About Scott Lipscomb

My name is Scott Lipscomb. I'm an Episcopal priest, father, and husband living and working in Washington, DC. I blog weekly at www.wrestlingwiththeangel.org, focusing on how our study of scripture and theology can inform our personal and political lives.

But How Do We Pray?

This past Sunday, our Gospel reading was Luke 11:1-13, which includes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer—the prayer Jesus taught his disciples.

In this sermon, I explore the Lord’s Prayer not only to better understand what Jesus teaches us we ought to pray for, but also to better understand what role prayer can have in our lives—especially the relation between prayer and action.

Please feel free to share and let me know what you think.

Living the Dream with Pauli Murray

As anyone who has visited this page lately can plainly see, I haven’t been updating this blog in quite a while. My work in full-time ministry has left with me with little extra time—or creative energy—for regular writing here, unfortunately.

So, in lieu of new written pieces, I will begin to post my sermons here more-or-less weekly. Each post will link to the YouTube video of the sermon. I invite you to share any sermon you like, and please feel free to leave comments on my parish’s YouTube channel.

Today, I want to share the sermon I preached on July 3, 2022, celebrating the Feast of Pauli Murray:

Love in the Time of COVID: St. Paul on Masks

To mask or not to mask. In the summer of 2020, that is the question.

In the US, the question is strangely rather political, with many Americans perceiving government requirements to wear a mask as a violation of their freedom: they should be free to go outside without a mask if they so choose. Meanwhile, while no one actually enjoys wearing a mask, the evidence showing their effectiveness in reducing the spread of the coronavirus has convinced many other Americans to wear a mask either for their own safety—or out of a sense of duty to others.

Benjamin Franklin once said that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” The tug-of-war between freedom and security has defined much of American politics, and it seems to define the contours of the mask debate as well.

But for a Christian, neither freedom nor security is the highest value. We worship neither the self nor the state, and so our answer to whether to mask or not must be based on our most deeply held value: knowing, worshiping, and serving God through, in, and as Jesus Christ.

So: would Jesus wear a mask?

To answer this question, one chapter from Paul’s letters will be very instructive. Paul faced many controversies of his own as he sought to spread faith in Christ throughout the eastern Mediterranean. In Corinth, a city in southern Greece, a fight broke out over something that seems trivial today: can Christians eat meat that’s been used in pagan religious practices?

This is the topic Paul takes up 1 Corinthians 8, a short chapter that neatly summarizes the Christian attitude towards freedom, responsibility, and society in general. Let’s take a brief look at the text and then see what it can teach us about masks in 2020:

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Immediately Paul sets the stage: there is a tension between knowledge and love. Of course, if you ask anyone today whether they wear a mask or not, whichever choice they prefer, they will be sure that their choice is right, and they often denigrate those on the other side. Paul knew all about this “knowledge [that] puffs up” but he called his friends to a different way of life. He continues:

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Paul is skeptical of arrogant claims to knowledge, yet Paul does know some things. He knows the gods represented by idols are not real—so, if meat is offered as a sacrifice to such a god, nothing in fact has actually happened. For Paul, then, there is no concern about eating this meat. It is food, like any other food. The religious ceremony it’s been involved with was a deception, but so long as the one who eats it does not participate directly in the ceremony, it does no damage to their relationship with God. Now, Paul concludes the chapter:

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Religious knowledge is not the final word, and Paul now returns to his original theme. Even if he know that idols are in fact just wood or stone, that they are not real gods, some of his fellow Christians may not be so sure. Perhaps they only recently converted, or are more superstitious than he is. And if they see him eat this meat sacrificed to idols, perhaps they will be confused and scandalized. What if this tempts them to eat this meat, which they believe really does link them to the god of the idol? This could cause them to either abandon the Christian faith, or perhaps remain in the church while feeling guilty, compromised, and spiritually divided.

For Paul, this possibility finishes the argument: protecting others’ faith, conscience, and peace of mind is more important than having a nice meal. So, Paul will never eat meat sacrificed to idols—even though he himself sees nothing wrong with doing so. In short, Paul’s love for his fellow believer outweighs his desire for freedom.

Paul sums this up nicely himself: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” Liberty in life is itself good, but it is not the only or highest good. We must look out for others, especially the weak. Indeed, Paul tells us, we must love others more than our own liberty.

Now, surely, if Paul is willing to give up meat—at a time when famines were not rare and quality food often hard to come by—just to safeguard the gentle consciences of others, then he has certainly given us food for thought about wearing masks today, hasn’t he? Because, if wearing a mask—an action that does me no harm, besides causing some mild discomfort—might actually save someone else’s life, then Paul answers the question of whether to wear a mask or not with unambiguously. My freedom to avoid mild discomfort is not as important as another’s life. Period.

“Freedom” is too often just another way of saying “I do what I want!” But Christian faith is built on just the opposite: we are called to abandon selfishness in service to others. In this way, we draw closer to each other, and to God. We see this throughout the Gospels: Jesus heals and feeds without charging a dime; he teaches for free too, and when the going gets tough, he takes on the violence of the state himself, refusing to run away or to put anyone else in harm’s way.

