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Thursday, August 15, 2013

When Bad Things Happen

The variety of "explanations" is overwhelming. For example, if you want a diet program  you will find many which claim to provide "amazing results." The problem is one says 'three yogurts a day', the other, 'no dairy' Here, 'peanut butter', and there, 'no nuts'. Heck, we even had a popular diet which pushing sausages and bacon! Science would seem to be the answer, but science is sometimes inexact and in a complex world research can yield different results...

If the world of science is mind-boggling [and anyone reading the different views on global warning knows that we are always at the mercy of what "they" say is going on; it is hard to verify the size of the polar ice cap or the average temperature around the globe sitting here in Collierville, Tn] in alternative interpretation of data, theology (like all "arts") is even more so. As angry atheists frequently demonstrate, the use of pure reason does not always end up sounding pure or reasonable. Arguments about why there is evil in the world sputter around bold declarations that either God is not good or God is not all powerful (as if feeble humans can comprehend such things). In fairness, the simpleminded apologetics of some Christians, buying into the premises of their debate partners, can say remarkably offensive and unhelpful things about God's will and activity in the world. I find them off-putting myself, and assume some of the anger I hear in the atheist's protestation is a function of disdain for silly things Christians claim.

In the end, reason has its limits. This is pretty well established in the history of thinking disciplines (like philosophy). There is a reason why we talk about multiple intelligences. There is logic. There is art. There are other angles to consider. So when faced with monumental tragedy (watching a WWII documentary and seeing tens of millions of people displaced and hungry, seeing dead bodies pulled from the wreckage of recently bombed buildings; one is almost numbed by the sheer horror) there is not a theory which completely answers all the questions of the human heart and mind. Why? How? And some tragedy is more local, isolated and personal. A plane crash takes two lives, a young woman on her honeymoon is run over by a crazy driver and a young girl is shot by another angry young man with too much weapon and too little regard for human life; each of these cases impacts us as bystanders. We can feel sad--or we can feel nothing at all--it is more data. While the word tragedy is overused, there is also the suffering of every day which is real and difficult. As my daughter and her friends are going through rush each day they are receiving notification that they are not wanted by this group or that. Compared to death and destruction not such a big thing, but for those girls it is plenty big enough. And I can also hurt for them, with them.

When bad things happen what are we to do? Bonhoeffer, in the midst of WWII had his own response. Remember, countless numbers of his friends and family had died and were threatened daily by death. His thought is not an isolated professor ruminating from afar untouched by evil. His response was to worship and trust God. Others, who pride themselves on being "grown ups" as if unbelief were a sign of maturity, have different responses. Bonhoeffer was plenty smart and plenty educated. He cannot be simply written off as an idiot. (Well, he can be, but it is simply not true.) He is a believer. He stakes his life on Someone Who lived, died and rose long ago in ancient Judah.

Bonhoeffer is no more adept at answering the question than anyone else I have met or read (whether believer or unbeliever). It is the nature of mystery to exceed human explanation. However, he does lay out a fine model for living in the face of bad things. I quote from page 399 of Metaxas' biography "Christians do not wish to escape repentance, or chaos, if it is God's will to bring it upon us. We must take this judgment as Christians." Such an attitude is not the only one available. It is another theory on how best to approach God (and face evil in the world). For some it will be infuriating, or simplistic, or confusing. Others will think God is not doing it, it just happens. The list goes on and on. I am not sure exactly what I think about these words.

Yet they point in a direction that does make sense to me. Our choice is to live life in some way. If  "healthy eating" may not be 100% defined there are some principles which do matter (calories taken in and calories burned are important, some foods are better for you than others). I think Bonhoeffer's point reinforces something I do believe is true. Living in the world we can choose to love, worship and obey God or not. And the circumstances, especially when they are painful and horrible, do not change that commitment at all. I am called to trust and be faithful. Fortunately, God Incarnate (Jesus is the answer, truly) is ample reason to engage in this enterprise. He is model and sign of hope. He is the One who embraced judgment (clearly an abuse of justice!) and absorbed the horror (beaten, mocked, crucified). In the darkest moments of that horror He cried out for mercy, not on Himself but others ("Father forgive them, they know not what they do"). He prayed Psalm 22. He handed over His last breath to God. I cannot understand it and my theological theories seem almost disrespectful of the human/divine reality which they seek to explain. In the end, we can meditate and worship, follow and serve. Or not.


