What’s your starting point?

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

I want to be clear at this point: I recognize that the problem of evil is a weighty and serious theological matter. I have spent considerable time reflecting on it. I even developed and taught a course on the New Testament and suffering at United. (And I’m happy to note that this course will be taught in the coming semester by my new colleague, Anthony LeDonne.) The question that I want to get at, though, is not whether it is valid to take seriously the problem of evil. Of course it is. Rather, I want to ask how much normative force the problem of evil has as we formulate and evaluate theological claims.

I live in several different theological worlds, some of which are in tension with one another. One theological world that I live in is the world of charismatic Christianity. I love the Aldersgate Renewal Movement and Global Awakening. This summer I attended large conferences sponsored by both of these organizations. They were joyful, life-giving, and renewing. One observation I took away from these events was that, for these charismatic Christians, the starting point of theological reflection is not theodicy or the problem of evil, but the phenomenon of blessing. Rather than beginning with a question like, “How does human suffering limit the claims we can make about God’s action in the world?” they ask, “What do the blessings we have experienced teach us about the character and actions of God, and about what we should expect and pray for in the Christian life?” To be clear, these Christians are not generally Pollyanna-ish about suffering. Many of these folks are or have been missionaries, and they have seen the effects of rampant poverty, disease, and violence. Some have faced the real possibility of martyrdom. They understand that sin is real, and they know what it means to take up the cross. They believe, however, in a God who will interact with this world in extraordinary ways, and they emphasize belief in this kind of extraordinary divine action. Nothing is outside the pale of divine action, including the raising of the dead. Part of their agenda, then, is to generate the expectation of divine blessing among believers.

Many mainline Protestants will immediately object, “Why did God act in one instance, but not in another? If God behaves as you suggest, then God is unjust.” I think they would respond—and I would agree with them—that we are not the judge of God. God judges us, but not the other way around. There are simply things about God that we cannot know or understand. Suffering is heartbreaking, but this does not mean that God is an absentee landlord.

This expectation of divine action and presence generates something that I find missing in many mainline congregations: joy. Life together among these Christians is joyful because they begin with the idea that all things work for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). This is simply a presupposition of their theological reflection, and as any theologian worth his or her salt will tell you, our theological presuppositions come to bear in significant ways on the outcomes of our reflection.

As I said, I live in a variety of theological worlds, and one of those worlds is the world of charismatic Christianity. Another of those worlds is the world of theology and disability. These are both very important to me, but I don’t know exactly how they fit together. I don’t have it all worked out. My theology is not entirely or perfectly systematic. The more I experience of the Christian life, the more cognizant I am of how ill-equipped my own mind is to understand the mysteries of God. I do know this, though: the Christian life is one of both joy and sorrow, but for God the endgame is joy.

20 thoughts on “What’s your starting point?

  1. Amen. I live in these worlds as well as a UMC’er and they are radically different. But I want to make it clear that I am not one of those who thinks that there is all of these worlds is good and that each adds a special unique perspective to our blessed, little potpourri denomination. No – as you said – for liberalism, God has become a construct, a philosophical idea, a Non-Thing. I was in a Wesleyan Spiritual formation class with a young woman who identified as Progressive/liberal and she just about had a melt down when we got down to sharing about our experiences of God in our daily life. I thought she was either going to run out of the room or slap the professor. And this was a young woman who in the final part of the ordination process. It shocks me that this could happen but it does.

    I later found out that this young lady’s understanding of faith in Christ revolved around a response to some of the negative aspects of American evangelical culture. I sympathized with her since I spent some time with emergent/emerging Christian culture as I worked through these issues myself. But I knew through experience that you can’t build your faith off of such negative things. Been there, done that – not a good thing.

    God is God and His word really is the only starting point that leads to good things. Real charismatic theology (not the culture-shaped stuff) flows out of a rich NT, Trinitarian theology. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the hearts of human beings really is the centerpieces of the NT (thanks Gordon Fee!). And there’s no way you can get around it – this reception of the Spirit is a real life experience. It’s something that we feel and experience on a regular basis. That’s kind of a shock to those who think of God as a construct or philosophical abstract.

    • I really like your last paragraph. I you share some insights here that Christians can identify with whether or not they understand themselves as charismatic.

