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. I used to be very definitive (guess I still am) about the need to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and not just simply stating a belief that Jesus exists. For many, they grew up in church. Church is all they have known. Many have heard the name of Jesus most all their lives. But, where is the divine work of Jesus entering the life and causing a radical change through the forgiveness offered? Have you opened the door of your heart and asked Jesus to come in? Our extended Wesleyan family in the in the holiness churches would look for a “crisis moment”. Something that brought one to their knees looking for the divine help. If the evils in this world is what does that for a person, so be it. maybe it’s a response to the social ills we see and hear. I see a lack of understanding in many of our Methodist people as to the need for a divine work of the Lord in our hearts. Church has been a social parameter that leads to a ritualistic lifestyle. All I can do is continue to present the need to accept Christ into the life and hope the Spirit somehow moves in their hearts.

  2. I enjoy reading your blog, and this post especially has set me to thinking. I am struggling with belief in God actually intervening in human life. I know scripture has plenty of examples of it happening in Old and New Testament. Only, I haven’t seen evidence of divine intervention in my own experience. Quite the opposite.

    I had a dear friend who died last year, after a long struggle with cancer. I prayed for her often and with tears. But her cancer was aggressive and took her quickly. It was awful, really. I don’t want to accuse God. I don’t want to command God. I know God isn’t a vending machine to suit my wishes. It’s just that now I can see why non-interventionist models of God (Marcus Borg’s, for example) are so popular. I am reluctant to ask God for anything. And all classical theism has me do now is resign myself to the mystery. Okay. Is there anything else? I don’t know.

    • Chris, I don’t know the answer. I am saddened to hear the story of your friend. A couple of years ago Billy Abraham spoke at a conference on divine healing. His topic was, “What happens when the healing we pray for doesn’t come?” We booked him for this speaking event well in advance, and in between the time that we booked him and the time that he spoke, his son, Timothy, died at the age of 41. It was a devastating loss for him. I wouldn’t have blamed him had he decided not to speak at the conference, but he went ahead with it. The talk was both powerful and gut-wrenching. He spoke in great detail and with great honesty about the events surrounding Timothy’s death. If I remember correctly, there was at least a week (possibly more) of hospitalization before Timothy passed away. Billy talked about the presence of God in the midst of the entire ordeal, despite the fact that Timothy was not healed. He said that he could perceive God’s presence, even in miraculous ways, even though the one prayer most often prayed for Timothy, that he recover from his sickness, did not come to pass.

      I’m not sharing this as some facile response to your comment. I just thought that you might be interested in Billy’s experience and interpretation of it. I don’t know why some people are healed and some are not. I just know that both happen.

  3. Thanks for your kind reply. I think of my friend now as a Christian martyr, who bore witness to her faith in Jesus to the end. I look forward to being reunited with my friend, and with all friends of God, in the unending life to come. Peace to you.

  4. A view from the pew as a lifelong Methodist.

    Several years back everything came to a screeching halt. It felt like I had lost “everything”–not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual and intellectual way. When all the bottoms finished falling out the understanding of who I thought I was, who I thought my family was and what I thought the church was was literally shaken to the core. It felt like the very ground of understanding I had been standing on no longer existed .Overall, I felt spiritually homeless. I was grounded enough in a sense of God that I started looking for where was God in all this. My sense of homelessness vanished and I found spiritual footing when I encountered the Heidelberg Catechism and a book about it, “Body & Soul” by M. Craig Barnes. The very first question and answer gave me something to hold onto:

    “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” (Luckily Barnes expanded death to include all those death like experiences we have in life. He also took the word comfort back to its root–note the word fort as part of it–and framed it as what gives you the strength to get up and get moving again)

    “That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such away that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven, in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”

    All of a sudden I had the very real sense that there was something bigger going on in my life. The church’s teaching is pathetic when it comes to who God is and that he is currently still at work in the world as well as in individual lives. The book was very conversational in nature and was a stunning lesson in what all I did not understand about who God is and who I am (basic orthodox Christianity); I began viewing it as one long question: Why had nobody ever had this conversation with me before? I discovered that Christianity, which had felt like rocket science in its ambiguity, was simply unfathomable. I realized I had been functioning with what amounted to random pieces of a puzzle. It was like I had been staring at Christianity in poor lighting and all of a sudden somebody started turning on a series of high intensity lights that enabled me to grasp things at a level I never thought possible. The Bible actually started making sense.

    The United Methodist Church has absolutely become too much of social justice and way too little of the transformative power of God in individual lives.

  5. “It’s all true.” A Hemingway character says this as he is dying (Islands in the Stream). That’s the way it looks staring up at the stars. I have no clue what it all means, but I trust God knows what I can’t see with these dark glasses.

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