  1. >anyone reading the different views on global warning knows that we are always at the mercy of what "they" say is going on

    The conclusions of scientists on global warming are sound. If you doubt that, see the article on the topic in the issue of Scientific American for August, 2007. True, it was written by "them," but you don't seem to mind what "they" say when it comes to using the internet, cooling your house with a thermostat, drinking pasteurized milk, or being able to travel to Tuscaloosa in a single day, a feat impossible 200 years ago and only possible now because of "their" science.

    >it is hard to verify the size of the polar ice cap or the average temperature around the globe sitting here in Collierville, Tn

    It's hard to verify the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection sitting anywhere, but that doesn't prevent some trusting souls from swallowing such claims. If they are really so accommodating in their standards of what to believe, they really needn't complain about science.

    >Compared to death and destruction not such a big thing, but for those girls it is plenty big enough.

    To mention the disappointment of college kids in the richest nation in the world not getting to pledge to their preferred sorority, in the same post that logically comprehends the suffering of millions who live on a dollar or less a day, who have no reliable access to clean water, who see their children starve, their brothers tortured, and their sisters savagely used by outlaw militia, says a great deal about the depth and maturity of a religious person's judgment. You certainly continue to make clear to the non-believer exactly what kind of company he would keep if he ever decided to bring his thinking down to the level of yours.

    Actually, I've got a very biblical idea, Jeff. Why don't you post, as the epigraph of your blog, Job 38:2? Honestly, it's the perfect response to just about everything you say or write.

  2. Oh, I almost forgot:

    >I am called to trust and be faithful

    Yes, well, when you worship a God who, we are told, sees every instance of a sparrow falling and who must, then, have similarly watched as a python strangled two little boys, there's probably not a whole lot else you can do. The passive model is best.

  3. Michael
    I won't debate global warming because that is not my point. There are different views from the majority. People with extraordinary have offered counter claims and different interpretations.{"they" refers to both sides of the debate] If you want to deny that happens fine. I am not a denier. It is warmer now than in the ice age. I just cannot personally verify if the temperatures are higher today than five years ago or the melting cap is worse every year.

    You say someone who believes in the Virgin Birth or Resurrection "needn't complain about science." An odd twist on what I said:
    >>>If the world of science is alternative interpretation of data, theology (like all "arts") is even more so.
    Michael,"IS EVEN MORE SO" means I am think science is less confusing than theology.

    Why such disdain for middle class children? I know you read this sentence:
    >>Compared to death and destruction not such a big thing, but for those girls it is plenty big enough.<<
    "COMPARED TO...NOT SUCH A BIG THING." I obviously do not equate starving with being rejected by a sorority. Everyone is not starving or being tortured, but they can still hurt and feel pain. Surely you have known people who did not fit in and were excluded? Ask them how it feels. Ask them if a full belly takes away the pain of rejection. I have compassion for the girls, even if I would think cancer or war is much, much worse.

    Your accusation of me being passive is also, as you know, untrue so it is unfair and unworthy of you. I have worked most of my life with the needy and on behalf of them. Our church's commitment to prayer has not excluded an effort to raise funds for service and to do hands on work ourselves. (Is it enough? no way, but it is certainly something)

    In the end God has connected with our pain, in Jesus. You don't seem to think that matters. In fairness have you spent yourself in alleviating all manner of pain? It is easy to use the horrors of life as convenient stories to use in your arguments for not believing. Even so, it does not help them or anyone else for that matter.
    I know God loves those boys more than you (or me, or their parents). Until someone understands the cross of Jesus one cannot understand God.
    I really do appreciate your kinder tone in this posting. I continue to hold you in my heart in prayers!

  4. >I won't debate global warming because that is not my point.

    But you brought it up. Why are you now running for cover?

    >I am not a denier. It is warmer now than in the ice age.

    An amazingly inane thing to say. That is like saying "Wildfires? What's the problem? The earth is still not as hot as the Sun."

    You seem to want to have your cake and eat it too, bud. You don't quite want to look like a total fool and deny what scientists know, but you want to express meaningless and trivial doubts about what they say and, by so doing, make it look as though you have a "balanced" point of view. Instead, you simply make yourself look foolish. Scientific truth can't be filibustered.

    >I just cannot personally verify if the temperatures are higher today than five years ago or the melting cap is worse every year.

    You mean you *can* personally verify other areas of science, such as quantum physics, but you come up short only on global warming? Or do you mean that you don't affirm any area of science that you can't "personally" verify?

    Or should a reader, rather, draw the obvious conclusion that what you say here, as in so much else, is a lame dodge?

    Jeff, do yourself a favor and *learn* about global warming. Stop letting Fox News do your thinking for you.

    >If the world of science is alternative interpretation of data, theology (like all "arts") is even more so.
    Michael,"IS EVEN MORE SO" means I am think science is less confusing than theology.

    Another lame dodge. You didn't register the same objection to theology as to science--the fact that we are at the mercy of what "they" say. In theology, this doesn't seem to bother you. (But perhaps that's because you make up at least some of your theology as you go along.)

    Jeff, do you actually pay any attention to what you say? Do you honestly not realize that you raise matters only to try to weasel out of them when someone calls you on it?


  5. >Why such disdain for middle class children?

    Another amazingly lame dodge. If you honestly can't realize how introducing sorority rejections into a discussion of overall human suffering is trivializing the whole subject, you like the maturity to discuss this at all, but then, QED.

    >I obviously do not equate starving with being rejected by a sorority.

    Well again, bud, you're the one who brought it up. I can only react to what you say, and you can only then try to evade it.

    >Your accusation of me being passive is also, as you know, untrue so it is unfair and unworthy of you.

    Amazingly obtuse. You can't even keep track of the context of your own arguments. I didn't say you were physically passive or that you failed to engage in works of mercy, nor did such topics have anything at all to do with the matter under discussion, which was that in the face of evil in the world, you were "called to trust and be faithful." *That* is what I was referring to as passivity. Poor fellow, you remind me of the man in scripture who couldn't face the implications of what Jesus was saying and of whom it was said "But he, willing to justify himself..." That seems to be your only aim. What you say makes almost no sense and only displays your ignorance and immaturity.

    >In fairness have you spent yourself in alleviating all manner of pain?

    Another typical Christian dodge. Yes, Jeff, I have helped the needy, and whether I have or not, once again, misses the point.

    The matter is very simple. Two boys were strangled by a snake as they slept. As an atheist, I have nothing to "explain," except the carelessness of the owner, who left the snake's quarters insufficiently secured and in reach of a ventilation system.

    As a religious believer, you have to face the fact that the God who sees and knows all just sat and watched this happen--talk about passivity!--even though we are told he watches over us, that he cherishes children especially ("for of such is the kingdom of heaven"), and that he is benevolent and all-powerful.

    And really, there is no explanation, so you're no better off in that regard than I am, who am not even looking for an explanation. So please, Jeff, don't talk to me about how it is "easy" for me to use the horrors of life as "convenient stories" to use in my arguments for unbelieving. What happened to the two boys is not a "convenient story"--it is real, and something you can't wish away by all your evasive prattle about God connecting with their pain, or your demanding to know if I have helped anyone, etc. You have no reason to believe what you believe, Jeff, and have nothing to show for it but lame "Oh yeah? Sez who?" arguments which apparently, in your mind, pass for reason--it's no wonder you aren't sure about how effective reason is. It certainly doesn't work very well in your case, does it, pal? You simply *don't know* why kids get strangled by snakes while being "watched over" by their "Heavenly father," so you change the subject to diet plans, college sororities, and questions about whether atheists help anyone.

