Perspectives on Life and Suffering

As mentioned in Saturday’s Stray Thoughts last week, I am currently teaching a course on the topic of God and Suffering. It’s always a “fun” course for me in the sense of getting to learn as much as I may give in the span of a semester. That learning invariably happens because of the stories and perspectives of the participants in the class.

An excellent book on the subject is Brian Morley’s God in the Shadows (Christian Focus Publications). His second chapter reminds us that one of the critical factors in how people respond to bad things happening in their lives is what their expectations are–expectations of life in general and of God in particular. This prompted a discussion of just what it is that American people seem to expect out of life. The list was fairly predictable; it included such things as health, security, sufficient finances, comforts, meaningful work, etc. We consider ourselves to be undergoing suffering in some measure when these expectations are not met. Some people will relate the “suffering” so described to the existence or non-existence of a good God; if God is good and sufficiently powerful, why would He not provide the things we “need” for a good life? Or so the discussion begins for many folks.

Following the class I had a conversation with an African student. This particular class member did not speak during the compiling of the list of things Americans consider as components of a good life. Afterward, however, the matter of perspective came up prominently in conversation. What was revealed was that the so-called “problem of evil” is not a topic in Africa. This may initially surprise many westerners, who look at the horrendous suffering of many people on that continent and expect that the “why” question would be prominent in churches and villages across the land. But whether one is referring to political suppression, starvation, disease, poverty, or whatever other form of hardship, it is not commonly raised as evidence against either God’s existence or nature. These things are life. Or to say it otherwise, these realities are well within the expectations of life. So when this student viewed a Peter Singer diatribe against the existence and/or goodness of God, he wanted to jump out of his seat to offer a rebuttal. I’m quite sure that Singer would expect that his clear and devastating argument would have shown the futility of faith; in fact, the opposite ensued.

Expectations do much to shape what we expect from the world; and as Christians, we attach God’s promises, real and imagined, to the mix. Curiously, we conveniently seem to have forgotten anything having to do with expectations of us. How different in this from the (wrong) impressions Job and his acquaintances had; If one is good, God rewards and if one is evil, God punishes. Therefore, if suffering, then sin has occurred. What is easily missed in this formula is its implication that we end up controlling what God does. He can be manipulated.

Perspective. Does it come from our culture, from our fleshly desires, from our families, from our churches? So much of our success in life comes from the matching of expectations and reality—and the ability to meaningfully and truthfully learn from the difference between the two. Or is that just one man’s perspective?

Reality Check: What’s on Your Mind?

A couple of week’s ago the senior pastor of our congregation asked a poignant question in his sermon: what do you think about what you think about? It’s provocative, isn’t it? Are we pleased about the things that occupy our minds most of the time, or at least when we do have time that is not necessarily given to jobs or the people we are responsible to and for?

I was reminded of the question as I perused a book mention last week, David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, and by a post on my facebook page this morning regarding the death of singer Whitney Houston. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It consists of two pictures side by side: on the left is a picture of Whitney in her performing prime, with the caption reading, “One person dies and 100 million cry;” on the right is a picture of starving children, presumably in Africa, with the caption reading, “One million die, and no one cries.” What are we thinking about? The fact that we as a culture think very much about fame and fortune and little about hopelessness and want is betrayed by the wild popularity of shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” We like to be entertained; and we like to find someone who is basically much like us and vicariously live into the great American ideal with them. If our chosen competitor makes it, we feel however faintly that we made it, too. It’s the same phenomenon that drives people from the love of sports to an intense attachment to a team or individual athlete. The fact that we think very little about those in great want is betrayed by their ubiquity.

Platt reminds readers of the inconvenient words of the New Testament regarding wealth and the approval of people. They are words we have managed quite creatively to blunt. We “spiritualize” them and turn them on their heads, somehow succeeding in doing the impossible—making the gospel sound like the American dream itself. From the man who needed to build bigger barns to hold all his accumulating goods, to the man at whose table Lazarus begged, to the one who turned away when his possessions were said to be the price of following Jesus, to the one who is offered the favored seat in the assembly of the post-resurrection church—it’s just not a ringing endorsement of gaining success at the bank.

