Monday, May 21, 2007

Hart on costly comfort

Some discussions of the problem of evil distinguish between a pastoral response to those who might be hurting and an intellectual and/or theological and/or philosophical response to satisfy the inquirer. Hart argues that this is a false dichotomy. In particular, whatever we say about God's sovereignty we ought to be able to say to someone in grief. Can we really tell a father who has just lost four of his five children in the tsunami that 'his children had died as a result of God's eternal, inscrutiable and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God's purposes in history, and that all of this was completely necessary for God to accomplish his ultimate design in having created this world'?

Words we would not utter to ease another's grief we ought not to speak to satisfy our own sense of piety. ... For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another's sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them. ... [S]uch sentiments would amount not only to an indiscretion or words spoken out of season, but to a vile stupidity and a lie told principally for our own comfort, by which we would try to excuse ourselves for believing in an omnipotent and benevolent God. In the process, moreover, we would be attempting to deny that man a knowledge central to the gospel: the knowledge of the evil of death, its intrinsic falsity, its unjust dominion over the world, its ultimate nullity; the knowledge that God is not pleased or nourished by our deaths, that he is not the secret architect of evil, that he is the conqueror of hell, that he has condemned all these things by the power of the cross; the knowledge that God is life and light and infinite love, and that the path that leads through nature and history to his Kingdom does not simply follow the contours of either nature or history, or obey the logic immanent to them, but is opened to us by way of the natural and historical absurdity - or outrage - of the empty tomb.

- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?
(Eerdmans: 2005), 99-101.

Twelve points for the location of the photo. Maybe more if you're specific.


Anonymous said...

There is much in this book that is refreshing and admirable, but there are times (such as in the passage you have quoted) where it seems that Hart relies more on the rhetoric of outrage than on a careful synthesis of all of the relevant biblical data. Specifically, he seems to use the suffering of children as a trump card a number of times. This appeals to me because I have lost a child and a very young sibling, but I'm far from certain that he is right.

Philip Britton said...

It troubles me that from what you've quoted of Hart (and I am yet to read the book, apologies for that!), evil remains undefined.

When bad things happen that disturb our sensibilities is it appropriate to immediately call that evil and so suggest that God should have stopped it.

When the thousands of Egyptian firstborns were slain in an act of God's judgement upon the gods of Egypt and Pharoah, was that not terrifying and disturbing in the deepest sense? Yet, God did it, for the sake of His name and His people. Is this evil? You could hardly call yourself a Christian and think so. Yet it remains disturbing.

Unfortunately, for most of the disturbing things happening in the world around us we get no authoritative commentary on which to hang our hats. Traditionally Christians have still remained open to the fact that what disturbs and terrifies us may infact be the work of God. Is Hart open to this possibility?

Bruce Yabsley said...

I'm in accord with the sentiment from Hart that you quote here, but the statement

For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another's sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.

seems to go too far. This would outlaw other kinds of specialist discourse, for example in medicine: surely there are things that can and might need be said, but not to a grieving parent?

I'm all in favour of demanding that theological statements be required to stand up in the harsh light of the phenomena, but it's hard to provide a neat litmus test for what that must mean in practice. Appointing the grieving as jury might (as Ron says) work as rhetoric, but I don't see the inner logic of it. The apparent wrongness of the "completely necessary" line is an argument against the "completely necessary" line, not against all words-out-of-season arguments.

byron smith said...

Bruce - yes, perhaps I overstated Hart. I do not think he is saying that the grieving are to the judge of the appropriateness of all discourse. There is certainly a place for medical discussion and for some words being in or out of season. Yet he is pointing, helpfully I think, to a disconnect in our thinking about evil in which the good news of God's defeat of evil can be obscured by the extent to which we have systematised God's ability to instrumentally 'use' evil to bring about his good intentions (including judgement). I've raised this issue back here and discussed it at a little more length in this series.

Ron - he uses this example (a suffering child) a fair bit for two reasons. First, the book is explicitly about the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004, in which many of the victims were children. Second, early in the book he introduces the famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov in which the suffering of a little girl in the dark is poignantly narrated and becomes a symbol for pointless evil. Hart, for all his faults, is no lightweight popularist rhetorician. He is a major theologian of the Eastern Orthodox tradition and does indeed have a lot to say about evil.

Phil - similarly, he does have an extended discussion attempting to define evil. And also includes consideration of the category of judgement. His main beef is with Christians who think that every instance of suffering must have a 'point', must play some crucial role in God's divine calculus. I guess he is trying to rediscover the category of 'pointless suffering'. The good news in the face of suffering is not 'this is God's plan' but 'God will wipe away every tear when he overcomes evil in resurrection life'.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Byron, I was aware of those two points and I didn't intend to imply that Hart was a "lightweight" rhetorician, nor do I dispute that he is increasingly recognised as an important contemporary theologian.

I would only wish to add that it is perfectly possible to be a major theologian and rely heavily on rhetoric from time to time!

I'm about to start The Beauty of the Infinite so hopefully I'll get a better feel for him as a theologian and as a writer...

byron smith said...

I would only wish to add that it is perfectly possible to be a major theologian and rely heavily on rhetoric from time to time!
That is certainly true. Apologies if I over-reacted to your comment.

Anonymous said...

No offence taken. I really do like this book and I think the appeoach that Hart takes is a valuable corrective ... I'm actually hoping that he will write a longer and more comprehensive treatment of this subject.

Martin Kemp said...

It's the tower from the abbey which was situated out the back of the old St Andrew's Cathedral at St Andrew's Scotland.

Matthew Moffitt said...

Location: Northern Hemisphere.

Probably Scotland

byron smith said...

Many apologies Marty! You were of course precisely correct. Have twelve points.

Moffitt - you were a month and a half after Marty and considerably more vague. I'll give you two.