The danger of bad theodicies

January 10, 2013

culture / theology

I’ve had the start of this post lingering in my Drafts folder for months. Oddly enough, I started writing it back when certain politicians were making absurd comments on rape, comments ranging from psuedoscientific to theological in nature. At the time, I was thinking about how the insane views that were being expressed weren’t insane to the people who held them because they really were the only logical way that they could hold on to their theodicies when bad things happened.

Now a theodicy, of course, is a theological attempt to figure out why bad things happen, where God is, what God’s role is, and so on. So believing certain things about God, from a certain theological standpoint, leads you to believe certain things about evil, and that’s the way the whole system holds together in evil times. Because if your theology can’t hold up to talk about bad things, what good is it?

Now since October when I started this draft, of course, we’ve had terrible events with the Sandy Hook massacre, other small school shootings, and even more absurd comments from politicians. Many of them are still, at their core, attempting to make theological statements that hold their views of God together in the midst of such hell.

I want to start with this intro because I think it’s important in understanding what’s really going on. It’s not (necessarily) that these people are uncaring and indifferent to suffering. I don’t believe they are, at least some of them. I really believe that their theological systems (there are only a few represented by these viewpoints – Reformed and Neo-Reformed evangelicalism, and vapid American civil religion are the biggest that I see) lead to only a few options for a coherent theodicy.

One of them, of course, is that God is angry with us, and so we should really be quaking in fear and repentance lest we also be shot up by assault rifles because that’s really the punishment we deserve; it’s just a stroke of fortune that those kids and teachers got it first. Another is that God is upset that we no longer have forced public prayer, that we take down public nativities and crosses and actually attempt to live respectfully in a pluralistic society, and is therefore petty enough to withdraw the protection our schools would otherwise have from assault rifles (because banning them is just not an option, so it must be God’s will).

Lest you think I’m saying it’s only Republicans that do this, Barack Obama had his own theodicy: that God chose to take the Sandy Hook children and other folks home, and so of course if you take that to its conclusion it had to be done by tearing their bodies apart with that assault rifle.

Now I’m intentionally being brief in the summaries of these theodicies, but I really think I’m representing them fairly because catastrophes bring out these beliefs, and it’s too easy to skip over their logical conclusions in the thick of things. Other bloggers, of course, covered many of these things when the events were happening and they gave beautiful, profound responses. I don’t want to take away from any of those, and I hope you saw them (two of the best are this one from Rachel Held Evans and this one from Greg Boyd).

What I wanted to do alongside and much later than those things (I don’t blog much these days, so it takes me a long time) is put some of these together and say: bad theodicies are dangerous and they come from theologies that are dangerous. It doesn’t mean these theologies and theodicies are held by people that don’t care about being dangerous, but it does mean that they are bad theologies and theodicies, and that they need to change. I don’t think it’s possible for all theodicies to be pleasing to God, and we shouldn’t act like it is in the name of unity with those we disagree with. These are terrible ideas and beliefs. They are wrong. They hurt the kingdom of God. They hurt people that God loves.

But equally importantly, they aren’t necessary. It’s not necessary to hold onto a theological system that thinks God is like that, and that people thus should be like that. There is a deep well of better theology, running through all of Scripture and the life of Jesus, that brings us in touch with the God who suffers with us and suffers for us, who always stands against oppression and for the oppressed and the oppressor. This God shows us better ways to live, gives us power to live in those ways and live a different kingdom in the small ways we can, and is always active in “those who are helping” as Mr. Rogers said. This God is always working through terrible events, not because this God causes terrible events or wants them to happen or has some overarching plan that includes terrible events, but because this God is able to redeem terrible events.

Don’t listen to bad theodicies just because they hold together theological systems. Those theological systems are bad if they depend on theodicies like that, regardless of how good their other qualities might be. God is better than that. God is for you, and God is for me, and God is for the people we are inclined to be against. Redemption is much better than we’ve been told.