Christian Doctrine (9)

Image - John Calvin

“… all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God.”
Institutes I.16.ii

Summary notes and comments on Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine Chapter 9, “Why Doesn’t God Do Something About it? – The Doctrine of Providence and Evil”:

The doctrine of providence is related to the doctrine of creation. Not only does God create everything that is, but God provides for it – taking care of it, etc. Which leads a lot of people to ask … why does God do such a terrible job of “taking care of”? Because if we “took care of” our children the way God seems to take care of the world, with its disease and death and dementia and torture and the Holocaust and …, we would be sent to prison and the kids would be made wards of the court.

This is an issue for faith, in that Christian faith is theistic, and understands God to be really sovereign – omnipotent – and really good (“God is love”), both of which together don’t seem to comport with the presence of evil in the created world. Why would a really good God who has the power to intervene and prevent or ameliorate evil not use that power to do just that? One answer is that God is less powerful than we think; God is really good, but powerless to stop this or that evil from taking place. A different answer is that God is less good than we think; God is really powerful, but either doesn’t wish to or doesn’t care to put an end to the suffering that takes place in the world. Both of those are logical conclusions, but not faith-ful ones. So the question is whether there is at least one faith-ful and also logically consistent or at least defensible conclusion about the evil in the world.

Guthrie leaves in place for the purposes of discussion the classical division of “natural evil” (“the dark side of Creation”) and “moral evil” (“the powers of darkness”), and then considers the response of Christian faith – faith in “the light that shines in the darkness” – in the face of that evil (167). The discussion takes into account Christians’ acknowledgement of the reality of evil – namely, the Christian doctrinal response to evil isn’t “positive thinking,” a kind of denial of the evilness of evil, or the attitude that the small amount of evil in the world is outweighed by the goodness of creation (“if you want to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs”). Evil is real, and sometimes it wins, at least temporarily, and the cross of Christ is a powerful reminder of that.

[My personal viewpoint here is really orthodox, and I have found that it puts me out of step with almost all of my friends. Most people I know want to say things like “well, we need negative experiences to appreciate positive ones” or “I don’t like to say that such and such is evil, just because I don’t approve of it” or whatever. I, obstinately, think it is important to be able to say that the Holocaust was evil, and that human trafficking and torture are evils in our world, and that so-and-so is acting as a servant of evil, to the extent we can recognize that. That would be a lot easier if we ourselves weren’t constantly in danger of finding ourselves acting in the service of evil.]

“Natural evil” includes all the sources of suffering that we might say “just happen” in the world: natural disasters, disease, deformity and its consequences, pain, freak accidents, etc. etc. Evil that is not some purposeful human act or its consequence would be another way to think about it. Evil that is not the direct result of “sin,” would be another way to think about it [even if we do think of it as the result of the initial corruption of creation in the fall, but that’s a different story]. And for this type of evil, there are a few different stories about how it comes to be entwined with God’s providential care of and for creation.

1, there is human finitude; some things we think of as evil are merely consequences of our not being infinite creatures. So, death, ultimately [though we are looking forward to this being overcome]; but also other kinds of losses; and vulnerabilities of various kinds to flaws, deficiencies, pains, limitations; what really makes all of this stuff evil are our efforts to avoid, deny, forego experiencing it, trying to shift more of it to others and away from ourselves, etc. (169)

2, there is the regular operation of natural and physical laws, which on the whole is positive – but which sometimes results in tragedies: people fall off of ladders and suffer brain damage, hurricane force winds rip the roofs off houses, carbon dioxide builds up in the atmosphere and the earth starts to warm up and corals around the globe start to bleach – it’s chemistry and physics. But without chemistry and physics, and the other laws of nature, we would be living in a weird, random, unpredictable and really disorienting world. So as negative as some chemical and physical consequences can be, their law-like predictability remains a positive thing, and their negative consequences are not always exactly forced on people – is someone MAKING us be in the position of falling off the ladder, or building houses in hurricane zones, or dumping big volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? Guthrie points out that earlier Christians used to assign God’s direct action to some of these things. [Today we don’t really think God gives people cancer or sends hurricanes to punish cities. Cancer and hurricanes are in the world, so sometimes they hit us.] Furthermore, the scriptural view is less that God is the hidden cause of everything, than that God is actively at work calling people, leading them into freedom, etc. – not so much stage-managing every episode of life. [Guthrie is not Calvin on this one; Calvin would say that if something happens, we know it was upon the secret counsel of God; Guthrie would say, not so fast. This is something I appreciate about Guthrie: that little bit of space between “this happened” and “this must be God’s will.”] (170-71)

3, there is human willfulness or negligence that ignores the consequences of certain actions until it is too late and doesn’t do whatever it can to ameliorate suffering, so building homes in flood plains so that people can lose their homes and maybe even their lives, and not sharing what we have when people are suffering from being flooded out, e.g. All of which can make neutral or kind of bad natural phenomena have really evil effects (172).

4, there is a lot we don’t understand and can’t explain, and the biggest unanswered questions usually take the form of “why this specific thing, at this specific time, to these specific people??” And those questions in particular we really cannot answer well. There is also the question of whether we have any persuasive grounds for the faith we have in providence, any evidence that we are not just making up a good story to tell ourselves about God’s goodness, which he takes up in the section on faith in the face of evil. (173)

“Moral evil” is everything that incorporates rebellion against God, “indifference and enmity” towards other people, and “self-destructive contradiction of what we ourselves were created to be” (174). Sin, but beyond sin, the inescapable or coercive character of the evil that we do, that we sometimes recognize as its tragic dimension, sometimes its unconscious character (we are so sure we are doing the right thing, and then it turns out we did something awful), the sense that we human beings are slaves of evil, even though we don’t want to be and try hard not to be.