Our misreadings and desperate interpretations of the Bible might begin with a skewed idea of what the gospel is all about in the first place. Platt suggests this early in his book by taking our favorite verse (John 3:16) and pointing out the obvious: God’s love is for the whole world. Our individualistic way of thinking turns this in to an individually directed message, to the point where it is commonplace to encourage people to substitute their own name for “the world.” When we do so we change the focus entirely. We have so individualized the gospel that we think it’s about individual people, rather than a reaching out to the whole world. The individual gospel plays very well with the American dream–it’s all about me, my salvation, my success, my claim on heaven when I die, and, by the way, about a whole lot of goodies I can name and claim before I get there. And it’s the “goodies” that occupy our minds, our thoughts entirely too much of the time, and not on the world God loved so much.

It is a convicting question, is it not: what do you think about the things you think about?

Muslim Violence Toward Christians: Why the Long Silence?

It really is a cause for wonder that this news has taken so long to reach a mainstream publication. But kudos to Newsweek for finally breaking the silence last week with a feature story about what has been happening outside the west, where Islam is the majority religion. For those who have not heard about it, I encourage you to paste the link into your browser and read the report.

What Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes is not new information to many Christians living in the United States; several organizations have been vigilant about the persecution of believers in various parts of the world, including but not limited to those with predominant Muslim populations. Prayer groups have formed specifically to join with the voices of the oppressed in a united cry to God for an end to the suffering, as well as for the softeneing of the hearts toward the gospel on the part of the persecutors. For whatever reasons in addition to the two suggested by Newsweek writer, however, neither the mainstream press nor the State Department has shown much interest in the plight of those who have suffered under these officially and unofficialy sanctioned acts of violence. Considering how the plights of other suffering people groups (and animal groups) have been highlighted at various times, this is a troubling omission.

One possible reason Hirsi Ali does not specifically mention is that such reporting of Muslim-on-Christian violence does not fit the narrative of the mainstream. In some segments thereof the reigning paradigm is that all religions are essentially equal (and equally bothersome when they interrupt that narrative with what they actually believe). It wants to believe that religious people are basically all alike, that religious belief is essentially a private matter with no bearing on the public square, and certainly not on official policy; all religions may have their radical elements, but they are always on the fringe and basically cancel each other out when assessing their total impact. To report on those incidents which call this narrative into serious question would not be beneficial to that mainstream way of thinking and directing public opinion. It might even get people to think about the importance of what people believe and why it matters.

The truth about Islam is that the truth about Islam is difficult to state. The Quran has two decidely different ways of being interpreted regarding the approach to non-Muslims, both attributable to the prohet himself. One strand encourages respect toward other people of the Book, meaning specifically Jews and Christians; the other highlights the infidels, also including Christians and Jews, and encourages their destruction. Contemporary Islam is a battle for the interpretation that will guide today’s and tomorrow’s Muslims. The fact that few Muslims know their holy writings, even far less than Christians know theirs, subjects them to what they are told by thir leaders. One does not find home Quran Study Groups.

I applaud Newsweek for stepping out of the silence. And I encourage Christians to continue praying for their brothers and sisters, and perhaps even asking their congressional representatives to ask some tough questions in ploicy discussions.

Saturday’s Stray Thoughts

Another week just about in the books–and in central Pennsylvania it was another week without significant snowfall, which suits this guy very well. But it wasn’t a week without controversy. How else would blogs continue, anyway?

Since I’ve included a note or two concerning the campaign trail in these Saturday entries, I’ll start by noting the sudden emergence of former PA Senator Rick Santorum in the GOP nomination race. With a sweep of three contests this week, he is getting a considerable amount of attention that seemed unavailable to him just two short weeks ago. After listening to his plea before the CPAC crowd yesterday, I came away thinking he is a more than capable spokesman for that position. Whether or not that position, on the whole, is the right one is what we’ll all have to decide. But he did seem a lot more authentic than the front-runner.

