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.