“Getting Over Theodicy” by Pat Conover

"Getting Over Theodicy" by Pat Conover

09_lent_cover_for_sermon_4.jpgMarch 8, 2009, the second Sunday in Lent


The title of this sermon is Getting Over Theodicy.   Pretty exciting, huh?  You’ve been staying up nights worrying about the theodicy dilemma, right?  The theodicy dilemma was proposed by the philosopher David Hume.  It is the theological dilemma that caused Charles Darwin to turn away from his theological training and Christian faith to become an agnostic.  

Whisper…  Hume argues that Christian theology is all wrong, is totally illogical because God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving.  There is so much in the world that is brutal, evil, sinful, that it is impossible that the world could have been made by a loving God.  

Some of you probably try to get along without worrying much about theodicy.  Enough people care about this dilemma so that when Rabbi Harold S. Kushner wrote his 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People," it became a best-seller.  He wrote,  "There is only one question that really matters: why do bad things happen to good people?  All other theological conversation is diverting;…"  

Rabbi Kushner is in good company.  A lot of people have worried about this question or at least certain aspects of this question.  It is at the heart of trying to make sense of the Holocaust experience and the difficulty in doing that has driven a lot of Jews away from being religious Jews to become cultural Jews.  But let’s draw this question a little closer to our more current experience.  What do you think about people starving to death, dying from AIDS, dying painfully from bone cancer, dying at a young age in a sudden accident, or losing a leg in an Afghanistan village by a bomb delivered by the United States and being counted as collateral damage.  What do you think about a group of children running off the end of a dock together on Coney Island because they wanted to swim like other children and didn’t realize how crucial it was that they didn’t know how to swim.  How about the death of a near term fetus or newly born  infant because something was wrong in the way they were formed in the womb?  How about death by a stray bullet, by random anger?  How about the simple fact that all of us will die no matter how good we have been?  


There are plenty of references in the Holy Scripture of the Jews and in the New Testament that relate to theodicy.  The Psalms are full of it.  "Keep me alive and overcome my enemies so I can praise you."  You can also find attempted answers to theodicy in early Christian theology.  In the 17th Century Gottfried Leibnitz presented an image of a clockwork kind of universe in keeping with Newtonian physics that moved the theodicy question from God’s choices to God’s design.  Calvin tried to resolve such a mechanistic world view with the speculative and unsatisfying theology of predestination.  David Hume was a leading light in the Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th Century.  Since Hume, enlightened thinkers have tended to dismiss Christian theology as illogical.  Translated by me into contemporary English, Hume states the theodicy dilemma as follows.

1.    A loving God would stop all evil and suffering from occurring.

2.    A God who is all-knowing and all-powerful could stop all evil and suffering from occurring.

3.    Evil and suffering exists in the world.

4.    Therefore God is either not a loving God, or is not all-knowing or all-powerful and is therefore unable to stop all evil and all suffering.

Rabbi Kushner and others have argued versions of the theme that God is not all-powerful or all-knowing.  Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and others have argued in various ways that there is no evil.  This sermon will spare you the details of such arguments.  As usual in my sermons, I am going to look back to the Bible for guidance.  However, I will surprise you by not pointing to one of Paul Tillich’s permanent dialectic polarities for a resolution.


Let’s start with Genesis 17:1-6.  The heart of this passage is the declaration of the Abrahamic Covenant.  "Live always in my sight and be blameless so that I may make my covenant with you and give you many descendants."  And again later,  "You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you, generation by generation."  

The first thing to note is that this is a contingent covenant.  God will bless Abraham and future generations if… if they are blameless in terms of keeping the law, and, in this section, particularly the law of circumcision for males.  It is the contingency in this statement about the relationship between God and people that leads to the theodicy problem.  If we are good we should be blessed and protected.  Since we are not blessed and protected we must have been bad.  This sets up the long liturgical and prophetic traditions in the Holy Scriptures of the Jewish people.  The priests call for propitiating God by offering sacrifices.  The prophets call on the people to repent and start doing good in the hope that God’s love is stronger than God’s anger and right relationship will be restored.  Both approaches solve the theodicy problem by making all the bad stuff our fault.   


