Theodicy, Prayer, Haiti

Here are three items from the blogosphere that piqued my interest:

1.  James McGrath has a post, There Is No Slippery Slope, which critiques the fundamentalist argument that rejecting biblical inerrancy puts one on the path to liberalism and unbelief.  According to McGrath, there’s no “slippery slope” because there’s no secure place from which we can slide.  The Bible is diverse on such questions as reward and punishment and whether people get what they deserve: the Deuteronomist, Proverbs, and some Psalms say “yes,” whereas the Book of Job and Ecclesiastes say “no.” 

I asked James: James, I have a question about this statement you make:

“The rest of us can go skiing and hiking and explore the mountain, and find places all over its slopes that one can remain if one chooses.”

I’m assuming that mountain means the Bible, with all its diversity. Are you saying that we can choose which viewpoint in the Bible we go with? For example—right now, reward and punishment in this life may make sense to me, but, once tragedy strikes, I’d be drawn to the nihilism in Job. But which corresponds to real life? Which represents how God does things?

McGrath response was as follows:

James, presumably if answering such questions with certainty were possible, we might not have the diversity of views in Scripture that we do! 🙂

But if nothing else, presumably the diversity of Scripture on topics like suffering and divine wrath suggest that people who have had different experiences may view the same topic in different ways. And perhaps that’s OK…

That’s kind of a no-brainer, and it turns my question on its head.  I asked which view accords with real life.  McGrath responds that both views come from people’s experiences.

And he’s right on this, Scripturally-speaking.  The author of Psalm 37 says in his old age that he never saw a righteous person’s seed beg for bread (v 25).  In Job 21, however, Job apparently knows of wicked people who die in prosperity, undermining the view that God consistently rewards and punishes people in this life.  Both are basing their theological view on what they’ve seen and heard.

Both are commenting from their life experiences.  Whom should I believe?  Maybe both, in a sense.  Joel Osteen tells stories of people who apply principles of faith and giving and find healing and prosperity in their lives.  Perhaps those are true stories.  But there are plenty of people who are disappointed with God because they believe God failed them in some way.

Even in the New Testament, there’s some tension.  Jesus says we shouldn’t worry because God will provide for us (Matthew 6:25-34).  Yet, he tells a story of a righteous man who dies poor and destitute, Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff.), so he apparently acknowledges that this can happen in real life.

Which should I bank on?  It’s hard to trust either viewpoint, if both aren’t absolute.  And, being an all-or-nothing type of guy, I tend to lean towards Jobean nihilism because there are chinks in the “reward and punishment” scenario. 

I guess all I can do is hope and pray: carry my concerns to God, and see what happens.  I feel I have to trust in God’s love, whatever takes place.  

2.  Under John W. Loftus’ post, Praise God for the Disaster in Haiti! Isn’t God Good? Thank You Jesus!, Stephanie (not the Steph of the biblio-blogosphere) states:

I got in an argument with a woman on Huffington Post who posted that everyone needed to pray for the people of Haiti. I told her that was a useless endeavor because prayers don’t work. She said they did and Jesus would answer the Haitian’s prayers by helping and comforting them through this hard time. I said, ok, let’s put this to the test. If every person who is in Haiti to help them left right now and all the food and water that has been shipped in was flown back to the states. And instead, everyone just prayed for them, what do you think would happen? Would food and water magically appear? Would the trapped people be magically freed? Would all the dead come back to life? Of course, she didn’t respond back. She knows damned well that those people would die from starvation and every person trapped alive would eventually die from their injuries. Praying is equal to masturbating. Christians do it to make themselves feel better. It’s a very selfish thing to do when so many are dying.

I have mixed reactions to this quote.  I don’t think prayer is a “selfish thing to do when so many are dying.”  People are praying because they care about the suffering in Haiti, and they feel powerless to change it, so they appeal to a being who’s more powerful than they are.  I asked Stephanie what she’s doing while so many are dying.  Criticizing Christians doesn’t help the people in Haiti, either.

I pray for people each day on my Christian dating site: people with cancer, or economic problems, or in abusive relationships.  If I were not a Christian (or at least a theist), I would not do that.  I’d think that bad things happen, and there’s not much that I can do about it, so why worry?  But prayer is a way for me to care for somebody else, and to act in a way that the person suffering deems effective.  There’s nothing selfish about it.

