Review: What Shall We Say?

June 15th, 2012

Every preacher knows that any time he or she answers the phone, the voice on the other end may be calling with bad news: a death, a life-threatening illness, a devastating accident, a traumatic injury inflicted by a stranger or a loved one, a grievous loss of one sort or another that feels like a kick in the gut. When the grief is deep and raw, the best immediate gift of the preacher may be "a ministry of presence."

But a ministry of presence is not enough, contends noted preacher and homiletician Tom Long in his book What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Eerdmans, 2011). Sooner or later those who have suffered a grievous loss get around to asking questions of meaning. They need and want the preacher’s help in making sense of what has happened. Where is God in all of this? Does God really love us and care about us? Does Christian faith provide any answers, any reassurance, any grounds for confidence in the face of evil and suffering?

Preachers do not have the luxury of avoiding these questions that arise from the pews, insists Long. It is not only personal crises that occasion profound questioning. Questions are prompted by a larger picture, too. Thoughtful Christians cannot help but observe that evil and suffering permeate the world on every scale imaginable—and cannot help but wonder whether in the face of that reality their faith in a loving God is still plausible. Long offers this book as "a work of homiletical pastoral care" (xiii) to help preachers help laypersons who need and want guidance about how faith can be intellectually as well as emotionally reconciled with evil and suffering.  

Before developing his own constructive position, Long surveys some representative thinkers and schools of thought that deal with the theodicy problem, finding insights and problems in each. Long agrees with the so-called free-will defense—first given persuasive expression by Augustine and now echoed by a host of contemporaries—that human freedom is real and that human choices make a real difference and that evil is neither created by God nor God’s cosmic rival. But the free-will defense has weaknesses, too. If the world was created as a perfect paradise, whence the impulse to rebel? And while some evil can clearly be traced to human choice, does it really make sense to ascribe all evil to human rebellion?

Long finds some merit in the theodicy articulated in our time by theologian and philosopher of religion John Hick and informed by the second-century theologian Irenaeus. In this account, the world is perfectly fashioned by God, not as a problem-free paradise, but as a "vale of soul making." Human beings are not created as perfect but with the potential to grow toward full humanity and toward a closer relationship with God. Long appreciates the Irenaean theodicy for its resonance with our experience of the Christian journey and the Christian hope. But he observes two primary weaknesses. First, some manifestations of evil and suffering are so massive and catastrophic that it is impossible to regard them as necessary for soul making. Second, this view makes God the ultimate author of evil.

Long agrees with Rabbi Harold Kushner's objection to any version of theodicy that begins with the assumption that God is the cause of human suffering. But Long contends that by locating the origin of evil in fate as the power of random chaos, a power that God cannot tame, Kushner succumbs to a cosmic dualism.

While Long takes sharp exception to much about the philosophical theology of thinkers such as John Cobb and David Ray Griffin, Long does applaud them for (a) emphatically rejecting the eighteenth-century view of God as a supernatural being completely outside of nature who could from time to time intervene in the natural system and (b) affirming instead that God, while not completely contained in creation, is deeply and continuously involved in nature—a view Long recognizes as more congruent with the biblical witness. Further, although Long is convinced that process theologians have gone too far in limiting divine power, Long agrees with them that some form of radical reinterpretation of divine omnipotence is required.

Long is convinced that "the most important theological questions are often ‘solved by walking’—that is to say, they are questions that yield the deepest insights when explored with the eyes of faith" (p. 116). Christians appropriately use logic, honest questions, and clear thinking when exploring the deep issue such as theodicy. But Christians also "probe the mysteries through praying, singing hymns, participating in worship, and engaging in bold service" (p. 118). Given his appreciation for Christian practices, it is wholly appropriate that Long gives voice to his own best considered opinion about God and the problem of evil by means of a very careful Bible study.

Long examines the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) as "a pastoral conversation" with an implied dialogue about three questions. The first is "God, did you cause this?" The servants’ first response is to confront God. One insight of the parable, then, is that when faced with evil and suffering, protesting to God is not a lack of faith but an expression of faith. Protesting to God is more than venting our rage; it is prayer of a sort, an appeal to God's honor.

The landowner’s reply, "an enemy has done this," carries a second insight. God neither caused nor willed this evil. It would be wrong to say that evil is only good in disguise or that God causes evil in order to achieve higher purposes. Rather, evil has been caused by an enemy that Jesus identifies as “the devil.” Long takes this as symbolic language that evil "has a cosmic, trans-human reality" (p. 135). It is a force not reducible to human error, understandable conflict, or natural forces that is beyond human understanding and that resists human control. In the face of inexplicable evil in the world that did not come from God, Long argues that Christian faith affirms a "provisional cosmic dualism" (p. 137).

The second implied question in the parable is "Can we fix it?" Our inclination, like that of the landowner’s servants, is simply to yank out all of the evil. And we want God to feel likewise. So why doesn't God forcefully root out evil? Because "a God who used power this way would not be true to God's own character" as revealed in Jesus Christ (p. 141). "God is indeed all-powerful, but God's power is not like raw human power but is instead a love that takes the form of weakness, power expressed most dramatically on the cross" (p. 142).

The third implied question that Long discerns in the parable is "Will it always be this way?" The short answer is no! The parable ends with an eschatological vision that God's love and power will ultimately destroy all evil. Long regards this vision of God's ultimate victory—to be realized sometime in the future—as essential but not sufficient. Long believes that Christians need the assurance, too, that God is actively combating evil here and now. And that, says Long, is the message of the parables of the mustard seed (Matthew 13:31-32) and the yeast (Matthew 13:33). God's power doesn't look at like conventional notions of power; but it is quietly, often in hidden ways, at work in the world.

The preacher who has followed Long's argument all the way through the book might still legitimately ask: Why does Long think that these promises of God's active presence in history and of God's final victory are any more satisfying than other Christian theodicies that make similar claims? Aren't we still left wondering whether God's presence with us now in the midst of evil and God's promised presence later when the kingdom comes in its fullness are enough to counterbalance the genuine evil that taints every moment of history? Although it appears only on the final two pages of the final chapter, crucial to Long's own position is his conviction of God's eternal nature. In a sense, God stands outside of time, making it possible for God to be present in all of time. "In Christ, the God of eternity, the God who transcends past, present, and future, enters all time and redeems it. . . . We cannot emphasize this claim enough. . . . The God revealed in Jesus Christ . . . enters from eternity into time — from the future into the present and the past" (pp. 150-51). Christians can find comfort and strength even in the face of evil and suffering, Long is convinced, because God's healing power will not only be active in the future but is always at work in the past and present, too.  

The wisdom offered to preachers in What Shall We Say? is vintage Tom Long: informed by wide reading, shaped by careful thinking, guided by a pastor's heart, and meted out with wit and eloquence.

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