Jesus never insists on freedom—but he always insists on love. Not the superficial, saccharine love of romance novels, but the spiritual love of sacrifice for the good of others. This divine love asks not what I can get from someone, but rather what they need from me. And this is precisely what Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 8 (and he continues the theme in chapter 9).

Again: “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” If you don’t want to wear a mask because it’s hot outside, you don’t like the way it looks, or it irritates your skin, just remember that this tiny sacrifice might keep someone else out of the hospital—or the grave. When such a tiny sacrifice of liberty yields such a great harvest of love for another, the Christian’s duty is, I think, perfectly clear.

TL;DR: Jesus wants you to wear a mask!

Wrestling with the Angel

cropped-wrestling-with-the-angel-blog-top-1.jpgI’ve been writing this blog for over ten years. In that time, it’s had a few different names: “Life’s a Lap” became “Noisy Gong”. Now it’s “Wrestling with the Angel”.

I’m changing the name because I am re-launching the blog after more than a year of radio silence. Each week, I will be posting a long post that engages scripture & theology and applies them to our personal and political lives. I wanted a name that reflected what I want us to do together here: like Jacob all those years ago, I want us to meet God and wrestle with our questions, our doubts, and our hopes all at once.

So, if you’ve been reading this blog off and on for a few years—thanks! I hope you like the articles to come. And if you are brand new to the blog—welcome! Please join the conversation, and subscribe to get notifications when new articles are posted.

Here are the topics for upcoming articles. If you have any ideas for articles, please leave a comment here—I’d love suggestions!

Upcoming Articles:

The Trials & Tribulations of Abra(ha)m
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are known as the “Abrahamic faiths”—but who was this Abraham, and why is he so important? We will journey with Abraham through Genesis, chapters 11 to 25, to learn about one of the most important figures in Scripture

The Akedah: Unbinding Isaac
Chapter 22 of Genesis, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is one of the most distressing chapters in Jewish and Christian scripture. What are we to make of the (almost) sacrifice of a child? And how do we square this grotesque story with our faith in a loving God?….

Female Sedition in Scripture
It is taken for granted that the Bible enshrines sexism and patriarchy. Any careful reader of scripture will have to admit that this is too often true. Yet, it’s not always so straightforward. Indeed, throughout Scripture, both the Holy Spirit and women themselves broke through the wall of sexism and showed that God was calling us in a different direction…[Gen. 3, Deborah, Hildah, Mary Magdalene (Apostle to the Apostles), Chloe, Junia…]

The Politics of Jubilee & the Theology of Reconstruction
We often feel like our politics and our faith should be more-or-less separate—and at a time when certain kinds of Christianity are becoming perhaps too political. So what happens when we realize that God has put a lot of politics in our Bible?! We will discuss the Jubilee, a radical program of wealth equality present in the laws of Torah, and how it connects with the history of the period of Reconstruction in the US after the Civil War.

The Trouble with Knowing God
As people of faith, we seek to know God—our creator, sustainer, and redeemer. Yet, as we mature spiritually, we find that knowing God is rather tricky—we cannot know God the same way that we know anything else. In today’s entry, we will talk about the difficulty of knowing God and what our spiritual ancestors can teach us about it nevertheless [apophatic theology].

300 vs. the Bible: Reconsidering Sparta and Persia
We often hear that at Thermopylae, the Greeks defended “western civilization” from the ravages of the autocratic East. But is this simple narrative really accurate? And what if we discover that the Hebrew Bible looks kindly on the Persians and negatively on the Greeks—all while valuing, on its own terms, much of what was supposedly unique to “western civilization”?

Wrestling with Biblical Criticism
In the past 200 years, close study of the Bible (historical, literary, redaction, and other forms of text-criticism) have yielded a vast amount of learning for those of us who want to know Scripture well. But of course such work has also generated much controversy. How, exactly, should Christiains engage with and use scholarly criticism of the text? We will focus on the critical response to the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts to raise questions about scholarly criticism and encourage each Christian to be both open-minded—and yet think critically for themselves, too

Faithful Questions
It’s often assumed that Christian faith is about receiving, maintaining, and asserting the right answers. Such an approach has run into a lot of trouble in the last few centuries, though, and many Christians may feel pressure to abandon such a one-dimensional view of faith. The good news is that such a simplistic understanding of faith doesn’t seem to be what Jesus called his disciples to anyway—we will look closely at Jesus’s teaching style to help us find a more open-minded and more faithful approach to being disciples of Jesus.

Of gods and Men
In this article, I will discuss Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat and the ancient idea of euhemerism. Both the modern book and the ancient idea offer tantalizing ideas of how we humans came to many of our religious ideas—and how real faith in God calls us to challenge “religion”.

Worshiping in the Beauty of Holiness
“Holy” is one of those words religious folks use a lot, but what, exactly does it mean? And what is worship about? Does God “need” our attention? Or is worship really about us? In this article, we will tackle the strange idea of holiness and ask what our worship life is really for.

