Ehrman and Wright

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Beliefnet has been featuring an ongoing blog debate between Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright about theodicy. I always find debates like these a little frustrating, because they create the illusion that an important question like this one can be boiled down to just two positions, when perhaps there are three or four or a dozen takes on the problem. This is certainly how I feel in this case, since I place myself in neither the Wright camp nor the Ehrman camp.

To a certain extent, I am more sympathetic with Ehrman's point of view than I am with Wright's, because I think that Ehrman raises valid points about theodicy that beg for answers. Even if I don't agree with the answers that Ehrman came up with, I think his questions are still important. So I was curious how Wright would respond to these points. Based on this online debate, the answer appears to be that he responds to them by evading them altogether.

Ehrman starts off the discussion by explaining how the problem of suffering led him to ask the question, "Where is God?" Wright responds by almost completely ignoring the whole problem of theodicy, and instead attacking Ehrman's rhetorical style as well as his scholarship. In particular, he accuses Ehrman of engaging in "emotional" arguments by detailing the horrors of evil that exist on the planet--as if that had anything to do with the substance of the problem that Ehrman identifies.

As for Ehrman's scholarship, that discussion might have been interesting if it had addressed the fundamental question that this debate was ostensibly about: how a benign, omnipotent God could allow suffering. No such luck. The closest Wright comes to offering a theodicy is to toss out some vague gobbledygook about how God's call of Abraham represented "the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery." This long-range plan, according to Wright, came to its culmination with the resurrection of Jesus. I have no idea how this is supposed to explain away the problem of evil. Are we just going to tell the victims of the the horrors of the world over the past several millenia that they should have just been patient in the midst of their sufferings because God had a "long-range plan" for the world, which of course would not include them because they'd be long dead by the time God got around to fixing things? Barman was correct in his subsequent response to Wright when he wrote

The issue of human suffering is not a logical problem to be solved or some kind of mathematical equation. It is a human problem that requires empathy, sympathy, emotional involvement, and action.
By contrast, Wright's "long-range plan" first and foremost ignores the plight of the here and now, ignores the suffering that individuals experience while they experience it, instead offering the platitude of some sort of "long-range plan" for the world as a whole. Individual suffering becomes secondary to the goals of achieving some kind of future world order. But making individual human experiences subservient to a Divine narrative involving the entire planet is not a theology of compassion. Here is where Wright's theodicy seems to be badly off track.

In his response, Ehrman points out another problem with Wright's "long-range plan" argument: it is predicated on a simplistic interpretation of the Bible. Wright treats the Bible
as if it were one continuous narrative written by a single author with one overarching theme (with Abraham as the lynchpin). It is not that, any more than the New Testament, or even the NT Gospel literature, represents one point of view of one author.
Regarding the Bible, Wright did offer one valid critique of Ehrman when he wrote, "I did have the sense, frequently, that the form of Christian belief you were rejecting was a particular kind of north American Protestantism which I don’t believe itself did justice to the material." I definitely agree that Ehrman has mistaken the theology of his own evangelical background with Christianity per se, and, as Wright points out, this comes into play in Ehrman's acceptance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. I think that ultimately this also comes into play in his conception of God, which is what led him to reject religion altogether as the only possible solution to the problem of theodicy.

Later in this debate, Wright then continued to evade the fundamental problem at hand, which became increasingly frustrating, although perhaps not surprising. Wright's argument was essentially that Jesus revealed to us what it means for God to rule the world, and that God ruling the world has nothing to do with ending human suffering through Divine intervention. Wright's answer to the problem of evil is, essentially to say that Jesus was all about challenging our expectations, and that includes our expectations of the logical and moral implications of God's ostensible characteristics of omnipotence and benevolence. In other words, according to Wright, Jesus told us that God doesn't work the way we expect him to, so we should just shut up and stop complaining. He writes:
What ‘we would want God to do’ – to have God measure up to our standards of ‘how a proper, good and powerful God would be running the world’! – seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.
This non-answer is a basic retreat from trying to explain anything away. It just says that this is how God runs the world, and we know this is so because Jesus said so, so get used to it and shut up already. Which, I suppose, is not much different from the non-answer that God gave Job out of the whirlwind. But just as God's answer to Job was unsatisfying, so is Wright's answer to Ehrman.

