Getting John Chau right

Getting John Chau right

This week, a good friend of mine sent me a new and fascinating article from GQ (that noteworthy Christian publication) on the fatal case of the missionary, John Chau.

I wrote about Chau last year, just after he was killed trying to evangelize an uncontacted tribe off the coast of India.

I tried to find a middle ground between Chau’s harshest critics and what I took to be his cavalier naïveté regarding the danger he posed to the island’s inhabitants—primarily because of the pathogens he may have carried.

“His goal was to minister or die trying,” I wrote.

Yet he did so with a frightful ignorance of the harm that he could bring […]. Even the slightest exposure to the germs Chau carried on his person or his gifts could wipe out the people that he sought to save. Yet “there [he] was, incomprehensible,” firing himself into an island.

That last line was from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the famous critique of Western ignorance and colonialism.

FIRING INTO THE BLOGOSPHERE

So why revisit Chau’s death now?

In short, because I was wrong about it—at least partly.

Across the span of fifty-three pages (Yes, fifty-three), GQ writer Doug Bock Clark reveals how so many of the perceptions about Chau were simply false. He was not the careless and publicity-hungry “adventure bro” that many claimed.

That perception was created by Chau himself, intentionally, to protect the locals who helped him. Bock writes:

He worried deeply that [these people] could be harmed should his mission go awry.

[He] had built a website and Instagram account that looked like those of an adventure bro to throw people off the trail. Instead of desiring posthumous Elliot-like fame, he preferred to be remembered as a fool.

I was also wrong to claim that Chau was completely insensitive to the dangers of the germs he carried. In fact, he spent eleven days in a self-imposed quarantine in hopes of ridding himself of any lingering infections that might harm the islanders.

He was naïve, and dangerously so, since multiple doctors have noted that this quarantine would not have worked. But he was not completely insensitive to the need to minimize his potential for harm.

None of that, however, is why I’ve decided to revisit the story of John Chau.

MAKE “LONG-FORM” GREAT AGAIN

My real reason for dredging up this old story has to do with the remarkable bit of journalistic integrity displayed by (to my knowledge) a secular writer for GQ: Doug Bock Clark.

According to Clark’s website, his pieces have appeared in

The New York Times, GQ, WIRED, ELLE, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Esquire, The New Republic, The Atavist, Mother Jones, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and The New York Times Book Review.

These are not purveyors of evangelical puff-pieces.

Yet Bock’s research on Chau is so scrupulous, so unflinchingly fair, and so winsomely written that it demands to be taken seriously.

Note, for instance, this paragraph, about what Bock found in the waterproof Bible that Chau took with him in his initial (non-fatal) attempt to share the gospel with the North Sentinalese:

I flipped open an edition of the waterproof Bible that had stopped the arrow the Sentinelese boy had fired at Chau.

He recorded the verses that the shaft broke on, which conclude in Isaiah 65:1–65:2: “I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not…

Bock is clearly moved by this “coincidence” that the arrow broke on just this verse. And the respectful posture carries over to his account of how Chau may have died.

Since a person’s heart and brain present small targets for an island archer,

… the projectile would have been aimed at Chau’s large and soft gut. Once he was crippled, the Sentinelese would have charged in, wielding their long arrows like spears.

But before then, Chau would have had time to confront the fact that he was going to die.

And I have faith that he welcomed his killers with Christlike love.

CONCLUSION

To be honest, I still harbor my old concerns over harm Chau may have caused by his naivete. And I disagree with Chau’s assessment that this lone island should be seen as “Satan’s last stronghold” on earth. (I can think of many others: Washington D.C. for one.)

But I confess to feeling humbled and bested both by the sacrificial authenticity of Chau himself and of his secular “biographer.”

What Doug Bock Clark does in his article for GQ is precisely what is needed in an age deliberately slanted or impatiently planted “hot-takes.”

And that includes my own initial blog post.

Read the whole piece (here) and help make “long-form” journalism great again.

 


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God’s voice, like horses grazing

God’s voice, like horses grazing

“Godless” seems like an apt description of Cormac McCarthy’s violent and disturbing novel, Blood Meridian.

The story is based loosely on events from the 1850s near the Texas-Mexico border. It follows a fourteen-year-old “Kid” who ends up riding with a band of murders who seek Apache scalps for profit. The butchery and racism make it difficult to read.

But like much of McCarthy’s work, Blood Meridian yields theological marrow if one digs beneath the clotted surface. The foremost of these insights comes from an ex-priest named “Toby” who tries to explain the mystery of God’s silence in their nightmarish world.