    Do you really imagine you're fooling anyone but yourself in all this, Jeff?

  6. Michael
    I have tried to engage you with respect. I have tried to take you seriously and ignore the contempt and disrespect with which you have written. I have always thought you were intelligent and well read. Your mean, incoherent ramblings have made me question my assessment of your intelligence. Your latest mishmash proves to me that you are merely well read. I find you boring and increasingly silly. You cannot follow a discussion, and continue to make statements which are illogical, off argument, and in many cases inane.

    I have pity for you. You have embraced the darkness of unbelief. Good for you. Perhaps you thought I would say with you: " Life is meaningless and there is no purpose. There is nothing but our accidental existence. Jesus was a fool and a charlatan." hmmmm, probably not going to happen.

    I believe in God. I believe in Jesus. I am committed to prayer and the church. And until you can put together something reasonable and intelligent to say I will ignore you. And pray for you.

  7. >continue to make statements which are illogical, off argument, and in many cases inane.

    Actually, Jeff, you have described your own responses perfectly.

    You are an ignoramus and a fool. Your opinions are worthless and show only that you have no idea what you are talking about.

    No adult of any intelligence can possibly interpret your strange blog as anything but proof of a need to be publicly abused and humiliated. I have only given you what you were obviously crying out for.

    On one level, though I did not intend to, I've done you a favor, by causing your enablers to gather around you and cluck about how brave you are under persecution.

    What I did intend, at least in part, was what I would be willing to bet a substantial amount that I have accomplished: to cause at least one reader to say to himself or herself, "I find that guy's tactics despicable, but, umm, I've gotta admit he's kinda nailed something about Jeff, who often seems to be talking through his hat, something I've never been able to quite face before...."

    I am not the only one who realizes what an idiot you are, Jeff; I'm merely the one who has said it aloud.

    One day, you may actually begin to operate cognitively on a level that reflects your age. Write to me when you do. But then, I might not believe at first that it's actually you.

    Enjoy your sandbox.

  8. Against my better judgment, I'll address this one last time, which is one more than your nonsensical thoughts deserve. I understand that you won't read this, but someone will, and they can explain it to you.

    I understand your argument perfectly well, Jeff, and have understood it all along. Your argument is basically this:

    1. Reason has its limits. That is true in science, philosophy, theology, and any other field of mental endeavor.

    2. We all confront the experience of suffering, in matters great and small.

    3. One Christian response is to worship God even in the face of suffering and even, in a sense, to embrace suffering, as Jesus did on the cross. His embrace was a victory over suffering and amounted to a final answer that is beyond what reason could produce or fully explain.

    4. Unbelievers may complain that this affirmation is simplistic or inadequate, but no one, believer or unbeliever, has ever fully explained the existence of suffering, nor is it to be expected that anyone finally could, given the limitations of reason.

    That is what you were struggling to say, with your middle school-level abilities and what I have just restated for you, better than you ever could, and without your trivial and inane digressions into diet plans and sorority girls.


  9. (Continued)

    And up to a point, anyone, of whatever shade of belief or unbelief, would have to agree.

    1. Reason does, indeed, have its limits. Mathematicians have discovered equations that mathematicians themselves can no longer fully follow, unaided by computers.

    2. We do indeed experience suffering, sometimes horribly, with apparent indifference to our "just deserts."

    3. It could appear reasonable, on its face, to suspect that all events, good or bad, proceeded from the power of a Being who is non-contingent and has brought all else into existence. Religion is the manifestation of this surmise based on ancient stories of divine creation and intervention in the world, but even philosophers, from ancient times to the present, have seriously examined the notion that such a Being might be real. The current issue of Harper's contains a brief review of a new book, "The Experience of God," by David Bentley Hart, published by Yale University Press, that argues, among other things, that no science or philosophy, unaided, can account for the existence of human consciousness without resorting to an explanation outside nature.

    Up to this point, the "thoughtful" atheist who you profess to hope will stop by and read your blog would categorically agree. It is at point 4 that your argument breaks down.


