Wednesday, March 28, 2007

the temptation of theodicy

I received the following as an email forward a few days ago. I thought about "replying all" with my response but decided against it since I don't have any idea who most of the other people on the address list are. I reckon theological ranting is really only barely tolerable when you know someone well, and from a virtual stranger, completely uncivilized. But that's what blogs are for!

Here it is:

This is one of the best explanations of why God allows pain and suffering
that I have seen. It's an explanation other people will understand.

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed. As the
barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation. They talked about
so many things and various subjects. When they eventually touched on the
subject of God, the barber said: "I don't believe that God exists."

"Why do you say that?" asked the customer.

"Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn't
exist. Tell me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would
there be abandoned children? If God existed, there would be neither suffering
nor pain. I can't imagine loving a God who would allow all of these things."

The customer thought for a moment, but didn't respond because he didn't want
to start an argument. The barber finished his job and the customer left the
shop. Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long,
stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard. He looked dirty and un-kept.

The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the
barber: "You know what? Barbers do not exist."

"How can you say that?" asked the surprised barber."I am here, and I am a
barber. And I just worked on you!"

"No!" the customer exclaimed. "Barbers don't exist because if they did, there
would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man

"Ah, but barbers DO exist! What happens is, people do not come to me."

"Exactly!" affirmed the customer. "That's the point! God, too, DOES exist!
What happens, is, people don't go to Him and do not look for Him. That's why
there's so much pain and suffering in the world."


Now, don't you feel blessed? Come on, don't you? I know you do. If you don't, well, it's your own damn fault and don't blame the barber. But, on second thought, why expend all my ranting energy myself? Really, there's too much else to do, people. Kitchens to clean. Laundry to fold. Sick babies to make well, or, since I can't really do that, sick baby's unhappy wailings to endure. Books to read, lessons to prep, dissertations to write.

So I invite you, loyal readers with untapped ranting potential and capabilities, read on, and unleash your Inner Angry Diatribe! Fill my comments with bitter invective! Theological vituperation! Righteous outrage and scorn! Go ye forth!


Emily and Elliott said...

Believe it or not, sister, I had this exact conversation (sans barber) with a dear friend of mine recently while on a road trip. He has recently become a Christian and I really didn't want to squelch his enthusiasm that God holds all of our problems in the palm of his hand (and that prayer works to direct job offers and dictate even mundane decisions), basically because he's new and I remember what it was like to be twelve years old and earnestly, on my knees in prayerful anguish, beseeching God to make Matt fall in love with me. I was so sincere! Truly, if anyone could have prayed so hard that they sweat literal drops of blood, it would have been me in the heat of puberty. Not to make it sound gross or anything...

But you know what?

He wouldn't stop talking about God telling him this or that or making such and such happen-- so I ended up spurting out all my universe-of-chaotic-evil-beliefs onto him in one big mouthful. He listened to me, and then said, "But haven't you learned from your mistakes? Haven't some of the bad things that have happened to you made you who you are now?" I said, "Sure they have. But that doesn't mean God is the one stabbing us with pitchforks just so our skin will toughen up."

We went round and round, neither of us convincing the other one of anything. Basically, I have to fall back on three basic truths, one from the Bible, one from Pop, and one of my own. The Bible says that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. Maybe I make that verse mean more than it does- who knows. Pop used to always tell us that you can't do something good by doing something bad, his version of the ends do NOT justify the means. And mine: God is fair. Because if he isn't fair, I don't want anything to do with him. End of rant. Was I off subject?

Carolyn said...

Wow. I'm impressed you resisted the temptation to reply all. I don't know if I could have been so strong. :-)

Anonymous said...

Is it bad that I tell people that my basic view of theodicy is that s*** happens? This is usually where I go with most folks, and while crass to some, it is as close as I can come to something intelligible. I don't believe in most justifications of suffering, but for some reason I have no problem thinking that God can do very little about current suffering while still praying for God to end it for people and myself. I am walking contradiction, which is about the same as I can say about the goodness of creation at times.

hermit greg said...

Krister, meet Dostoevsky.

JTB said...

hey, I wrote a whole thesis on shit happens, dressed up in chaos theory.

and I think too that prayer is essentially eschatological: all a variation on "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven." Even the petty petitions, which are pleading for a shallow version of a right universe in which things go well. So I don't think it's a bad contradiction--but I'm partial to it myself, obviously.

JTB said...

PS--obviously, Krister, you should feel free to write out "shit" on this blog if you like.

JTB said...

Em, wasn't Matt in love with you?

I think you're right on--but I'm not surprised you couldn't convince your friend. I don't understand this myself but a surprising number of people find it comforting to believe in a God who rigs everything for their personal benefit. I would think that such a God, so obviously capricious, would need to be watched carefully for signs of incipient betrayal...

Anonymous said...

hermit greg-

I'm embarrassed to say this, but I've actually never read anything by Dostoevsky. What would you recommend reading first?

JTB-Thanks; I like the idea of prayer as eschatological act. Oh, and before I forget...wait for it....shit happens! There, that felt good.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read much, either, just Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, both of which I'd give out copies if I were rich. (I read one of his novels about once a year, though I didn't last year because of Henry James.) I suggest your first ought to be Crime and Punishment, or if you've seen The Machinist (a VERY well executed Dostoyevskian plot) then (I think) The Idiot might be good too. And don't allow yourself to have died before having read Bros. K. Wherever you begin, I think you can't really go wrong...

hermit greg said...

Ahem. That first parenthesis should read, "About every year I read another novel of his novels."

Anonymous said...

Ahem. "...another of his novels."

JTB said...

hermit greg is a fallible human! thanks be to God!

JTB said...

At Brent's suggestion, here is the reply I actually wrote but chose not to send.

"here is what I see as the problem with this explanation: it is an exercise in blaming the victim. It's the man's fault that he is dirty and unkempt, and his fault that he doesn't go see the barber. Maybe this is a true analogy in some few cases, but it falls apart quickly in others. Hurricane Katrina or earthquakes in Indonesia are not analogous to failing to get your hair cut and therefore suffering the consequences of unkemptness. Congenital birth defects are not the baby's fault, or the mother's fault, or anyone's fault. A lot of suffering is unavoidable and no one's fault, not even (or maybe I should say especially not) the victim's own.

I have read a number of theologians on the problem of evil, and my conclusion is, anyone who feels satisfied with having explained it is guilty of some very bad theology. Sometimes the most responsible thing to do is just ask the question. Over and over."

Anonymous said...

As a full time "gospel preacher" or "evangelist" or "man of the word" or whatever I'm called I subscribe to a few sermon illustration sites.

A butt-load of those illustrations make me die a little inside and make the baby Jesus cry with its flawed and deceptive theology.

The fact that some of those illustrations become email forwards so we can pay the tripe forward is telling of the intellectual shallowness of much of the evangelical Christian world.

hermit greg said...