Monthly Archives: December 2012

Theodicy for the compassionate Christian

Out of the depths I cry to you, O God. 
God, hear my voice!  (Psalm 130:1-2)

 Jesus wept.  (John 11:35)

In the wake of the shootings in Connecticut last week, it’s time to ask that immemorial question:  If God is all-good and all-powerful, why do things like this happen?

This question actually boasts its own academic discipline – theodicy.  It’s a very dicey subject, because, in my humble opinion, there’s only one way to answer the question that doesn’t make both God and God’s biggest fans look like assholes.  Unfortunately, many of God’s biggest fans would rather look like assholes than entertain this response to the question:

Things like this happen because God is not all-powerful.

There are two other possible answers:  a) that God is not all-good or, b) that God is neither all-good nor all-powerful.[i]

Infinitely better minds than mine have floated the notion that the Abrahamic God is, at best, morally ambiguous; we’re talking people like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Hitchens, here.  I don’t claim to fathom all of their arguments, but their dubiousness about God’s goodness is legendary.

At this point in my life, however, I’m not prepared to give up on the goodness of God, even in the wake of a horror like Sandy Hook.  Which leaves me with the question of God’s power.

If God is all-good and God is all-powerful, why do terrible things happen?

I think it boils down to free will, but not in the way people like Mike Huckabee and Rick Warren would have us believe.

Free will is a big sticking point in my Protestant tradition.  It gets all mixed up with theological crap like predestination and original sin.[ii]  For purposes of today’s posting, I’d like to suggest that God didn’t create us to be wind-up toys.[iii]  God created us for relationship.  If nothing else, the Hebrew and Christian testaments describe a uniquely interpersonal affiliation between human beings and the divine, liberally described in familial and matrimonial terms.[iv]  The sacred texts also describe the rewards and pitfalls of human free will. 

In a situation of infinite power disparity, benign tyranny is the best we can hope for; but I think God wants something better than that.  For relationship to be rich and reciprocal, both sides must freely choose to relate with one another.  Which means that, in order to genuinely relate with human beings, God has to power down several degrees.   And I think God does that by declaring certain aspects of human experience hands-off.

When things happen like Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, or Columbine or the Aurora movie theater shootings (the latter of which both happened in my home town), I think we’re seeing God’s rules of divine non-engagement kicking in.  These incidents have nothing to do with “God’s larger plan.”  Honestly, what kind of God would craft a plan in which five-year-olds are collateral damage?[v]  Certainly not a good God, which brings me back to my argument that God is all-good, but not all-powerful.  Having created us in the divine image, God gives us room to fly…and room to fuck up.[vi]

What this seems to boil down to is this: that the payoff for lives of suffering, confusion, violence and chaos is the opportunity to relate deeply and authentically with God.[vii]  Even to me, this seems like cold comfort when there’s a lake of warm blood on the floor of a schoolroom.  But if an all-powerful God elects to limit his/her power in the interest of an eternal love affair with human beings, let us consider that compassion may be an altogether limitless characteristic of the divine.


To my way of thinking, omnipotence cannot coexist with infinite compassion.  Because if God is all-compassionate, then God is vulnerable.  In the wake of a semi-automatic slaughter like Sandy Hook, I don’t see God crossing his burly arms, throwing up his white-bearded chin, and waiting for America to repent of its godless refusal to turn public schools into Christian churches.  I do see a tender and grieving God in the faces of the tear-streaked bereaved, in the shocked and weary faces of the first responders, in the care-worn faces of pastors and chaplains.  I do see a helping and determined God in the efforts of everyone who forgoes their own comfort to help others navigate the seemingly bottomless pits of mortal life.  I see God in wordless candlelight vigils, I see God weeping on fresh dug graves, and I see God when strangers embrace each other, offering themselves as momentary life preservers in a dark and savage sea.

And yes, in times like these, I see God in a carpenter’s son in a society that drooled over weapons and denigrated weakness, suffocating to death on a cross and still managing to gasp,

“Forgive them, for they have no idea what they’re doing.”[viii] 

[i] If the latter, I’m hard-pressed to understand why I should have anything to do with God.  

[ii] And, in the U.S., a lot of political crap like prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments on public buildings.

[iii] Frankly, I’m not sure God created us at all, if by creation you mean that God pulled us full-formed out of his ass.  Rest assured, the turd analogy is one I plan to explore more earnestly in systematic theology class next year.

