Saturday, February 21, 2015

John K Roth: A Theodicy of Protest (Part 2)


To read part 1 of this article click here

An omnipotent yet (apparently) disinterested God

Roth believes God is truly omnipotent and really has has the power to change the course of history if God wanted to. There are several examples in the Bible which support this position , for example Noah and the flood, and God stopping the sun for a day so Joshua could wage a battle. However, despite this option to dramatically change things, it seems up to now God is not interested in doing anything other than allowing history to remain a 'slaughter-bench'.

The potential to change the course of human history is within God's reach. God could elect to do things very differently, but so far as we can tell God's so-called 'master-plan' has been to let people do whatever they want (allowing freedom to run its course). For Roth this chaotic state is not really evidence of planning:
"Everything hinges on the proposition that God possesses - but fails to use well enough - the power to intervene decisively at any moment to make history's course less wasteful. Thus, in spite and because of his sovereignty, this God is everlastingly guilty and the degrees run from gross negligence to mass murder." (John Roth)
So once again we are faced with the following choice: Either God is deprived of some power, or we consider God to be less-than-good (according to the standards of 'goodness' we understand). The question is which 'version' of God presents the greater risk: an innocent but ineffectual God, or one who is all-powerful but less than benevolent? Roth believes we should take our chances with the latter, for the simple reason that like Job in the Old Testament, we at least have the chance to state our case before God in the hope that God will turn things around, and especially as the Bible gives numerous examples of where God has been willing to do this before.

A limited God has nothing to offer in terms of making things better, but a God who has given us life yet in whose presence we yearn for more love to be shown, could potentially do this.

Of course, Roth realises that in adopting this view of God we now face the following scenario:
"To defend the good as we know it best - especially to carry out God's own commandments that we should serve those in need, heal the sick, feed the hungry, forestall violence - we must do battle against forces that are loose in the world because God permits them." (John Roth)
However logically this raises the following issue: If God is said to be less-than-benevolent, why has God has commanded us to 'heal the sick, feed the hungry, forestall violence'? Why if God has chosen to allow malevolent forces to run 'loose in the world', does God then command us to work to counter them? Roth remains somewhat silent on this matter!

An anti-theodicy

Roth’s Protest Theodicy is seen by him as more of an anti-theodicy. Nothing can truly justify all the evil and suffering we see going on in the world, with the responsibility for it all lying squarely with God:
"There is really not much that human beings can do." (John Roth)
All theodicies assume God’s benevolence, but why continue to believe in a loving God in light of all the wasted life (and lives) in the universe? How can we believe in a God of love who seemingly 'sat back' on the 11th September 2001 and watched thousands die? If God has acted in history in the past, why doesn’t God do so again? We should call out to God and state our grievances. We should protest God's silence and apparent lack of interest and concern.
"Questions should be raised; answers should be sought. Promises should be fulfilled; the guilty should stand accused!" (John Roth)
Some issues

Roth's protest theodicy depends largely on whether one accepts that God has unlimited power to do anything. Is God only limited by whether God decides to do something (or not)? A limited understanding of God's omnipotence presents numerous problems as to how God can be so limited and why. A limited view of God's power is not supported by the numerous examples of miracles in the Bible. Taking these accounts seriously, begs the question as to why God does not do more 'large-scale miracles' along the lines of them, and the fact that God has not done more means we may have no choice but to agree with Roth that God appears to have the power to act, but is unwilling to do so.

However the question begs; is God is actually benevolent? In terms of the biblical record it appears to suggest God is:
"Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)
Yet some other passages may cause us to re-think this:
"When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God." (2 Samuel 6:6f - Emphasis mine)
"O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us - he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." (Psalm 137:8f - Emphasis mine)
One could say God was more volatile in the Old Testament but is more loving in the New Testament, but this seems to support Roth’s view that God is lacking benevolence and is morally unpredictable. Even with a more loving God in the New Testament we still have to explain the death of Jesus; an innocent man who God allowed to be tortured before being killed in brutal fashion, and all because God demanded this life to satisfy the moral conditions God had established. If Jesus needed to die, why allow his death to be so malicious and brutal? Why not allow him to die swiftly and with minimum amount of pain? Animals sacrificed in the Jewish Temple were treated with greater dignity and respect at their death than Jesus was!

Even if we accept some notion of sin and depravity in humans, our baulking at the circumstances in which Jesus died appears to suggest we have a greater moral sensibility than God. Roth may be going too far in proposing a less-than benevolent God, but what evidence do we have that God is in fact benevolent in light of the evidence of human history? However all this does not sit very well with Roth's argument that our pleadings before God may change things. For if we really are living in the presence of a deity who is less-than benevolent, what hope do we have for believing that things could or should be any better than they are right now? Presenting our case (protesting) before God to do something about evil and suffering, may in fact lead to things getting worse rather than better.

Final thoughts…

Although Roth’s theodicy may be theologically unpalatable, it does force us to explain why we assume God is benevolent in light of the continued presence of evil and suffering in the world. Certainly we are forced to take seriously the value of postulating the idea of a limited God, and the moral questions surrounding the 'all for a greater good' view of things, especially when we think about how God is said to have acted in the past yet does not appear to do so today.

Video: Your God is no Good


2 comments:

djk said...

love it!

djk said...

Addendum: Actually, Roth's theodicy is very like standard Reformed theology. In an elder training class, to my question: "Does god love, in any sense of that word, those he has predestined to eternal damnation?" the very educated teacher responded: read what god said in both the OT and NT: "Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated."