This is another theological reflection from the perspective of a Christian theologian. It raises, however, critical questions of interest to those of all religions, or faith systems, or of no faith at all. It deals with a very fundamental question of the human condition. It is not easy to understand and it is not simple.
So when you read this post please understand that it encourages a civilized theological discussion on an issue that is far from resolved among theologians, to say nothing of the reluctance of people unschooled in theology to look at it at all. But it is an issue that all can and should take the time to deal with. There are no dumb comments or dumb answers to this issue.
Voicegal recently posted an interesting invitation to us to share spiritual encounters we have had. You can read her excellent post HERE . I invite those who have not read it to do so and share any experiences with the spiritual aspects of your life or to comment there with any thoughts you have on the subject.
I did not share any examples of my own on VG's post because I have had so many spiritual events in my life that no one encounter comes to mind as more important than another. You have all heard me say many times that there are miracles going on around us all the time but that we are not attuned to listen and watch for them. We seldom spend any time just being quiet in this busy world we live in.
But both VG's post and the good comments in response to it made me pause and re-order my own thoughts on the general subject. What is written below is an edited version of my comments there in order to expand them a bit into a theological reflection.
The issues of spiritual encounters, miracles, prayer and, most importantly, God's nature and our interaction with God all revolve around the ultimate theological question of theodicy (the question of evil in the world), which I have discussed here on OS, but mostly in comments and never in a post devoted to that subject.
Theodicy is an issue of utmost importance to any faith experience, regardless of religion or spiritual orientation, or having no spiritual orientation at all. Theodicy is something that faith either accepts or does not.
Christians have all too easily distanced themselves from the question of theodicy because they literally "don't want to think about it." That head in the sand approach to faith honors no one, least of all God. We have in the question of theodicy the fundamental stumbling block to faith.
I'm sure that voicegal was not surprised when I told her that I have experienced many times when coincidence piles upon coincidence upon coincidence to the point that the statistical probability of the string of events is very, very poor. So the issue when that happens is what do you call a billion to one shot?
Even though I am a pastor and a theologian, I seek the answer to any strange spiritual encounter or event first in what we know about the natural world. I turn to science. Usually that explains it.
There is much that science can teach us about our world, our universe and our place in it. Much of science can be proven by repeatable testing. When that testing yeilds answers consistently then I go with those results. God gave us all brains and expects us to use them. There should be no fundamental fight between religion and science in spite of the often vicious rhetoric on both sides.
So, since science can give us many answers to our questions about the unknown, the next question is how do we approach something about which there is no scientific evidence that such a thing that we have observed can have happened?
One way is the to accept a scientific assumption which says that it is a natural event but we simply have yet to prove it. That argument is that every thing in the natural world is subject to rigorous scientific study and that such study will show, eventully, that all events or encounters can be attributed to "natural" causes.
What is seldom stated by those who believe this is that saying this is a statement of faith: faith that what we don't know through science we WILL know sometime in the future.
Then there is the kind of faith that says that God can and does act in the world when it suits God's purposes. If that is not true, then why would we pray? Why would we thank God for interventions in our lives that we believe he (or she) caused? Why would we believe that God wishes to bless us and to have an intimate relationship with us?
And that is where the split between faith and science occurs because there is no effective language that can bridge the gap between faith in science and faith in a God or life force or whatever else you want to call a higher power.
Even the nature of the language we attempt to use is frought with little linguistic land mines, some of which are so common that even Christians and other spiritual believers have come to use the language of the opponents of religion in describing encounters with God or a higher power.
Let me mention just one such example and then we will move on. Almost everyong uses the term "supernatural." I even fall into the bad habit of using it. Anything that we can't immediately explain we are apt to say or think that it is caused by some thing or some one supernatural.
And by that we mean something out of the ordinary, beyond the laws of nature. But why would we do that if we believe that God acts in our lives all the time? If that is true then that is part of the natural world or cosmos that we experience.
The definition of "natural" to a believer should be that God's relationship to us occurs within the natural world. God's interventions here on earth are part of the way a person of faith views the world normally to be. God actions here on earth are, simply, a natural part of the universe he/she created.
I choose to believe that there is a God who cares what happens to us and intervenes often in our affairs. Please note clearly that this is a belief, a faith. Faith is not a scientifically documentable phenomenum.
Now, here is the big problem that those who have faith often truly never deal with because it is just too hard to even think about. It is that ancient issue of theodicy rearing its ugly head again.
