Spirituality

Is God a Cosmic Jerk?: God, Satan, and the Problem of Evil

Job hearing of his ruin, Nicku / Shutterstock.com
Job hearing of his ruin, Nicku / Shutterstock.com

Is God a Cosmic Jerk?

That’s how I ask the question, but professional theologians use the term theodicy. It comes from two Greek words: theo, which means “God,” and dike, which means “justice.” Theodicy asks, “If God is good and just, then why is there so much evil in the world?” There are many answers to this question. Some claim that God causes evil. In which case, my question becomes relevant – Is God a Cosmic Jerk? 

Let’s first examine the word “evil.” Theologian Joe Jones succinctly defines evil in his book A Grammar of Christian Faith “as the harm to some creature’s good” (280). Jones distinguishes between two categories of evil that harms a creatures good. First, there is moral evil – the harm humans inflict upon one another through violence, injustice, and oppression. The second category is natural evil – the harm caused by cancer, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural events.

It’s Not All Going to Be Okay, and That’s Okay

Photo: Karl Marx monument in Germany, e2dan / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Karl Marx monument in Germany, e2dan / Shutterstock.com

If we try to mold faith into something more certain than simply faith, it becomes something else. A crutch, perhaps, or a drug. So how or when does this happen?

It happens when someone is suffering and we tell them that everything happens for a reason. In the bigger picture, this is that opiate of certainty and assurance being cast over all the chaos, suffering, and doubt in an effort to keep it all tied up neatly in a religious package. But what it creates beneath the surface is a bastardized image of a God who sits in the Great Beyond, plotting out our fortunes and misfortunes, causing loss and heartbreak in our lives for some greater unknown plan. This makes us no more than so much collateral damage in some narcissistic divine game.

Is that really the God we believe in?

Church Leaders Say Returning Vets Need Time, Attention

When Staff Sgt. Brandon Hill came home from his third tour in Iraq last year, he expected his wife and young daughters at the welcoming ceremony. What he didn't expect were the pastors, secretaries and members of their Assemblies of God church to be there, too.

“It was awesome -- the fact that they would give up their time to come see us back,” said Hill, who is stationed at Fort Sill, an Army installation in Lawton, Okla. “It really shows that they really care.”

As Veterans Day approaches, denominational leaders and chaplains with years of military service are calling on more churches to find ways to minister to the men and women who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chaplain Keith Ethridge, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Chaplain Center, said about 1 million military members have returned to civilian life -- with some continuing in Guard or Reserve forces -- after serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

While some churches, especially those near military installations, might advertise themselves as being “military friendly,” Ethridge and other leaders are trying to expand that universe to other American congregations.

“What we try to do is encourage, in general, a supportive atmosphere,” said Ethridge, whose center is in Hampton, Va. “We want our clergy and our churches at large to be aware of how they can make referrals when they have friends or loved ones in need of support.”

In recent years, the VA has ramped up training, including in rural areas, for clergy to learn more about veterans’ issues and how they can refer former military members facing physical and spiritual health challenges. It held eight training events for rural clergy in 2012, and more are planned for 2013.

As part of his new work as a chaplaincy executive with the Southern Baptist Convention, retired Army Chief of Chaplains Douglas Carver is urging congregations to be places where veterans can turn as they make the transition home.

Carver knows the challenges firsthand: “I retired a year ago, and one of the hardest things for me to do is to transition back to a community.”

Neighborliness is the New Sexy — 7 Ways to Achieve It

Neighbors, zooropa / Shutterstock.com
Neighbors, zooropa / Shutterstock.com

It's a joke. Well, it was. There we were talking with Diana Butler Bass and others from SOGOMedia in an online forum about the Presidential Election and the words flowed forth: Neighborliness is the new sexy. It was ridiculous, but then I started mulling the idea over and this is what happened. Adam Ericksen and I started pondering what Seven Marks of Neighborliness might look like.

1. Be a regular somewhere: Our neighborhoods are actually rather expansive spaces. Some of them involve strip malls. Some of us commute to work and, in that sense, we live in various neighborhoods. Yes, plural. How can we root ourselves in these places? ...

The Season to Put on Beauty

“TAKE OFF THE garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). We might occasionally hear in church a prayer that makes passing use of the phrase “the beauty of holiness,” but it can’t be claimed that we are helped very often to feel that the contagious goodness of God is absolutely lovely, alluring, and attractive. We are called to be beautiful human beings. Christians who are deeply serious about social justice, who carry the burden of the world’s brokenness in their hearts, who are committed to political dissent, probably need this reminder most of all. We can hardly be agents of change if our faces are disfigured by disgust and anger.

Advent may be an especially important time to listen carefully for the Word who summons us to be walking sacraments of God’s radiant beauty. Paul will speak to us about having joy in one another and clothing ourselves in love. We are meant to fill our imaginations in these weeks with the sight of Mary in the radiance of her final days of pregnancy. Doesn’t her beauty lend all the more power to her proclamation, “[God my savior] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich sent away empty” (Luke 1:52-53)?

Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, is an author, preacher, and retreat leader. His newest book is Go in Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions, with Julia Gatta.
 

[ DECEMBER 2 ]
Shaken Powers
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

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A Series of Curious Events ... and a Chicken

Hildegard von Chicken, with Mexican blanket.

HILDEGARD BLEW in on a late summer storm. Sleek and ebony, eyes a bright chatoyant gold. Between the Supercans and downed tree limbs, she was scratching up worms, plucking at bugs. In this nation’s capital of a little more than 600,000 souls, a loose hen was highly unusual—but there she was, in all her Gallus gallus domesticus glory.

Of course, she didn’t arrive with the name Hildegard. And certainly not Hildegard von Chicken, after a favorite Rhineland mystic. That came later. After she’d been interviewed and photographed for the DCist news blog; after she’d become a destination point for recently migrated hipsters; and after a woman running for local office asked if she could take Hildegard on the campaign stump to make her candidacy “more memorable.”

Hildegard received her name after a chance encounter with La Señora at the 11th street bus stop. “I rescued a chicken,” I told her. “What color?” she shot back.

La Señora is in her 70s and from Paraguay. She is knowledgeable about many things. “Black ... with a green undersheen,” I said. “This is very good. You have most likely rescued it from a religious ritual where it would be sacrificed for evil intentions.” “Wow!” I replied. “What should I do?” La Señora stared at me a moment: “You must pray the rosary with the chicken. Hold her and pray the rosary.”

THIS WAS THE series of curious events that led to my being perched on porch steps on a hill in the imperial city of Washington, D.C., holding my grandmother’s rosary and praying with a chicken, whose name I decided should be Hildegard, “Sybil of 11th Street,” because she was consulted by so many of high and low estate.

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Slow Down and Know That I Am God

IN SPRING 1986, a group of Italian activists led by Carlo Petrini launched a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. This protest marked the origin of the Slow Food movement, which has spread over the last 26 years to more than 150 countries.

Following this Slow Food effort came a host of other Slow movements—Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Money, and more—that collectively raise opposition to the speed and industrialization of Western culture. Slow movements are beginning to recover what we have lost in our relentless pursuit of efficiency. Many Christians have been challenged by these Slow movements to consider the ways in which our faith has begun to move too fast as we make sacrifices to the gods of efficiency.

This quest has sparked a renewed interest in the joys of sharing life together in local congregations and has intensified into a growing conversation—rather than a movement—called Slow Church. Slowness itself is not a cardinal virtue of Slow Church, but rather a means of resisting the present-day powers of speed in order to be faithful church communities.

The biblical vision of God’s mission in the world is God’s reconciliation of all creation (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-23 and Isaiah 65:17-25). But too often we narrow the scope of our faith and ignore the massive damage that incurs. Some Christians reduce the faith to four easy steps to stay out of hell, others to a set of techniques for growing a large church, and still others to a political ideology (of the Right or the Left). Christianity has also been reduced by some to a feel-good spirituality that has little or no bearing on the rest of our lives or in the public square.

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Rethinking Success

AS MY EXTENDED family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the latest market crash, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: “more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger; louder, louder.”

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, “poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller; quieter, quieter.”

When Sojourners started in 1971, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American, the predecessor to Sojourners magazine. We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade, we shared our money in common, trying to live as the early Christians (see Acts 2), and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

We worshiped together twice a week and opened our homes to our neighbors. When our first child was born, Jackie and I brought him home to a row house in Columbia Heights in D.C. where we were living with 18 other people, including an African-American family and a Lakota couple with some of their extended family from the reservation in South Dakota. You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

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From the Archives: December 1974

WHY IS the message of a poor Galilean preacher “good news for the poor”? Does he show the poor a way of escape from their misery by providing a vision of spiritual wealth? Is the message he brings suited especially for those who live in poverty and for them alone?

We cannot stop proclaiming Jesus’ words today, just because for some people they sound like “pie in the sky.”

How blest are you who are in need, the kingdom of God is yours. How blest are you who now go hungry, your hunger shall be satisfied. How blest are you who weep now, you shall laugh (Luke 6:20-21).

Blacks, Chicanos, and Indians, the poor minorities of North America, need the fire of these words to warm their hearts. Prisoners of oppressive governments need these words. Harassed and helpless masses running desperate behind messiahs of the right and the left in the Third World need these words. Indigenous peoples of South America, chased by the oil companies and their native agents, need these words.

These words of Jesus for the poor point to the fact that there is a God who sees and judges, who is not indifferent to the human drama behind their poverty. The history of the world is not in the hands of the powerful and the rich.

Samuel Escobar was president of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, Canada, and a contributing editor when this article first appeared in The Post-American, the forerunner to Sojourners.

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Meet the Nones: Spiritual But Not Religious

Editor's Note: Sojourners has launched this new blog series to help shed light on the nation's latest "religious" affiliation. Go HERE to read their stories. Or EMAIL US to share your own.

PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has wrapped up its three-part new mini-series on the rise of the unaffiliated. Go HERE to read more about this week's episode.

Watch None of the Above: Religious Implications on PBS. See more from Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

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