Saturday, September 19, 2015
Recently, I got a question from a reader who asks,
"If God was a loving God, why did he destroy large groups of people, such as the Egyptians in the time of Moses, many of whom were innocent children?"
The typical response you'll find to this question in apologetic works and biblical commentaries is to try to explain why it is somehow "loving" to do this. I discuss this in my book Disarming Scripture and note that as a result we find that otherwise good and compassionate people find themselves justifying moral atrocities in a misguided attempt to defend the Bible and their faith.
I don't want to do that. I'm convinced that Jesus does not want us to do that. Jesus did not ever seek to justify hurting people. He did just the opposite. He confronted the religious leaders of his time who were using the law to justify shutting people out from God's love.
So what I would want to say here is that this is a really good and important question to ask. It's a question motivated by compassion. It's the kind of question the prophets and Jesus asked. Getting to the answer for this question has a lot to do with understanding that the Old Testament is a multi-vocal book. But much more importantly I would want to affirm this question as a good question to ask. That is, I would want to say, never stop questioning suffering, never stop protesting it.
The real faith-based answer to the classic question of theodicy "why would an all-powerful and loving God allow suffering and evil?" is not to offer a justification, but to recognize that when we question suffering and evil, when our hearts cry out "No!" to human suffering, we are crying out for compassion and love and Jesus-shaped restorative justice. We should never stop doing that. We should never stop asking questions motivated by compassion.
It's often said that the questions we ask are more important than the answers, but what does that actually mean? It certainly doesn't mean that the answers don't matter. After all, why bother to ask a question in the first place if the answer doesn't matter?
The reason asking questions is important is because that's how we learn and grow. The goal therefore is not to get to a point where we stop asking questions and have all the answers. That may be how children idealistically view their parents, but we grown-ups know it is not the reality of actually being a parent or an adult. Instead the goal is to learn how to ask, and seek, and knock. Asking questions is a healthy characteristic of a person who is growing and maturing. If we shut down those questions we shut down that growth. That's why the questions are so important.
So I always want to encourage people to ask questions. Learning how to do this is not a problem to be overcome, it's the means to growth. That's something Christians have a really hard time getting. Often the goal is to give answers in order to stop you from asking questions. The questions are seen as a threat to faith. They are seen as doubt.
There's a world of difference however between the kind of answers that are intended to get you to stop asking questions, and the kind of answers that are intended to help you to work through your faith in an honest way leading to maturity and character. One is just a form of spin. It's a slight of hand that gives you a clever answer that really just dodges the issue. The other is born from someone who really has struggled with the same questions themselves, sharing what they have found, and inviting you into the journey with them.
In short, there are two kinds of apologetics: honest apologetics, and spin apologetics. Sadly more and more our culture is characterized by spin and not by honesty. In a recent interview, Peter Enns commented that in mainstream Evangelicalism you can ask anything, but there are only certain answers you are allowed to arrive at. That's because the desire is not to actually seek truth, but to uphold the ideological/doctrinal party-line. That's spin-apologetics.
I don't know about you, but I want to seek truth, even if it is hard and uncomfortable. I want to have a faith that is rooted in reality, not in wishful thinking. But it's not just bare facts we are talking about here. Theology is about figuring out what is good, and what leads to life. When I speak of seeking "truth" I'm really talking about seeking what is good.
When Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life" I see all of those as integrally tied together. It's about that way of Jesus, which is rooted in reality, and which leads to life. That's what I am seeking. When I question it is in order to pull me closer to that, like a moth drawn to a flame. I hunger and thirst for that life-giving truth. That's why I question. I question so I can grow.