This is too bad, because Wright tantalizingly hinted at a better approach, when he wrote:
Near the heart of Jesus’ proclamation lies a striking redefinition of power itself, which looks as though it’s pointing in the direction of God’s ‘running of the world’ (if that’s the right phrase) in what you might call a deliberately, almost studiedly, self-abnegating way, running the world through an obedient, and ultimately suffering, human being, with that obedience, and especially that suffering, somehow instrumental in the whole process.
Now we are getting somewhere, at least potentially. And yet, although Wright stands on the brink of offering an insightful analysis, he never really makes the leap. The question of what Divine power means indeed, as far as I am concerned, gets to the heart of the question. If we define God in such a way as to suggest that God does not intervene omnipotently in the world to prevent suffering because God is not a supernaturally interventionist being--then the problem would have been solved in one fell swoop. But while Wright hints at that, I don't think he is really going there. He seems instead to be saying that it suits God's purposes to solve the world's problem's through a voluntary decision to do nothing in the face of ongoing evil; instead, he has put into place a long range plan that we cannot fathom but which is revealed via an ongoing narrative in the Bible, starting with Abraham and ending with Jesus--and this plan involves the Divine prerogative not to exercise his power in this way. If this is indeed Wright's argument, then that would suggest that God has the power to eliminate suffering immediately but he has decided not to use it, because Divine wisdom decided it was better to have a "long-range plan".

This is essentially an argument by authority--in this case, the authority of Jesus (as Wright interprets Jesus's message to be.) Since Jesus said that this is how God acts, then Ehrman has no right to complain. But, in fact, even if Jesus's life and message included this sort of theodicy, that hardly serves as a convincing argument to an agnostic like Ehrman of whether this is really a just use of Divine power. Wright offers no explanation of how this decision to not use Divine power to intervene (in accordance with a "long-range plan") is justifiable morally or logically. He lets himself off the hook by saying that he is just echoing what Jesus showed about God's own decision not to intervene in this way.

It is not a solution to the problem of evil; it instead says that you should just ignore the problem altogether and assume that God knows that what he is doing.

Again, I think that all of this would much more easily be solved by simply affirming that God's nature is not that of a supernatural interventionist who has the power to act upon the world from the outside if he/she so decides to, but rather as a creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion rather than coercion. Take away the idea of God as omnipotent supernatural interventionist, and the problem of theodicy goes away.

14 comments:

Chris said...

>>God’s ‘running of the world’...in what you might call a deliberately...self-abnegating way

I take it Wright is some kind of radical Arminian, then? This sounds very much like Open Theism.

>>The closest Wright comes to offering a theodicy is to toss out some vague gobbledygook about how God's call of Abraham represented "the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery.

This is the latest fad in evangelical theodicy. It suggests that the real "problem of evil" is, "there's evil in the world; now how do we make it go away?" The atheists don't have an answer, but the Christians can look happily to the future when Jesus will come again and make everything better. Of course, nobody's really fooled by this redefinition of the problem. But for some reason even some really smart people seem to think it's worth playing this cat-and-mouse game, anyhow. Sigh.

Jan said...

This was very interesting. Your concluding paragraph is satisfying. Thank you.

Doug Burkhart said...

Your final paragraph says it all as far as I'm concerned. I am unable to envision any other God than one who is a "creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion." Great post!

SocietyVs said...

“but rather as a creative force that acts through the natural world, through persuasion rather than coercion. Take away the idea of God as omnipotent supernatural interventionist, and the problem of theodicy goes away.” (MSeeker)

The first line I actually agree with altogether – God seems to be in the business of allowance – letting humans decide their own fates. This would be similar to a parent’s actual level of control over a teenager or a young adult – limited but still loving.