The atonement theology found particularly in the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul provides a twist in the challenge of how do we propitiate God or change God’s mind about our worthiness.  God, as Jesus, sacrificed himself on our behalf and shows us again the way to life, and thus the love of God trumps the wrath of God.  The big problem with atonement theology regarding theodicy is that bad stuff still happens to people who are saved and it is left up to God to makes right things after death or in a new apocalyptic creation.  Faith is then linked to believing in some other-where or some other-when rather than being focused on guidance for living with steadfastness and celebration in a world that includes so much pain and loss.

In the Romans passage found in today’s lectionary (Romans 4:13-25),  Paul interprets the covenant with Abraham as follows.  It was not the law and doing right that is at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham, and with all of us as descendants of Abraham.  Rather it is the faith that led Abraham to try to keep the law.  Such faith, says Paul, counts as righteousness.  To put it bluntly.  You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to try.  This is at the heart of the great fundamental Protestant assertion that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works, not by keeping the law.  I like the theology of salvation by grace through faith but I think Paul is wrong to try to read that back into the Abrahamic covenant.  Paul doesn’t need a legalistic precedent, he just happily needs to claim the gift that was given to us all by Jesus.  If Paul felt he had to have a precedent he would have done better to look to the lectionary passage for today from Psalm 22: 23-31 that directs us to praising God, praising God particularly for faithfulness to the downtrodden.   

So let’s look at the Christian revised question of theodicy.  Why do we who are saved still have to suffer, why are we not protected from evil?  

One pretty good Christian answer to theodicy is that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord.  Our problem with theodicy according to this answer is merely that we are finite creatures and cannot see how God is making all the evil and suffering work for good.  

Well I like the point about us being finite creatures.  You have heard me present it on several occasions in my sermons.  In fact my response to the theodicy dilemma  has the same starting point.  I just apply it more radically, more existentially.  

I will not try to resolve the theodicy dilemma but rather to dissolve it.  Let’s go back to David Hume for a moment.  He did not pose the theodicy dilemma as a faithful Christian struggling with a longstanding theological problem.  Rather, in keeping with a defining characteristic of the Enlightenment, he was pointing out a logical failing in the Christian theology of his day.  The Enlightenment is supposed to enlighten us in the darkness of our foolish adherence to Christianity.  

Christian theology responded to such Enlightenment attacks with a vigorus defense of miracles, of heaven and hell, of God’s ability to intervene in the events of the day, etc.  There is still a lot of that going on, including some vigorous attacks on science in the name of Christianity.  Such defenses of Christendom are a losing game.  Post-modernism continues the Enlightenment attack on Christian theology by rejecting the claim of special intellectual privilege by Christians who claim special revelation, including the special intellectual privilege of the Bible as revealed truth.  A lot of people don’t want to play cards with us Christians when we claim we get a trump card and they don’t.

We need an answer as Christians that doesn’t claim a trump card if we want to be taken seriously by enlightened thinkers.  Such an answer starts with admitting and claiming our humility as mere creatures.  I propose to dissolve the theodicy dilemma by arguing  that the dilemma is badly posed, that our Christian and Jewish ancestors took a wrong turn when they claimed a special relationship with God rather than a personal relationship with God.  This error was compounded by the use of the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato in the original framing of Christian orthodoxy.    

When Christians claim revelations that are really speculations they try to reason as if they were God.  I believe we receive revelations from God but we receive them as humans and cannot use them as trump cards in argumentation.  We are finite creatures and cannot pretend to be looking over God’s shoulder.  

Consider the assertion that God is all powerful.  It is our Christian faith that God is the creator of the world and that we should therefore be thankful for the gift of our lives and the world we live in.  But we do not know why God created the world even if scientists are circling in on the questions of how God created the universe, how God created our  solar system, our planet Earth home, life, and the emergence of human beings.  We are finite and we should confess our humility.  Such humlity is the answer offered by the original author of Job.  After all of Job’s suffering and complaints against God, God speaks to Job from a whirlwind, "Where were you when I created the world….?"  Job is overwhelmed and stops arguing.  Such humility destroys the numerous biblical and theological assertions that we can claim a special relationship with God, if….   if…   if…

We are stuck with the general relationship with God that everyone has.  The Good News, revealed by Jesus as our Savior, is that the general deal can be a pretty good deal if we come to appreciate its value, and risk by faith into living the implications.  The relationship with God can be personal, just not special.  (Repeat)  We can’t ask for special favors, make promises as an attempt to bind God in a deal,  or expect God to exact revenge on our enemies to make up for our own lack of power to carry out such revenge ourselves.  

