Holiday in Hellmouth: A Little & Useful Exercise in Belief & Disbelief

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Holiday in Hellmouth: A Little & Useful Exercise in Belief & Disbelief

Sunday a friend on Orcas Island asked me to meet for coffee (with others invited as well) to wrestle with questions raised in a New Yorker book review.

I suggest you read it and ask yourself what answers you have in reposbnse to the questions raised by the brilliant interdisciplinary New Yorker Book reviewer James Wood in his review of Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, “God’s Problem” (HarperOne).

[Ehrman was “reared in a conservative family in Kansas, was “born again” in high school, attended the fundamentalist Moody Bible Institute, in Chicago, and then Wheaton College, Billy Graham’s alma mater. When he was at Princeton Theological Seminary, prolonged reflection on the textual status of the Gospels began to weaken his religious certitude. But, in coyly declaring that the book was “the end result of a long journey,” he left readers to reach their own conclusions about his ultimate destination. In his new work, there is no such reticence. “I no longer go to church, no longer believe, no longer consider myself a Christian,” he announces on the third page. “The subject of this book is the reason why.””]

This is a situation where the review is better than book being reviewed ~ having said that, both are worth your time.

Read the review at The New Yorker

Here is a sampler of the provocation.

¢â‚¬¢ Norman Rush, in his novel “Mortals,” calls this “hellmouth”: “the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own.” Without warning, and yet always feared. Job, whom God places into hellmouth to test him, knew that paradox: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.”
Theologians and philosophers talk about “the problem of evil,” and the hygienic phrase itself bespeaks a certain distance from extreme suffering, the view from a life inside the charmed circle. They mean the classic difficulty of how we justify the existence of suffering and iniquity with belief in a God who created us, who loves us, and who providentially manages the world. The term for this justification is “theodicy.”

¢â‚¬¢ I discovered Samuel Butler’s image for the inutility of prayer in his novel “The Way of All Flesh” the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses. Theodicy, or, rather, its failure, was the other major entry on my debit side. I was trapped within the age-old conundrum: the world is full of pain and wickedness; God may be jealous but is also merciful and all-loving (how much more so, if one believes that Christ incarnated him). If he has the power to alleviate this suffering but does not, he is cruel; if he cannot, he is weak. I wasn’t consoled by the standard responses.

¢â‚¬¢ For anti-theodicy is permanent rebellion. It is not quite atheism but wounded theism, condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in

¢â‚¬¢ If he no longer believes, of course, suffering should not be a theological “problem.” But the rebel is stuck, as Dostoyevsky knew well, in an aggrieved nostalgia for belief. For the believer, theodicy is merely “the problem of evil”; for the rebel, theodicy is also “the problem of theodicy.”

¢â‚¬¢ Ehrman concentrates on what you could call the first responders to hellmouth the Prophets, the Psalmists, the Apocalypticists and he is often illuminating. He separates three large strands in the Biblical writings: the idea that suffering is a punishment for sinful behavior; the idea that suffering is either ultimately redemptive or some kind of test of virtue; and the idea that God will finally vanquish evil and establish his kingdom of peace and harmony.

¢â‚¬¢ Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world’s suffering that, theologically speaking, Heaven is “exactly what will be required.”

¢â‚¬¢ But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?

If we love God with all our heart and mind, our love must face these questions honestly ~ not just as an apologists would, with the aim being to defeat a protagonist, but as a human would, with a hunger to know truth and live life fearless in the face of all life throws our way.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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