Friday, July 29, 2011

Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering by David B. Burrell

Image taken from Tower Books
I love this book. Let me just get that out of the way since this is going to be a quite lengthy review and exposition of David B. Burrell's Deconstructing Theodicy: Why Job Has Nothing to Say to the Puzzle of Suffering. I love it first and foremost because it is a beautiful exposition of one of my favorite books of the Bible and an adept exploration of an age old theological question.

In the text, Burrell does precisely the kind of theology that I strive to do - devoted to scripture while using the resources of philosophy, and even some outside literary and religious sources,1 to illuminate the text.2 Ultimately, Burrell perhaps strays further from the base text than I would want (always a danger with this approach) but in clinging to orthodoxy he avoids any egregious errors.

The central thrust of the book, as revealed by the title, is to show how the book of Job deconstructs the impulse to provide theodicies. A theeodicy, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the act of trying to "justify the ways of God to us" and explain "how there could be evil in God's world" (Burrell 13, 108).

Burrell begins with a detailed textual analysis of the structure of Job. The primary goal here is to show the contrast between Job's friends, who construct theodicies about God, with Job who directly addressed Him. From here, Burrell moves to an examination of the parallel figure of Ayyub in the Qur'an. This is ultimately a weak point in the text, since it proves to be almost entirely a tangent.3 His next step is to roughly outline Medieval commentaries on the text by Sadiah, Maimonides, Aquinas and Gersonides. Finally, Burrell uses arguments by Terrence Tilley and Marilyn McCord Adams to draw out the central thesis of the text.

Using the Medieval commentaries, Burrell builds up a picture of God I've discussed on this blog before. God is transcendent, yet immanent. God is in many ways a different order of being from His creatures, one who experiences eternity directly and can only be discussed analogically. Yet, precisely God's role as willing creator and conserver means He is also always present to His creatures. Because of this, we can always address Him, and the human mode of address is linguistic.

The arguments of Tilley and Adams then serve to do the titular deconstruction of the work.4 Tilley and Adams point out the emptiness, and indeed frequent cruelty of theodicies. Adams, for example, points out that the very act of theodicy can oftentimes miss the vibrantly real nature of people's suffering. The actual horrendous torment that human beings undergo becomes reduced to an abstract lesson. As Hume famously pointed out in response to the Augustinian explanation that evil is not an actual thing, but mere privation of the Good - that's a nice turn of phrase, but it does little to alleviate the reality of the pain experienced by sufferers, which is really the heart of the problem.5

Burrel then uses Adams's argument for his reconstruction. The very metaphysical immanence brought out by the Medievals, making God present to His creatures, provides the solution - the direct address and solidarity with the creator. This Burrell thinks, is what the structure of the dialectic in Job shows. As he puts it, 'even if Eliphaz and his companions are castigated for 'not having spoken of [God] what is right as [his] servant Job has'‎ (42:7), God cannot be commending Job for 'getting it right,' as we might say. For his cumulative outbursts are a far cry from attempts to explain his plight, never pretending to be more than bewildered complaints - despite the ways his "friends" often construed them.What the voice from the whirlwind commends is rather the inherent rightness of Job's mode of discourse: speaking (however he may speak) to rather than about his creator" (109).

The only major flaw with this argument is that at times in comes dangerously close to the infamous theodicy that waves off the problem by saying that "God moves in mysterious ways." As I once heard an atheist put it, this amounts to saying God is a "cosmic asshole". This is definitely not what Burrell is arguing however. Yes, God's movement is mysterious, and attempts to reduce it to simplistic theodicy will fall short, but we are not left with the distant jerk-God of mysterious movement. Instead, God is shown to be in sharp solidarity with us, and the correct theodicy is understanding that we can (and ought to) call on God and He will answer us.