[iv] As described in the Bible, the relationship has frequently been unhappy, unstable, even abusive; both sides, at intervals, have behaved monstrously.  But the attraction has been undeniable and irresistible.  And, for some Christians, the physical incarnation and body/spirit sacrifice of Jesus Christ[iv] paved the way for ongoing reconciliation between ourselves and God.

[v] I’ll take the devil over that kind of deity any day.  This kind of deity looks more like a Third World dictator.  I don’t think we should settle for an image of God that shines up no better than Kim Jong-Il’s.

[vi] Let me quickly note here that I also don’t believe that God “allows” us to suffer in order to “build our character.”  That explanation does nothing but recast God as an untouchable, abusive parent who would rather inflict pain than share it. 

 [vii] And, by extension, each other.  I think this is amply evidenced by the way people around the world naturally cohere after public tragedies.

[viii] Luke 23:34

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012



“The God I was told about in church, and still hear about from time to time, runs about like an anxious schoolmaster measuring people’s behavior with a moral yardstick.  But the God I know is the source of reality rather than morality, the source of what is rather than what ought to be.”  – Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

A couple of years ago, for reasons that neither of us remember, my husband read Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger, out loud to me.  The following year, for reasons that neither of us remember, we revisited the activity and my husband read aloud Stoner, by John Williams. A novel that the New York Times hailed as “a perfect novel,” we found so depressing, we quickly moved on to Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter in order to cheer ourselves up.

And because I love nothing better than hearing my own writing read aloud and for reasons neither of us remember, my husband is in the habit of indulging my ego, he generally reads my blog postings to me after I post them.

We’re going to be changing that tradition.  Because last Saturday, I posted something that, fifteen minutes after it went online, I realized was a BIG FAT FIB!pinocchio2_post

I yanked the posting, but not before it hit the email inboxes of I don’t know how many subscribers to Marian the Seminarian.  My sincere apologies to those of you who have already read it.  I can’t give you back the five minutes you wasted, but maybe if you send me your mailing address, I can send you a Starbucks card or something.[i]

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, the essence of the posting went like this.  I had had a bad day.  One of my Facebook friends posted something I found personally offensive.  She and I got into it on Facebook.  I let her have the last word and spent the next two hours composing a saccharinely self-righteous blog post about how I was going to work on the problem of me.  No hard feelings toward my friend; just a wonderful learning opportunity, informed by the book of James.

Which was, not to put too fine a point on it, utter bovine excrement.

Because as my husband was reading it to me, I realized that I had no intention of working on “the problem of me.”  I had no aspirations of making nice with my friend; truth be told, I’m thinking she and I don’t even need to be Facebook friends anymore.  So, why, why, did I post something so sickeningly pious?

Well, isn’t that what Christians are supposed to do?  Aren’t we supposed to affirm the moral high ground, embody the best of human behavior, and model the purest of Christ-like attitudes and actions?

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I think the answer is:  not necessarily.  Not if our integrity is at stake.

The fact is that what passes for morality in our culture is often nothing more than manners.  Morality is all about what we do.  Because it’s all about us, morality can obfuscate and, at worst, justify an awful lot of nasty shit.

The kind of nasty shit that my friend posted to her Facebook page.  The kind of nasty shit that says that civil rights trump human rights.  That some Americans are more worthy than others to express themselves publically and to vote lawfully; to choose their own lifestyles and life mates; to exist.  That people living outside acceptable white middle-class behavior norms are bad; perhaps, even demonic.

The kind of nasty shit that Christians all too often try to remedy with niceness, correct behavior, and correct belief. 

Last weekend, I fell ass-over-teakettle into the twin temptations of morality and piety.  And even though it only took me fifteen minutes to recognize what I’d done, I’m afraid some of you wound up on the receiving end of an orientation I simply don’t ascribe to.

Good behavior for good behavior’s sake is not going to save our relationships, our world, or our souls.  However, exercising our integrity might, even in its least attractive guises.  Because God does not inhabit morality.  God inhabits reality.

In this situation, integrity for me means disengaging from the Facebook field of battle with my friend.  But I’m not ready to apologize to her; frankly, I’m not sure I should.  The least I can do right now – to stop escalating the conflict – may truly be all I can do in the end.

Thankfully, God is accustomed to working with “the least” of these.  

[i] This, too, is a BIG FAT FIB!