  10. (Continued)

    As far as I can tell, your conclusion basically amounts to saying "You skeptics say our faith is simplistic, but what alternative explanation do you have of suffering that is any better, or even as good? Absent a more compelling account, I choose to believe, as Bonhoeffer did, in the existence of God and his goodness, even in face of suffering."

    The reason that your argument fails is that, as I've already pointed out, atheism doesn't *require* an explanation of suffering. That requirement is only on your side, because of the apparent discrepancy between an all-powerful and loving God and the fact of suffering.

    The question of "why" is only meaningful at all, past a certain point, in the context of will, intention, and purpose. If a child asks "why" the Mississippi River flows south, the Gulf of Mexico, instead of north, to the Arctic ocean, this can be explained by physical reasons. Once those reasons are exhausted, any further "why" is meaningless.

    For an atheist, the question of "why" a child dies horribly of an incurable disease is like the question of the river's path. It is no less horrible, but no attempt is made to engage in fanciful speculation about a Being who is supposed to be all-powerful but nevertheless allows such a thing. That burden is on you, not me.

    And the problem I have with your arguments is that at 57, it is impossible that you are not intelligent enough to see that. You just don't want to. Which is why you resort to silly digressions like "personal verification of global temperatures," diet plans, and the like. It is to cover up the intellectual bankruptcy of your position.

    Centuries before you started wasting people's time with your silly posts, Jeff, Marcus Aurelius, no friend to Christians but a wise man, wrote this:

    "Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why dost thou resist? But if there is a Providence which allows itself to be propitiated, make thyself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without governor, be content that in such a tempest thou hast in thyself a certain ruling intelligence. And even if the tempest carry thee away, let it carry away the poor flesh, the poor breath, everything else; for the intelligence at least it will not carry away."

    Marcus basically says more, in that single paragraph, than you've ever managed to say in your entire silly blog. Obviously, I don't fully agree with him, but I think it points in at least one very good direction.

    I also happen to respect Bonhoeffer, and perhaps the greatest testimony to the power of his example was that he was executed by special order of Himmler himself just a week before Flossenburg was liberated by the Allies. Bonhoeffer, unlike you, Jeff, was a serious thinker, and you do well to read him and reflect on him. But, like your imaginary God, he deserves better representation than the shallow musings you provide in this space.

  11. Dear Reader
    Whatever else you may think of my writing and Michael's criticisms please remember the following.
    This is my blog. With a single key stroke I can make his words disappear. The fact is, I have not done this. I have allowed him to say whatever he chose to say. I have allowed it to remain here. Why does God allow evil in the world? By analogy, for the same reason I allow his offensive words to be here. Because I want to respect his freedom and I want to respect him, even if he cannot respect me. [Ironically, he is like a leach, a parasite attaching himself to my blog which he wishes did not exist]

    If you find his vicious comments en-darkening and it sufficient cause for you to reject faith, then perhaps I have done you a disservice.

    There is value in having his words here. For one thing, I am convicted for ugly words which I have spoken in anger. He has reminded me of the many times when I have lost my cool in arguments. I pray I can keep from such foolishness in the future. [as a side note I am impressed that he can maintain such a degree of anger for such a long period of time!]

  12. >With a single key stroke I can make his words disappear. The fact is, I have not done this.

    Well actually, Jeff, you did do this, not long after typing those words. You deleted the very next comment I made, which was meant to be valedictory. Now, you've all but invited me to return to expose your laughable hypocrisy.

    Personal growth is a difficult thing, isn't it, Jeff? Especially, it seems, for you.

  13. Actually it was inadvertent. I was trying to move it to a file to be reviewed. So I did not get a chance to read it. Yesterday was pretty full and I have never tried to do such a thing in the past. If you actually had something nice to say I am truly sorry I deleted it.

    In answer to your question, Yes, personal growth is very difficult. No, I am not terribly different from most people in that regard. And I sincerely thank you for the lessons you have taught me the past few months.