The potency of this deconstructed theodicy is that it renders action, turning us away from the merely selfish explanation (read: excuse) of Job's friends. For the case of Job's friends is the case of many who engage in theodicy, it's motive ultimately selfish. Job's friends do not seek to aid him, they seek to justify the system as it is - the system which has (and continues to) benefited them. Rarely do theodicies do much for those in the midst of suffering, and often they do not even care to hear them. Yet when Job turns to God, crying out to his creator and even demanding an audience with him, excuse is turned to action. Evil is not explained away, it is confronted head on. Finally, it is radically personal, as Burrell shows in a denouement to his argument that traces out explanatory parallels between the central thesis of Job and Augustine's Confessions.6 

I will say that, while I do love this book, it is not without its flaws, the biggest of which is structure. If you follow through to the end, the whole picture of the book will become clear, the approach will seem haphazard until you get there. Part of this is that the central thesis of the book is only vaguely stated at the beginning and you have to wait to the end to get a clear picture of where Burrell is going. The other major flaw, of course, is the superfluous Ayyub chapter. Other than these flaws, the book is well worth a read, especially for students of theology and philosophy.

I would, finally, like to conclude where Burrell himself concludes, in a quotation from a sermon by Leo the Great for the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus (because I think it's beautiful):
The writings of the two testaments support each other. The radiance of the transfiguration reveals clearly and unmistakably the one who had been promised by signs foretelling him under the veils of mystery. As Saint John says: "the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." In him the promise made through the shadows of prophecy stands revealed, along with the full meaning of the precepts of the law. He is the one who teaches the truth of prophecy through his presence, and makes obedience to the commandments possible through grace. In the preaching of the holy gospel all should receive a strengthening of their faith. No one should be ashamed of the cross of Christ, through which the world has been redeemed. No one should fear to suffer for the sake of justice; no one should lose confidence in the reward that has been promised. The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death. Christ has taken upon himself the whole weakness of our lowly human nature. If then we are steadfast in our faith in him and in our love for him, we win the victory that he has won, we receive what he has promised. When it comes to obeying the commandments or enduring adversity, the words uttered by the Father should always echo in our ears: "This is my Son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased; listen to him." (Sermon 51, 3-4, 8, Patrologia Latina 54, 310-11, 313). 

1.  There is a bit at the conclusion of the text where I think Burrell gets a little too close to collapsing the transcendent but eminent God of Aquinas into Hindu pantheism, though he does ultimately relieve this by stressing the uniqueness of God.
2. This is not to say that this is the only, or even the best, avenue with which to approach scripture, but simply the one to which I feel called, and sadly one that is hard to find today. One could certainly get to Burrell's ultimate conclusion by way of reading Job purely through the rest of scripture. The very fact of the incarnation creates the solidarity between God and creation that Burrell reaches through Medieval metaphysics and paints much the same picture of the text. The attempts to explain suffering in the way of Job's friends is fruitless, it is in calling on God, and in His answering in solidarity, that a kind of answer is found.
3. Using another literary or religious text to gain a fresh perspective on a scriptural text often mired in centuries of traditional interpretation seems laudable (the long tradition of trying to turn Job into a theodicy, for example). However, that isn't what Burrell ultimately does. Rather, he presents a condensed version of an essay on the quranic character he found illuminating. While I think its great that Burrell enjoyed the essay, and that he values respecting the central religious text of another faith, the chapter seems to me to add nothing to his argument and so does not belong here.
4. Deconstruction, as my friend Fernando would be eager to point out at this juncture, is not mere destruction. Deconstruction, rather, takes something apart in order to reveal something new.
5. I actually happen to agree with Augustine that evil is not a thing but a privation - I just think its rubbish as a theodicy.
6. This bit also motivates me to want to try and write a confession of my own some day, though one that would have quite a different view of sin, and especially bodies, from Augustine.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Image Taken from io9
Disclaimer: I received Robopocalypse as an advanced review copy. 

I didn't really enjoy Robopocalypse, which is strange. The truly terrible title aside, the book is honestly a well-crafted tale of a robot uprising. I suppose that, at the moment, I simply don't care about robot uprisings very much - I just find my own life more interesting. So, it took me awhile to read the book.

An initial hurdle for me in reading this book is that it is written in first-person present-tense, a narrative format I have great difficulty getting into. I'm not entirely sure why the author chose this format, as the story is actually being told after the events, but he does it well and eventually I was able to get into the flow of it. 