McCarthy
Why it takes me forever to finish a book…

LIKE HORSES GRAZING

God’s voice, says Toby, is like the sound of horses grazing in the night. We only notice it when he stops talking: “when the horses are grazing and the company is asleep … Don’t nobody hear them.” But if they cease for a moment, every soul awakes.

“God speaks in the least of creatures.” And “No man is give[n] leave of that voice.”

This claim gives reason to respect both the ubiquity and the mystery of revelation. And this resonates with my experience.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing.

HIDDENNESS AND OMNIPRESENCE

Kate Sonderegger explores a related theme in the much-heralded first volume of her Systematic Theology. Her interest is in the relationship between God’s hiddenness and his omnipresence.

Israel’s God is unique in his invisibility. He is not to be depicted by graven images like the gods of other nations. Yahweh is heard, but he is never truly seen. For this reason, Sonderegger claims that God’s hiddenness is one of the most important parts of his revelation to Israel.

He is everywhere present through His cosmos, not locally, but rather harmoniously, equally, generously, and lavishly in all places, at once, as the Invisible One. (p. 52)

the Hiddenness of God, His Secrecy and Mystery, emerge not form absence but rather from divine presence. … “Truly,” the prophet confesses, “you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). (p. 68-69)

I don’t like Sonderegger’s writing (*tongue in cheek).

It makes me jealous, since she has a way with words that is rivaled by few living theologians. But I am serious when I say now that I did not like this particular argument initially.

At some points it sounded too much like what C. S. Lewis lampooned as the “argument for invisible cats.” Here’s my version of that logic:

“Do you see that invisible cat by the sofa?”
“No.”
“Precisely.”

“I hate you.”

But this is not exactly Sonderegger’s claim.

She is not appealing to invisibility to prove God’s presence. She is only reminding us that the apparent absence of a visible “divine specimen” (graven image) is one of the things that marks out Israel’s God as different.

God’s voice is often like the sound of horses grazing. We see no “creature” in the darkness, and it is the very constancy of this revelation that can make it like a kind of “white noise.”

But when it ceases, the whole camp awakes.

I’ve written previously about this theme in a post about the “dazzling darkness” (one of my favorites, though I think few others thought so). I noted there that, for Paul, God reveals himself precisely through “invisible qualities” (Rom 1:20). Creation testifies incessantly with speechless words (Ps 19:2-3). Our problem is, it won’t shut up.

CAVEATS

Despite my praise for this line of thinking, there are some important caveats that must be placed alongside the gospel according Sonderegger/Blood Meridian.

  1. God’s voice isn’t always soft and “horse-like” (Ask Saul of Tarsus).
  2. God isn’t left entirely without an “Image” (Re: Jesus and his image-bearers).
  3. God’s “silence” is sometimes the product selective hearing, since acknowledging the voice requires us to change.

(On that last point, note that the ex-priest Toby has set aside his collar for a rifle and a life of violence. He doesn’t want to “wake up” to the reality of his own murderous racism [Let the reader understand].)

CONCLUSION

Caveats aside, the scene from Blood Meridian helps me understand how two brilliant individuals (McCarthy and Sonderegger) can reach opposite conclusions based on similar data:

McCarthy: “There is no God and we are his prophets” (The Road)

Sonderegger: God’s invisibility is the mark of omnipresence.

In fact, “Toby’s” claim is closer to the truth than than the apparent view of McCarthy himself.

The world isn’t “Godless.”

But we need “ears to hear” a voice like horses grazing.


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The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

The “liberal drift” of an all-male clergy

“There will be millstones.”

That was O. Alan Noble’s succinct summation of the Southern Baptist Commission’s recent report (here) on widespread sexual abuse within America’s largest Protestant denomination.

The findings were heartbreaking. Though I applaud the efforts to bring them to the light in order to elicit change (see here).

Still, the most damning reality in the run-up to this week’s SBC annual meeting was that much more energy seemed to be expended by certain leaders to keep women out of almost any form of leadership than to ensure that they be protected against abuse and cover-up.

The optics were, shall we say, not flattering.

NOT JUST AN “SBC” PROBLEM

It would be unfair, however, to see this as merely an SBC problem. And it would be downright sinful to congratulate ourselves (who reside in other traditions) for being superior: “Thank you Lord that I am not like those people… .”

Regardless of denomination, if you’ve seen one online argument over women in ministry, you’ve seen ‘em all.

At some point in the predictable “Inquisition by Gif,” at least one well-meaning (?) person will make the following two points:

  1. Many denominations that affirmed women in ministry went “Liberal” and experienced numerical decline.
  2. Ergo, affirming women in ministry leads to the package deal of “Liberalism” with all that it entails (Marxism, veganism, compulsory man-buns).

