Evil?

This is more of a theological musing than an in depth study. I was recently discussing the problem of evil with my students and the idea of the “best of all possible worlds” was raised.

In Voltaire’s Candide, the character of Pangloss takes a accepting, complacent attitude towards the things perceived as wrong in life. He takes the view that this world is the best one possible. As such it can be argued that there is no reason to make any effort to change things perceived as evil or wrong.

This dismissive take, I guess, is one way of dealing with the problem of evil, or the Epicurean Paradox.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but unable?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
The he is malevolent.
Is he both able, and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God.

Epicurus’ argument is reliant however on the existence of evil as a tangible “thing.” It fails to put “evil” in a context. One counter to this is to contextualise evil. Darkness in the absence of light. Evil similarly is the absence of good. Augustine of Hippo called evil “the privation of good.” Evil is not a thing itself, but the absence of the standard of Good which is God. In a sense it could be argued that without God (therefore reinforcing His existence) one could not perceive “evil.” I will not here explore Augustine’s conception that the creation was perfect because God is perfect, and it was the corruption of free will that cause the “privation.”

An alternative argument for the existence of evil is a step beyond Pangloss. Rather than dismissing imperfection as being part of “the best of all possible worlds,” Irenaeus’ asserted that the perceived evil in the world is meant to be here in order to perfect us in dealing with it. The term he used was soul-building. In much the same way as an infant perfects themselves and move away from their self-centred morality to a higher state through age and experience, our souls too are developed through our responses to “evil.” Put simply, evil serves the purpose of soul-building. What is your take on that? I find it an interesting take, but one fraught with potential problems when looking at the nature of God. These of course can always be countered with the idea that God sees not as we see, and that He alone knows the purpose and outcomes of all things.

I will take a closer look at Augustine’s theodicy in a future post. Till then let us trust in God, and allow Him to transform us as our souls are “built” in His righteousness.


Padre

The Nut of Understanding

Julian of Norwich (CC)

I have recently been looking into the theology of the 14th Century anchoress Julian of Norwich. At the age of thirty Julian was suffering a life threatening illness. The local priest was summoned in order to administer last rites. He brought a crucifix with him and bid Julian to reflect on it as she did she had a revelation or “showing” in which she was, according to her writings, given insights into spiritual mysteries including the Trinity and the relationship between God and His creation.

In this vision, Julian was shown all creation as a small nut which was barely perceptible in her hand. The vastness around it was God, and the tininess of the creation was clear. Yet despite this, it was the focus of God’s love. Julian went on to understand the Trinity not as merely three persons, but three relationships with which God relates to the world, and in particular His people. God is the Creator, the Sustainer, and the Lover of creation. It is this relationship and love that assured Julian of a key quote of her work: “All shall be well, and all shall be well,” because God is in control, not us.


Padre

A Theological Reflection

Computer, Desk, Typing, Laptop, Macbook

I am not a complete technophobe. On balance I think fire and that wheel thing have worked out pretty well. What intrgues me, however, are the new technologies and the terms relating to them. Developers and designers of computing and communications, especially, have either used the absolute obvious in assigning terms (screen saver), or have used a slightly convoluted vocabulary. Since when was data personified? Yet we are expected to wait while our files are “populated.”

Some terms, such as “icon,” I find interesting. In religious terminology an icon is a portrait of a saint or angelic figure which imbeds symbols related to the figure such as Peter’s crossed keys. Religious icons often have pronounced eyes and are said to be windows into heaven. Computer icons to are Windows (pun intended) into the inner world of cyberspace.

It was as I was shutting down my computer this morning that I was confronted with a deep theological truth. There on my screen was a solemn warning that what was unsaved might be lost. What more can I say when even my computer sums the world up so succinctly?


Padre

Book

Bible, Book, Reading, Religion, Christian, Study, Text
Pixabay

This book today is a mystery

Known by all too few;

Gone are the days when it could be assumed

That its contents people knew.

Noah perchance, with his two by two

And the original rainbow theme;

Might spark recognition for some out there,

But they still won’t know – what it does mean.

The names of Elijah or Obadiah, will be met with empty stares.

They will claim it has nothing to do with them. 

Has nothing to do with their cares.

And so I walk the lonely road,

As theology I dare to teach.

And I pray every day – that by God’s grace

At least some of them – I will reach.


Padre

 

On The Nature Of Others’ Beliefs

 

BC7626CA-C702-4FC1-9BEB-C010C89F4E91

Fandango’s Provocative Question #29: Thomas Jefferson said, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to tell me there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”   The question therefore is: “Do you agree with Thomas Jefferson that it doesn’t matter or hurt you if people believe in many gods, in one god, or no gods? Why or why not?

