we are not saying that God never causes suffering or catastrophe.  We are not saying that God never causes events as punishment for sin.  We are not saying that God never orchestrates or micro-manages your life or the world.  We are saying that God mostly allows human will and natural law to play themselves out freely.

Underlying this entire discussion is again the old debate between freedom and determinism, of love and autocracy.  Is God more interested in a world where people choose him freely or is he more interested in everyone obeying him?  The picture we are painting is one in which God has, in his sovereignty and authority, created a world that is free to be less than the ideal if it so chooses, and that such a world can be a good world.  And we are saying he largely treats the natural world the same way.

What about the Bible?  What does it say?  Because the Bible is not a philosophy book, it says things that seem to endorse both perspectives!  We have debates such as these because the Bible does not work out a systematic theology of evil, pain, and suffering.  Read in context, the books of the Bible are individual and separate pieces of revelation to address individual and distinct situations over the course of a thousand years in diverse ancient contexts.  It speaks far more locally, contextually, and proverbially than universally. [1] When we read the Bible as one book whose every verse speaks directly to me, we simply are not reading the words anything like they were originally understood.

So we read a verse like Exodus 4:11: "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (NRSV).  We hear what God is saying to Moses. I am both the one who made you have difficulty speaking and the one now calling you to preach to Israel.  Go do it.  So the case seems closed.  Any birth defect or disability you get is directly orchestrated by God.

But then we remember what we wrote in relation to God causing temptation.  The earlier parts of the Old Testament do see everything directly orchestrated by God... but the later parts and the New Testament often do not. [2] Remember how 2 Samuel 24 says God did something that 1 Chronicles says Satan did? There is a development in understanding in the Bible on God as the direct cause of evil, with the more developed parts seeing Satan and other evil forces more directly responsible for evil.

Whether we like it or not, we cannot settle theological debates such as these with a single verse or one strand of the Bible.  We have to take the whole Bible into account.  We have to recognize where God is going in Scripture on an issue, not just where he started working with humanity.  And to systematize such things, we inevitably get into the kinds of reasoning that both sides engage in.  This sort of philosophizing has to process these issues in ways that none of the biblical texts do because we are looking for an overall perspective that fits with an overall understanding of God's character.  We do this sort of reasoning whether we admit it to ourselves or not...

[1] Proverbs are pictures of general truths.  They are not absolute, and they are not promises.  If you train up a child in the way it should go, it will generally go that way (Prov. 22:6).  But it is not the nature of proverbs to say that a child will never go astray despite parents doing everything in their power to train up the child correctly.  Proverbs just don't work that way.

[2] Another important insight is that God reveals himself in categories we can understand (otherwise communication would not take place).  The fact that God says this to Moses does not change our conclusion, since God would speak to Moses on a level Moses would understand.  The Bible's language about God is "incarnated" in the thought of the times and places its documents were written just as much as its language about other things.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Isn't your suggestion here that we can't have a systematic theology? or a "biblical worldview", because there are too many variances to determine how to express these in a "one size fits all" paradigm?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Not just in the particulars of experience is it impossible to come to a conclusive unity, as to cause and effect, but also the specifics of the text, as the text was written within a certain contexts, by different authors, to certain people, about a certain situation, within an ancient paradigm or mind-set!

Scott F said...

"Again, we are not saying that God never causes suffering or catastrophe. We are not saying that God never causes events as punishment for sin. We are not saying that God never orchestrates or micro-manages your life or the world. We are saying that God mostly allows human will and natural law to play themselves out freely."

And yet God has so structured the world such that one can never tell whether natural laws are playing out or God is acting in your life.

Which makes this:

"...a world where people choose him freely..."

problematic because God has not provided enough of an indication that he exists or what he is like for his creatures to make an informed choice. God's nature as reflected in the Bible requires a lot of waving of the hand and squinting of the eyes to make it form an unambiguous whole. And it is a hard fit between His portrayal in scripture and the experience of 6000 years in the "real" world.

While we can conjecture about what God "plausibly" did or "might" have done, His actions must ultimately be squared against the hard, cold facts on the ground or He falls to Occam's razor. Free Will might tie up one set of loose ends but it has yet to address the core issue of life, death, suffering and the seeming indifference of the universe.

Martin LaBar said...

The title is really deceiving -- Blogger calls this "God and disabilites," not "God and disabilities."

Thanks for the series.