The first point has some basis in reality. The second is absurd even without my parenthetical silliness.

The problem starts, as with so many logical trip-ups, in the linkage of two ideas that confuses correlation with causation.

On the basis of this false connection, the conclusion follows that if the fundamentalist Twitter-verse allows someone like Beth Moore to give a Mother’s Day message at her local church, it’s only a matter of time (probably minutes) before a vegan, Marxist, SBC death-panel forces Al Mohler to don a man-bun and preach exclusively from Rob Bell books.

But he won’t, because: Bonhoeffer.

If this description quickly devolves into exaggerated nonsense that is precisely my point. It is both foolish and inaccurate to equate an affirmation of women in ministry with a drift toward the package deal of “Liberalism.”

“CONSERVING” THE SPIRIT-DRIVEN PARADIGM

One reason is that there are numerous arguments for women in leadership that proceed on the basis of a high view of Scripture.

Though I’m not a biblical scholar by trade, one might begin by noting these two videos by Ben Witherington (here and here), and the fantastic series of blog-posts by my former seminary schoolmate, the New Testament specialist, Nijay Gupta (here).

If these scholars are correct, then Scripture provides both theological basis and real-world examples of women in leadership and ministry—including Deborah, Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, and the daughters of Philip. And if this is so, then the “liberal revisionist position” is actually the refusal to “conserve” that Spirit-driven paradigm (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).

So let me be the first to say it (though with a touch of good-natured, imitative sarcasm):

“I’m really worried about the “liberal drift” of complementarianism.”

THE FALLACY OF UNNECESSARY BUNDLING

A further problem in the two points above is the false assumption that “Liberalism” and “Conservatism” are theological package deals that can be simply defined by our contemporary news-cycle.

Whenever this debate arises on social media, the assumption of the “Emojihadeen” seems to be that to care about “Progressive” causes (e.g., racial reconciliation, misogyny, sexual abuse) invariably means that one must not care about “Conservative” ones (e.g., abortion, religious liberty). This is nonsense.

I have spoken of it elsewhere as the fallacy of unnecessary “bundling,” since there are some issues for which our colloquial use of “Liberal” and “Conservative” are just not helpful.

Overall, Christians would do better to stick with biblical categories, as in whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy (Phil 4:8).

CONCLUSION

None of my words  should be taken to imply that a biblical conclusion on women in ministry is either simple or uncontested. The so-called problem passages must be addressed.

Nor am I claiming that complementarians are always motivated by misogynistic drives. Some aren’t. And the SBC has some fantastic servant-leaders. It will not do, therefore, to replace one exaggerated ad hominem with another one.

My argument here is only to urge a “retiring” of the false assumption that affirming women in ministry signals a slide into “Liberalism.”

When we do that, we hazard tethering ourselves to Twitter feeds that may one day be “linked” inexorably to millstones.

 


 

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But the anthem was recognizable

But the anthem was recognizable

I’ve always loved this line from Steinbeck (East of Eden) on the raucous brand of revivalistic Christianity that sought to “save” the American West.

Somehow it manages to be both an insult and a compliment.

They fought the devil, no holds barred, boots and eye-gouging permitted. You might get the idea that they howled truth and beauty the way a seal bites out the National Anthem on a row of circus horns. But some of the truth and beauty remained, and the anthem was recognizable.

The churches, bringing the sweet smell of piety for the soul, came in prancing and farting like brewery horses in bock-beer time…

The sectarian churches came in swinging, cocky, and loud and confident. … The sects fought evil, true enough, but they also fought each other with a fine lustiness. … And each for all its bumptiousness brought with it the same thing: the Scripture on which our ethics, our art and poetry, and our relationships are built.

they brought music—maybe not the best, but the form and sense of it. And they brought conscience, or, rather, nudged the dozing conscience. They were not pure, but they had a potential for purity, like a soiled white shirt (East of Eden, ch. 19:1).

It is far easier to (1) see only the church’s stains, or to (2) excuse those blemishes without recognizing their full seriousness.

Steinbeck does neither.

In his view, even this prancing, fighting, farting form of frontier Christianity had value; because while the “players” were often misguided, there was enough truth and beauty to make the anthem recognizable.

 


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“Silence” during Holy Week

“Silence” during Holy Week

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel. And it is especially relevant as we now approach the end of Holy Week.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people. But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement. In the midst of the butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering church, and to investigate the whereabouts of his mentor, Father Ferreira.

Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, but rumors now swirl that he has renounced the faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must find out the truth.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, the priest is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The famous missionary has now adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In Ferreira’s place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture could free them. Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

This excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, Rodrigues looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his martyrdom, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christians to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


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This is a reposting of Lenten meditation from March, 2017.

