Theodicy

 

Suffering and the Search for MeaningZoom

Last week I mentioned at the end of my blog a new book written by Richard Rice and I indicated that I wanted read it as soon as possible. In the meantime I have indeed read the book and I do not regret that I started almost immediately after I received it in the mail. The title of the book indicated very clearly what the book is all about:  Suffering and the Search for Meaning. The subtitle clarifies this further: Responses to the Problem of Pain.

Dr. Rice presupposes no extensive theological knowledge on the part of the reader, but he does assume that he/she has a theological interest. He writes about a topic that, through the ages, has occupied the minds of professional theologians as well as of ‘ordinary’ believers. Theologians have usually referred to this issue with the term: theodicy. On the internet  I found the following succinct and helpful definition:  The defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theodicy).

In this very accessible book Rice provides a survey of various approaches to this topic. (1) All suffering and misery in some way is part of God’s plan for humankind. Admittedly, we often do not understand why God would approve or allow the events that occur. But he makes no mistakes and we must trust that in his good time all things will fall into place.

(2) God is not to blame for the fact that there is so much suffering in the world. It is the result of man’s free will. God did not want robots, but created beings that would love and serve him from their own free will. God took the risk that things might turn sour, but that does not make him responsible for our wrong choices and thus for all the suffering we see in the world.

(3) We may not be able to find explanations for all the suffering that we see and experience, but we can appreciate the fact that the things that happen to us have the potential of stimulating our inner growth and helping us to mature spiritually.

(4) There is a cosmic conflict between good and evil and human beings play a  role in this ongoing struggle between the powers of light and darkness. Seventh-day Adventist christians have traditionally opted for this perspective and refer to this cosmic conflict as ‘the great controversy.’

(5) The advocates of ‘open theism’ and of the so-called. ‘process-theology’ (an approach that goes beyond ‘open theism’) opt for a different kind of response. They tell us we should revise our point of departure. God is not omniscient and not all-powerful in the classical sense of those terms. God does not know exactly how we will decide to use our free will, and by taking our free will very seriously, he does not have the possibility to intervene when we make wrong decisions.

(6) And then, finally, there are those who say that every theodicy must necessarily fail. They protest against any suggestion that we may find a way of reconciling the misery in the world with the existence of an almighty and loving God.

The book by Richard Rice is of great value because it provides such a lucid survey of the various options and then deals with the strong and the weak points of each theodicy. But it receives much added value though the way in which the author also deals with the personal dimension of the problem. Human suffering is not just a philosophical and theological problem (in fact, he prefers the term ‘mystery’). Sooner or later it affects all of us very personally. Rice proposes that we might combine aspects from the various theodicies and that we might distill ‘fragments of meaning’ from the different approaches and thus find comfort and support when we are struck by personal disaster.

Richard Rice is a gifted thinker and author.  He is one of the most important and most creative Adventist theologians of our time. It is therefore a pleasure to warmly recommend his newest book. Without any reservations I use this blog to promote it. It was published by a prestigious American evangelical publisher: IVP Academic.  It is easy to order, in paper form or as e-book through Amazon.com—and undoubtedly also through other channels. With postage it should cost you between 15 and 20 dollar.  You will find that it is money well spent.

 

 

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Jezrahiah

 

I remember an event from my childhood years, which at the time I thought  was rather strange. In  the village where I lived a small, new enterprise was started. Two men had conceived of the brilliant idea to start a mobile processing unit of grass. They bought a barge on which they built a rather imposing technical structure.  The barge could move over the water to a place close to the farmer who wanted to make use of this service. The green, sometimes rather wet, grass was thrown in on one side of the machine, and re-appeared on the other side, dry and pulverized. It was easy to store the product and to feed it to the cows during the winter when they remained indoors.

The special element at the official opening ceremony of the enterprise, was the involvement of the Catholic village priest, who came with a supply of holy water to bless the new industry. I looked on with great curiosity, for something like this was unknown in the Protestant part of the village. Decades later I found that in my own faith community, among those who had migrated from the Caribbean to the Netherlands, it was also a quite common practice to dedicate a new home or an important object. And I discovered that this was far from unique, for I noticed that in the new (2004) liturgical manual of the United Church of the Netherlands, an order of service had been included for such dedications.