Disciples in the Street: Christian Faith & Political Protest
We are living through not only a pandemic but a huge number of people protesting the killing of George Floyd on May 26. Police forces are responding with extraordinary violence and the president is threatening to essentially invoke martial law. How does faith in Jesus guide our response to this situation?

Prophets as the eyes of the Body of Christ
What is a “prophet”, exactly? And what does it mean to be part of the “Body of Christ”? For most people today, who tend to think of ourselves as individuals and think of our relationship to God as a one-to-one interaction, these terms have lost much of their meaning and power. We will discuss the history of these terms and how reclaiming a communal understanding of identity can liberate us spiritually.

So—those are the topics I hope to tackle in the coming weeks. More topics & ideas will certainly be added. Join me each week as we wrestle with the angel…

Sermons Upon Sermons…

sermonWritingI haven’t written on this blog in a while, but I do have a reason. Back in April of 2018, I began work as an Assistant Rector at St. Mark’s Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Predictably, my free time has dwindled, and so my time on here has as well.

In the past, I had at least posted written versions of any sermons I gave on this blog. I haven’t done that in a while, but that’s because my sermons are now posted on my church’s site. I figured the least I could do was link that page here, so that if any folks who came across my personal blog wanted to check any of those sermons out, you could get to them easily.

So here are the links:

St. Mark’s – Scott’s Sermons

Scott’s Sermons at St. Augustine’s

I will also post a permanent link to that sermons page both up top on the pages bar and in the blogroll on the sidebar.

I do hope to also post some non-sermon content on here from time to time—but with my current schedule, I won’t make any promises!

God Acts Through the Inconsequential; God Arrives Unexpected: A Sermon for June 17, 2018.

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what follows below is a version written from notes and memory. I have made some changes for the sake of clarity and precision.
The readings for this sermon were 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34. They can be found on the lectionary page.

childrenSeparatedWe human beings, I think, tend to focus on the mighty, the powerful, and the triumphant. Those are the histories we like to read, the biographies we like to read: about the powerful, the rich, the mighty. So we tend to assume that those are the people getting things done, that those are the people we should be paying attention to; that if things are going to get better, it will be the powerful who do it.

But it’s a funny thing: if we look at Scripture, God rarely seems to call such people to action. Instead, God often seems to call people we wouldn’t expect: the poor, the weak, the marginalized, the inconsequential.

For example, consider our Hebrew Bible reading for this morning: the prophet Samuel is called to identify the next king of Israel. All he is told is that it will be one of the sons of a man named Jesse. So he goes to Jesse’s house, and Jesse lines up his sons. Samuel knows that when he stands in front of the right son, God will let him know. Samuel immediately makes a bee-line for the eldest son, assuming that he—the tallest, the strongest, the obvious choice—will be the next king.

And Samuel does hear a message from God, but not the one he expects. God corrects Samuel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

So Samuel keeps walking down the line—but never hears the right message. Then he asks Jesse if all his sons are actually present—and Jesse answers that they left the youngest in the pasture to tend the sheep, assuming he wasn’t important enough for this meeting. Samuel has this young boy called in, and as he approaches, Samuel hears God’s message: this David will be the next king.

The very people we assume are so unimportant, so inconsequential, are the very people God so often calls to do God’s work in this world. But we are so easily distracted by the rich, the powerful, the mighty, the magnificent, the triumphant. We have to turn our gaze, and pay attention to other people, because the truth is that if we are waiting for the rich and the powerful to make the world a better place, we will probably be waiting a very long time…

It’s often said that “God doesn’t call the qualified; rather, God qualifies those who are called.” No matter how small or insignificant or weak someone may seem, we should be ready for God to act through them. This also means that no matter how small or insignificant or weak we think we are, we must always be ready to hear God’s call to action.

I think Jesus is making a similar point in our Gospel reading for this morning. He says that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—now, if there are any botanists in the house today, yes, it’s true that it’s not absolutely the smallest seed in the world, but it is quite tiny. If I scattered some on the floor right now, I don’t think any of you would be able to see it. And yet, as the gardeners here will attest, once it’s planted and it starts to grow, it flourishes and spreads rapidly, and can quickly take over a garden. (And Jesus goes on to say that it provides a home for the wandering and lost—a point we’ll come back to shortly.)

So the Kingdom of God starts out small—imperceptible—and yet the potential for it to erupt into our lives and utterly transform us is there, if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Jesus seems to be telling us that God always comes from an unexpected place. We may think we have God locked down and understood, but God is always ready to surprise us.

And this is so important for us to remember in this world where, again, we are so often distracted by the grand and the flashy, the rich and the powerful.

Today we are baptizing three young people: still small and vulnerable, still learning, seemingly inconsequential. But if we are paying attention to what the Spirit is saying through Scripture this morning, we should know better. It is in these small people that God is getting ready to act. If we are waiting for God, don’t first look at the folks with collars on, or the vestry members, or even our musicians—look to these children, so small and yet in whom the potential of God’s infinite love is stirring.

