July 10, 2011

The nature of God

How is that for a grandiose blog title? Yeah, I thought so too.

But I am reading this book, thanks to Greg's review. It is a great book, and has already spurred some thoughtful conversations about the nature of God. For me, one of the best examples was the discussion about Aaron and the Golden Calf--including the part where Moses has some 3,000 people killed according to God's order. As I noted to a friend, I find that God hard to understand in the context of the "personal relationship" God that I am supposed to see as Father. Yeah, except my own father never claimed that he could kill me and be right to do so.

But that is the nature of evangelical language right now, and I think that needs to be rethought. Greg once again highlights an example from this last week's tragic case of a baseball fan dying trying to catch a foul ball. Just an awful story, and as it turns out, the player who threw him the ball--Josh Hamilton--responded to it with this empty, but all too common response:
I can't imagine what they're going through right now. I can't imagine. All I can think about is praying for them and knowing that God has a plan. You don't always know what that plan is when those things happen, but you will.
As Greg notes, this is the kind of response that means absolutely nothing. The same thing could be said if a person has a personal victory, or when the Japanese nuclear plant leaked. It has no meaning, or has very bad meaning. And, as Greg notes, there is a better response:
"This is a tragedy, and I can't explain it, but I believe God will ultimately bring something good out of all this."
Instead, we get the vapid and meaningless response that so many evangelicals use without even thinking.

11 comments:

Smitty said...

I can't imagine what they're going through right now. I can't imagine. All I can think about is praying for them and knowing that God has a plan. You don't always know what that plan is when those things happen, but you will.

That mostly-useless uttering isn't simply in the realm of evangelicalism; heck, my massively-Catholic Aunt and Uncle say that stuff. I hear it at Presbyterian funerals. It's the Generic Christian Response To The Unknown.

From my own point of view, people just don't understand how a God that they pray so hard to every night and around the dinner table would "let" a kid get run over by a car or die of cancer, or how that one really mean dude lives for a gazillion years but that really nice guy died of heart failure so young.

But most rational people understand that none of that has anything to do with God. The mean dude has good damn genes. The young guy lived well but had an unknown heart defect; a problem with genetics. That kid stepped off the curb without looking. Cancer fucking sucks. BUT...you can't say that to grieving people; you can't say "man, I feel *horrible* that your uncle had random cells grow unchecked by his body's immune system with mutations that made them grow faster than normal without dying at the same rate as other cells, eventually crushing his brain/lungs/lymph nodes/colon." So instead, most people embrace some mystery and say "man, I feel *horrible* about your uncle but God works in weird ways and perhaps He is opening some door for you that you wouldn't have seen without this terrible tragedy."

So I don't know if that says so much about the nature of God, who is at once a devourer and a nurturer. I think it says a lot about our nature and ham-handed attempts at explaining something we either can't or *don't want to* explain rationally.

Bob said...

I am reminded of the story of Pat Tillman.

At his memorial service, politician after politician told the family that Pat was now with God. Richard Tillman, Pat's brother set the record straight in his eulogy saying:

"Make no mistake, he'd want me to say this. He's not with God, he's fucking dead…"

Bob said...

You Tube clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjKPb27hdgA&feature=related

leighton said...

It's true that the explanations are vapid, but even offering an explanation at all seems callous to me. An explanation is something you give somebody who is temporarily disoriented, but just needs a bit of advice to remember which way to go on their own. I think a better way to respond to someone who is grieving is "I'm sorry for your loss, and I am here." They'll come up with their own damn explanation if an explanation is what they want. Be with them. Don't try to explain away their pain so you won't have to deal with it yourself.

So, yeah, if you believe what God's followers say about him, he's somewhere between a douchebag and the ultimate psychopath. But there's also a basic failure to engage grieving people going on here, and I think that is more pertinent than that some people's theology is silly.

Streak said...

Smitty, I see your point, but that same vapid refrain is there in far less serious situations. I think they really are "empty signifiers" and that is the problem.

And I think that Leighton is right here--to offer an explanation is really arrogant. Wouldn't it be better to say "this is a tragedy and it is painful, and I will do what I can?"

Smitty said...

to offer an explanation is really arrogant

Without a doubt. That's kinda what I said in my comment, just in 1,000 words instead of the 7 you said!

So when the inevitable sympathy card makes its way around my office, or when a friend is in trouble or is dealing with death or adversity, then yeah, like you guys said, the best reply is "this is a tragedy and it is painful, and I will do what I can." It's honest.

and I think that is more pertinent than that some people's theology is silly

I hope I didn't convey that in my comment; it wasn't my intent (not that your comment was about me, but it got me thinking about what I wrote). I agree: saying those vapid words absolves someone from engaging personally. In some ways, it says "I'm too busy to cook dinners for you and your remaining family or do something really helpful, but I'd feel terrible if I didn't utter something so now I guess I feel like I did something." But you're right; it's not engaging.

I will say again, though, that I don't know if that phrase or its use has much to say about God. It has more to say about human nature. It, as leighton suggests, is explaining away their pain in part so one doesn't have to feel their own.

Streak said...

Well said. And as I wrote some of this, I was thinking about my own real sense of inadequacy when talking to someone about their deep loss. Those cliches come because it is so damn hard, and cliches are easier.

leighton said...

Smitty, I was mostly understating things since I think all theology is silly (disclaimer: I myself do many silly things). I think I was more precise in my comment on Greg's blog, where I complained that the utterance seems not to be directed at suffering people at all, but at the utterer. "Don't worry, your pain doesn't make me question my faith." Saying so that inanely certainly adds insult to injury, though.

Bob said...

...the utterance seems not to be directed at suffering people at all, but at the utterer. "Don't worry, your pain doesn't make me question my faith."

Dang, I think you are right. The comment IS about the "utterer".

Streak said...

I think that is a great point. For many people, the possibility of doubt is so frightening that they can't even allow it to creep in. I want to be compassionate for that, though I struggle at times. For many of them, if all of this is not a broad divine plan that even includes senseless death, then they have nothing to cling to.

Monk-in-Training said...

Two of my friends (S & T) used to live under a bridge here in Tulsa, over the last months S has worked HARD at various jobs and they have gotten an apartment and began to pull ahead, with the support of our rag tag community.

Yesterday S rode a bus across town, with his old ratty bike as close as he could get, then biked to a temp labor office to apply for a job. On the way back, he was biking back to the bus route when three guys robbed him of his bike and his money. $145 dollars was his rent money and will likely put them back on the street, and his bike was his only transportation. For them, this is a devastating loss.

While describing all this to me yesterday, his wife, T told me that she knows "God has a plan for them" but didn't understand why this had happened.

I tried to ignore that part and gave them some more concrete assurances of how our community wold respond with help, and that they would be assured of our love in this terrible event.

Stuff happens. Bad Stuff, all I know to do is respond in love. That's all I know.