Christians and others who believe in God (or in a higher power, a supreme being, the flow of good into the world, etc.) have a tendency to "give God the glory" and thank God for the miracles they believe happen to them, for the answers to their prayers and such.
But they tend to be loathe to attribute anything to God when bad things happen to good people. This is the hulking 800 pound gorilla in the room of faith that so many religous refuse to acknowledge. But this issue of theodicy should not be ignored the way so many well meaning people of faith do.
One example: A true one. When I was a pastor in Illinois a school bus was trapped on the railroad tracks not far from our town and the train wiped out the back half of the bus. The train literally tore the bus in half. The kids in the back of the bus were all killed. The kids in the front were all untouched.
Parents of the ones who were unhurt were thanking God for saving their child. That is a natural reaction and certainly understandable. But then what of the ones in the back who died? Were they just unlucky? Was it just their time to go? If you believe in Satan did Satan somehow intervene and cause them to die, and if so, to what end?
The honest answer, the one so many believers never want to think about is that, if you believe in God, you must either conclude that they deserved to die, or, more morally defensible, that God allowed that evil to happen.
Even if there is a literal Satan then God allowed Satan to act just as God allowed Satan to test Job. Any way we look at it this issue poses hard, hard questions. If God is God then God had the power to stop those deaths.
This kind of issue arises all the time. For instance, there is the series of wonderful things that happened all in a row that saved the people on the plane that landed in the Hudson river. But what about all the people who are killed on planes that do crash and crumple into a thousand pieces? The list is endless of the miracles we attribute to God and of the evil that God did not prevent that we don't talk about.
But here is the hard truth; the truth that even the best theologians hate to address. If you are going to believe in God you have to say not that God is the God of good things only but that God is the God of all, good and bad.
He/she gives us free will to decide whether we will worship him/her. Ultimately the test is hard. It is the hardest test the believer will ever take. Believers have to accept that we will never know completely God's plans or her ways or his reasons while we are on this earth. Believers have to have a faith that says that God knows what is ultimately best for us and that we do not.
The decision has to be made that while God has given us free will to control much in our lives as we muddle along, God is in control of the big issues of our lives (like why we are here; what is our purpose since we are here; why we live, why we die, what happens then, etc.) and we are not in control of those. We have to decide that we are not God.
One of the most difficult books of the Bible is the book of Job. I have studied Job for decades, long before I went to seminary, long before I decided to be a pastor. Many who go to seminary refuse to study Job for they fear that their faith will be shaken if they read Job.
Yet I have read and studied Job and have accepted its implications for my faith. I have preached innumerable sermon series on Job. I have written enough on Job that I could easily combine the study and work on that book into a commentary on it.
Dealing with, coming to grip with, the question of theodicy is the whole purpose of the book of Job. Job gave himself to God and refused to allow his faith to falter as all around him crumbled and he lost everything: his health, his family, his possessions.
In the end, when in the deepest of pain, unimaginable pain, and seemingly hopeless depression, he yelled at God and screamed, "Why me?" And God's answer was "Why not you? You are a righteous man. Do you still have faith in me?"
And Job pleaded and argued with God to no avail. Yet Job still had faith. Job still laid his problems at God's door step. Job trusted God.
At the very end of the book Job gets well, rebuilds a new family and restores his possessions. But this renewal is not in reward for his torture. And it does not remove the torturous life he had, or the losses he went through.
Job never knows why God took it all away and then restores him. Job accepts, finally, that there are some things we will never know. There really is, as Bonnhoeffer says, no cheap grace. And believing in God is not as easy as many make out.
I have no idea where this problem of theodicy will be resolved by each of you. Some will fall away from God and never return. Some will deny the existance of God and therefore deal with the issue of theodicy is a fatalistic fashion. Some will continue to say "I just don't want to think about it." And some will accept God knowing that there are things we will never know about God's ways.
I am in the latter group. My life is in God's hands. Not mine. I can do many things without God. But try as I have, I cannot create my future, stop my death, or change the course of my history to any significant extent. God knows, literally, how hard I have tried to do those things.
I find that I can play around with the outsides of the mystery that is God, but I cannot, and am not wired to penetrate that mystery. God is still a mystery.
Many today find mystery something foreign, something to be ignored or explained away. But, friends, there will always be more mystery than there is knowledge on this earth. We are not wired to know it all.
But we are wired to ask the next question about that which remains mystery, and so assure that there will never be an end to the questions, and hence there will always be mystery.
Ultimately St. Paul is right. Faith is the belief in things unseen.
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