“Tear this temple down”

“Tear this temple down”

There is a horrific irony that the iconic Notre Dame cathedral went up in a hail of flame and ash at the very start of Holy Week.

Holy week, of all times.

Nearly two millennia ago, Christ began this week with some similarly shocking actions in the temple of his day.

He walked into what was arguably the world’s most impressive house of worship, and pronounced judgment by turning over tables and condemning what had become a “den of [leston]” (brigands, robbers, revolutionaries). The event leads to a variety of interpretations, but both liberal and conservative scholars agree that Jesus’ actions in the temple led quickly and directly to his death.

It was the straw that broke the devil’s back.

At his trial, the false charge was that Christ had threatened to destroy the building:

“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands’” (Mark 14:58).

But the “temple” he had spoken of was his body (John 2:21).

In the years that followed, the early church developed a strange new view of earthly sanctuaries. It was not that they had disdain for buildings. But for them, the body is the only true temple (1 Pet 2:5; 1 Cor 6:19).

God’s Spirit dwells not in brick and mortar but in flesh and bone.

The Spirit resides in the frail frame of an Indonesian teenager, trafficked for her sexual value. The Spirit rests in the elderly man, who suffers from dementia, and is forgotten by his family. The Spirit blows upon the fetus with Down Syndrome, the convict in the county jail, and the CEO in her corner office.

The body is our only temple.

This does not mean, of course, that earthly buildings are either bad or unimportant. Far from it! I feel sickened watching the famed spire of Notre Dame go tumbling into oblivion. What a loss! (And I have written similarly of even ancient, pagan shrines.)

Still, the message of Holy Week is that though our earthly dwellings (of all sizes, shapes, and skin colors) may be stripped to their very foundations “more can be mended than you know.”

 


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*that last line is one of my favorites from Francis Spufford, in his work, Unapologetic.

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 5)

The whole reason for this series on animal suffering was to sort through an honest question raised by Charles Darwin (see pt 1):

Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?

Last time, I highlighted an answer that has been suggested in the metaphor of “sacrifice.” In other words, might there be a sacrificial good that emerges from the grand and groaning world of creaturely predation?

Three theologians (Harrell, Rolston, and Coakley) answered “Yes.” And having presented their views already (pt 4), it is time now to subject them to a “priestly” inspection for purity or blemishes.

HARRELL’S SACRIFICIAL SNIPPET

First, Daniel Harrell hinted that we might reframe the apparent waste of creaturely death as a kind of “sacrifice” that—by virtue of its cost—helps humans see the “value” of the present world.

This appears to be a version of the “only way to greater good” theodicy. The payoff is a lesson whereby otherwise ungrateful humans gain a sense of gratitude for the price that was paid to get us here. In this way, Harrell’s reference to creaturely “sacrifice” is similar to the common patriotic call to remember the soldiers who have died to give us freedom.

The weakness of this proposal lies, first, in its lack of development. It is merely a snippet of thought in a brief “afterword” in book by two other authors (Venema and McKnight, Adam and the Genome).

Furthermore, it is by no means clear why this “teachable moment” should require so much bloodshed on the part of animals. Indeed, Harrell’s claim seems rather like a cattle rancher who decides to teach his children to be grateful for their warm beds by allowing his herd to perish in a blizzard, and then shuttering the local Humane Society for good measure.

Even if the cruel scenario did make the children thankful for their hearth and home, it is far from obvious why the “lesson” might be the only way to bring forth gratitude.

Harrell’s Creator seems vulnerable to a charge of “excessive force.”

ROLSTON’S WAY OF THE DRAGON

Second, Holmes Rolston III combined the “only way to greater good” defense with the notion of God’s co-suffering in creation. From his panentheistic perspective, “sacrifice” is not just a metaphor to teach us to be grateful but a reality in which divine and creaturely pain is inherently redemptive.

This “good” comes about not because there is some future resurrection for the individual gazelle or grizzly cub, but because there is an intrinsic and ongoing relation between the deaths of evolutionary victims and the redemptive “perfecting” of future life.

Rolston may be commended for desiring to see all of life through the lens of Christ and his cross. Unfortunately, his way of doing so includes a tendency to “baptize” the way of the dragon (the strong kill the weak), and then confuse it with the way of the Lamb.

If Rolston is correct, then the cross is not (as Scripture teaches) a punctiliar event that upends the world’s wisdom and power, but a “principle” that blesses violent grasping in a frightful case of the ends justifying the means (The ghost of Hegel this way comes).

