Monday, September 10, 2012

Incarnational Theodicy

Don't you just love that moment when the perfect word slides right into a gap your brain has made for it? One minute you're sitting there with your face all scrunched up, telling everybody around you to shutup-shutup-shutup and the next -- BAM -- your eyes light up and the stress melts away, as the Word gets Spoken.

One of the nicest things I got from that Authenticity of Faith book I read recently is the word "theodicy." It wasn't a word to fill a gap in a specific sentence. Rather, it was a word to give shape to a central question of my experience as Christian... possibly even the central question.

Theodicy, wikipedia tells me, is "an attempt to solve the evidential problem of evil by reconciling God's traditional characteristics of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience (all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, respectively) with the occurrence of evil in the world."

If God was really loving and good and could do anything, the question goes, then why are people still setting kittens on fire for fun?

Any serious theologians who happen to be reading this are probably rolling their eyes. Baby food, they're thinking. Nonetheless, it's a question that's niggled away at the periphery of my consciousness for a long, long time, and it's nice to finally have a word to give it some shape and form.

The term theodicy was coined (like many philosophical and theological terms) by a German, a man named Gottfried Leibniz, in 1710; but people have been wrestling with the question it describes since Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430). Over the course of my life, I've encountered a number of these resolution-attempts, distilled down in pop-theology books by men such as C.S. Lewis, Philip Yancey, and cetera.

None has been particularly satisfying to me. 

Sure, yeah, they offer mildly-consoling logical formulations, but when all is said and done, the most compelling attempts are always those that are willing to stop, shrug, and admit, I just don't know -- that when the chips are down and something ugly and evil is happening right in front of you, there really isn't any sort of syllogism that can make it all right.

So... why try? Why attempt to resolve an unresolvable tension? Why not just walk away from the whole thing and agree -- with all thoroughgoing materialists out there -- that we live in a cold, soulless, godless Universe?

I can think of a few reasons:

First, there is the Bible itself, because on its pages are a lot of people honestly wrestling with theodicy in very real ways. And by honestly wrestling, I mean they truly grapple with it, mano-a-mano -- and usually without any sort of resolution. For example, there are a whole mess of Songs written by King David,* where he basically calls God out on it, pointing out how stupid it is that the bad guys usually seem to win.

Second, there is Love. I refuse to think of Love as some purely biological phenomenon. That doesn't work for me, and doesn't jive with my experience.

Third (and most importantly), there is Incarnation. God becomes flesh. This doesn't solve the question -- not by a long shot. What it does do, though, is provide a God who's willing to get down in the dirt and grapple through these things with me.

Jesus is the God who weeps. The God who struggles with a particularly difficult bowel movement. The God who farts and is a sexual creature -- who goes all through the ugliness and grime of this sick, sad world by my side, sharing in both my joys and my sorrows.

Now, granted, the People out there who are in the Business of Providing Answers are quick to downplay this aspect of their own Bible. There's not a lot of money and power to be had by admitting you're an ignorant cuss with an out-of-control, grungy God. Me, though, I'm still pretty partial to Jesus, the God who poops.

It doesn't resolve the question, no -- but it does give me a thoroughly interesting wrestling buddy. 

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*Note: you are unlikely to encounter these particular songs of David in a modern, North American, Protestant Church. These places usually don't see theology as a wrestling match with God, but rather a pedagogical lynching. Nonetheless, it's all throughout the Bible, the founding document of the Christian religion.

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