Yancey, Kushner, and Prayer

I’m still working my way through Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make a Difference? It has quite a few gems, let me tell you! But, recently, I found myself comparing this book to another book that I read several years ago: Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Kushner is a Conservative rabbi whose son was born with progeria, a disease that includes rapid aging and an early death, usually at the age when normal children undergo puberty. Kushner and his wife once saw God as a benevolent parent, who takes care of people and works out their lives for good. But Kushner’s experience with his son challenged his conception of God, as did the stories of other people’s suffering. Kushner concludes that God allows evil because he’s unable to do otherwise: he’s not omnipotent. For Kushner, God cannot overturn human free will or the laws of nature. Kushner’s God is as outraged about evil as we are, and he’d stop it if he could, but he can’t. He can, however, give us the strength to endure, and prayer is a channel through which that occurs. Kushner appeals to the story of Jacob. At first, Jacob’s relationship with God was quid pro quo: Do this for me, and I’ll serve you. Later, Jacob outgrew this childish religion, for he realized that he needed God for strength.

Interestingly, there are areas in which Yancey overlaps with Kushner, only he doesn’t go so far as to deny divine omnipotence. For Yancey, God is reluctant to interfere in human free will and the laws of nature. He can do so if he wants, and he has sometimes done so in the past, but he doesn’t make a habit of it. Ordinarily, God will not suspend natural laws at the whims of human beings. Yancey also says that he doesn’t really pray to God for favors, but for the company. He mentions a victim at a Nazi concentration camp who made the harsh journey with God through prayer, and experienced joy as a result.

I’ve not read Yancey’s Where Is God Where It Hurts? or Disappointment with God, so I’m not familiar with his overall theodicy. I’ve heard that he distinguishes the bad things that happen in life from the will of God, which seems to imply that evil exists despite God’s will. In his book on prayer, however, he appears to believe that God is in control and does what he does for good reason. He points out the positive outcomes of certain unanswered prayers. The death of David’s son by Bathsheba, the fall of Judah to Babylon, and the thorn in Paul’s flesh, for example, all served a good purpose.

This presents me with a dilemma. Which should I prefer: A God who hates evil but is powerless to do anything about it, or a God who temporarily permits it for some unknown reason? I can sympathize with Kushner’s sentiment that there are some things that don’t have any justification: they are just plain evil. To seek a justification for them seems cold and inconsiderate, and it appears to trivialize evil’s depth. For some, it presents evil as good in disguise.

But a God who is powerless against evil can’t give much strength or hope. I wonder how Kushner believes people can find strength in his version of God.

I once had a professor who wrestled with theodicy, and a historical-critical approach to the Hebrew Bible helped him out. In the Hebrew Bible, God continually struggles against chaos, which is depicted as a dragon. It’s quite a battle, but God wins in the end. In the Septuagint, however, God is omnipotent, so evil exists with his permission. My professor liked the Hebrew view (or, rather, that particular Hebrew view) rather than the Greek one, for he thought that it presented a decent theodicy. It upheld God’s hatred of evil along with his eventual defeat of it, after a lot of struggle, of course. In this Hebrew scenario, God is not powerless against evil, but neither is he all-powerful enough to stop it anytime he wishes. In a sense, it preserves the best parts of Kushner and Yancey.

Personally, I think that God permits evil for a reason: He wants to show us that evil is evil, and that good is good. He can tell us this until he’s blue in the face, but we only get it when he actually shows us. Of course, this view too has its problems. How does it account for accidental deaths? And does it make other people guinea pigs for my moral education?

Kushner doesn’t particularly like the “God permits evil for an unknown reason” approach, for he asks if we would say the same about Hitler’s deeds. Kushner equates this theodicy with saying something like “Hitler killed people, but he had a good reason that’s unknown to us.” But we should assume right off the bat that God is not Hitler. God may permit evil for a reason (and a season), but we know from his moral standard, his activities on behalf of justice, and the character of Christ that he takes no pleasure in doing so.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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7 Responses to Yancey, Kushner, and Prayer

  1. FT says:

    That is why I stubbornly believe in an “Apocalypto” —which means an end of an era of this age. God at some time in human history (which you and I may or may not see in the flesh) will balance the books. It is His nature. For anyone to coldly and stoicly argue the opposite does an injustice to the “justice and fairness” of God. Plus having a belief in God balancing the books keeps me sane, though others seem to enjoy being afraid of the concept.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix.

    Isn’t Apocalypto also a Mel Gibson movie?

    Anyway, what you said deserves a post as a response, since I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately. Stay tuned!

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  3. FT says:

    ((Isn’t Apocalypto also a Mel Gibson movie?))

    …and a darn good movie! Rent the DVD as soon as you can! This Apocalypto dealt with the end of the pagan Mayan culture and the ushering of Christian Catholicism in that region. As a premillenialist, Jesus Christ will return and usher in monotheism and smash paganism for once and for all. People will finally realize that it is monotheism that makes a man free and paganism is slavery to say the least. I look very forward to your post response. Enjoy your Holy Week.

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  4. James Pate says:

    It’s probably an interesting take, unlike the more anti-Catholic perspective on history that I’ve often heard (e.g., through entertainment, academia, etc.).

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  5. Angela Roskop Erisman says:

    Regarding your last paragraph, James, I think the point of bringing up the Holocaust is this: If God allows evil, what kind of God is it that would allow the evil of the Holocaust? This test case is understood by some to show that the idea of God’s omnipotence coupled with omnibenevolence is offensive and nonsensical. A good (and provocative) thing to read on this is Richard Rubenstein’s “After Auschwitz.” His views are by no means accepted by all (I don’t know whether Kushner accepts them), but puts the questions out there for all to see and challenges us to confront them honestly. It is worth reading just for that purpose alone.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Angie. One problem that I have is that various theologians act as if we should revise our whole concept of God because of the Holocaust. Who specifically? I don’t have any names, but that was how the “death of God” movement was presented to me in a theology class. But I wonder why we should do that, since there were atrocities before the Holocaust, and even those who suffered believed in the traditional concept of God. I hesitate to say this, since I often complain about my own problems, and these are minute compared to the Holocaust (to say the least). But I often feel as if there are people who expect us to ditch traditional theology because of the Holocaust, and they act like believing in the traditional God trivializes that event.

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  7. James Pate says:

    Hey Angie. I looked at that Rubenstein book on Amazon. It’s about 400 pages! How do graduate students (and my other readers) find the time and energy to read that much? Of course, I feel compelled to read every single word, so that may be part of the problem.

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