Now, baptism is one of the most important celebrations we ever hold in a church. But it’s important to be clear about what we are and are not doing in baptism. Baptism is not a magic trick. Baptism does not confer God’s love. Rather, baptism recognizes that God already loves the one being baptized—and everyone else.

But baptism does confer something: responsibility. The responsibility to receive God’s love, and then go live that love in the world. And that’s not always an easy job! When the parents and godparents of the baptizands stand around the font, they will be asked a series of questions, to make some public vows. And not them only—we will all be asked to reaffirm our baptismal vows. I encourage you to really listen, really pay attention to these promises we are responsible for.

Consider this one, for example: “Do you renounce all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God and all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” This is not an idle question, because there are people who seem to have compromised with wickedness, who seem to have allowed their sinful desires to exploit and oppress to lead them astray.

Some very public figures—I won’t name names, but if you know how to use a search engine, you can figure it out rather quickly—have been defending the current administration’s practice of separating migrant and refugee children from their parents for weeks, months, maybe longer. And they have tried to use Christianity as an excuse. Specifically, they have cited Scripture—Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 13, verse 1, which reads as follows: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” Citing this, these public leaders have argued that Christians must obey the law all the time, without question: so if the law says to strip children from their parents, so be it!

It must be said clearly and unequivocally that this interpretation of Christian faith has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is theological and historical nonsense. It is ethically bankrupt.

There are a number of reasons why, so let’s review them all briefly. First and foremost, we must recognize that the question of whether to obey the law and authorities is not the first question we should ask, is not the most important question to ask. To begin with this question of obedience is to put the cart miles in front of the horse. No, first we must ask some questions about the law and authorities themselves. Are the laws just? Are they legitimate? I think we can all agree that we should obey just and legitimate laws and the authorities enforcing them—even if they are inconvenient for us, even if they harm us. But that’s just it—if they are just and legitimate. This question must be resolved before we can know whether to obey a law or not.

To see why this question must be asked before we can talk about obeying or disobeying, consider some history:

  • Imagine you are a German Christian in the 1940’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt God called you to disobey?…
  • Or, imagine you are an American Christian in the 1850’s. Which laws would you have obeyed? And which laws would you have felt called to disobey?…

And let’s remember that for the first 280 years of the Church’s history—nearly three centuries!—it was effectively illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. Paul, just in writing this letter to the church at Rome, was committing a crime!

Indeed, this very same Paul was imprisoned for spreading the Gospel! He wrote many of his letters from jail, and tradition tells us he was executed by the government for engaging in what that government considered treason and sedition.

But you don’t have to be a theologian or a historian to see the ridiculousness of arguing that Christians must support the separation of children from their families. You could just open your Bible to the passage so many have been citing to defend this policy, and just keep reading. After a few more sentences, you’d come to verse 10: “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Clearly, Paul’s whole point is that the law’s only purpose is to serve love. Indeed, Jesus, like many other Jewish rabbis of the time, summarized the whole of Jewish law by saying, “love God and love your neighbor.” These children, these families, are our neighbors. Trying to use Scripture to justify abusing them is outrageous nonsense.

As we baptize these young people today, we will celebrate that each one of them is made in the image of God. And in celebrating God’s presence in these inconsequential people, we might be surprised to find God moving in us in unexpected ways: we will simultaneously be celebrating that all of us in this church are made in the image of God—and, in fact, that every human being, whether American or not, Christian or not, is made in the image of God, and all are our neighbors. So, the only law we have to obey is the law of love. And that’s all I have to say about it.

Satan & Freedom: A Provisional Theodicy

edenIconChristian attempts to explain the problem of evil have traditionally (but not exclusively) relied on an argument centered around human free will. The basic sketch of this argument can be seen in the second and third chapters of the book of Genesis: Adam and Eve chose to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which had been expressly forbidden by God. Therefore, the argument goes, they were punished with banishment from the Garden and, ultimately, suffering and death as well. This explanation of the existence of evil has certain merits: it is relatively straightforward and simple, and it also fits common patterns of human reasoning. Human leaders demand obedience, and human leaders punish transgression. It’s easy to assume that God acts like a very powerful and authoritative human.

But this general argument also leaves many questions unanswered, and it seems in conflict with the full breadth of Abrahamic doctrine. First, the text of Genesis itself seems to provide a serious obstacle to this common account of evil’s rise: the serpent, here a sign of Satan (“the Accuser”) is already in the Garden. If evil only arose due to human disobedience, why is the deceiver already present? Second, this traditional argument seems to run directly counter to another central claim of the Abrahamic traditions: namely, that God is all-powerful and is therefore able to determine creation as God sees fit. If God is in full control, can humans really have free will? Notice that John Calvin took exactly this line of thought when he argued for God’s total sovereignty (and against any real conception of human free will). Third, whatever position we take on God’s power and sovereignty, the Abrahamic tradition has also insisted that God is loving. How can God’s love be reconciled with the image of divine punishment for the errors of a finite creature? Fourth and finally, some might argue that the doctrine of human free will runs counter to our direct experience: my “choices” are often more or less compelled by circumstances, and, in any event, even if I can choose to seek what I want, I generally can’t decide what to want (Paul himself recognized this, as Romans 7:15-20 suggests). Having choice over means but not ends does not seem to be a full and robust freedom.