While on the subject of politics, there is a series of ebooks available through Christianity Today on the subject, edited by Mark Galli, Senior Editor. How to Pick a President is a short series of essays suggesting what the important issues might be for Christians to consider, rather than the ones which we are told about by various interest groups and/or the press. Faith and the American Presidency is an account of the role of the beliefs of eleven different presidents of our country; another volume is in the works which will look at an additional eleven occupants of the Oval Office. For those interested in the real questions but unwilling to bear the shrillness of the process as it has evolved, these might be interesting reads.

The initial essay in the first of those volumes (Mark McCloskey and Daniel Taylor, “Why Virtue Trumps Policy”) is particularly timely with the revelations this week about a then 19-year-old White House worker in whom JFK took more than a passing interest. But the essay talks about more than a president’s ability to pass the “family values” test, looking at the more classic virtues of prudence, courage, etc. That’s good, because we seem to have a well-developed way of holding the “other” party’s miscreants accountable for their infidelity while overlooking or excusing it when it is one of “our” guys caught in the act. Kennedy’s philandering was widely known, but seldom raised as a concern; then there was Mr. Clinton, through whose misdeeds a definite polarization of opinion was the topic of the his entire presidency–for those of one party, some of whose members find no reason to hold Newt Gingrich’s past failures against him. An objective lot, we are.

One of the continuing conversations among Christians concerns how radically we interpret the instructions of Jesus as applied to believers in our own time. A generation ago Ron Sider raised the issue among conservatives with Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, both an outgowth of and a contributor to the Sojouners movement, spear-headed by Jim Wallis. More recently a new, younger voice is sounding a call to take more literally what Christ commands of those who would be his disciples. David Platt’s Radical was given to me by a good friend. I will begin a series of posts soon to engage some of his ideas; if anyone would like to read along, that would be helpful toward an enriching conversation.

The one perennial question about Christian faith’s viability in the contest with reason and with human experience is why there is suffering in the world that God has made. Most people find it a problem; some find it insurmountable and relinquish belief. It continues to surface, and I suspect it will do so as long as there are human beings with a sense of both morality and compassion. I have had to revamp the course I teach on the subject because of the high enrollment. And this week’s newspaper had questions posed to the experts–Billy Graham and the “God Squad.” The question is a real one; and it is usually asked by those in pain or directly observing it in someone close to them. I was reminded, as part of preparation of this week’s class, of Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Making Sense Out of Suffering. One of the many sharp points from this gem of a book is to acknowledge that this is a problem that counts as evidence against (belief in) God; but while the Christian must attempt to answer this one question, the atheist has about fifteen hard questions to deal with, all of which argue for the reality of God. Good stuff.

Find a blessing; then spread it.

Pres. Obama: “On Second Thought . . .”

Apparently the president has had a change of heart; or, as some might more cynically state it, he had a change of strategy thrust upon him by political necessity. The following is an excerpt from an MSN/NBC news release earlier today:

“President Barack Obama announced Friday that the administration will not require religious-affiliated institutions to cover birth control for their employees.

Instead, the White House is demanding that insurance companies be responsible for providing free contraception.”

In a post earlier this week we questioned the legitimacy of the initially announced policy which required the coverage which today’s announcement rescinds. Though undoubtedly politically motivated, I think it was the right decision, given the current state of health care payment in this land of ours.

But the second statement harkens back to a comment from a good friend in response to that initial post. Note the language used. The government is making demands on private insurers. That this is happening at all is of significant concern; that it is happening over this particular issue is incomprehensible, unless one recognizes that here, too, political capital is at the center. Specifically, that which comes from a certain segment of the population for whom everything revolves around obliterating any differences between men and women (who really wants that world?). The demand is that contraception–not childhood vaccinations, not absolutely needed medicines for the very young, old, or poor, not various cancer screening procedures (including mammograms)–be provided at no cost. How does that work, other than to cover the cost by adding it to everything else? But we’re not supposed to know that.