Suggested explanations of the source of this form of evil and its universality that are rejected by Christian doctrine include

(1) a second divine power, but an evil one – dueling Gods is just not a Christian idea;

(2) God Godself – sure, God “makes weal and creates woe,” but not moral evil, and in the end “Evil is by definition what God does not will and does not do.” (176);

(3) the body – the Greeks would have gone along with this, and would have said if we could just transcend the body and live in our higher faculties, like reason, everything would be fine, which is why I periodically say the Greeks are the villains of western civilization and Plato is their ringleader, and why the Holocaust (hardly not the exercise of bureaucratic reason) really upset Western philosophers so much. Here’s Guthrie: “Despite the fact that this theory of the origin of evil crept very early into the Christian church and has probably influenced all of us, it is unbiblical and unchristian” (176); we say we believe in the resurrection of the body because we believe the body is a good thing;

(4) society – social conditioning would be such a great explanation, if only we could really identify social conditions that weren’t compatible with evil [I personally, since my mom grew up in N. Little Rock, think of all those nice well-bred Christian kids from intact middle-class families who got good grades and didn’t do drugs and some of whom wanted to be missionaries to Africa when they grew up who showed up to spit on black kids who wanted to go to Central High];

(5) free will – which fails as an explanation simply because we do not seem experientially to be genuinely free to choose good or evil in many circumstances; we don’t so much choose evil as just do it automatically; and while we are free to choose certain ethical courses of action, if we are honest we will admit we are not simply “free to choose” being the kind of people who “love, trust, and obey God with thanksgiving in all that we do” (178) but rather, have to become those kind of people, if we do, through a process of overcoming all kinds of internal (as well as external) obstacles to the cultivation of that character; in the end, the problem we face is our innate unfreedom for goodness [at least, that’s a classical Christian story].

The Christian explanation is, according to Guthrie: “the Tempter,” Satan, whom we might want to think of as a personal figure – with certain conditions, like that we don’t imagine Satan’s power to be equal to God’s, and we don’t get so caught up in thinking about Satan that he becomes the focus of our spiritual lives, and that we don’t imagine he is active only in people and places and ideas that we don’t share, but is “also at work especially where pious people try to use God to maintain their own personal or social security, prosperity and power instead of serving God” (180) and where good behavior and respectability become an excuse to ignore the needs of others, reject them, exclude them, etc. (180) – or again, whom we could think of as an impersonal force, the power of chaos or violence or malevolence …

In the end, there’s no actual explanation for evil. “Evil is the lie that leads us to the futile self-destructive attempt to live without and against God, when the truth is that we can be truly human only as we trust and obey God” (182). So, the idea that there is some good greater than God, some way of life better than the way of life guided by God, is right at the root of evil in this view.

Christian faith in the face of the manifest evil in the actual world is grounded in the memory of God’s liberating activity, and acts of providential care, in the history of Israel – with the recognition that there are lots of times when God’s presence and protection are not experienced in that history – and similarly in the memory of God’s presence and victorious activity in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and then later in the experience of the early church. The pattern is that the memory of God’s past involvement on behalf of people, in the face of very real suffering and defeat, grounds hope for God’s future victory over the powers of darkness. The pattern is very clear in the Psalms (“why have you forsaken me? … but it was you who kept me safe … I shall live for him,”) and in the structure of the movement from Good Friday through Holy Saturday to Easter and beyond. [“Great is the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”] Christian faith affirms: When things are bad … it’s not the end.

Guthrie extracts seven specific doctrinal implications of this memory – hope structure of Christian faith in God’s providence: 1, it’s not a doctrine that faith insulates people from suffering; 2, it is a doctrine that the self-giving God is present and active with us in suffering – we aren’t alone in it; 3, God’s presence especially takes the form of human ministry, and that might mean we receive it from other people, and also that we ourselves are called to extend that comfort and presence to others, and furthermore that we might experience suffering as a result of participating in the work of compassionate service and prophetic activism, and furthermore that suffering may be one of the signs of God’s presence with us in suffering; 4, God is powerful enough that eventually even evil will be forced to serve the good, and God can make good come out of evil (not that we should do evil so that good may come of it); 5, even when present experience doesn’t offer any hope (which for some people is most of the time, and for just about everyone at least occasionally), we can have hope grounded in the history of God’s activity in the past; 6, we can find signs here and now of God’s goodness, and even though those may be small or transient or incomplete they are real – someone we thought was going to die gets better, something we thought we would never see in our lifetime happens, Little Sister gets past her heroin addiction, … that stuff counts; 7, the little victories nourish the courage and confidence to keep working on the side of good from our end, because they remind us that the ultimate victory of God’s love and justice is surely coming.

[Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon for Advent, compared us to miners trapped in a mine, in the dark, wondering whether anyone knows we’re still here? And then, we hear the sound of hammers on the other side of the rock – rescue is on the way. That’s Advent, he says. Similarly, the doctrine of providence is in essence the conviction that God is winning, even though we don’t see it clearly enough in the world to make it “public knowledge,” … yet.]

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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