By this logic, the feminist and liberationist opponents of atonement doctrine would be right in claiming that what happened on Golgotha is not just “divine child abuse” but a kind of plenary indulgence in the face of abusive power plays and “animal cruelty.”

This disaster cannot be overcome by locating God within the process.

COAKLEY’S PURPLE THREAD

That brings me, thirdly, back to Sarah Coakley.

The obvious challenge in appropriating Coakley’s argument is that it is not focused on theodicy at all, or on the perceived problem of animal suffering in particular. Her interest is in reconsidering the “rationality” of Christian belief and “sacrificial living” in an age in which the chief critics of the faith are evolutionists like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.

In the end, her claim is that “the ‘rationality’ of religious belief … may emerge from reflection on the mathematical patternings of evolution,” even if this logic must never be divorced from affective pulls toward “supernormal” sacrifice, displayed most fully in Christ, and to a lesser extent in saints and martyrs.

But this does not mean that Coakley’s sacrificial study is irrelevant to my “dead animal” fixation. She organizes her inaugural Norris-Hulse lecture around three colors that paint the (literal) backdrop to her study:

(1) red for violence,
(2) blue for analytic rationality,
(3) purple for Christ’s passion, mixed appropriately out of red and blue.

“To wax poetic,” states Coakley, “cooperation [is] the ‘thin purple line’ in evolution – the patterning of the special plenitude and productivity of ‘sacrifice’.”

To misquote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, she appears to be saying that this “thin purple line”—dividing good and evil (?)—“cuts through the heart,” not just of every human being (as Solzhenitsyn claimed), but perhaps through that of animals as well. As humans, Coakley believes that we retain the free choice to disown and discredit it.

Nonetheless, this “purple line” of creaturely self-sacrifice represents God’s “subtle pressure” woven into our biology “without which we would not be here at all.” And in Coakley’s estimation, it is the practice of this “rational [logika] sacrifice” (Rom 12:1–2) that “the world now urgently needs.”

All this is artfully framed and philosophically fascinating. But it remains to be clarified how Coakley’s “Sacrifice Regained” might relate to Darwin’s question (above).

With reference to this “thin purple line” (the sacrificial impulse) that has supposedly been implanted in the process of creaturely development, she appears to be saying that “God did it,” even while she acknowledges the darker potential of both cooperation and competition.

By reference to the “subtle trinitarian shape” to non-human cooperation, she attempts to highlight a “teachable moment” that is at once an apologetic tool and a kind of signpost pointing to Golgotha, and to a greater form of sacrifice. Yet again she remains free of the reductionism of “We did [all of] it” while also avoiding pan(en)theism and the claim that God is evil’s author.

What is absent from Coakley’s argument—perhaps because it clashes with the rationalistic blue of Cambridge sensibilities—is any reference to the role of Satan or evil spirits in the pre-fall world of animal predation. This is unsurprising for at least two reasons: First, we cannot be biblically certain what part, if any, fallen spirits played in primal history. And second, Walter Wink seems right to say that the devil remains, in sophisticated circles especially, “a scandal, a stone of stumbling, a bone in the throat of modernity” (Unmasking the Powers, 6).

Nonetheless, my own eulogy upon the carcasses of these “dead animals” will consider whether this diabolical “bone” within the modern throat might also warrant some paleontological (or rather: theological) inspection.

Next time.


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Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 4)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 4)

“It’s like finding the Holy Grail clutched in the bony fingers of Jimmy Hoffa… .”

That’s The New Yorker’s description of a site called “Tanis”—a dig in North Dakota where a young paleontologist uncovered a treasure trove of fossils from the day Earth nearly died (see here).

According to scientists, the mass burial was created when an asteroid impact triggered a cataclysm that wiped out nearly 99.99999 percent of living organisms on the planet.

“The energy released was more than that of billion Hiroshima bombs.”

The asteroid hit near the Yucatan peninsula. But even on the opposite side of the globe, the entire Indian subcontinent burst into flames. The Earth itself became toxic, and not only dinosaurs but almost all plant life died. The body count was beyond comprehension.

The story is relevant because my current series has been considering the question of animal death and suffering from a theological perspective:

  • Part 1: Framing the problem via Darwin and Dawkins
  • Part 2: Options for “Who done it?”
  • Part 3: Two extremes to be avoided: Bambi-izing and Rene Descartes.

In this post, I’ll highlight what some Christians have thought to be a possible solution by viewing creaturely predation, suffering, and death through the lens of “sacrifice.”

ANIMAL DEATH AS “SACRIFICE”?

The New Testament has always claimed that life comes forth from a death of incalculable proportions. We call this the doctrine of atonement.

Likewise, at least three theologians have suggested that the metaphor of “sacrifice” may help us think about the “greater good” that flows forth from animal death in primal history.