The actual story itself is driven mostly by a couple of big ideas, twists on the typical robot uprising story. I won't spoil them for you, though there's one at the beginning I wish the author had spent more time on. The book is also largely built upon a theme - humans triumph through adversity. It's not a new idea, but it receives a pretty good treatment at the hands of Daniel Wilson. Unfortunately, the general picture he paints is a very utilitarian one. 

All in all, I'd recommend this book only to people interested in the subject matter. It is well written, and there's plenty of action and drama, but if you're not concerned with how humanity might handle near-genocide at the hands of sentient machines, well... I'd give it a pass. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Road to Emmaus

Image taken from
The Incarnation, Resurrection and the Eucharist are three of my great theological passions. All of them are about Christ's presence, the affirmation of Creation through the joining of the glory of God to the world. They are beautiful. This morning, I was reading the Lectionary readings, and the gospel was Luke 24:12-35. The story here is that of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, a story which brings all three of these elements together.

Two disciples, unnamed, are going down the road to Emmaus, when Jesus joins them on their way. They do not recognize him, perhaps because His Resurrection body has changed Him so, perhaps because He chose to hide Himself from them. Who knows?

They tell Him about the death of Jesus, astonished that He has apparently not heard of it, and go on to tell Him that some of the women reported that He was missing from His tomb, and that angels had reported Him raised from the dead. Jesus, His identity still hidden, goes through the Scriptures and reveals to them all the prophecies revealing that the Messiah would have to die, but would be raised again. They then invite Him, still a stranger, into their home.

It is then, when the meal is being shared, and Christ breaks the bread, that He is revealed to them.

What I find fascinating here is that the presence of Christ in their lives is not revealed to them when He walks and talks with them, it is not revealed to them when He shows himself to them in scripture, but it is instead revealed when He breaks the bread. Christ's bodily presence is revealed to them by the Eucharist.

Now, I do not think that the Eucharist alone could have revealed Him. Christ first had to be Incarnate, and, of course, having died had to be Resurrected. What is more, to know His nature they had to be shown His presence in scripture. The Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Table had to come together to reveal the Lord, and both of these ministries had to be joined together by the incarnate God. It is almost as if, the Eucharist is here Christ-Fully-Man and the Word is Christ-Fully-God, and when both are revealed to the disciples, then they know Him as He is.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith by Peter Hitchens

From Tower Books
Peter Hitchens, the brother of famed atheist polemicist Christopher Hitchens, tells the story of his personal journey to faith in the pages of The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith. This story is a fascinating and brilliantly written one, and well worth reading.

That is not to say it is a perfect book. Far from it. It strikes me that Peter is definitely of the same seed as his brother, and at times The Rage Against God can certainly descend into polemic mirroring his brothers, though always filled with more charity. I do not think this book is the sort that would persuade anyone to faith, nor, in fact, does Peter. This is his story, and when it focuses on that it is at its strongest. As such, the beginning section where Peter tells his own story, and the final section where he reflects closely on the case of Soviet Russia (a world he lived in for quite some time as a reporter) are the best parts of the book. In the middle, Peter goes through a rapid-fire examination of some of the more famous arguments of the "New Atheists," and while it is interesting I doubt it could change anyone's mind.

The personality that comes across in the book also varies. At times, Peter seems the compassionate prophet, concerned deeply with the decay he has seen progress in his society during his lifetime, targeting genuine problems and weeping for his nation. At other times, Peter can come across as an old cranky man complaining about this new-fangled modern art.

But in the end, reading this book, I find myself quite likely Peter, and his command of prose is to be envied. I also share with Peter his largest concern, the fear over the totalitarian nature of the New Atheist rhetoric. On my good days, I like to think the best of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their ilk. I don't believe they have any desire to harm the religious, though they certainly seem to fear us. Yet, their language carries with it the seeds of just such injustice. The world is broken, they rightly say, and it could be made better if only religion were gone. Of course, religion is not something that stands on its own, religion is only there because of the religious, and so they are the ones in the way of utopia. That is, as Peter points out, always the language of bloody revolutions, "the world would be perfect if only these people were gone." Again, I do not think Dawkins or the elder Hitchens want this, nor do I think Peter believes they do, but it's only a matter of time until the language they use inspires someone to think in just such a way.