The alternative to free will, as hinted at above, is a theology that argues for God’s utter and total sovereignty, along the lines of John Calvin’s position, often called predestination. Such an argument claims that, since God is all-powerful and utterly sovereign, all things–including sin itself–must be according to the will of God, and goes on to insist that humans are simply unable (and unworthy) to understand how and why a good God would will for sin to exist. As an approach to explaining sin and evil, however, predestination has even more problems than the traditional one addressed above: not only does it rest on an authoritarian fideism that cuts short critical thought, and limit the fullness of God’s love, but it also seems to demand a contradiction in terms: since one robust definition of sin is “that which opposes God’s will”, it seems logically impossible to claim that God willed for sin to occur. Whatever problems the free-will doctrine runs into, the divine-sovereignty model seems even less cogent.

Now, any one of these concerns could be (and has been!) the subject of entire books. What I would like to do here is propose one possible way of addressing these concerns while maintaining an orthodox (at least in a broader sense) theological stance. I hesitate to call this an “answer” or “solution” to the problem of evil, because I do not think humans capable of providing such. But as a provisional and practical response, I think and hope it has merit.

Firstly, let’s step back a moment and consider the problem of evil from its broader philosophical perspective. The problem of evil posits that God cannot be both good and all-powerful, since evil exists in the world. If God were good and all-powerful, presumably evil would not and could not exist. Since evil undeniably exists (or happens), the all-power benevolent God seems an impossibility.

Philosophical and theological efforts to “solve” this problem are often called theodicy, a term meaning to defend, apologize for, or explain God. Theodicy seeks to explain how God can indeed be both good and all-powerful, considering that the world is far from always good. As suggested above, the two most common approaches have been to argue either that a) God gave humans real free will, and evil resulted from human choice or that b) God is utterly sovereign, and so whatever happens must be God’s will and must be “good” in some final sense.

The former approach (option “a”) emphasizes a more or less humanist approach, arguing that the center of Abrahmic thought is the elevation of human agency. This option above stresses that what is most important about faith is that it should encourage us to take our decisions responsibly, and places the weight of sin, evil, suffering, and death at the hands of free will improperly exercised by creatures.

calvin-institutesThe latter approach (option “b”) has taken a variety of forms, from (as mentioned above) John Calvin’s Reformed theology as expressed in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, to G.W.F. Hegel’s more or less monist approach in texts like The Phenomenology of Spirit. Many people will also be familiar with option “b” above when they have heard friends or family members say things like “God works all things to the good”. Such an argument ultimately relies on the idea that, however bad it may seem, this reality is the best of all possible worlds (v. G.W. Leibniz), and so the believer’s duty is to trust God’s sovereign activity.

Both approaches, as outlined in the opening above, leave many questions unanswered and many serious philosophical and theological problems unresolved. But as long as these two approaches have been seen as the only options, Christians, and perhaps other Abrahamic believers, often feel that they have to agree with one or the other. But I think there is more freedom of maneuver here, and I hope that with some further attention to Scripture and some sound creative thinking, a clearer (provisional) theodicy can be offered that builds on the strengths of each of the above approaches while limiting their failings.

Firstly, it seems clear to me that option “b” above–arguing that evil is somehow in accord with God’s will–is a non-starter. Such an argument seems to “resolve” the problem of evil by basically redefining the word evil in such a way that the sort of things we would generally understand as evil–suffering, ignorance, hatred, etc. are not really evil, or not ultimately evil. I think this is merely dodging the issue, and I also think it fails to take Scripture seriously enough. If sin means anything, it means something serious. If sin really is the opposition of human (and sometimes non-human? see below!) action to God’s will, then simply claiming that, somehow, God wills for God’s will to be opposed is both intellectually lazy and doctrinally insufficient. No: the problem of evil is a real problem, and somehow Christian theology must at least provide the sketch of a response to it.

Yet, as outlined above, option “a” is rife with problems as well. Not only does human life not feel truly “free” much of the time, but even if it were, this theodicy seems to assume that human freedom itself is an ultimate good. Yet it’s hard to argue that individual human freedom is somehow so good that it could counter-balance the eternal damnation of even one conscious being. Would such a trade-off be truly loving? If option “a” is meant to justify not only the existence of evil in this world, but also the eternity of damnation (and it has often been employed to do just this), then it seems to fall short; again, God does not seem to be portrayed as truly loving in this formulation.

Furthermore, as discussed above, this position does not even seem to grapple with the Scriptural witness: the serpent was already there, tempting humankind. Isn’t this tempting presence itself already evil in the world? One possible resolution to this issue, of course, is to argue that Satan is actually an agent of God, that Satan’s work is an important element of God’s work in the world. And it’s true that such a relationship seems at least hinted at by, say, the opening of the book of Job. Yet Satan is also portrayed as the opponent of God, the father of deceit, and an angelic being utterly opposed to God’s will; Jesus certainly speaks of Satan as one who will be defeated by God. If Satan is an agent of God’s will, then such a defeat seems a contradiction in terms.