1. Daniel Harrell

In a brief afterword to a recent book on Christianity and science (Adam and the Genome), the Congregationalist minister Daniel Harrell asks the following: “what if the apparent wastefulness” of animal predation and death was “understood as sacrifice?”

The final word is italicized for emphasis, but Harrell never explains his meaning beyond the claim that “The universe and humanity come about at immense cost, a cost that ascribes to them immense value (cf. John 3:16).”

In this line of reasoning, the vast amount of animal death may serve the good of making us grateful for the world that we inhabit.

2. Holmes Rolston III

A second thinker urging the use of sacrificial language is Holmes Rolston III.

Rolston’s claim is that animal death in Earth’s long history was actually necessary (like a kind of life-improving sacrifice) to produce certain goods that exist today. In his words, “The cougar’s fang has carved the limbs of the fleet-footed deer, and vice versa.” The claim is that creaturely life would not have developed in so many extraordinary ways without the survival of the fittest, and the deaths of countless less-fit creatures.

Rolston is sensitive, however, to the agony and suffering that his view entails for individual creatures, and he attempts to deal with that problem by finding God within the process, suffering through his creatures. In his view, the natural order is itself “cruciform” in that it reminds us of Christ’s passion even as God suffers with it.

In this argument, sacrifice comes into play because—just like on Golgotha—Nature “sacrifices” the individual for the sake of the whole, and in this way, the victims “share the labor of the divinity.”

Long before the cross, “the way of nature was already a via dolorosa.”

3. Sarah Coakley

A third and final theologian who has pressed the theme of sacrifice to speak of creaturely death is the British theologian Sarah Coakley. Her 2012 Gifford Lectures (accessible here) were entitled “Sacrifice Regained.”

Coakley builds her argument on recent scientific “game theory” that emphasizes not merely the selfishness and violent grasping that supposedly fueled creaturely development (i.e., the strong eat the weak), but the place of creaturely altruism (cooperation) that allows lifeforms to pass on their DNA by being willing to endure a “loss”—including death itself—in order to give life to others.

If this is true, then Coakley wonders if the same body (or rather: “bodies”) of evidence that Darwin saw as signs against God’s holy character might actually be read in the opposite way: as shadows of the cross.

Her claim is that there is a “subtle trinitarian shape” revealed through the cooperation and self-sacrifice of creatures: “a loss that is gain.” Yet she is also clear that creaturely cooperation and self-sacrifice fall short of the more radical self-sacrifice displayed by “supernormal” Christian witnesses. These greater witnesses (like saints and martyrs) model their self-giving love on Jesus Christ, who went well beyond the kind of “in group” love displayed by most animals and humans.

While some animals might “sacrifice” themselves in order to see their young survive, or to give life to members of their herd—this is still quite different from the inscrutable act of dying for one’s enemies, and being willing to leave no descendants (e.g., Acts 8:33, Isa 53:8). “If you [only] love those who love you,” Jesus might be heard to remark, what good is that!? Even orcas, hens, and grizzly bears do that! (Luke 6:32)

For Coakley, it is not only the proximity, but also the distance between animal cooperation and Christian “sacrifice” that must be emphasized. In this gap—between (the second) Adam and the animals—Coakley finds what she sees as an evolutionary argument for “a specifically Christian … theism.”

After all, a portion of the Christian tradition has long held that we are drawn to God partly by the example of others when we see a depth of love and devotion that—quite simply—makes no earthly sense.

In the inscrutable “loss” that is a gain—both in the animal kingdom and most fully in Jesus Christ—Coakley sees a signpost pointing to God’s heart.

CONCLUSION

Are any of these perspectives helpful?

In the face of cataclysmic events like the Tanis asteroid impact, does the lens of “sacrifice” help Christians think about animal death and suffering in a way that safeguards the Creator’s goodness?

In the next post, I’ll offer an evaluation.

Until then, Jimmy Hoffa and the Holy Grail will have to wait.

 


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Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 3)

You will find HER between Bambi and René Descartes.

That’s my mantra in this third installment in a series on animal suffering and the goodness of God. (Read posts one and two if you’re late to the carnage.)

My point here is that one cannot speak to the relative goodness or evil of animal predation until one first determines the extent to which animals actually do suffer.

To adopt what I’ll call a “Bambi perspective” is to overemphasize the continuity between animal and human experience. While to follow Descartes is to underappreciate the extent to which animal pain does seem—at least in some instances—to approach what one may call a “suffering” that raises questions for theology.

Now for the specifics.

1. CARTESIAN CALLOUSNESS

One option in this discussion is to side with René Descartes (1629–1649) in denying the very existence of animal “suffering.”

