March 3, 2012

Theodicy Part 2: Eschaton

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 5:57 pm

He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces

Isaiah 25:8

Theologians prefer the term eschaton to the more common heaven, because its meaning is far more precise and not easily confused with popular but theologically suspect images of clouds, harps and wings. The eschaton is the end of time, the fulfillment of existence. It is not where we go when we die, but where we go when we are resurrected in a new creation, a new heaven and earth, where there will be no tears, no want, no pain or violence, disease or death. Hamlet got it wrong. The eschaton, not death, “’tis the consummation devoutly to be wished” which will “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.

Unlike our present existence, the eschaton is described in Revelation as a place where God is not hidden from us, where we will abide in God and God in us. The problem of pain will be solved not by a system of overlord super-drones, but by the presence of the actual Overlord among the Overlord’s people.

The eschaton is understood to be eternal. Plenty of fun arguments can be had over whether this means an infinite length of time or a state of timelessness, but either way it will make our 70+ years of mortal existence seem like a blink of an eye.

So is this the answer to the problem of theodicy? That we may have to suffer pain and sadness now, but it will all seem like nothing after a couple of eternities in a new tear-free eschaton? It’s true that this vision of the eschaton is achingly beautiful and a real comfort in times of earthly sadness. It is also an important hope and expectation, or better yet, a divine promise, for Christians.

But if we let this be the final answer to the problem of theodicy, that our present pain doesn’t matter because all will be made well in the eschaton, we will find ourselves following the path of the gnostics. We will want to remove ourselves from this world, which after all is just a temporary illusion, and live solely in anticipation of our life in the only truly real existence, the future eschaton. Instead of allowing our present pain to teach us to love, we will let our present pain cause us to withdraw, to seal ourselves off, to deny our humanity. As Hamlet asked, “who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time…The pangs of despised Love” if this life is just illusion? This gnostic response to the eschaton will not teach us to love, but prevent us from loving.

So while the hope and promise of the eschaton is very important to any Christian answer to the problem of pain, it is only part of the answer. To get to the whole answer, the eschaton must be brought to the present.

November 13, 2011

Theodicy Part 1: Love

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 1:10 pm

I cry to you and you do not answer me
Job 30:20a

I remember a science fiction novel, or maybe it was just a short story, from my youth. It described a planet populated by humans that had never known pain, hunger, grief or loss. They had never experienced sadness. Ever.

This state of affairs was achieved by, as I recall, an automated planetary system put in place by a now-gone super-race that had nurtured the humans’ evolution. This ancient, very advanced, and very benevolent race of overlords had been very protective of their race of humans. They did not want them to suffer, and knowing that they could not protect their humans forever, they created this system to shield them from pain long after the overlords could no longer.

If someone, say, had an accident resulting in a broken bone, drones would swoop in, mend the injury, and remove all memory of the pain from the victim. When someone died, drones came and erased the deceased from the memories of all who had known her. These robots would heal any injury or disease, and then remove it from the communal memory of the entire planet.

Then one day the overlords’ system broke, and for the first time the humans experienced pain. The story examined the shock and evolution of the people as they learned to deal with loss.

But let’s drop the fictional overlords and their protective healing and forgetting system, and just consider what our world would be like if we too never knew pain and sadness. An omnibenevolent and omnipotent God should have been able to create just such a world. Was God unable to create such a perfect world because God is not omnipotent? Or could God have created such a world, but chose not to, because God is not all-good?

What would a pain-free world look like, and who would we be in such a world?

Without sadness, we would not know happiness. Without absence, we could not celebrate presence. Without dissatisfaction, we would have no reason to strive, and hence no ambition, goals or dreams. We could not be afraid, since there would be nothing to fear. Without fear, there would be no bravery. There could be no self-sacrifice, and so no reason for altruism. Our lives would be devoid of pain, but also devoid of emotion.

Most importantly, there would be no empathy. Empathy is our ability to understand another’s emotional state, and to experience it ourselves. Without pain and loss, we would have no reason to share in each other’s emotions.

Returning to the world of my science fiction story, before the overlords’ system broke, no one is sad, but so too no one is joyous, afraid, brave or ambitious. And no one could know love. This is why God created a world in which pain exists.