Fandango’s question must be addressed with a nuanced response.  I will therefore approach it as a two-parter.  Does it matter? Yes.  Does it ‘hurt’ me? It depends.

As to the first part: does it matter?  In a pluralistic, liberal society which celebrates difference and diversity – no.  It does not politically or “socially” matter.

On a more philosophical level – socially it does have some relevance.  Community cohesion and shared social values can be strengthened by shared beliefs and values.  Human beings are quick to detect perceived difference.  Jesus had said “the poor are with you always,” but so too is the “other.”  The other is subjective.  Be it appearance, origin, or belief – people “notice” the “odd one out.”  If our absolute social goal is pluralism, then belief may be personal, but then to “new other” is the one that cannot accept the beliefs of others, therefore division emerges.  Shared belief in a deity removes this philosophical division.

Theologically it does matter.  Not necessarily to the beholder.  But to the one holding to the polytheistic or atheistic belief.  If there is one truth.  One God, one faith, and one baptism, then there is an imperative for people to live up to that standard.  It is their salvation that is at risk.  For the atheist, this may not be of any concern.  They expect nihilism (in the Roman sense, that existence ends with the last breath) anyway.  But if Pascal’s wager is correct, they are playing a dangerous game.

I as a Christian minister, hold that it does matter in an eternal reality.

The second part is equally important.  Does it hurt me?

Fundamentally, it does not effect me.   The belief of others does not in and of itself have any direct impact on my own belief or faith.  Does it affect me?  Yes, I am afraid it does.  As a monotheistic believer, it saddens me that any might turn their back of the free gift or grace of a living God.

But should I act?  After all it isn’t effecting me.  But as a Christian believer, I have been called to teach the gospel.  So it does require action on my part.  An action of example, teaching, and loving concern (not necessarily acceptance) of others’ beliefs.

In the US Navy Chaplains Corp there is a motto: “Cooperation without compromise.”  Put simply – support people of belief or none, but never at the expense of your own belief.  This is a good starting point.

Militantly opposing others’ beliefs, and definitely imposing one’s own on others is truly a problem.  If a monotheistic people violently impose their views, in the name of defending God, we have a problem.  Jesus never called for forced conversion, and Muhammad initially called for respect to be shown “to people of the Book.”

A person’s lack of belief is not an attack on Me.  It is an attack or at least slight on God. Let’s stop there for a moment.  An omnipotent God, does not need us to “defend” him.  So we must evaluate our actions and motives.  Are we showing the love and compassion the scriptures call for?  Are we teaching, not fighting?  Are we loving, not imposing?

For me then:  Love all.  Teach those who will listen.  Live as an example.  Fight none.

So in the final analysis was Jefferson right?  Socially – Maybe.  Philosophically – Probably. Physically – Yes.  Emotionally – No.  Spiritually and theologically – he had a lot to learn.

 

Padre

Explaining Perfection to Imperfect Minds

Trinity

Let me first say that I too have an imperfect mind.  I have all of the human limitations in grasping complexity. Yet, here I am at the beginning of a new academic year faced with teaching the fundamentals of theology to a largely biblically and spiritually illiterate generation.

I need to get the idea across then that what I am teaching is imperfect, but is the best that we, with our limitations can express. God is all loving, all  knowing, all powerful, and ever present (omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent). In short hand I explain to my students that He is beyond our comprehension as He is omni-omnent (the all in all – perfection).

Even more challenging is the idea of theism as a whole. I have (and will) face the challenges of empirical observation.  “But, you can’t see Him.” Here again, I must make clear the limitations of our five senses.  They are fallible. They are also self-limiting.  Empirical reasoning focuses on “the provable” or at least on the probable, it shies from the possible. But, disproving deity is as difficult as giving definitive proof for divinity.  It comes down to an open and inquiring mind as to what can we learn.

The trinity is likewise a challenge.  Monotheism calls for God in a singular form.  Without going into essence and other key ideas beyond the entry level of understanding, I need to rely on more imperfect tools.  The diagram at the beginning of this post is a simple (if somewhat simplified) attempt to show the three in one nature of God. While the word trinity does not appear in the Bible, the concept is clear in such passages as Mark 1:9 and following.  Jesus (the Son), the Spirit (in the form of a dove), and the Father (in the heavenly voice) are all distinctly present, and their relationship clearly established.  God is “tri” in His unity.

Here I have to make an even more tenuous link with H2O.  Water is H2O yet in a liquid form.  Steam is a gas of the same essence.  Ice a frozen manifestation of the liquid.  All the same, yet different.  Theologically this is weak, but to someone unversed in the concepts it offers a stepping stone into understanding.