However, if I can use the parent comparison some more, even sometimes the parent does break-through and is allowed to help in a decision for the grown, responsible child.

God may not be into intervening per se – just don’t tell that to the Jewish Nation – Exodus is just such an event for them. Now real or not, we can make our judgments about that, the fact is this is a theological viewpoint from within the texts of the bible. But here we have a case of God’s intervention – actually – a lot of the biblical narratives contain intervention (even up to the prophets themselves – who sort of change the interventionist mold).

I see a move in the theological viewpoint from Adam to Noah to Abraham/Moses to Joshua to Judges to Kings and to Prophets. If you check it out – we move farther away from intervention directly from God to intervention through humanity (via the words of God). I think intervention has to be real or why even look into the idea of a God at all (Ehrman has a point here) – intervention is in the texts themselves is even a cornerstone of God’s connection with humanity.

The problem of evil, for me, is answered in the idea of God’s allowance…God is letting humanity shape itself with the very words of God. Even if God spoke directly at one point (Sinai) – there does seem to be a shift from the treatment of humans as children (needing to be led) to adults (using the words now to define the path). God wants us to be responsible with what we were given by God (created for). This is where evil is given a foothold – in choice.

For me, God intervenes…on some small level now – but largely through the written teachings. I’d be remiss to say God is no longer in the business of intervention – then God doesn’t have the ability more or less – and that’s may be stripping from the reality of the Creator. The created can think the Creator is made in its image. Maybe God is leaving the responsibility of intervention also within our hands – the teachings we embrace cover ideas directly linked to this – peace, justice/mercy, love, charity, community, etc. I think the problem is ‘is God letting us be more responsible’? And this may be to the human failure – but that’s no better or worse a prospect than Noah’s times.

OneSmallStep said...

** I definitely agree that Ehrman has mistaken the theology of his own evangelical background with Christianity per se, and, as Wright points out, this comes into play in Ehrman's acceptance of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.**

I just read Ehrman's book "God's Problem," on how the Bible addresses the reasons behind suffering. He seemed to pull from the penal substition theory a lot, in that sin results in suffering, Jesus took the penalty so that people may be free. I couldn't tell if he was going that route b/c it's the only atonement theory he found in the Bible, or if he went that route b/c of how it ties into suffering.

**In other words, according to Wright, Jesus told us that God doesn't work the way we expect him to, so we should just shut up and stop complaining.**

I would find this frustrating, as well. In fact, I do find this frustrating, when people say that I want God to behave the way I want.

The problem is that we put expectations upon anyone as soon as we define them: if we say a person is loving, then the definition of "loving" is going to confine the person within a certain sphere.

Plus, this seems to go both ways. On the one hand, if you do go with the idea that morality is shaded with grey, and right/wrong isn't always absolute, you get told that if you don't have an absolute moral guideline such as what God said, then how do you know what is moral?

Yet as soon as you say that you have a hard time conceiving the idea of an all-powerful, loving God because of all the suffering in the world, you get told that you're trying to redefine God in your image, or saying that God should behave how you define morality, or something.

It can't go both ways -- either our moral guidelines come from an absolute source, or we cannot define God by our moral guidelines.

David Stoker said...

I really liked your concluding thought as well as societyvs's comment.

I think part of the issue stems from the idea that God is the creator ex nihilo and therefore responsible for all, good and evil. If that posit is not true, for example if physical and even spiritual matter is eternal and God is the grand organizer of the elements then the "problem" also disappears. God in this case is not 'all powerful' but is the great master of natural law and is the great persuader and nuturer.

The other assumption that could bust the 'problem' wide open is the assumption that we had no voice or decision in the matter to enter mortality. The Lord tells Jeremiah that he knew him before he was formed in the belly or even ordained a prophet before being alive and breathing on the earth. It is easy for us to imagine life going on and on but is it possible that life has always been, that there was an prelude to this life where decisions and agreements were made.

Two thoughts to widen the conversation.

Frank said...

Job and Ecclesiastes affirms some of this. God is not going to reward good behavior or punish bad behavior in some kind of linear fashion (or make sure that the innocent don't suffer, like Job). Those books were revolutionary in debunking the idea that God acts retributively that way.

