In this episode John and Gregg discuss a recent session at the Sunday morning group that Gregg facilitates.
Gregg explains how this session was quite different because the adolescents joined the adults for this discussion. The history of his involvement with this group is that Gregg has been trying to engage them in re-considering their perspectives and beliefs relative to other perspectives (such as those of other denominations, atheists, etc.).
Yet Gregg has found that because the culture of this church is so strongly a “culture of trust” relative to such matters that it was very difficult last year for him to bring them to the place of viewing anything related to Christianity or Christian faith from a suspicious perspective. This is quite the opposite in most communities that Gregg is familiar with—call them “cultures of suspicion”—where people are usually all too aware of the failings of Christians and Christianity.
This year Gregg has decided to take a different approach. So he proposes to identify views held by the group that appear to contradict both the Bible and real life and present this contradiction to them. Then he aims to accept their rebuttals or disagreements and address each in turn, until either the disagreements can be shown to be invalid (and so rejected) or valid (and so incorporated).
In this case Gregg has been questioning the group’s belief that God is “in charge” or that God’s will is being done all the time. To do so, last week he raised both the Disciples’ Prayer (where the disciples are taught to pray that “God’s kingdom come, his will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”) and the fact that events such as the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide occurred.
Essentially this amounts to “the problem of evil.”
Various group members disagreed with the idea that God does not cause / work with evil, citing both the first two chapters of Job and Romans 8:28. Following this session Gregg researched a number of articles on both these texts and found some very interesting and helpful material.
John wonders: How did the actual interaction work out? Gregg notes a few interesting things. First, he was surprised when respondents tended to try to use simplified or “easier” examples (such as assault instead of the Holocaust) to prove that there were edge cases in these easier examples that could be questionable, and then claim to have resolved the matter! So Gregg had to keep respondents focused on the hardest possible examples.
Second, Gregg was also surprised when a respondent was unwilling to recognize differences in wording between “God bring good despite evil” and “God uses evil to bring good.” In this person’s view there is no difference in meaning (yet Gregg wonders: how would this person respond if told that there is no difference between “no one comes to the Father except through me” and “Jesus is one path to salvation”?
Gregg believes that both of these cases are based on an impulse to console ourselves in the face of the difficulties and dangers of existence. In this case Christians ardently hold to the idea that “God is in control,” despite both biblical and experiential evidence to the contrary, because holding this belief making the unpredictability and pain of life meaningful and even sanctioned by one who is, effectively, on my side. Nor do Christians typically frame this belief in its starkest terms (such as saying that the Holocaust “had to happen” or that God “used the Rwandan genocide”).
So Gregg argues that evil or wicked treatment may create a greater, more jarring contrast when juxtaposed with a good or loving act, but it may also cause defensive detachment or other issues that do not result in “good.” Further, the world actually becomes less predictable when holding this belief: those believing that God brings good out of evil cannot be sure if any particular evil act is one that God is using for good—or indeed, if every evil act is being used for good (and so whether there is really any evil that we should dispute or resist)!
Ultimately, Gregg argues that being truthful with oneself about the reality of evil also necessitates being more truthful with oneself about who one is and what the world is really like, and this can be very difficult and painful to do.
Similarly, Gregg observes that there is a prevalent view within the group that Christians need nothing more than the Holy Spirit in order to read the Bible correctly. According to Gregg’s experience and his understanding of the Bible this is a false notion which functions to allow anyone to quote nearly anything in the Bible is support for his or her views. Instead, Christians are to see themselves as a body and need to be interreliant, leaning on other parts of the body that are more trained or suited to particular tasks. So the idea that any given Christian will ever be able to understand the Bible as well as Gordon Fee or N. T. Wright is simply bogus.