Our class was delighted to have a friend of our church visit again in part 2 of three classes this May. Presented below is a study guide which Cynthia provided us before the class which you can review and which includes a number of useful links to this classes subject matter. Please review it and when you are ready simply click the link below to be taken to a video of the Zoom recording made of today's class so you can hear Cynthia directly.
Why Ask Why?
Faithful Responses to this Pandemic
Cynthia L. Rigby, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, 5/24 2:00 pm ZOOM!
. . . . God Meets Us – God Makes Us—God Sends Us . . . .
The BIGGEST PROBLEM IN THEOLOGY: What is God’s relationship to suffering?
Part One: Why, God?
A. Why we have the why question. (Because God has ”met us”)
1. God Belief in a loving, powerful God gets us into trouble
2. Belief that God is providentially involved in all things gets us into trouble
(1) Everything Happens for A Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved, Duke Divinity School historian Kate Bowler.
(2) Diminishes suffering (e.g. “Have you found the blessing in that, yet?”)
(3) Diminishes human responsibility.
Consequently, we often push divine providence to the side and become functional deists (instead of theists who believe God is involved, somehow in everything)
b. So why do we confess the divine providence?
(1) To keep moving in the world (Calvin’s take)
Without certainty about God's providence life would be unbearable . . .Innumerable are the evils that beset human life . . our body is the receptacle of a thousand diseases . . .wherever you turn, all things around you . . . almost openly menace . . Embark upon a ship, you are one step away from death. Mount a horse, if one foot slips, your life is imperiled. If there is a weapon in your hand or a friend’s, harm awaits . . . Your house, continually in danger of fire, threatens . . to collapse upon you . . .Your field threatens you with barrenness” (Institutes I.17.10).
(2) To affirm that God cares for and loves us (Wesley’s take)
He hath made us, not we ourselves, and he cannot despise the work of his own hands. We are his children: And can a mother forget the children of her womb? Yea, she may forget; yet will not God forget us! On the contrary, he hath expressly declared, that as his “eyes are over all the earth,“ so he “is loving to every man, and his mercy is over all his works.” Consequently, he is concerned every moment for what befalls every creature upon earth; and more especially for everything that befalls any of the children of men (from John Wesley, sermon #68, “On the Divine Providence.”)
c. To keep God on the hook (e.g., Job)
3. Belief that God created the world “good” gets us into trouble.
B. Inadequate ways of answering the question (to rescue God?)
a. We try to use free will as a rescue
b. We try to diminish the reality of suffering
(1) This is not as bad as it looks (e.g. Leibniz)
(2) We will learn something.
(3) This is punishment from God that we deserve.
Works a little better with moral evil than natural evil. .
C. A better way of answering the question: Jürgen Moltmann (Jn. 11:4; Jn. 9:3)
II. Holding Faith in the time of ambiguity
A. The example of Martha in John 11: foot-stomping, vulnerable, confessional, active.
John 11. 17-22
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. 19 Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. 22 Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.”
(Reference: Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, Women Around Jesus.)
B. No suffering is good; but not rule out the possibility that God may, at times, use suffering redemptively (DANGEROUS! See also notes on Cone, link to sermon by me, below in bibliography)
Promise is not that we won’t be tempted, but that we will be delivered from evil.
Joseph in Genesis: what you intended for evil, God has used for good.
Genesis 50: 18:22
18 His brothers wept too, fell down in front of him, and said, “We’re here as your slaves.”
19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? 20 You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as he’s doing today. 21 Now, don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.”
Romans 8:28 – with foot stomping.
28 We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.
C. Look for God in the abyss (Apostles’ Creed; Christian Wiman). Realize that the resurrection doesn’t undue the cross any more than the cross negates the resurrection!
I suspect we, as Easter people, are better at allowing the resurrection to interpret the cross than the cross to interpret the resurrection. Maybe we need to hang some crucifixes as well as crosses; to remember that what we confess is not only linear, and chronological, but simultaneous and eternal. We did NOT make it chronologically/linearly to resurrection re: the coronavirus epidemic by Easter. We shout “he is risen! He is risen indeed!,” of course, but perhaps this confession should precipitate faithful “why” questions: “why have you forsaken me?” and “why haven’t you already come and healed?” These are the questions that will likely not be answered in this world, but asking them may open us to seeing where God is in ways we can’t imagine.
Some Theological Terms Used
Koinonia: The church as the community of faith that may not be associated with the institutional church, but is a place where the Holy Spirit is working (see Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation)
Theodicy: Justification of God, in light of God’s love for us and sovereign governance.
Natural evil: suffering that does not obviously follow from sin/immorality.
Moral evil: suffering that is a consequence of sin/immorality.
Divine sovereignty: God is governor over all things, “working all things together for good.” Licenses us, as God’s children, to stomp our feet and demand, “thy kingdom come!”
Total Depravity: “expresses the fact that whatever it takes to overcome the ethical predicament of humanity does not lie within the powers of humanity. Human renewal is not intrinsic to human capacity; it comes to humanity as a gift.” –Paul Lehmann (Forgiveness, 1941).
Link to a post by the Rev. Cathy Hoop - a friend of Cynthia Rigby, who argues for resisting "looking for silver linings" in everything. https://katarmas.com/blog/2020/4/6/on-lamenting-why-im-resisting-silver-linings-during-covid-19
Link to a recent Time magazine article by N. T. Wright in which he offers that "Lament is what happens when we move beyond our self-centered worry about sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world." An important read. https://time.com/5808495/coronavirus-christianity/
Link to Martha image: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarasque (the black and white picture on the right).
Link to Far Side cartoon mocking a (distorted) understanding of God’s sovereignty: https://thebarkingfox.com/tag/smite-button/
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Kindle version).
I have been pondering James Cones’ controversial discussion of “redemptive suffering” in recent days, as I think comes through in this talk (it also influenced a sermon I did in the APTS chapel last fall:
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says he was “slow to embrace King’s view of redemptive suffering,” but couldn’t ignore the experience of Black Christians who “felt something redemptive about Jesus’ cross (Kindle edition, Loc. #2559, #2250). “When I took up the cross,” Cone explains, I recognized its meaning. . . . It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on” (#2441). “Redemption . . .through Jesus Christ . . .was an amazing experience of salvation, an eschatological promise of freedom that gave transcendent meaning to black lives that no lynching tree could take from them” (#2275).
Could it be the case that God redeems us not only by “overruling” the world, but also by actively and deliberately drawing us into its sufferings and struggles? How such a dangerous idea could be considered without undoing all the careful work done by feminist theologians who have successfully argued that suffering itself is NEVER redemptive, I believe Cone would say, takes “imagination.” “People without imagination,” Cone quotes Reinhold Niebuhr as saying, “really have no right to write about ultimate things. Certainly it takes a special kind of imagination to understand the truth of the cross. Only poets can do justice to the Christmas and Easter stories and there are not many poets in the pulpit” (#2275).
William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering.
Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation.
Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope.
Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel: Women Around Jesus.
Cynthia Rigby, “Communicate Life”: Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel Imagines Biblical Models for Women, Theology Today (June 1, 2012); “Providence and Play” (critique of Calvin’s evocation of “God’s secret plan.”
Deanna Thompson/deannathompson.com: Hoping for More, The Virtual Body of Christ, Glimpsing Resurrectiom: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.
Elie Wiesel, Night.
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.