Friday, March 25, 2011

Is God to Blame By Gregory Boyd: Unpolished and Unrefined Reflections

The reality of suffering has plagued humanity from its earliest beginnings. In response, religious myths, theological systems, and spiritual quests have been developed and pursued not only to explain suffering, but also to give meaning to human movement through it. However, when entrenched within real and personal experiences of pain and distress, versus as theories or speculations, commitment to and communication of Christian theology is severely tested. That said, the contributions of Gregory Boyd within his book, Is God to Blame?, liberate the Christian to consider fresh possibilities that are not only faithful to distinctly Christian theology, but also and especially to real manifestations of a world caught in between the already and not-yet kingdom of God.

The most difficult phrases to hear as a pastor and theologian in the wake of pain and suffering are, “God has a plan” and “God is in control.” When friends, family, neighbors, even acquaintances encounter awful and horrific circumstances, Christians tend to feel the need to serve as God’s defense attorneys. In other words, those who are called to practice the presence of Jesus elicit renditions of fatalist apologetics that, while well-intended, fuel anxiety and polarize humanity and God. Moreover, these theological assumptions are often void of reflections on the nature and person of Jesus. Instead, they hinge on Western obsessions with Cartesian certainty that fuel related systems of power and absolutes. These systems are ultimately threatened by the ambiguity that accompanies the reality of suffering. Boyd critiques this ironic lapse in “Christian” theology:
When our picture of God is built on any foundation other than Jesus Christ- whether a foundation of experience, philosophy or Scripture interpreted apart from Christ- we will be vulnerable to believing a lie about God (30).
When challenged to reform our theology of suffering in light of Christ it is difficult to learn of the devastating consequences that have resulted from naïve shifts of hermeneutical, even practical, focus. In essence, Christian obsessions with closed theologies of control and blueprint existential paradigms continually neglect the reality that God does not cause suffering and evil rather, through the person and vocation of Jesus, enters into it for the sake of personal and cosmic redemption and transformation.

The arguments developed within Boyd’s text ultimately deconstruct what he refers to as the “blueprint model.” This theological system maintains the conviction that “God ordains all that comes to pass,” i.e. both good and evil (41). The blueprint model, in its attempt to defend the sovereignty of God and convictions that nothing is outside the realm of God’s will and plan for the world, leaves many questions either unanswered or with responses that conflict with the nature and person of Jesus. In other words, if all is ordained by God, then does God will for children to live on less than two dollars a day? If God is ultimately in control, does God then cause the genocide in Nazi Germany, Darfur, and Rwanda? If God has a plan for everything, then do the many infants who die due to malnutrition or S.I.D.S. do so at the hands of their Creator for some yet-to-be-discovered purpose? Moreover, if the blueprint model is true, then God not only causes good and evil, but also is both good and evil. As Boyd writes:
In the midst of all things God is working with us for our good. But we need not assume that he is the cause or the ultimate reason behind all things (156).
Said differently, in the midst of the wide varieties of evil and pain, God does not take comfort in a static plan, but chooses to side with the weak and wounded, i.e. those who suffer. This is most beautifully revealed in that, through Jesus as the crucified Messiah, God also suffered [1].

In contrast to the blueprint model, Boyd suggests that God is not the culprit, rather the creation, still caught in between the chaos of the curse and the redemption yet to come, is to blame. Boyd suggests, in light of the book of Job:
But the point of the book of Job, and a lesson we can appropriate from chaos theory, is that it isn’t a mystery about God’s will or character; it’s a mystery about the vastness and complexity of creation…Every particular thing we think we understand in creation is engulfed in an infinite sea of mystery we can’t understand (98-99).
That is to say, it is not for us as the people of God to offer concrete and definitive explanations in light of human suffering. Rather, the biblical witness goads God’s people to wrestle with the mystery of creation, a la Job, and ultimately to “pray as we live- in a sea of ambiguity” (150). Furthermore, the most appropriate response to human suffering is not reductionist apologetics, but prophetic and imaginative incarnations of God’s will for liberation and redemption from suffering (84).

The above noted observations lead to another problem within the blueprint model. That is, if God ultimately ordains suffering then why would God’s people work towards the transformation of it? If God is in control of all human events and thereby causes injustice, why would God’s people work for the liberation from it? Moreover, if God’s people do choose to work towards redemption from the evil that God is in control of, are God’s people thereby working against God? As Boyd suggests, “When people believe that everything’s already part of God’s ‘secret plan,’ they won’t work with passion and urgency to establish God’s will on earth as it is in heaven” (74). This is evident in the concern of many Christian communities that to be entrenched within social and political issues and injustices is to depart from Christian mission and gospel. Instead of followers of Jesus being sent to the forefront of dark and devastating affairs in the world, this closed theological system rests in the assumptions that God is in control, has a will and a purpose, and will work “good” out of suffering, because he allowed it in the first place. Christians are then charged to remain focused on “spiritual matters.” Again, Boyd’s wisdom is significant:
We aren’t called to accept everything as God’s will; instead, we are called to transform everything to bring it into conformity with God’s will. Only when we live with this mindset can we claim to be doing God’s will (159).
In essence, the paradigm offered by Boyd invites Christians, in light of the incarnation and vocation of Jesus, to enter into real experiences of oppression and suffering and practice resurrection as called and sent agents doing the will God [2].

While the contributions of Boyd are important and promote a theology of suffering that I would, for the most part, endorse, there still remains one significant question: How does a Christian respond pastorally to those who find comfort in the blueprint model? That is to say, while I agree that the blueprint model neglects a Christocentric theology, distorts the character of God, and compromises the will of God for humanity and the world, many people do find peace in the belief that God is “in control.” There is a degree of hope that some find in that their suffering serves a divine purpose that explains their once-believed arbitrary experience. The work of Boyd certainly engages the biblical witness, like Romans, 1 Peter, etc., that reminds the Christian that even though the creation groans in chaos, as do God’s people, God can and does work good out of evil and birth redemptive meaning out of suffering. Nonetheless, to suggest that God may not be in control and that their suffering is the mysterious result of a world in distress, may evoke more questions many may or may not be prepared for, and potentially for good reason. Therefore, Christians must be wise enough to know when the human heart and the discipline of compassion is more appropriate then well-developed theology. I suggest that this is the primary oversight of not only Job’s friends, but also many contemporary proponents of blueprint theology.

[1]  While I recognize that it is somewhat counterintuitive to reference Rabbi Harold Kushner, whose theology is not Christocentric for obvious reasons; his words are still helpful in light of Boyd’s argument, “Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us.  That when we cry out, we are still on God’s side, and he is still on ours” (When Bad Things Happen to Good People, 52).  This is also a focus of the theological contributions developed by Jurgen Moltmann as well as Liberation Thelogy, i.e. in Jesus God suffers as a means of identifiying with and bringing salvation to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized of the world.

[2] I also have appreciated the insights of Gustavo Gutierrez in his brief work, On Job, “To go out of himself and help other sufferers (without waiting until his own problems are first resolved) is to find a way to God…The needs of others cannot be left in abeyance until everything has become clear” (On Job, 48). In other words, as Boyd has aptly noted, we must move beyond the trivial questions of  why? and into fresh incarnations of  how?