We may never fully understand the nature of God.  Perfection is something we aspire to, but which is far beyond most of our capacities.  But as the new year begins, I shall as in the past, seek to explain perfection to imperfect minds.

Padre

Of Cause and Cosmology

Some time ago I posted on some reflections on cosmology.  This category of argument for the existence of God uses the the existence of the cosmos (universe) as a matter which calls for explanation.  As such, it raises the issue of “cause.”

Many philosophers and theologians have used the argument of cause to “prove” the existence of God.  In short, everything that has a cause must by definition have a “causer.”

The following is a simplified version of the classic Kalam (or temporal) Argument which finds its roots in the teachings of the Medieval Muslim philosophers Al-Kindi and Al-Ghazali.  As a cosmological argument, the Kalam approaches the existence of God, as a necessary inference drawn from the existence of the universe.

The Kalam View:

(1) Everything that has a beginning to its existence has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence.

Therefore:
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.

Therefore:
(5) God exists.

According to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, since the universe is thought to have a beginning in time (Big Bang or otherwise), then its cause is in need of a causer. It is interesting to me that the first premise is one which empirical observation (the basis of science) cannot help but support.  No observable element of the universe seen to have a beginning lacks a cause of that beginning.

Present scientific theories (again Big Bang, and its ilk) suggest a 13.7 billion year window for the universe’s origin.  Therefore, it indeed “has a beginning.”

Therefore, following our logical construction, it must have a cause.  The cause must be “a power, force or energy greater than the universe itself, that was pre-existent and independent of the universe.” Theists would hold this to be a definition of God.  Even my more agnostic and atheistic students who eschew the word “God” accept that the “power, force, or energy” must exist.

Here I usually resort to the “if is waddles like a duck, quacks like a duck, swims like a duck” line of argument to suggest if it sounds like “God” then it is an acceptable term to use.

If such a “God-like, powerful cause is indicated by the creation, then that God-like causer must exist.

Aquinas, and other Christian thinkers have developed this in far more detail, and noted that a pre-existent power is necessary as “nothing makes itself” and “you can’t get something from nothing.” This “First mover or uncaused causer” is necessary or nothing would have begun at all.  I often call my students to play a game of Simon Says with me. After I have established that they are ready to begin, I wait an inordinate amount of time giving no instructions.  When it becomes apparent that nothing is going to happen, I challenge them with the reality, that the game requires a “Simon” or it will not begin.  The “non-player player” (unmoved mover) is essential.  So too is the causer of a caused universe.

Padre

[I will further discuss Aquinas’ thoughts in a future post].

 

The Anabaptists: Quotes and Reflections

preacher

The Anabaptist Movement of Central Europe began in the shadow of the Protestant Reformation, yet was at odds with both the Lutheran and Calvinist reformers.  The movement gave birth to the current Mennonite, Amish, German Baptist, and Hutterite churches, and greatly influenced the fledgling English Baptists of the 17th Century.

The most obvious characteristic of the movement was the use of believer’s baptism and the shunning of pedeobaptism. Less well known is the movement’s rejection of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

On this latter point the Calvinist John Knox commented, “Ye [Anabaptists] be proud contemners of the free grace of God offered to man in Christ Jesus. For with the Pelagians and Papists ye are become teachers of free will, and defenders of your own righteousness.”

While the belief of free will and the “universal” offer of grace by God were Anabaptist tenets, Knox’s assertion seems to stand at odds with Anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier’s  (1480 – 1528 ) statement, “Grace comes to us, not out of us, so that no one can boast in himself but in the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This grace leads to spiritual enlightenment, as a gift of God, or as Ludwig Haetzer (1500-1529) phrased it, “No man, no matter how learned he may be, can understand the holy writings until he comes to know them and learns them in the most inward part of his soul.” 

This understanding leads to the mirroring of the example of Jesus. “No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life.”Hans Denck (1495 – 1527).

This following of Jesus’ example was not seen to be salvation by works, or an act of self righteousness. “True Christians are those who carry out Christ’s doctrine in their lives,” said Michael Sattler (1490 –  1527). This carrying out of God’s doctrines was an imperative, not to be saved, but because one is saved.  As Conrad Grebel (1498–1526) put it, “The teaching of the Lord has been given for the purpose of being put into practice.” In fact, Menno Simons (1496 – 1561) said, “True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love . . .” 

This vibrant nature of evangelical faith was a call to spread the gospel.  This was no mere “knowing about God,” but actually coming to know Him. See Haetzer’s statement again, “No man, no matter how learned he may be, can understand the holy writings until he comes to know them and learns them in the most inward part of his soul.” And once learned in our own souls, “What we need to do is teach one another to know God.” Hans Denck (1495 – 1527).

