This week I was checking out the remaindered book section at Chapters, and I found a copy of Bart Ehrman’s 2008 book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. As I mentioned in my post of March 6/10, I really like Bart Ehrman’s books (though I don’t always agree with his conclusions). So I bought God’s Problem.
I knew a bit about it before I started to read it this week. That’s because last year — in July 2009, to be exact — I bought and read Ehrman’s 2009 book Jesus Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). In Jesus Interrupted, Ehrman talks about his earlier book on suffering. Still, it’s always better to read the original book rather than the precis of it, even if the precis is written by the author him/herself. So I was glad to find God’s Problem on the sale rack.
In God’s Problem, Ehrman explains why he lost his faith and now considers himself an agnostic. It wasn’t a sudden decision on his part, nor an easy one. He says, “I came to the point where I could no longer believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.” (page 3)
I think Ehrman clearly expresses a belief shared by a whole lot of people. And who can blame them? There’s no disputing that suffering exists, and there’s no disputing that centuries-old Christian theology has been pretty useless in helping thoughtful, compassionate people understand how to cope with suffering.
Mind you, Christian theology has been pretty useless in helping thoughtful, compassionate people understand a lot of things. Readers who, like me, attend the United Church of Canada (UCC) will understand when I say that the United Church scores a “B” and sometimes an “A” on social justice issues, but earns an “F” on questions about the soul, about death, and about spiritual practices. We don’t get to hear sermons that tell us how to relate to a God who allows the suffering in the first place. But we’re given lots of opportunities to help fix the suffering by rolling up our sleeves and supporting various social justice causes.
Don’t get me wrong — praxis is very important. Good works are incredibly important, and these days a lot of dedicated individuals who don’t even believe in God put the rest of us to shame with their manifold good works. It’s pretty obvious that Christians by no means have a monopoly on “Christian charity.”
In the past 12 years, I’ve asked the same questions about suffering that Ehrman asks. I agree with his questions, and I agree with his willingness to point fingers at the parts of the Bible that simply don’t help. Yet, for me, the end result has not been a loss of faith. For me, the end result has been a sense of frustration and sadness at the obstinate refusal of most Church leaders to be honest — honest with themselves and honest with their parishioners about the history of church doctrine, and the extent of the damage that’s been caused by this body of doctrines.
Never in any of the UCC or Anglican churches I’ve attended have I heard a minister say to the congregation, “Today’s readings will be taken from Plato’s Phaedo. Let us now hear what Plato has to say about the soul.” Yet the Church’s formal teachings about the soul have far more to do with Plato than with the teachings of Jesus. Most Christians (including many ministers) just don’t know this.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that the God of orthodox Western Christianity owes far more to Plato’s ideas about God than to Jesus’ teachings on same.
I sympathize tremendously with Ehrman’s struggle over God, faith, and suffering, and like him I’ve read books such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, but in the end I decided that the problem for people of faith is not the question of suffering.
The problem, as I see it, is that Christianity has not been teaching people anything about God as God actually is. Christianity has instead been teaching its own portrait of God for purposes that have nothing to do with God — purposes such as authority, political power, empire, cultural hegemony, and wealth.
Christianity in the third millennium must be willing to confront its own historical role as a creator of suffering if we are to heal our relationship with God the Mother and God the Father.
If I sound a bit like a Liberation Theologian, I suppose that’s because I share some of their reasoning.
Honesty precedes healing. It’s time for the Church to be honest about its past motives and actions, especially with regard to its body of doctrines (that is, its formally accepted truths). Only then can we proceed to a state of full healing.
Thanks be to God.