Thoughts on Ehrman. Niebuhr. Suffering.

Posted by: Richenda at Monday March 23, 2009 in

Since reading Ehrman’s concerns about God and Suffering, concerns that shifted him away from Christianity and to Agnosticism, I have wondered how to really try to articulate a response. Ehrman is hardly the first to question his faith because of the terrible reality of suffering. And I think that Ehrman puts the question out there so vividly provides a really important point of conversation.

It’s a challenge, to be sure. I know how I feel: though I have experienced trauma and suffering, yet I’m still a Christian. So why is that? When I was struggling, I was angrier about my suffering and drew away from God. But through the difficulty of working through years of healing, I have found that Christ was an active, sacred agent in my life.

Suffering separated me from God, but healing restored me. It’s tricky to think about. Perhaps this is a problem that defies intellectualism.

So…this boiled down to me thinking that maybe Ehrman is agnostic because the God he wanted (in the face of suffering) did not manifest itself (and I can’t speak for the man personally, but to use his publicly attested situation as a kind of general center point). Ehrman makes a great case for the incomprehensibility of suffering. No doubt. But he does not make such a good argument of God at work. For one thing, I think Ehrman mis-reads, or misunderstands, the book of Job. But then, lots of people struggle with Job. (I know I did. Before all the work I did to try to find peace in my life, I absolutely detested the book of Job! All the people I (loudly) complained to can attest to it!)

In my reading, lately, N. Richard Niebuhr’s “Responsibility and Christ” (I struggled with his book The Responsible Self, but the last chapter is really worth reading) I am now doubly convinced that Ehrman misreads Job. I am thinking Ehrman suffers from what all we humans suffer from, he wants answers on his own terms, and maybe is not really willing to explore a God that might manifest differently than he wants or expects. He’s holding on, maybe, to a picture or an image of his life or the divine that he does not want to let go. But meanwhile, he holds on, and this causes him misery because he has not been able to transform his understanding and recognize that “there is a universal ordering for Good.”

This does not mean suffering is good! Suffering is terrible. The God who created the beauty of the beach and its magnificent sand, who inspired the artist to take that beautiful sand and heat it to glass, to create from it a shimmering glass bottle—that God never, never intends for that bottle to be raised in anger, broken, and used as a weapon. It is we who weaponize the creation, not God. We are given all the tools for Good.

The problem of suffering in general is something that I cannot hope to even begin to deal with here. It is too vast, and much of what must be learned is deeply experiential. Suffering is too many things, but perhaps an important aspect of understanding includes the idea of trust, trust in the larger movement of God, recognizing that bad things happen, and that we often cannot control suffering and that suffering is not personal. Perhaps suffering is sometimes inevitable (such as a poorly maintained airplane that crashes on landing, or a drug addict who becomes a prostitute), and there is no doubt that we can be both the victims and perpetrators of suffering. But for whatever reason (our curiosity, or insistence on growth through experience), we do not live in the Garden of Eden. We must struggle to come to terms with life, and often, suffering is a given on this earth.

Often, in an attempt to deal with the problem of suffering, we retreat to words like ‘mystery’ and ‘hidden.’ Good in some contexts, but the trouble is that suffering is not mysterious in the moment, nor is it often hidden. But neither is it simple, or given to dissection and analysis. It is not something that can ever be “science” in the sense of being controlled by, or contained within, the intellectual mind—does Ehrman believe it can be intellectually understood? Intellectual understanding is his approach to many other aspects of biblical theology. In general, it serves him very well. But perhaps in this case, it is a disappointing avenue of explanation.

I like Niebuhr’s remark about Jesus: “In his responses to the limiting and destructive actions to which he is subject, Jesus acts as one who interprets them in the context of divine, of universal, action.” In other words, Jesus transforms suffering through his own action in the fact of its reality. Jesus deals with the fact of suffering in his recognition of its [in the current context of our humanity] inescapability. He does not run from it, but neither does he let it define who and what he is. He recognizes creation as a universal movement of divine and recognizes he is in the midst of it. From there, he chooses Good. And his choice for Good in suffering results in a radical transformation of suffering itself.”

Ehrman comes out of the literalist, conservative Christian tradition (so I understand from the vibe I get in reading his work). He moved from that to a analytical academic world that can be equally as socially and intellectually unforgiving and, in addition, he often seems quite in love with its own brilliant theories! (Lol. To be fair, I kind of like my theories, too!) Both these environments have, in part, perhaps given Ehrman an inflexible rule as a measuring stick. Ehrman is a brilliant scholar and I very much appreciate his fine work. But perhaps he is frustrated because as he seeks to understand God—especially when it comes to the non-analytical stuff—what is revealed to him is not what he is looking for.

God is not an intellectual exercise.

So, I would ask: Can you let the waters of the Niagara rush around you? Or are you demanding that before you put so much as a toe in the water, you want assurances about what the experience will be like and how things will turn out. Because last time I checked, there were no assurances.

Trust, faith, Love—these are words of the heart. God is of the heart, too.

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