There is much to learn from the devoted lives, and teaching of these early reformers.  While not all will agree with all of their doctrines, they do nonetheless give us a perspective on faith.  And in examining their thoughts, we may well need to examine our own more closely.

Padre

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guntherism and the Problem of Evil

Rock_Pigeon_Columba_livia

Photo Credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/www.micro2macro.net)

Imagine a reality in which all that exists resonates from the mind of one man.  The imaginer is an elderly gentleman named Gunther.  Gunther is a widower, and has more than enough time on his hands. His pension is generous, and he really wants for nothing except company.  He overcomes this lack of companionship by spending long hours on the same park bench feeding the pigeons.  He really loves these birds, and has named most of the flock, and he and they mutually recognise each other.  As he sits and admires his ornithological friends, he imagines beautiful places outside the world of his flat and park existence.  Gunther has a keen mind, and is at heart benevolent.  His mental worlds of existence are idealised, and are filled with peace and beauty.  His musings bring about wonderful people and intricate details of their lives.  Though their lives are not without struggle, they,  in the end most always flourish, and have positive resolutions to their momentary predicaments.

But Gunther is not the only force in the world of the park.  Gunther has a nemesis, Heinrich.  While Heinrich has no creative power, and no direct influence on Gunther’s mind-world, he nonetheless effects it peripherally.  For Heinrich is a dark character, who enjoys the malicious consequences of his own deeds.

“What deeds?” you might ask.  Well, he has schemed to disrupt the good of Gunther’s world.  He has postulated that, if Gunther is distracted from his musings, then the world of his mind will be altered.  If an individual only exists as a thought in Gunther’s daydreams, then if he stops thinking of them, they will cease to be.  Or better still, they will befall corruption when not given Gunther’s full attention.

To achieve his malicious intent, Heinrich sits on the bench opposite to Gunther.  He comes equipped with breadcrumbs, peanuts, and seeds.  He daily strives to lure the beloved pigeons away from Gunther, to draw his attention away from the mind-world, to the flock.

Oh, do not get me wrong.  Heinrich is not a man to harm the birds, only to lure them away.  His maliciousness is not to the winged companions of the creator of the mind-world, but the inhabitants of the world itself.

His struggles are oft in vain, as Gunther is a man of intellect, and of vision.  But this does not deter the dark-motived one from the attempt.  If he tries long and hard enough, he is sure, that the paradise of Gunther’s vision will be lost.

The above musing was formulated by some very bored theology students in the campus coffee-shop in an attempt to address the problem of evil. The analogies are weak, but witty.  The flaws are manifest – Gunther is not omniscient, not incorruptible. Heinrich as well has far more sway over Gunther than any evil force is capable of scripturally.

That said, we did have some fun trying to formulate the tale.  I hope you enjoy the images and the deciphering of our reasoning. Please see it as a light entertainment, which tries to address some deeper meanings.

Padre

Six Thoughtful Quotes on Theology

scroll

Theology by definition is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” It is the human attempt to unwrap and understand the “mind of God.”  In the first take on theology it is ambitious but straight forward.  The second is a rather tall order, for who are we to presume to know much less understand God’s infinite mind?

I have often said that the study of theology, while a really fascinating intellectual endevour, must bow to the simple faith of the believer.  We who deal with (and teach) theology often fall into the dual traps of intellectual vanity (thus our use of “Theo-babble”), and of “missing the woods for the trees.”

1. “Faith is more basic than language or theology.” Sydney Carter

It is in this vein that I have assembled some thoughtful, and positive quotes on the theologians “art,”  in the hope that we can reflect on these basics.

2. “One of the main tasks of theology is to find words that do not divide but unite, that do not create conflict but unity, that do not hurt but heal.” Henri Nouwen

Jesus prayed in John 17 22-23, “ I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one –  I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” Our philosophy of religion, then should not be divisive.

We should also look the the beauty of the message of God.  Its spiritual, emotional, and psychological power to uplift:

3. “A theology should be like poetry, which takes us to the end of what words and thoughts can do.” Karen Armstrong

And in that poetry of the soul, our theology must be practical.  It must not merely be for our intellectual pleasure, but for the fulfillment of our dual call of the greatest commandments:  “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39).”

4. “Theology is not only about understanding the world; it is about mending the world.” Miroslav Volf

Acknowledging that the world is in need of mending is not to be a discouragement to us.  Jesus came to give us life and life more abundantly, and John 15:11 tells us that Christ’s message is to make our “joy complete.” Therefore,

5. “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.” 
Karl Barth

Finally, in all that we do in the name of theology, we must remember humility.

6. “And if we don’t turn on the light of the gospel and remind ourselves of God’s glory and beauty, pride will set up shop in our hearts for an extended stay. Theology will become about us.” Brandon D. Smith

Padre