This surfaced this past week, as I sat each day for a few hours at the kitchen table in my son’s home in Sweden, composing some devotional messages for the new devotional book that I am writing. I intend to produce a short devotional message for every day of the year, based on a known, or lesser known, biblical character. So, a few days ago, I was dealing with Jezrahiah.

Most readers of this blog may not have a clear picture of who this  Jezrahiah was. Well, he is mentioned in Nehemiah 12:42, as the leader of the choir that performed at the dedication of the restored wall around Jerusalem, after the return of a group of Judean citizens from the Babylonian exile.  The exuberant dedication of this structure, in which our Jezrahiah played a liturgical role, led my thoughts to the dedication of the small mobile factory, which I remembered from my childhood years. When I gave this some further thought, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea, not only to dedicate church buildings and newly elected church officers, but that it would be very fitting to ask for God’s blessing over important secular projects and processes, by means of some dedication ceremony. A traditional Dutch saying still holds a lot of truth: Everything depends on God’s blessings! (Aan God’s zegen is ales gelegen).

During my flight (yesterday) from Stockholm to Amsterdam, I dealt with another biblical character: Issaschar. He may be slightly better known than Jezrahiah. He was one of the sons of Jacob and was, therefore, the progenitor of the tribe of Issaschar. The Bible does not give many details about Issaschar, but mentions that the men of Issaschar ‘had understanding of the times’ (1 Chronicles 12:33). A present-day application is rather obvious. I was able to successfully complete this devotional message before the wheels of the SAS plane touched the runway at Schiphol.

Today the biblical men and women must exercise some patience, as preparations for tomorrow’s sermon in Enschede must have a higher priority. And I want to make a start with reading a new book that the author kindly sent me a few days ago: Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (by Richard Rice; published by: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014). I look forward to finding out how the author approaches this issue. I regard Richard Rice as one of the most creative Adventist theologians of our time. I have no doubt that reading this book will further confirm my appreciation for him.

 

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Why?

 

[Kramfors, Sweden, November 22].  Among the smaller adventures of life is visiting the bathroom in a home where you happen to be visiting or staying as a guest. In many cases the walls are quite bare and one finds only the essential objects within its limited space. At home in Zeewolde the smallest room of our house has on one of its walls a tray that was once used in a print shop but now houses a collection of small, funny, but admittedly rather useless objects. On the opposite wall the visitor will find a few shelves with some twenty different-sized flower vases . These may come in handy to accommodate bunches of flowers of different dimensions, but even after many years of experience I still bump my head against the bottom shelf  about once every three weeks.

In some toilets I discover books or magazines, or a booklet with sodokus or crossword puzzles. Sometimes the walls are almost totally covered with pictures or portraits of family members, or one finds a shelf with a collection of KLM miniature houses. In the toilet in the home of my son in Sweden, where I am staying since two days, I have the opportunity to study a framed poster that depicts the fifty common insects in Sweden (among them a few that I would hate to encounter). While seated I look straight ahead at a piece of paper in A4 format that contains a host of different questions in small lettering. The questions are in English. Why are there ants?  Why are ducks called ducks? Why do testicles move? Why are there no dinosaur ghosts? Why are there male and female bikes? Why do whales jump? Why etc. This is just a random selection of the host of questions that one can read if one’s eyesight is adequate.

Most of these questions, which I have been trying to decipher already a few times, are nonsensical. Yet they inspire me towards a few philosophical thoughts. For we are constantly surrounded by questions about how?, what? and why? It does not take us too much trouble to find answers to many of these questions. Or just a few moments of googling is all we nowadays need to do. Yesterday my son explained a feature of my smart phone to me that I had not yet discovered: Siri.  I had no idea about this facility that allows me to get an instant answer to many questions. Finding answers to other questions may at times require much more effort. Yet, we should be able to get many answers, if we were just willing to invest enough time and/or possess the appropriate tools.

