Google and the problem of evil

I was reading this story about Google — and how it is the most important company in the world — when I came across this little discussion about the problem of identifying evil:

[W]e don’t have a book that defines evil in terms of how we should specifically behave. I think we understand as a culture what is good and what is evil. You need some mechanism to judge that. So I welcome the criticism that “this is evil” but it’s also possible that the critic is wrong, right? In other words, the critic doesn’t understand the trade off, doesn’t understand the consequence. I spend lots of time with people criticizing Google on this or that and I sit there and I think, “I just don’t agree.”

Of course, as a Christian, the “we don’t have a book” bit made me smile. He is correct, though, that there are times when even our book does not tell us specifically how to behave in every moment. It does give us some pretty good landmarks, though. Many of them are problematic for a global corporation bent on making profits as its reason to exist, but that is an issue for another day. What struck me more about the quote is how it captures wonderfully the contemporary mind.

Part of the truth about the culture we live in is that everything is contested. Everything is justified based on competing human perceptions. It can’t be evil, the Google executive says to himself, because I’ve looked at the data and I don’t agree. It is all he said, she said.

This is one way that Christianity simply does not fit the world in which we live. It is something else entirely, a kingdom breaking in and hidden in the shadows of this world, a place where evil has a name.

When God told the priests to kill

After the Golden Calf episode, Moses received a word from God for the Levites.

Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” (Exodus 32:27-29, NIV)

Here is where I run into problems with some contemporary ways of reading the Bible.

I have a problem with the “three buckets” approach that reads of the Levites slaughtering 3,000 Israelites under the command of God and declares that this is not in keeping with the character of Jesus and must therefore be deemed not reflective of God’s character or will.

I have a problem with the historical-critical method that declares that this passage is really just a literary justification for the Levitical priesthood foisted on the people by religious elites in a time of social crisis or upheaval.

I even have a problem with the spiritual approach that teaches me to read in this text a call to cut out from my life everything at odds with worship of God.

I have a problem with all of these because they look at this text and flinch. They don’t start with the affirmation that God could and might and did do such a thing as order the killing of his rebellious and idolatrous people. I’m not sure what the motivation is that causes us to turn away from these parts of the Bible. And let’s be clear, there are lots stories like this one. I don’t know why we flinch, other than fear.

The God of Exodus 32 is dangerous. He is no butler waiting for our permission to enter the room and living only to serve our needs. The God of Exodus 32 is a dealer of life and death. Standing too close to that God is like walking on the edge of a high rooftop on a windy day or standing near the jaws of a wood chipper as it tears apart tree limbs. You can sense the danger in the pit of your stomach just by being there.

The biblical response to this fear is worship. Our response — so often — is to pretend Exodus 32 does not exist.

I understand the impulse to do that, but I don’t understand how we turn to the Bible once we’ve decided it is lying to us about who God is and what God does.

The Word of God for the people of God

We often use these words after we read from the Bible in worship: The Word of God for the people of God.

But I wonder if we always mean it.

Do we mean it when we call the Bible the Word of God? Many of us do not. We do not take the words of scripture to be the words of God to us. They are not from God, but about God. They are the words of humans grasping at an invisible and unknowable truth. That is what many of us believe, even if we do not say it in so many words during worship.

What would it mean for us to be a people who actually lived as if those words we speak out of liturgical habit were held in our hearts and not just on our lips? If the Bible is the Word of God rather than a word about God, shouldn’t we take it much more seriously?

Violence in the Bible – Two approaches

Adam Hamilton recently published three blog posts about violence in the Old Testament.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Allan Bevere recruited Ashland seminary professor Dan Hawk to provide a response.

Part One 

Part Two

Part Three

The posts on these two blogs and the comments they have generated would make an interesting small group study.

Here is how Hawk concludes his second post:

On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right– and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.

I notice the reference to living in the gray, which may or may not be a reference to one of Hamilton’s other books. Reading Hawk’s response to Hamilton, I am mindful as well of another response to this question about the violence of God. Some — and John Wesley would fall in this camp — that we are all creatures of God, and so God is justified at any moment if he destroys us for any reason. We are like clay pots the potter can smash on a whim.

This “clay pot” solution to the violence of God comes to mind as I was reading these posts because it strikes me as the mirror image of Hamilton’s approach. Hamilton — as I think Hawk rightly argues — simplifies the witness of Scripture too much by shearing off those parts seem to conflict with a certain vision of who Jesus is. Wesley — and contemporaries such as John Piper — simplify the witness of Scripture the other way by smashing clay pots every time someone raises a qualm about Hell or the destruction of Jericho.

Hawk — quoting Walter Brueggemann — testifies to a God who defies simplification, and in that way becomes much more dangerous and awe-inspiring. You just don’t know what God is going to do next. Such a God is hard to cram into a Sunday School lesson or a sermon. Such a God certainly is not chiefly concerned with making us comfortable. But such a God — at least for me — feels much less like an idol created out of my own imagination and needs. Such a God feels worthy of worship, fear, and love.

Five things United Methodists say about the Bible

David Watson discusses the mainline Protestant tendency to say more about what we don’t believe about the Bible than what we do believe.

He ends his post with five statements he drew from the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church:

1. Scripture is the primary source of divine revelation in our tradition. Other claims to divine revelation should be tested against scripture.

2. Everything we need to know to receive salvation is in the Bible.

3. The Bible is the true guide for Christian faith and practice.

4. The Holy Spirit helps us to understand and apply scripture to our lives.

4. Christian tradition, such as is found in the creeds, helps to interpret scripture for teaching the historic faith of the church.

5. Reason and the experience help us to understand scripture, but on matters of salvation, and matters of faith and practice related to salvation, they should not contradict scripture.

My postmodern friends, I suspect, will object to some of these statements because they suggest that scripture has a meaning independent of the community of interpretation.

To address those kinds of objections, I find I need to talk about revelation and the work of the Holy Spirit. But we ground those statements — or at least I try to — on scripture. So, there is a certain circularity in my argument that I do not see how I can avoid.

In the end, I find that I adopt the attitude that scripture is something we receive as a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, and in light of that attitude of reception I embrace the five statements that Watson offers above.

More than faith, hope & love

We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thessalonians 1:3, NIV)

I’m not sure why this caught my attention recently. I noticed the 1 Corinthians 13 triad of faith, hope, and love while reading 1 Thessalonians. And then I saw how Paul here connected each one with an outcome. Faith produces work. Love prompts labor. Hope inspires endurance. Here is a portrait of the church that Paul celebrates.

Faith, hope, and love are all great and wonderful. But isn’t Paul here pointing out the true indications of these three things? Show me your faith separate from works. Show me your love that does not result in labor. Tell me of your hope that does not give you the endurance to walk through trials. You cannot. If you have not endurance, then your hope is fragile. If you do not labor then you do not love. If you do no work, you have no true faith.

Paul pairs these terms in offering praise, but heard rightly they are a challenge to us as Christians.