We are but creatures and we will die.  We are but creatures and we will suffer.  We will suffer because of limits in the creation of our bodies and in the natural environment all around us.  We will suffer because things happen that we cannot anticipate, like automobile accidents.  We will suffer because of evil, because of oppression, because of greed and selfishness and hard-heartedness.  That is the existential truth.  We are saved because Jesus has taught us and shown us that this existential truth is not the last word.   

Jesus taught us and showed us that the realm of God is already present among us.  We don’t have to wait for God’s promises until after we die.  We do not have to wait until after the revolution.  We don’t have to wait until everything is fair and just.  We just have to follow.  We may break down under the burdens of life.  We just have to follow.  We may be overwhelmed by anger or grief or depression.  We just have to follow.  We may be blocked from developing our potentials and relegated to envy of those who have it easy.  We may be frustrated because we are no longer young, because we are women…. or men, frustrated because we are gay or lesbian, bisexual or transgender, frustrated because we didn’t get to go to the school we wanted, didn’t get the job we wanted, didn’t get the mate we wanted, because we have to live with mental, physical, or emotional handicaps, because we are black, white, red, yellow, or brown.  We just have to follow.  Lent is about seed time in the ground, not about taking a break in the recycling bin.  We just have to follow.

God made the world, our bodies, the way they are made.  If we can get over the arrogance of trying to tell God what should have been made, with trying to make a special deal with God, with waiting for a different life and thus turning away from the life we have, then we can just let the theodicy question wither away, give it a rest.  

Life gets a lot simpler when we humbly accept the deal we have with God, when we focus on the God Moses names as "I Am" rather than on attempts to claim some kind of special deal as the children of Abraham.  Paul gets us past this point by asserting that we all can be Children of Abraham, that we can accept the revelation of faithful experience that God cares for us all, cares for us all as creatures.  We just have to follow by attuning ourselves to the presence of God in all our creaturely travails.  

We start with praise and thanksgiving for what we have, we build community to help each other along as best we can, we just grieve when it is time to mourn and celebrate when it is time for joy.  We let our shares in the wailing draw us together rather than pushing away from each other in avoidance.  We follow our callings and try to make things better for everyone.  We heal when we can heal, learn when we can learn, and set things right when we can set things right.  We stop blaming God, we stop trying to cut a deal with God by propitiating God or striving to be righteous.  We love at all times and hope for those moments to come when love meets love and joy follows.  We give up being frustrated about all the things we can’t know and appreciate what we can know, what we can feel, what we can create together.  We act out of justice and mercy and caring because we want to live in that kind of world, not to get an insider deal with God.

We can learn from the Bible, from Plato and Aristotle, from Leibnitz and Hume and Darwin, from Calvin, and Luther, and Tillich, and the existentialists and the scientists, and the artists, and the postmodernists.  And we can hold it all together by loving each other and ourselves, loving all our neighbors, by following our callings and not flinching from the hard parts, by looking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and by opening ourselves to each other for accountability for the lives and world and community we are building and reforming and transforming together.  We can put down our arrogance and learn from our mistakes more easily because we know we are just finite creatures.

The theodicy dilemma is not resolved.  It doesn’t need to be.  Following the Christian way is  good enough guidance for our lives.  We find our meaning in life by sharing in the unfolding Christian story, by sharing in this Christian community, by sharing in the work of the world.

In the 5th Chapter of Romans (verses 1-9 paraphrased by Pat based on the REB), Paul writes: we have come to be at peace with God.  God has given us access to grace and we live within that grace.  

Because we have been given so much we can endure the suffering that is upon us and have come to understand that in such endurance we gain the approval of others and that gives us hope.  We know that hope is no mere fantasy because we have experienced the love of God flooding our hearts.

The Gospel of John begins as  follows (paraphrased by Pat based on the REB): The Word of God, the Logos, was with God during the moment at which God created the universe.  Whatever the reality of God is, the Word is part of that reality.  Because the Word was with God at the very beginning, everything that was created includes the Word.  There is no created thing that does not include the Word.  The Word is full of life and that life is light for human beings.  Such light shines even in darkness and no darkness can overcome such light.

What Jesus said is that the realm of God is like a mustard seed, a weed that spreads with wild abandon.

What I say is, I love you all.

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