In the sphere of religion and worldview many questions will remain unanswered—that is, if we expect ready-made scientific answers that can be proven by the use of logic and are verifiable through the use of our senses. Confronted with the deepest questions of our existence, we must be content with the answers of faith when it concerns life’s fundamental why-questions.

There is another sphere where a ready-made logical approach will not satisfy. I am thinking specifically about the concept of ‘family.’  What exactly produces the feeling in us that is associated with the concept of ‘family’? What causes our desire to regularly see those with whom we are family-related? And why is it so special so see your grandchildren when you have not seen them for a while, because they live far away?

I am currently enjoying the company of my two little granddaughters. Why are these two small girls, of three and a half and seven years respectively, so special—and so different from all other small children I happen to meet? It is not because they never argue with each other and are never even a little obnoxious. It is not because they are better and smarter in everything than all other children of their age.  And yet . . .

So, why are grandchildren so special? This question is not among the many why-questions I have been contemplating  during my visits to the smallest room of this house. In fact, I would not know how to answer it. But who cares? These kids simply are very special. That’s all that matters.

 

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A Festschrift

 

(Budva, Montenegro, Saturday evening November 15). In February of this year a request came from England.  This is what it is about: After dr. Bertil Wiklander had been the president of the Trans-European Division of the Adventist Church for some nineteen years, he had decided to retire per July of this year. A few members of his staff thought that he deserved a special honor in the form of a Festschrift—a more or less scholarly book with contributions from people scattered over Europe (and to a limited extent also from elsewhere), with whom he had cooperated closely over the years. However, someone had to be willing to actually do the work such a project involved. Since I myself had also worked closely with Wiklander for a considerable time (six years as the executive secretary of the division and five years as president of the Adventist Church in the Netherlands—I replied that I would duly consider the request. After some hesitation I informed the initiators that I was willing to take the job on. My hesitation was caused by the realization that this would be a major undertaking, and that this should be done within a relatively short period of time. It was the intention, so I was told, to present the book mid-November during the annual winter meetings of the full executive committee of the church in this region of the world.

Today is November 15. I am writing this blog in a comfortable room in the Splendid Hotel in the small state of Montenegro (North of Albania), where the annual meeting takes place. Yesterday my wife and I flew via Rome to this beautiful place. For a few days we hope to thoroughly enjoy the marvelous view of the Mediterranean Sea. Besides, it is very pleasant to see so many old friends. But we are not just here for tourism and personal enjoyment. Together with Rafaat Kamal, Wiklander’s successor, I presented this afternoon the Festschrift to dr. Wiklander. Is has become an attractive, 520 page book with the suggestive title:  Faith in Search of Depth and Relevancy.

Early March I sent letters to potential authors with the question whether they would be prepared to contribute an essay of ca. 7,000 words about a topic in their area of expertise. The response was heartwarming. Eventually there were no fewer than 30 men and (a few) women who promised to send a contribution. So, with my own piece, this resulted in a total of 31 chapters. I had given July 15 as the deadline (knowing that some would need a bit more time), leaving me just enough time for the editorial process and the production of the book. Some 500 e-mails later and many hundreds of hours of editorial work (and in the end quite worried about getting the book ready in time!) I could yesterday hold a finished copy in my hands. Thus today, according to the original plan, we could present the Festschrift to Bertil Wiklander.

It certainly gave great satisfaction to see Wiklander’s surprised face and listen to his words of appreciation. But, fortunately this volume is more than just a present given to someone at a specific occasion, and that is then brought home to be put in a closet. The thousand or so copies that have been printed will be read by people around the world. I am almost sure that some of chapters of this book will be quoted in publications by other authors.

I must admit that it is a relief that we have succeeded in making a nice book that will prove to be worth reading (and that appeared on time!). For the last two months, since the finished manuscript went to the printer, I have been able to focus again on other projects. In the past week I have been able to resume work on a new daily devotional that is due next year, so that the Dutch people can start using it per 1 January 2016. Writing three hundred and sixty-six short devotional messages is quite a challenge. After adding this past week twenty to the fifty that I had already had written some time ago, it brings the score to seventy. Before I return home next Tuesday I hope to have added another ten. I have made a schedule for the next five months that I intend to stick to. This time it is not about pushing other people but about a little self-discipline.  As long as no other Festschrift calls for my attention, it should be doable.