So we find that the byzantine contradictions and opposed priorities surrounding traditional theodicies lie deep within not only traditional doctrine, but Scripture itself. The problem of evil really is a serious problem. So what theological and philosophical options do we have as Christians today?

First, let’s get one final option on the table: some, following John Caputo and the tradition of process theology more broadly, have tried to resolve the problem by inverting the Calvinist “option b” above. Instead of absolutizing God’s sovereignty, they have forfeited it. Proponents of such a “weak theology” argue that God is indeed all-loving, but not exactly all-powerful. Although this option “c” solves one problem, it does so by raising another at least as serious. My concern with weak theology is that it seems to succeed in defending God’s goodness only by problematizing the doctrine of creation: if God is truly a “claim without power”, then what is God’s relationship to creation more generally? If God created the whole world, and the world exists only by God’s sustaining will for it to exist–as Abrahamic tradition insists–then it seems impossible to claim that God is truly “weak”. Caputo’s approach therefore shares a very serious philosophical and theological liability with process theology: regarding God as a process or event completely confuses the doctrine of creation.

Now, one resolution, of course, would be to claim that God is not the creator at all. But now we have only kicked the can down the metaphorical (and metaphysical!) road: if that which created the world is powerful but not good, and there is a separate good-but-powerless force that is somehow trying to interact with and help the world, monotheism itself seems to be fractured, and it’s hard to know why humans should be concerned with this second benevolent interloper. Indeed, we find ourselves with a theology not much different from that of some of the so-called Gnostics. Such a position does not, however, solve the problem of evil, it just complicates it.

Lucifer3I’ve spent many paragraphs outlining the problems, complications, and difficulties of various theodicies, but it’s time to start proposing some kind of alternative. In short, I hope to take what I think is best about options “a” and “c” above and combine them with a serious treatment of Satan as presented in Scripture to arrive at a provisional semi-theodicy that I think may be our best option moving forward–though it by no means solves all the problems or answers all the questions.

The advantage of option “a” above is that it does seem to offer an intellectually robust reason why an all-powerful and truly benevolent God might allow for (but not will or cause) sin: if at least some part of creation is free relative to God–that is, if at least some part of creation can act in a way which God does not determine–then the possibility of sin in creation is at least non-contradictory. However, as we saw above, according this kind of freedom to individual humans runs into both philosophical and empirical problems: would individual human agency actually be worthwhile as to make the risk of sin morally justifiable? And, in any event, does this account of radical human freedom really accord with our experience of the world?

Part of the difficulty here for us is that post-Enlightenment culture in the West does in fact embrace a strong sense of human agency; we live in a political culture that assumes that humans are indeed inherently free and that maximizing this human freedom is a great (perhaps the greatest?) good. The trouble is, if we move beyond the realm of Enlightenment political ideology, human life often seems profoundly un-free. Many people are forced to work in deplorable conditions for poor pay–and their only other option is to risk starvation. Being offered a “free” choice between these two horrible options seems to be “free” only in the least meaningful sense possible. Furthermore, many people feel deep compulsions within their own emotional life that they do not want: addiction seems to muddy the waters of human agency. If it is possible to want something while not wanting to want it, what does satiating human free choice even mean?

So we not only have to challenge the Christian tradition here, we also have to challenge our own contemporary political and cultural ideology; it is convenient to consider human agency a self-evident truth and a foundation for our political culture. Yet upon examination, it seems less like a fact and more like a mythological promise.

So–if freedom seems essential to resolve the problem of evil, but human freedom seems neither philosophically sufficient nor empirically probable, where can we go? It seems that we need to identify an existent freedom not tied to individual human agency. Strange as it may seem, this is where I think Satan must enter our picture.

Many today may hear the name “Satan” as nothing more than a mythological illusion, but in fact this word carries a deep but often over-looked theological significance in Abrahamic thought. Satan is there in the garden; Satan is there at the opening of Job; Satan is there tempting Jesus in the opening of the synoptic Gospels. Modern efforts to articulate a Christian theology without Satan are both theologically and scripturally deficient.

Yet this does not mean we should embrace belief in a horned beast living underground. Such a picture was only meant to convey moral, philosophical, and theological truths through evocative imagery. We deceive ourselves if we believe in the existence of such a thing, but we also deceive ourselves if we reject the concept of Satan outright because we find such imagery fantastic. No, the idea of Satan is a crucial theological insight: Satan marks the freedom of creation which has turned against God.

Thus, creation as a whole really is free relative to God: that is, God empties and limits Godself in giving the gift of creation in such a way that creation is free to either respond to God’s love or turn away from it. Such a kenotic move is necessary because of what God’s goal in creating is: to be in real loving relationship with creatures. Love, by definition, cannot be determined or forced. It must be freely offered. Therefore, in creating, God must take the risk of sin–it must be possible for creation to turn away from God (towards death, hatred, suffering, meaninglessness, etc.) if creation is going to be fre enough to truly have the capacity to love God.