  2. Thank you David for this insightful post. I want to briefly comment on one item. You asked “how much normative force the problem of evil has as we formulate and evaluate theological claim,” and you cite how the problem of evil has often been a starting point for theological liberalism over the last two centuries. Personally, I choose to begin with God as credo, as opposed to a particular problem, when I begin to formulate theological claims, and specifically the orthodox understanding of the Triune God as expressed in the various symbols of faith, i.e. the Nicene Creed. On the other hand, much of what we formulate in terms of soteriological claims does directly engage the problem of evil. Christ came to “destroy the works of the devil,” “take away the sins of the world” and “save us from our sins”. Christus Victor is one way of looking at the atoning work of Christ.
    Evil is a serious problem that is often underestimated in our theologies and its depths glossed over in our practical ministry. To the latter I am alluding to the extinction of spiritual warfare and deliverance/exorcism ministries in Mainline Protestantism as a traditional and serious means to combat the problem of evil. However, I believe what you are addressing is a particular classical liberal defining of the problem of evil, not so much in terms of falling short of the glory of God, personal sin or the demonic, but exclusively in terms of social injustice.
    Evil as exclusively social injustice seems to define the trajectory of classical liberal and progressive theology, and thus when one begins theology with a social problem, then one begins theology with a social answer often in the guise of special interest theologies which seem to be in many cases different incarnations of neo-Marxist critical theory where the only variable in each incarnation is a different oppressed group that plugs into the equation. For example, evil is defined as patriarchalism, and thus feminism and feminist theology and hermeneutics become not only a response to this problem but also a totalization of theology itself to the exclusion of any other perspective, including a traditional orthodox view of God and salvation history.
    Ultimately, since the Gospel’s soteriological claims deal directly with the problem of evil, our formulation of a theology of salvation needs to as well. We do a disservice to gloss over the problem of evil with by under diagnosing. The real problem is how do we define evil in a way that is scriptural and comprehensive. Yet even then our soteriology flows out of our theology proper and is not foreign to it, less our concept of God and salvation stem from some incarnation of dialectical materialism or some other non-theological category.

    • Good points, Pete. I might, though, have more accurately diagnosed the mainline Protestant concern as the problem of suffering as it relates to theodicy. That, I think, is what is driving a lot of thinking in mainline theology.

  3. I’m not a charismatic (though I’ve been accused of it), but I’m sympathetic to the movement because of its focus on direct experience of God. This direct experience, whether in terms of prophecy, healing, words of wisdom, etc., is, as you note, a major missing element in too much contemporary Methodist Christianity. We’ve reduced our expected experience of God to affirmation and comfort.

    As to the centrality of theodicy, two thoughts have occurred to me. First, it seems that the centrality of theodicy increases as our material well-being increases. This seems to mirror the propensity to push for social amelioration in societies that are already improving. Once we learn better is possible, there is no end in sight.

    Second, much of our protest to the problem of suffering begins with a usually unstated, “If I were God…” We know that we are basically good, moral, intelligent people. We attribute these attributes to God, yet to the infinite degree. If WE are that good, moral, and intelligent, just think of all the awesome things we would do if we also had the infinite power we think we need to attribute to God.

    The closest thing I have to a solution in my own teaching on the matter is to start and finish with Jesus, rather than the abstractions of attribute projection.

    Thanks!

  4. All starting points have their own problems, especially when uncritically embraced. The kind of starting point you describe here, taken uncritically, is one of the things that has made Pentecostalism such rich ground for the prosperity gospel.

    • Pentecostals/charismatics become prey to such spiritual illnesses as the prosperity gospel when they lose touch with the Great Tradition, cherry pick scripture to their own liking, and fail to examine and challenge the assumptions of the surrounding culture. Hmm . . . that sounds like the same weakness as mainline protestants, evangelical Christians, etc. . . . Maybe we’re not all so different after all.

  5. We all should know God’s ways are not ours, and as you point out some things we simply will not understand. There’s no way also for us to know when God does act, and keeps us from an evil which subsequently does not occur.
    When I was a child I was angry at God, because I could not justify him. Imagine, me, judging all knowing God. Not for nothing is humility a Grace.

    I’m like Homer Simpson’s dad when it comes to to ‘joy’ at church….but truly I am joyful…. to the point of tears in church at times, but might appear rather dour. I love much, because I was forgiven much, and I remember that.
    Sometimes joy is feigned, even if good-intentioned,, and that is just awful, and always obvious.

    Finally I might say our Spirit-given personality and perspective has a great deal of influence on our theological suppositions, instead of the other way around.

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