God has created us in God’s image to love God and to love one another. Love is not love unless it is freely chosen and given. To be freely given, we must also be able to withhold it. We must be free to cause pain if we are free to give love. Love requires empathy, the ability to place ourselves in another’s place. Empathy requires pain, grief and loss both in the other, and in ourselves, for we can’t understand that which we haven’t experienced ourselves. Look at the outpouring of charity in the face of natural disasters around the world. Think of the time and treasure devoted to alleviating hunger and disease around the world. Think of our own lives, and the times we have comforted and ministered to our friends, family and even strangers in times of grief and loss. Could God create a world without earthquakes and tsunamis, hunger and disease, grief and loss? Perhaps. But would such a world know love?

September 10, 2011

Do We Have A Soul?

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:26 pm

I am finally getting around to posting a term paper I wrote for my Systematic Theology 3: Ecclesiology and Eschatology class at Fuller last year.

Do we have a soul?

© Bob Gifford.. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Calvinism v. Lutheranism

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 2:15 pm

My thoughts on this excellent article critiquing Calvinism:

To me the most important refutation of Calvinism is this: A god who willfully creates people whom are foreordained to eternal punishment with no chance to avoid it is a monster, a sadist. This is not a god to be worshiped, but a god to be resisted, rebelled against, and overthrown.

God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenificent. A monster god is not omnibenificent. The only way to square this circle is if God, although omnipotent, out of God’s omnibeneficence chooses to give us free will. God willingly limits God’s power out of love. Love does not compel love in return, but allows the freedom for it to be freely returned. This requires the risk that the love will not be returned. Adam (and Eve…let’s not forget Eve) had free will which allowed them to act against God’s will, i.e. sin, in spite of God’s love. The Fall was not that Adam and Eve sinned, it was that as a result they were kicked out of the Garden, i.e. they were separated from God’s presence, which is always the consequence of sin.

This author sounds very Lutheran when he talks about mystery. Luther did not feel the need to resolve paradox, but embraced paradox. So Jesus is human and divine, salvation is through faith but visible in works, we are in the world but not of it, we are simul justus et peccator, faith is a gift but it requires our response. We are to live the paradoxes, not construct a neat logical resolution to them as Calvin did, thereby missing the whole point. Luther was very zen. Calvin not so much.

Note the name of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s church – very Lutheran. It’s not a House for Sinners, and also a House for Saints. It’s a House for all who are both sinners and saints, i.e. everyone. One of my kids brought home a t shirt from a youth event with a design that, when read right side up by someone looking at it from the front, said “Sinner”. But when the wearer looked down at the front of the shirt, seeing the design upside down, it said “Saint”. For us Lutherans, paradox is a feature, not a bug of our theology.

November 13, 2010

i thank you God for most this amazing

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 6:13 pm

i thank you God for most this amazing
by e.e. cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings;and of the gay
great happening ilimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any – lifted from the no
of all nothing – human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

July 11, 2010

Random 10

Filed under: Music — Bob Gifford @ 7:59 pm
  1. Peace, Love and Understanding, Robben Ford, Keep On Running
  2. Preaching Blues (Up Jumped the Devil), Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
  3. Granny (Live), Dave Matthews Band, The Gorge
  4. Shilo, Peter Himmelman, Skin
  5. Rock Me Baby, Memphis Slim, I Am The Blues
  6. Sweet Sixteen (Live), B.B. King, Live in Cook County Jail
  7. Minarets (Live), Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Live at Luther College
  8. Messiah Part III: No. 50. O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?, London Symphony Orchestra
  9. Like A Prayer, Glee Cast, Glee The Music – The Power of Madonna
  10. Wang Dang Doodle, Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ In The Moonlight

December 26, 2009

From Whence the Perpetual Budget Deficit?

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 9:52 am

We have a persistent federal budget deficit because Americans consider themselves consumers, not citizens. Hence, we want what we want. And what we want is stuff. We want stuff from the government. So no one wants any middle-class entitlements cut, or a smaller army and less interventionist foreign policy, or poorer schools. We want the economy to always grow, the prisons to be full, and the freeways to be traffic-free.

And as consumers, we want to pay as little as possible for all this stuff. No one wants taxes to increase, and any tax cut is a good tax cut because it means we get our stuff for less.

Most politicians get elected by promising us more stuff for less money. It used to be the Democrats that promised to give us more stuff without us having to pay higher taxes. So they financed increased spending and people were happy. Then the Republicans started promising us that the same amount of stuff would cost less. So starting with Reagan, they kept cutting taxes without ever quite managing to cut spending (actually, Bush dramatically increased spending). And the electorate is happy. The same stuff, or better yet, more stuff, for less.