Yet note that we are saying that creation as a whole must be free relative to God–we are not insisting that each individual creature is fully free, nor or we arguing that creatures necessarily have freedom relative to each other. Indeed, we know that creatures often compel other creatures in all kinds of ways–this is, after all, one of the consequences of the sinful turn away from God.

It is not individuals, but creation as a whole, that has freedom relative to God. And Satan is the word we use to mark the fact that creation turns away from God; creation turned in on itself, denying its dependence on anything other than itself, and in cutting itself off from its own source, began to collapse from being to non-being. This–not moralistic platitudes–is what the theology of sin is really all about. To name “Satan” is to recognize that the entirety of creation–the whole cosmos–is in relationship with God, but that creation as a whole has turned away from this relationship, and is therefore sliding into nothingness. (It might be convenient to think of this “turning” in anthropomorphic terms, but it is important to note that such a reading is not necessary. Such an issue is too complex to discuss further here, however.)

This theodicy, then, might be option “d”: a combination of the theology of freedom from option “a” (though shifting that freedom from individual humans to the whole creation), and the indeterminacy of option “c” (though without insisting on God being “weak” in any final metaphysical sense), and the re-introduction of the prominence of Satan in Christian thought (though with rigorous philosophical attention).

In option “d”, humans participate in and contribute to sin, but are not the original causes of it. Sin is nonetheless a free turning away from God, but a turning that happened with the very beginning of creation itself, not in the act of a single human or human couple (it should be noted that this in no way challenges the truthfulness of Genesis chapters 2 and 3–it only challenges a brittle literalistic reading of these passages). Satan marks this fundamental having-turned-away-from-God that we call sin.

I believe that this theodicy resolves many of the contradictions of the other options while also being grounded on a careful consideration of the Scriptural witness. I do not pretend that it is a total or irrefutable solution to the problem of evil, but I do hope that it provides a better way forward on this question, and that it may prove fruitful as Christians–and others–consider the seriousness of evil and suffering. In the future, I hope to write more on specifically how the doctrine of the Incarnation helps us to understand how God is reaching out to a world that has turned in on itself. But that discussion will have to wait for its own post.

Randomness, Patterns, & Bottles, Oh My!

message-in-a-bottle-633134It is often commented that the religious impulse is a manifestation of the human desire to find meaning in all experience, even that experience that is fundamentally meaningless. Evolutionary psychologists, for example, will claim that our distant ancestors faced so much danger from predators (and perhaps also from each other) that highly cautious, borderline paranoid behavior was selected for over the generations. Imagine, for example, that a prehistoric hominid heard a rustling in the bushes. Maybe it’s a hungry lion, or maybe it’s just an aggravated squirrel. Evolution might favor the person who assumes the worst and runs, since, even if they’re wrong, this will only result in a few wasted calories. Meanwhile, the person who sits easy and assumes no danger will pay a much higher price if they are mistaken.

The modern reasoning goes that this cognitive bias towards assuming that noises in the night must be caused by some powerful agent eventually led to human religiosity–we began to see agency in the movement of stars, in the timing of volcanic eruptions, and in the forming of storms. This explanation for religion, of course, forms a powerful basis for critiquing and rejecting spiritual and religious practice. After all, if human religion is nothing more than the fanciful products of over-active imaginations (or paranoia), then perhaps it is something better left behind in the dustbin of history.

But is this account of human religion convincing? Does it account for the variety of spiritual systems and the full range of religious philosophies developed by, and spiritual practices of, religious humans? This is a question of great breadth and depth that touches on a range of disciplines–psychology, sociology, history, and evolutionary biology, to name only a few–but I want to offer a response from a Christian theological perspective here.

First, I want to argue that this account gets at least some things right. I think it offers a (partial but nonetheless) powerful explanation for some religious tendencies and practices. Second, though, I want to argue that its true value can only be recognized once one recognizes its limitations, and I want to suggest that this account misses at least as much as it captures.

What is perhaps most interesting from a Christian theological perspective is that this modern account of human religion actually accords with traditional Jewish and Christian accounts of polytheistic faiths, especially those of the “pagan” peoples around them. Jews and Christians alike frequently mocked and derided what they saw as superstition among other Middle-Eastern and European peoples. Augustine, for example, spends a decent chunk of his Confessions making fun of astrology; the Biblical prophets often took an opportunity to laugh at people foolish enough to worship images carved in stone and wood. In both cases, Jewish and Christian thought seems to recognize that humans have a desire to control the future and their surroundings, and they also attempt to anthropomorphize matter around them in an attempt to bargain with the forces determining their lives.

In that sense, then, although evolutionary psychology may be a recent development, the basic critique of religion outlined above is not only not new, but it’s not even necessarily anti-religious across the board. It can be deployed by some religions against others, depending on their exact features. This brings us to the second point I’d like to make: this “explanation” of religion gives us a better understanding of some traditions than it does of others. To see why, consider this short example:

Imagine you are walking along a beach on a desert island. You’ve been living there for years and never found any trace of another human being. But today, as you walk along the tide-line, you see something shining in the water, bobbing up and down. As you approach, you realize it’s a bottle, and, as you pick it up, you see a small note folded up inside. A message in a bottle! You had heard of such things back before being stranded on this island, but you never expected to find one yourself. Excited, you pull the cork, reach inside, and pull the letter out. It is thin and fragile, clearly it’s been floating in the oceans for decades. As you unfold the note, you find not an endearing message in cursive, but a block of printed letters with no spaces. Try as you might, you can’t find any words spelled throughout the text. The letters appear to be completely random.