Stephanie’s comment reminded me of an interaction under Polycarp’s post, Engaging Atheism: Blaming God for Humanity’s Ignorance.  Polycarp was defending God, and an atheist named Devin replied that, of course, Polycarp believes in a good God!  He lives in the prosperous West.  But where is God in the areas in which God doesn’t appear to provide?  Devin then said that he used to be angry at God because God didn’t intervene to relieve people’s suffering; now, however, his mind is at ease because he doesn’t think God exists.  My response was: But those problems are still there, Devin, whether there’s a God or not. How, then, can you be at ease? And do you have any hope that they’ll be solved?  And that’s my issue with atheism: Even if I can’t mount an effective theodicy, my belief in God at least gives me hope that the problem of evil will be solved.  I’m not just going to say “bad things happen—that’s life!” and move on!  (Not that I should judge Stephanie or Devin, for they may contribute to charities that attempt to relieve suffering.)

Where Stephanie’s quote resonates with me is that I, too, don’t know how to pray for the people of Haiti.  As I said in my post, Haiti, I can pray for individuals more easily than I can for nations.  When a woman on my Christian dating site asks for prayer because she wants to be healed of cancer, I can do that, because I can picture a person being healed of cancer: it’s happened before!  But I’m not sure what God would do to correct the problems in Haiti.

The same goes with praying for our troops.  I’m not sure what people want me to pray.  That our troops won’t die?  But some of them will die, because that’s what happens in war.  In Deuteronomy 20, God promises to protect the Israelites and to give them victory, yet there’s an acknowledgment that some Israelites will die in battle (vv 5-7).  And this was a battle in which God was actually on somebody’s side.

Stephanie’s comment also resonated with me because it reminded me of the movie One-Hour Photo, which I discuss in my post, Invite Sy to Church.  On it, a yuppie mom and her son send “happy thoughts” to a lonely man named Sy.  A Christian reviewer remarked,  Imagine this: What if, upon sensing his pain, instead of sending Sy “good thoughts” (which does nothing for Sy and serves only to make the Yorkins’ feel better about themselves) the Yorkins did something that could ultimately save his life…What if they invited him to church?  Prayer has a place, but the Bible also says a lot about concrete action.    As James 2:15-16 says, if we tell a person in need, “Go in peace, be warm, and be filled,” and we do nothing concretely to help him out, what good is that?

3.   Felix has a thought-provoking post, Can’t those who speak for God be a little humble?  He links to a book, Lawrence Harrison’s Central Liberal Truth, which has a chapter about why Haiti is poor and the Dominican Republic is not.  Harrison says that, for a time in the nineteenth century, Haiti wasn’t that bad off and was actually more prosperous than the Dominican Republic, but certain factors led Haiti to its current poverty.  Corrupt leadership is a big one.  So is increasing population.  France exacting a heavy toll from Haiti in the nineteenth century also could have contributed to its poverty.  Haiti also distributed its land rather than continuing to use it to produce sugar, which could’ve been a lucrative export.  And there are times when Harrison’s analysis would make Brit Hume proud: he says that Voodoo is holding the Haitian people back because it teaches them to avoid responsibility for their actions, whereas Christianity is big on personal responsibility.

I’m not sure if I like Harrison’s cultural imperialism, but he makes a point that’s been in my mind for a long time.  People wonder why God allows certain regions to be poor.  Actually, God made them quite rich, which is why Europeans and Americans have tried to take advantage of them!  It’s injustice that makes the people in those areas poor.  God will one day intervene to set that right.  In the meantime, we should find some way to promote justice.  I’m not sure what my part in this is, but the issue is on my mind.

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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2 Responses to Theodicy, Prayer, Haiti

  1. ftloveblog70 says:

    Why is Harrison a “cultural imperialist” as you have coined it? He is just stating that there is a proven system for prosperity and when one tries to re-invent it, there will be issues.


  2. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix. I didn’t read all of Harrison’s book, but there were two parts of it that struck me as “the Haitians are suffering because they’re not enough like America mentality” (my words). One was when he said that Voodoo is holding the Haitians back and that Christianity, by contrast, makes people more responsible. The second was when he said that the Haitians don’t like to work because it reminds them of slavery. I don’t see why they have to necessarily be Christians stressing out seven days a week to be prosperous. Harrison himself said that they were doing all right for a little bit of time—and I bet they still believed in Voodoo then.


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