My real beef is not specifically about the contraception issue; this matter serves only to highlight the role that we have allowed our governing authorities to take in today’s culture. If health care is the province of the government, even in the limited role of who pays for coverage of which conditions, then it is unavoidable that decisions such as this have to be made. And they will always be made with an eye toward the electorate, or that portion of which is perceived to be most in need of schmoozing. I don’t think the Obama administration is essentially different from any other in this regard: if there is an area in which the government has significant influence, it will exercise that influence with a finger to the wind. A decade ago the concern was homeland security; before that it was education; today it’s health care; in another time it was crime or national defense, housing, or poverty.

The underlying question is that of how we should order our lives together in the day in which we live. Democrats and Republicans have different conceptions of the answer. And so should Christians, but it must be their own, not one adopted from or simply ceded to either of those parties for definition. And that vision, something I have alluded to several times recently, needs to include this matter of health care. For all the faults of the Obama package–and there are many, some of which we haven’t yet found simply because of the size of the bills involved–we should not lose sight of the fundamental problem it sought to address. Too many people cannot pay for adequate care because of sky-rocketing, unregulated costs. Take away “Obama Care” and that problem is still there.

The shaping of that Christian vision might begin by noting the foundational role Christian churches and individuals played in the establishing of hospitals. They were for love and care in the name of Jesus, not for profit. That principle should always be in mind with any aspect of the vision of the good–tempered only as much as necessary by the very real fact that it must all be paid for. That balance will always be challenging to identify, let alone achieve; but this difficulty cannot keep us from seeing and working toward a better way. One that gives second thoughts for other than political reasons.

MIA, Bird Flipping, and Anger

I admit it. I did not see the alleged obscene gesture thrust on America by an “artist” during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. But enough has been said and written about it to surmise what took place. I was watching, generally, but apparently missed the most controversial moment. Silly me, finding conversation with the friends gathered in my home to be of more significance than a program headed by Madonna. What was I thinking?

What I did catch on the tv between conversations revealed what seemed another instance of how what I can only describe as anger music seeping into the mainstream of American pop culture–of which the Super Bowl itself has been morphed into the iconic symbol. Not sure how that happened; give me a game and a good band–marching variety, please–to fill the time between halves, which by the way should be twelve minutes. But I digress. That’s what sextagenarians do with increasing proficiency.

Anger music was first manifested in hard rock or acid rock, when screaming into microphones overtook actual singing. The rhythm and the drive of the guitars, wailing with dissonance, the insanely raised volume levels have coupled with the protest and culture of rap, together finding their way more and more into what is now mainstream fare in contemporary music. The black, the leather, the draconian make-up, the edginess of it all cannot help but convey one simple, underlying message: anger. One might be forgiven for thinking that much of it is simply an act that has proven commercially successful; to an extent, I suppose that’s true. But the fact is that it is successful for a reason. It gives expression to what a consuming public is feeling, and it’s not isolated among the young. There’s a lot of anger to go around these days.

The gesture mentioned is but another manifestation; in fact, it has become itself the quintessential expression of anger along with its verbal form, the so-called “f-bomb.” That was once, not so very long ago, a word never spoken by men in the presence of women or the young; now it is not only routinely said among them, but by them. People are angry. They may not know why, though most can come up with a few surface items they believe to be responsible; but they are mad at the world, at life, at people, at God.

What is the woman who “flipped the bird” angry about? I don’t pretend to know. Maybe she was simply expressing an “I’ll show her” attitude toward Madonna and her emphatic announcement to the network audience that there would be no wardrobe malfunctions or other bits of provocative material in the show to bring (angry?) responses from the broad viewing public. Maybe she is angry with that American public itself for whatever reason. In general, however, the anger so frequently observed in our culture has to do with an inability to believe that life will come anywhere close to meeting expectations. Those expectations can have many forms and many contributors to their shaping, not least of which is that same media glamorizing the impossible, offering everything that approximates it, and then selling us the musical means to express the frustrations over not meeting it.