Descartes’ view was that animals were nothing more than soulless biological machines (automata), devoid of emotion, higher thought, and suffering. This belief led him to perform cruel experiments, including the torture and vivisection of live dogs, to observe their inner “machinery.”

Given today’s standards, this view may (rightly) seem both foolish and barbaric. To take just one example, I have watched what I take to be reliable footage of, say, elephant mothers grieving, sometimes to death, after the loss of a calf. These are not emotionless machines.

Still, one need to not go all the way with Descartes in order to adopt some version of the view that animals do not genuinely suffer. C. S. Lewis famously attempted this in his book The Problem of Pain. In fairness, Lewis was a lover of animals who even campaigned against vivisections. Still, his claim was that while an animal’s nervous system may deliver all the “letters” A, P, N, I – they do not “build it up into the word PAIN” because they lack the consciousness to reflect upon it as genuine subjects.

It is not obvious why Lewis thinks this is so, and later science has tended to disagree with him, even if it is true that animals do not suffer to the extent that humans do (For the scientific argument, see Michael Murray, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, ch. 2: “Neo-Cartesianism”).

2. SENTIMENTAL BAMBI-IZING

An equal and opposite extreme to the Cartesian denial of animal suffering is the sentimental anthropomorphizing of non-human creatures (“Bambi-izing”). This error is at least partly fueled by cartoons, books, and movies in which the animals are “just like us, only more so.”

Examples of “Bambi-i-zation” (I consulted an English professor on that one) may be found on the radical fringe of the animal rights movement in which little or no distinction is made between the value of, say, a human baby and that of a sea turtle or a golden retriever.

It may also happen in a bizarre form of “forced veganism,” in which some pet owners are now feeding their unfortunate housecats “vegan pet food” in an attempt to be humane. To be clear, I have nothing against “vegan humans” (they sound delicious), but when forced on felines, the diet has an unintended consequence: the cats go blind and die.

Finally, a subtler form of Bambi-izing may be at work in the likes of Richard Dawkins. In the opening post (here), I ended with a famous quote from Dawkins’ River out of Eden:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation.

Dawkins then goes on to describe a veritable holocaust outside our doors:

During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease.

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.

To be clear, Dawkins is not wrong about the rasping, running, and devouring. But he is certainly imbalanced when he presents the created order as (seemingly) ONLY one big  bloodbath.

In fact, his work on “selfish genes” has now been roundly criticized by other biologists who point out the importance of cooperation, creaturely altruism, and even something approaching self-sacrifice within the animal realm (see esp. Martin A. Nowak).

The danger in only emphasizing the violent “Redness” of creation is that we invariably place ourselves in the “furry heads” of animals. We invariably–because of human empathy–“walk a mile in their ‘hooves’,” and in so doing we may exaggerate the full extent to which animal pain and suffering is like that experienced by humans.

The big idea is this: Both Cartesian callousness and sentimental Bambi-izing should be avoided.

CONCLUSION

Try as we might, we can’t know what it’s like to be an animal; thus we can’t know the full extent to which animals suffer. My hunch, however, is that “She” (that is, the truth) “lies somewhere between Bambi and René Descartes.”

Some animals do seem to experience life in such a way that the language of “suffering”—and perhaps “evil”—is appropriate, even while they do not suffer in the same way as humans.

If that is true, then the question of animal suffering and divine goodness is legitimate.

In the next post, I’ll come to a possible solution.

 


I’m considering this topic for a forthcoming book that is under contract with IVP Academic.

The work deals with the place of speculation in Christian theology.

Look for it (hopefully) in late 2020.

 

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt. 2)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt. 2)

Jesus is like a mother hen (Matt 23:37).

I’ll come back to that insight about two posts from now.

For now, the plan is to move forward from the question posed in “pt. 1” of this series on creaturely suffering and divine love (“Red in Tooth and Claw”). Does the massive amount of animal predation and pain speak against the goodness of the Creator?

On this question, John Wesley seemed sympathetic to the concerns expressed by Darwin (around a century before the famous biologist).

In a sermon called “The General Deliverance,” Wesley considered whether there might be

a plausible objection against the justice of God, in suffering numberless creatures that had never sinned to be so severely punished…

Having acknowledged the question, however, Wesley then claims that

the objection vanishes away, if we consider, that something better remains after death for these creatures also; that these likewise shall one day be delivered from this bondage of corruption, and shall then receive an ample amends for all their present sufferings.

There you have it.

Wesley thinks that your arthritic house cat might enjoy eternal bliss. And especially if you ever fed her vegan pet food. In that case, “Whiskers” will be closer to the throne than you. Selah.