 So, pick up this book if your interested in the heart and journey of a man so close to one of the vanguards of the New Atheist movement. In many ways, Peter is man Christopher might have been had he taken a different road. Don't expect to be persuaded one way or another on the questions he addresses, but enjoy the exploration of the man's heart and his skill with words.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Myth of a Christian Nation by Greg Boyd

Image taken from Cover Browser
It's no secret that the "evangelical voter" is a big ticket in American elections. I have no idea how much money is spent trying to win them over, but I'd bet quite a bit that it's a large sum. A large part of the rhetoric employed in this campaign involves the notion that America is, or was, a Christian nation. Of course, lots of ink has been spilled arguing that this neither is nor ever was the case (the founding fathers were deists, America was founded to be a secular nation inspired by the writings of Locke and Montesquieu, etc.) In many ways, Greg Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation is yet another text of this sort. However, Boyd is not only arguing that America is not and has never been a Christian nation, he is arguing that it can never be a Christian nation.

The center of Boyd's argument is that Christianity is centered around living the example of Christ. Christ did not conquer through power or force, but instead overcame through the crazy, irrational act of submitting himself to death on a cross. Christians, Boyd argues, are to follow in his footsteps, changing others lives through the "power under" force of sacrificial love, instead of the "power over" force of the sword.

Boyd's argument here is strong. It is certainly true that all governments are held up by the sword, even those governments that use it sparingly necessarily have it. It also seems equally true that Christ commanded us not to resist evil, to love our enemies, etc.

It is important to note that Boyd doesn't think we, as members of a democratic nation, to refrain from participating (except in wars it seems), but that we should clearly understand the difference between the good work our government does, and the work of the kingdom. This is, perhaps, were things become less clear. I'm simply not sure how one is supposed to play both involve oneself in government, and yet treat it as something totally different than one's Kingdom calling. Ultimately, the Kingdom of God is supposed to be a redeeming power, making everything new, including, I would think, nations.

There are a few other places where I find his arguments to be problematic, if for no other reason than the tactics he takes. For example, he falls into the obnoxious tendency of seeing the pre-Constantinian church as some sort of idyllic model of what he thinks Christians should be - ignoring both its flaws and the possibility that the Church is a maturing entity.2

It is important not to conflate what Boyd is arguing for here with a simple notion of "separation of church and state." Yes, in the end, that seems to the practical import of it, but what drives it is quite a different matter. This is not about political or religious freedom, but about the nature of God's Kingdom.

In the end, I think much of what Boyd draws out here is true, and should be taken seriously. Governments are violent, nations are tribal. However, in the end, we think we should interact with them, we should never conflate them with the mission of God in this world. Doing so leads to the commitment of all kinds of atrocities. The job of the Church is not to preserve the moral fiber of an immoral world, but instead to love directly. And that, in the end, is I think the most important lesson of this book. It's far to easy to judge from a distance, to do "moral work" through the proxy of government. Of course, governments are moral agents, since laws are inevitably moral in nature, but our job as Christians isn't necessarily to police that agent. Instead, our job as Christians is to get into the trenches, to be there with the sick, the dying, the prisoners, the widows, the prostitutes and the tax collectors in face to face relationship. It is only when you know people face to face that you can even begin to know how to act.

So, I recommend picking up this book, if for no other reason that to shake up some of your perceptions of the world. It's certainly not timeless, and should be read with a critical eye, but it has some good lessons to teach.
1. While this is generally seen as a conservative problem, it can just as much be a problem for liberal Christians who seek to make the world more "Kingdom-like" through, say, wielding the power of government to crush corporations.
2. Which it quite clearly is, if you pay any attention to the development of things like the scriptural canon, or orthodoxy theology (Christology, Trinitarianism, etc).