The search for meaning is certainly not new. What might be new is the ever-expanding plethora of ways to distract us from thinking deeply about it, deeply enough to ask into the wisdom of the ages. When we do not look there, and into their source, we will continue to be frustrated and angry. Perhaps we owe it to the younger generation for pointing out the many holes in our veneer of satisfaction. Now if only we can point them and ourselves to the Truth.

I’m sounding out some ideas here; I’d like very much to hear some of yours as well as responses to what’s offered here.

Proposition 8 and Its Malcontents

There’s just so much in the news these days to support the idea that the so-called Culture Wars of the 1980s and 90s are not over. According to that narrative, there is a battle between the forces of evil (godless secularism) and the righteous remnant, fighting for the soul of America. The problem some people have in accepting that narrative is that it assumes a black-and-white division on all questions and challenges facing us as a nation; and once one identifies with a particular side, the opportunity to question assumptions within the camp seems to disappear, as anything sounding like what the enemy might say casts one under suspicion of heresy and/or treason.

So let’s take the latest issue on its own, outside of its connection to any other issue, separated from any real or imagined patterns emerging. I write concerning Proposition 8 in California, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. That ruling was handed down by a 2-1 decision. That’s right, two judges have made a decision concerning so significant an issue as whether gay and lesbian persons have the right to marry their partners–or more precisely, whether the voters of California can decide for them. That was the actual ruling, as CNN Senior Legal Correspondent Jeffrey Toobin pointed out. His explanation follows:

Instead of ruling that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in all circumstances, the court issued a narrower ruling. The judges said that the peculiar circumstances in California – a right to same-sex marriage withdrawn by a vote of the public – was unconstitutional.

California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, superseding a ruling by the California’s Supreme Court, which had allowed same-sex marriages in California before that.

So the voters of the state unduly attempted to override the prior decision of the state’s Supreme Court. In Toobin’s opinion, this is what will keep the ruling from becoming a matter for the U. S. Supreme Court; if so, it will not have immediate ramifications outside California–except for the significant momentum given to advocates of similar measures in other states.

But what is at stake in the apparent collision between Christian understandings of marriage and what has been declared by the California courts (pending appeal, which will likely fail since it is to the same court that created the perceived need for Proposition 8 in the first place)? On one hand, no one is forcing anyone to “marry” anyone; Christians are not required to give up their cherished views regarding their marriages. On the other hand, it does create problems when married couples of the same sex enter into the church and expect full acceptance of their status–and having the law on their side. The practical side has some sticky matters to it–including the need to extend benefits to any such individuals who may be employed by church agencies.

The theological-philosophical side is the more concerning, however. What we have is a legal body, comprised of very few people, deciding what marriage is. One cannot grant a right to something without, at least by clear implication, declaring what that “something” is. The fact that it had never been defined until Proposition 8’s belated attempt owes not to lack of earlier understanding, to the fact that at the time of any state or federal constitution being written, everyone knew what marriage was. It would have seemed a silly exercising in stating the obvious for those framers to define marriage; they would likely have been ridiculed for their love of unnecessary wordiness. All cultures share a common understanding of a man-woman relationship as marriage, however much they differ as to the roles and expectations, rights and duties adhering to the respective partners. Christians tie this to the order of creation (Genesis 2), culminating in the “one flesh” entity created by the union. At the time the Pentateuch was first received, these words (and whatever oral traditions may have been behind them) only gave grounding for what they already knew and practiced concerning marriage.

If there truly is an ontology (a true and given nature) of marriage, the State of California, along with others who have traveled the same pathway, has granted the “right” for persons to be what they have chosen not to be. Whatever legal status a state or federal body may wish to grant to same-sex couples, it cannot grant them marriage without throwing the very concept of marriage entirely out of meaning. There may be reasons for which such status might make sense (that’s another debate); but they cannot make it marriage. What is at issue here is whether there is a givenness to not only marriage, but to anything at all. And that debate puts us squarely into the postmodern skepticism regarding any claims to knowledge whatsoever. Which is what has spawned this whole matter in the first place. Which reminds me that if God undergirds and reveals anything, we ought to pay attention for our own opportunity to thrive in the world He gave us.