Sunday, November 02, 2008

Theodicy on the Margins, Part 1

I've never read Terry Pratchett, but my wife is reading Interesting Times and recently commanded me to read the first page. I'm glad that I did. The novel starts out with these lines:

This is where the gods play games with the lives of men, on a board which is at one and the same time a simple playing area and the whole world.

And Fate always wins.

Fate always wins. Most of the gods throw dice but Fate plays chess, and you don't find out until too late that he's been using two queens all along.

Fate wins. At least, so it is claimed. Whatever happens, they say afterwards, it must have been Fate.*

Pratchett attaches a footnote to this section. It reads as follows:

*People are always a little confused about this, as they are in the case of miracles. When someone is saved from certain death by a strange concatenation of of circumstances, they say that's a miracle. But of course if someone is killed by a freak chain of events -- the oil spilled just there, the safety fence broken just there -- that must also be a miracle. Just because it's not nice doesn't mean it's not miraculous.

For many years and for a variety of reasons, whenever I've heard someone say "Dude, whatever happens, it was meant to be," I've suppressed a strong desire to slap him. Fortunately, in seminaryland, theology this bad is fairly rare. But I have often heard among my fellow Christians, including myself, the sentiment "God did X for me as a blessing."

But as I grow older, I am increasingly disinclined to attribute anything that happens to me, as either blame or praise, to God. Just as misfortune sometimes ends as a blessing, so does good fortune sometimes ends as a curse.

For example, when a charismatic and talented woman joined my last church and began engaging in ministry enthusiastically, I said confidently, "God brought this woman here to bless us and bring us revival." She said this, too -- in fact, that God had appeared to her in a vision and told her to join that church. But when she turned out to be a manipulative charlatan whose only interest was power and essentially destroyed the church, I did not say "God brought this woman here to curse us and destroy a Christian community." My earlier confidence that a particular event was the blessing of God proved to be totally incorrect. And if we accept the premise that God never smites followers who are faithful to him, then the arrival of this woman was not induced by God.

My point is that perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to attribute incidents in our lives to divine activity. If we can't say that a happening in our lives is either good or bad, then we really don't know whether or not anything that happens to us is actually God's intervention. Just as Henry Neufeld recently argued that we should be humble about accrediting our own thoughts to God, maybe we should also be humble about our own ability to even perceive what God is doing in our world.


Michael said...

I also have difficulties with those who insist that "the Lord would not leave me alone about this" just as I have trouble with those who insist that Satan is PERSONALLY out to get them.

Even so, the Lord had to speak to someone at some point in time. Who is to say that there are not still divine challenges that come to us in various forms as opposed to diests who insisted on a natural order by which "stuff happens"?

Anonymous said...

This is a good thing to talk about especially in a time such as this where political opinions are given the force of theodicy.

In this vein, how is it that one can talk about their calling into ministry without crossing into some of what you and Henry speak of?

John said...

Good question, Jim.

One of the things that I was advised to do by a variety of pastors at the beginning of candidacy was "develop a really good call story."

Does anyone know John Wesley's call story? Or did he just go into the family trade?

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Henry Neufeld said...

I would like to note that I do believe one can hear from God. What I have a problem with is the presentation of what I think I hear from God as what God has to say.

I would (and generally do) just speak it without making the claim. If it is divine wisdom, I think it will most commonly be seen as such by others seeking truth and profoundly good ideas.

I think what is truly God's word commonly takes care of itself.

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