The debt has grown under both Republicans and Democrats, but I would argue it has been far worse recently under Republicans. Just look at the national debt at the beginning and the end of each administration. Clinton ended with a surplus, but Bush blew a hole through that by giving huge tax cuts. Obama’s stimulus and TARP are not paid for, because we’re in a recession and increasing taxes would hurt the economy. It’s basic Keynesian economics that is working as it should. But the health care reform package is paid for. So between Republicans increasing debt because of tax cuts or Democrats increasing debt because of spending, I think the Democrats have been more responsible over the past 30 years.

But neither is ideal. If you want to solve the problem, then that means we have pay for what we get — every increase in stuff the government provides needs to be matched by an increase in taxes. I would be happy with a system where every year the marginal tax rates floated to precisely match the spending, as long as there was an out for economic stimulus during recessions. People wouldn’t like paying more taxes or getting less stuff, but they’d be forced to choose what government spending was worth paying for. You want to give corporate farmers subsidies? It will cost you another $x in taxes. You want to send casual pot smokers to prison? It will cost you $y.

But I would argue this alone isn’t enough. People have to see themselves as citizens, not consumers. A consumer wants what they want for as little as possible. A citizen realizes that we’re all in this together and we have to make decisions for the good of the whole country, i.e. the common good. So maybe I don’t benefit directly from a given government program, but it makes our country a better country, and is therefore worth paying for.

Of course Tea Partiers will argue that I just want to pick their pocket. That’s because they view themselves as consumers, not as citizens. They seem not to care about the well-being of the country as a whole, just their personal bubble. They don’t want to pay for stuff that they benefit from every day, like an economic system that has produced the greatest concentration of wealth in the history of humanity. They’d be happy to have poor people die in their homes from treatable diseases instead of helping to pay for their health care, because they are not members of their tribe.

But we are all in this together. And “we” in the United States means people that don’t look like us, speak like us, or worship like us. So it can be very difficult to think of the entire US as “we”, but to be a citizen demands exactly that. It means we not only pay for the stuff we get, but help pay for stuff that other people get because the common good, the well-being of the entire country, demands it.

December 15, 2009

Is Open Theism’s Cosmology Coherent?

Filed under: Church,Philosophy,Science — Bob Gifford @ 8:45 am

I just completed a Systematics Theology course at Fuller Seminary. Class assignments included a term paper, which I decided to do on the confluence of physics and the theology of divine time, omniscience and providence. It’s a fascinating subject. The term paper had a limit of 10 pages (which I exceeded a tad) or I could have gone on longer. As it was, the limit forced me to be concise and focused.

Click here for a pdf of my term paper.

November 9, 2009

Perfect Enemy of the Good &c.

Filed under: Random Stuff — Bob Gifford @ 4:12 pm

Are these people nuts?

As a passionate follower of politics, I have railed on this blog about political stupidity from time to time. I think without exception it has been about those on the right. But just to prove I’m not biased, this one is about crazies on the left.

I happened to catch a snippet of The Ed Sullivan Show on MSNBC (I’m not a regular viewer). Ed Schultz was interviewing Dennis Kucinich, who was bragging about his vote against the House health care reform bill. Kucinich talked about how we need a single-payer health care system, health insurance companies need to be cut out of our system, and this bill is a sell-out to the insurance companies. And Ed Schultz was agreeing with him that passage of this bill was not a victory for progressives.

Politics is the art of the possible. The bill passed by a narrow margin. Kucinich was the only Democrat voting against it from the left, while 38 Democrats voted against it from the right. Do Kucinich and Schultz really believe Congress could ever pass the bill they want? Do they really believe the status quo is better than a first step towards reform? Would they prefer the current bill fail rather than pass the best bill that could actually get a majority of votes in the House?

Yes, these people are nuts.

Update: Schultz and Kucinich were not talking about the Stupak Amendment, and neither am I. My thoughts apply to the based health care reform bill itself.

Update 2: Some similar thoughts from Ezra Klein.

October 7, 2009

Quote for the Day Year

Filed under: Church,Philosophy — Bob Gifford @ 11:41 am

A Sully quote for the day. Given the name of this blog, I have to pass it along:

“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it. The man of faith who has never experienced doubt is not a man of faith,” – Thomas Merton.

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