But is it sufficient to assume that “animal heaven” would answer all questions of non-human suffering and divine goodness? Not everybody thinks so (including Wesley). In light of those remaining questions, my goal in this post is to lay out all the different answers to the theological “Who done it?” of animal pain, predation, and mortality.

I’ll save the footnotes for the book (I’m currently working on a chapter that dives into this debate), but here is my version of the various options:

I. NOBODY DID IT
II. WE DID IT
III. GOD DID IT
IV. EVIL SPIRIT(S) DID IT
V. “DON’T DO IT!”

ANSWERS ON THE ORIGIN OF ANIMAL SUFFERING

I. NOBODY DID IT

This is, of course, the Dawkins option. But it might also be the claim of those who hold that the material world is simply eternal. Both views are out of bounds for Christian orthodoxy.

II. WE DID IT

This was the most common Christian answer prior to the modern era. And it remains popular with so-called “young-earth creationists” (YECs). The idea is that while animal suffering may be both real and tragic, it did not occur before the fall of Genesis 3. It is a result of Adam’s sin; it does not precede it.

Despite scientific objections, the view might seem to accord with Paul’s claim that “death” entered the world because of “sin” (Rom 5:12) just as the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23; cf. James 1:15).

This perspective may also seem to get God “off the hook” for what Darwin dubbed “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals.” But it is also seen, at least by some, as falling afoul of not just science but the Scriptures. (Since it may be the most well-known Christian position, I’ll spend a bit more time in showing why it is not the only option.)

Even amongst evangelical scholars (like those who trained me), many believe that the sin-wrought “death” of which Paul speaks is either of (1) an exclusively human variety or (2) of a spiritual kind that points to our salvific lifelessness apart from God’s grace. After all, Adam and Eve do not physically “die” on the literal day they that they eat the fruit, despite the prior warning that “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17 ESV). This fact leads many to see the “death” as spiritual in nature. If this reading is correct, then the presence of animal mortality before the fall of Genesis 3 would not necessarily contradict any aspect of biblical theology.

Scripture sometimes depicts the predation of the animal realm as part of its God-given glory. When Yahweh speaks to Job from the whirlwind, he gives no hint of seeing carnivores as a sad byproduct of sin. The Creator himself gives meat to the ravens (Job 38:41); he commands the eagle to “build its nest on high” to “feast on blood” (39:29–30); and he provides prey for the lions (38:39–41). In response to this bowel-shaking tour of creaturely life and death, Ronald Osborn claims that Job’s “Creator takes full responsibility for animal predation, and there is no hint that it is anything other than very good.” To claim otherwise is therefore to risk the rebuke of yet another question from the whirlwind: “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty?” (Job 40:2 NASB).

III. GOD DID IT

If the sovereign and holy God is seen to be the “Designer” of the creaturely circle of life and death, then one or more of the following caveats are sometimes used to show why God is not “evil” or cruel to have designed things this way.

A. God is BEYOND good and evil.
B. Animal predation (or at least some of it) is NOT evil.
C. God is UNITED with the process, suffering in and with it.
D. Animal predation serves to bring about some GREATER GOOD(S).
E. God designed predation, but only with the FOREKNOWN HUMAN FALL in view.

I’ll skip the commentary on all these for now and return to them in a later post. Suffice it to say that I find some of them more credible than others.

IV. EVIL SPIRIT(S) DID IT

The claim of the early Gnostics was that a lesser deity (the demiurge) was responsible for the shoddy workmanship of the material world. Hence their great hope was to “leave this earthen dumpster fire forever” (exact quote from Basilides [not really]) and live as disembodied spirits. Irenaeus brought the smack-down against this view in the 2nd c. AD.

The more common version of the evil spirits argument—as entertained by C. S. Lewis and many others—was that the rebellion of certain angels (Satan included) brought about a violent and disordered world, and that this realm of animal predation existed long before humans ever came upon the scene.

V. “DON’T DO IT!”

This last view holds that the very attempt to answer the question of animal suffering is an example of unholy and unhelpful speculation into matters that are simply too lofty for us (see, e.g., Job 38–41, Isa 55:8).

Something like this answer might be extrapolated from the late John Webster when he warns against the “vice” of curiosity, and against the tendency to subordinate theology to apologetics. In so doing, his claim is that we must stop focusing on the “problem” of evil and instead shift our eyes to God (the only answer to the problem of pain).

CONCLUSION

My goal here has not been to say which, if any, of these options helps answer the questions of Wesley and Darwin. I’ll write more on that in a subsequent post.

But remember: Jesus is like a mother hen.

And also: John Wesley believed in “puppy heaven.”


 

Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

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