 

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Kellogg—a fresh perspective

 

John Harvey Kellogg is—perhaps after Ellen White—the Adventist with the greatest international fame. But opinions vary widely. Some continue to regard him as a genius and great reformer, while others rather see him as a charlatan and quack.  Visitors to Battle Creek, a town in the American state of Michigan, immediately see the towers of the immense building that currently is in the possession of the US government but once was an important part of the Kellogg’s Sanitarium. They cannot fail to be impressed.

For the general public the name Kellogg is mostly connected with cornflakes—invented by the ingenious Dr. Kellogg, but made into a commercial success by his brother Will Keith. Even today the Kellogg Corporation is one of the most important employers of Battle Creek.  Adventist visitors to Battle Creek will, however, be especially interested in the historic homes and other buildings which form a small open-air museum featuring Adventist beginnings. [1]  There one can also find the John Harvey Kellogg Discovery Center that houses all kinds of the instruments and installations that were developed by doctor Kellogg.

Much has been written about John Harvey Kellogg. Of special interest is the biography by Richard W. Schwarz. Written as a doctoral dissertation, it was  adapted and re-published in 2006 by the Review and Herald Publishing Association.[2] The book recounts the riveting story how this protégé of James and Ellen White was appointed, at age 26, as the leader of the newly established Western Health Reform Institute. This was the beginning of a long career that brought him and the institution he built ever increasing fame.

The book also deals, however, with the tension between the doctor and his church, that grew ever more severe and eventually led to a parting of the ways. In this context special emphasis is given to the publication of his book The Living Temple,[3] in which Kellogg painted a picture of God  that soon earned him the accusation of pantheism. When one studies this episode of Kellogg’s fascinating life, one cannot escape the impression that, besides theological concerns, all kinds of other aspects were playing a role, such as a clash between personalities and power. (It is rare that theological controversies only concern theology!)

Lots of publications about John Harvey Kellogg have appeared over the years. The most popular of these may well be The Road to Wellville[4] that formed the script for a movie with the same name in which Anthony Hopkins played the part of Dr. Kellogg. The book as well as the film received very few positive reviews—and rightly so. In no way did they do justice to this admittedly peculiar, but imaginative and creative personality.

At this very moment professor Ronald Numbers is working on a new and ‘definitive’ biography of Kellogg. His experience and reputation as a historian guarantee that this will be a most interesting and reliable work.

Very recently another book about Kellogg came off the press. I happened to hear about it and ordered it straight away. A few weeks ago Amazon.com arranged for the book to slide through my letter box. I have now read it. In this book  Brian C. Wilson, professor of comparative religion at Western Michigan University, describes (in more detail than anyone did before) the religious ideas that inspired John Harvey Kellogg. Of course, Wilson also deals at length with The Living Temple. But he places it in a wider context. He shows how gradually Kellogg developed a vision that one might call the ‘religion of biologic living’ .[5]  Wilson does not belong to the Adventist church but is intimately acquainted with the Adventist environment in which Kellogg lived and worked during a major part of his career. He displays a great measure of objectivity.

For me this new book was a tremendous eye-opener with regard to the thinking of Dr. Kellogg that more and more guided him. I warmly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history of Adventism and in the role of Kellogg in particular.  The 240 pages of this thoroughly researched and captivating book are fully worth the forty dollars or so that one must pay to acquire it.

 


[2]  Richard W. Schwartz, John Harvey Kellogg: Pioneering Health Reformer (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2006).

[3]  John Harvey Kellogg, The Living Temple (Battle Creek, MI: Good Health Publishing Company, 2003).

[4]  T.C. Boyle, The Road to Welville (Viking Penguin Books, 1993).

[5]  Daaraan is dan ook de titel van het boek ontleend:  Brian C. Wilson, John Harvey Kellogg and the Religion of Biologic Living (Bloomingtin, IN:  Indiana University Press, 2014).

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