God's answer to Job was his presence. You call out to God, and hear the wind blowing in the hills.

Those books don't leave you much left, but clinging to faith by your fingernails. But they are good in bulldozing away so much of the religious crap that has gotten in the way of an authentic relationship with God.

All the characters in Job (including Job himself) were locked into an IF/THEN mentality to explain God. IF God doesn't do this, THEN God is this. God's speech shows that God doesn't operate within those boxes, and relationship isn't possible when one is locked into logical formulas. Job "spoke rightly" because he was the only one to bother to ask God directly.

The way I see it, ultimatley process theology is not outside the classical Aquinas definition of grace vs. free will issue (which is how the Book of Job has been interpretted by Aquinas, and in modern readings like Gutierrez, (the latter has an absolutely sensational book on Job)).

Mystical Seeker said...

God may not be into intervening per se – just don’t tell that to the Jewish Nation – Exodus is just such an event for them.
Societyvs,

My guess is that the interpretation of the Exodus events differs depending on which person you ask. Rabbi Harold Kusher, who wrote a popular book on theodicy back in the 1980s, argued that, in the wake of the Holocaust, it made no sense for Jews (or anyone else) to believe in an interventionist God.

Mystical Seeker said...

It can't go both ways -- either our moral guidelines come from an absolute source, or we cannot define God by our moral guidelines.

One Small Step,

Yeah, I run into that a lot. The same people who complain about "moral relativism" are often the very people who defend Biblical horrors like the divinely inspired genocide in Joshua by saying that God can be as fickle and inconsistent in his morality as he wants because he is God and he makes the rules according to his own whim. They really seem to want to have it both ways.

There is nothing out of the ordinary about making statements about God's nature. The first epistle of John says that "God is love". That would be a meaningless statement unless you could actually assign some sort of consistent definition of what "love" means. If God is all over the map in terms of "his" morality and his will and we are unable to assign any independent attributes to God's nature, then saying something like "God is love" or "God is" anything else is meaningless. Either God has attributes and a nature, or he/she does not.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think part of the issue stems from the idea that God is the creator ex nihilo and therefore responsible for all, good and evil. If that posit is not true, for example if physical and even spiritual matter is eternal and God is the grand organizer of the elements then the "problem" also disappears.

David,

Interesting suggestion. The opening sentence of Genesis does imply that that the universe pre-existed in a formless, chaotic state. I think that the idea of God as "grand organizer" is intriguing.

Mystical Seeker said...

take it Wright is some kind of radical Arminian, then? This sounds very much like Open Theism.


Chris,

To be honest, I don't know a lot about Wright's theological position. Maybe someone who knows more about him can answer that.

Mystical Seeker said...

Those books were revolutionary in debunking the idea that God acts retributively that way.

God's answer to Job was his presence. You call out to God, and hear the wind blowing in the hills.


Frank,

Ecclesiastes and Job represented a mature development, I think, away from the simplistic theodicy that you sometimes found in the book of Proverbs. That being said, Job seemed to suggest that God could actively intervene to make our lives miserable for no good reason whatsoever. Personally, I'd rather have an indifferent God to one who messed up my life just so he could win a bet with Satan. (For a modern take on this, consider the 1980s movie "Trading Places" with Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy).

And I found God's answer (or should I say, non-answer?) to Job to be wholly unsatisfying at the end of the story. It was basically, "Who are you to question me, so just shut up and take your lumps."

Cynthia said...

Personally, I'd rather have an indifferent God to one who messed up my life just so he could win a bet with Satan.

In Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower her main character, an African-American young woman, envisions God as change, as the one constant we can depend on. This God neither loves us nor hates us, and we can shape change, God, by our actions. One of the main tenets of this character's belief is "Kindness eases change".

I highly recommend the book, if only for its fictional, experimental theology.

I'm currently reading Ehrman's book as well.

Mystical Seeker said...

Cynthia, thanks for the recommendation.