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

Faith like a fungus

Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.  Like a truffle.”  (I Kings 8:12, New Century Gen X Paraphrase Bible)

Today, let’s talk about the spiritual significance of mushrooms.[i]

By way of introduction, I’ll confess I’ve been thinking a lot about the dark side of faith.  Not the dark side in terms of Christians behaving badly, but the mystical dark side, where, for lack of a better term, “the magic happens.”  Case in point:  in the last year, I’ve preached 11 times and three of those sermons use Christ’s tomb as a central metaphor.[ii]  Besides that, in a recent spiritual development class, while my classmates drew pictures depicting the soul journey as stars and flowers and rivers of blue, yellow, and pink, I was drawing pictures of dark caves and black birds.  I started wondering if Prozac was in order.  Thanks to a wise spiritual director, however, I realized that I might actually be peeking into an experience of faith that our frequently well-mannered, sanitized, and consumerist Christianity doesn’t want us to consider.

And that, my friends, got me to thinking about fungi.

There’s a lot to love about fungi.  Without fungi, Timothy Leary would have had to get a real job.  Without fungi, buffalo wings would have faded into culinary obscurity.  Heck, without fungi, the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches might never have separated,[iii] and then where would we Protestants be?

According to one carefully researched report, “Many fungi are good and useful…Since they don’t use light to make food, fungi can live in damp and dark places…Good fungus can help with many things to make the world a better place…Without fungi, we would have piles of trash everywhere because fungi…eat the trash and make it into soil. That is why we do not live in a landfill!”

Yes, fungi make good use of trash and darkness.  The same can be said of the human soul.   

The dim and secret corners of the human heart are where our spirits devour the detritus of life and make it into the kind of growing material in which Christ-like qualities can germinate and grow.  Which says a lot for the dark.  While the Bible generally associates darkness and secrecy with confused or corrupt states of being, a few tantalizing verses point to a different view.  For example, Psalm 139:11-15:

If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me,
   and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
   the night is as bright as the day,
   for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
   you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
   Wonderful are your works;
   that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
   when I was being made in secret,
   intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

Now if that’s not a description of a mushroom, then I don’t know what. 

There are rewards in the darkness, for those who dare to venture there:

 I will give you the treasures of darkness
   and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
   the God of Israel, who call you by your name.  (Isaiah 45:3)

 Miners put an end to darkness,
   and search out to the farthest bound
   the ore in gloom and deep darkness.  (Job 28:3)

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.  (Psalm 51:6)

He reveals deep and hidden things;
   he knows what is in the darkness,
   and light dwells with him.  (Daniel 2:22)

The treasures of darkness and the ore in the gloom echo the promise of the resurrection and the possibility of realizing the kingdom of heaven in this life.  If nothing else, Christian faith speaks to the phenomenon of light emerging from darkness, hope overcoming despair, and life arising out of death.   Just as mushrooms grow in decay, remarkable things happen during the dark night of the soul.  Regardless of whether we wholly believe in a literal resurrection, it’s an observable fact that many of us, more than once in our lives, have emerged from times of uncertainty and grief into new understanding and new ways of living our lives.  That, my friends, is certainly resurrection.

So, although Jesus Christ spoke often of the cultivation of seeds, I think spores are an equally apt image of the kingdom of heaven.  According to the Mushroom Council,[iv] a mature white button mushroom can produce up to 16 billion spores!  Not too shabby for a little organism that grows in the dark.  Rather on par with the Son of God parceling out a few loaves and fishes to feed five thousand.

As we enter the season of Advent, the profound messages of which are almost invariably lost amid department store Santas, office cocktail parties, and luxury cars bedecked with red bows the size of washing machines,[v] let’s try to engage the darkness between the twinkle lights, acknowledge the sorrowful destinations of all that loose change we give to the Salvation Army, and celebrate the glorious notion that God came into the world obscurely.  Think of these things the next time you eat a mushroom.  And remember that no dark corner of the world or the human heart is a secret to God.

Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?  says the Lord.  Do I not fill heaven and earth?  says the Lord.  (Jeremiah 23:24)

[i] Despite the fact that I live in Colorado, which just legalized recreational marijuana, this post does not weigh in on weed, magic mushrooms, or any spiritual exercise predisposed to prompting cravings for Oreos and Cheeze-Its.

[ii] And I didn’t even preach during Easter.

[iii] One of the main points of contention being whether or not leavened bread could be used for Eucharist.

[iv] Which, as you probably know, was formed after Congress passed the 1990 Mushroom Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act.

[v] And washing machines bedecked with bows the size of microwaves.  And microwaves bedecked with bows the size of…oh, whatever, you get my meaning, right?

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012

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