Now, if you really struggled and tried, and developed some complex scheme, you might be able to convince yourself that, actually, this is some kind of code. Over time, you might be able to develop a cipher which would allow you to “decode” the block of letters. Of course, since you could craft this cipher at your leisure, you could make it as complex and arbitrary as necessary to make the text say whatever you liked. If you wanted an encouraging message, you could “discover” than in the text. If you wanted to a romantic message, you could make that happen as well.

Now, here is where the evolutionary psychological critique outlined above would kick in and explain your behavior: we humans are wired to see messages and agency everywhere, even when there isn’t one, and so the “messages” you discovered were, in fact, constructions of your own mind. And, in this case, they’d be right.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Even if you admitted to yourself, after many years of trying to believe that there really was a message there for you, that the block of letters was random and arbitrary, the bottle and its contents would not lose their curiousness. Stepping back from the meaning of the note, you might begin to ask different questions. Even if the note itself is just a random series of letters, how did it get into the bottle? And why was the bottle dropped into the ocean? The shape of the ink on the page might be random and meaningless, but it’s hard to believe that it got into the bottle, with cork on top, and then into the ocean through purely random events. The best explanation is that someone intentionally put a meaningless note into a bottle, and intentionally put that bottle into the ocean.

Why would they do such a thing? In asking this question, the same impulse that you had when you were trying to decode the note is at play, and yet here it is not so easily dismissed. In fact, this new question might weigh even more heavily on you than the previous one. Why would someone go through the trouble of getting this note into a bottle if the note itself meant nothing? Does the bottle mean something? Did the process of putting the bottle into the ocean mean something?

In these two different kind of questions–the meaning of the note, on the one hand, and the meaning of the note’s presence in the bottle, on the other–we see models for two different kinds of religious and spiritual thinking. One kind of common human religiosity sees the gods as beings in the world who have control over specific phenomena–a god of the sea, a goddess of the crops, etc. For this kind of religion, the shape of entrails as they fall from a goat, or the size of a flock of birds overhead, means something. And it is this kind of religiosity that is susceptible to the evolutionary psychological explanation–trying to see  a human-like agency in phenomena that are probably arbitrary, or caused by sequences of events that are nothing like human thought.

But in asking about the message-in-the-bottle’s existence in general, a different kind of religiosity is on display. Here, it is not the shape of the goat’s entrails or the size  of a flock of birds that necessarily says something–it’s the fact that goats and birds and the whole cosmos exists at all that says something. This question–“why is there something instead of nothing?”–superficially resembles the questions behind polytheism and divination–“why do volcanoes erupt? why did my family not have more children?”–but in essence it is a radically different question. It is not an attempt to explain particular aspects of the world with superstition. It is not, that is, an attempt to do pre-scientific pseudo-science. Instead, it is an attempt to secure the foundations of knowing and being in general. It seeks to understand how it could be that science is even possible, that being is even extant.

Religion in this form–and I include here at the very least the great Abrahamic and Indic traditions, though I am sure other currents of human thought, both religious and philosophical, also fall into this category–is not so easily explained away. Any mature thinker who carefully considers the strange facticity of the immediacy of existence will find themselves gazing at that bottle and wondering questions that lie beyond the mind’s grasp. Another way of saying all of this is that some religious traditions and practices are focused on content, and others on form. Religious practices that try to explain particulars–volcanoes, the seasons, the dark spots on the moon–are the former. Meanwhile, religious thought that asks about the genesis of the cosmos, of the meaning of time and space themselves, of the possibility of causality and meaning in any sense fall into the latter. (It bears mentioning that while I think dividing religious traditions between these two broad trends is useful, there is clearly also overlap: some “pagan” communities eventually developed sophisticated and robust philosophical systems, and many members of Abrahamic and Indic religions–Christianity very much included–often fell back into self-serving superstition.)

The main point I hope can be taken away from this is that words like “religion” and “god” are not homogeneous, single-reference signifiers. It is a foolish errand to try and explain the genesis of religion through one very neat causality, because what you are trying to explain is incredibly complex. Likewise, the distinction between a “god” and “God” cannot be over-stated. Seeking to understand why sometimes the waves are calm and other times violent is simply not the same as wondering what and why being is. The former is, at its core, a scientific question, and we moderns (and postmoderns?) are right to leave behind superstitious answers. The latter, however, is a question seeking the foundations of any possible thought, science included, and is a philosophical question as relevant today as it ever was.

So, I say: religion is dead; long live religion! Let us leave behind not only superstition but also false confidence in simplistic explanations. Let us stop, sit, and consider ourselves clearly. What sits in the mirror is, after all, a defiant mystery.