What's Tony Thinking

Hello Cruel World


Here’s a quick review of the past week’s UnApologetic webinar, plus a link to the video of that session. The link also includes a text of the John O’Donohue prayer “Benedictus,” with which I ended the session.

“Hello Cruel World” is certainly a timely chapter, as we witness the war in Ukraine (the one that Russian media are required to call “a special military operation,” or else go to prison). Cruelty is on spectacular and depressing display. But so too is courage and generosity on spectacular display in the Ukrainian resistance and in hospitality to the war’s refugees in neighboring countries.

In this chapter Francis Spufford takes on what theologians call the problem of pain, suffering and evil. The way that lines up is, “If God is God and thus all-powerful, and if God is good and loving, how come there is so much pain, suffering and evil in the world?”

Put that way, it is a kind of logical conundrum. But mostly we don’t put it that way. We cry out in rage, incomprehension and sorrow when faced with a friend with terrible cancer, or the death of a child, or an evil tyrant wrecking pain and havoc on an entire society. Our questions may not have an answer, but they have a purpose nonetheless. They are our protest against evil and injustice. As such, they are informed by a conviction that at some level life should be, even is, just. That it has moral meaning. If you give that up, you have no problem explaining suffering and evil.

Spufford works through a number of the most common answers to the problem of pain and suffering, including, “we suffer because God is refining us,” “we suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary,” “we suffer as part of a package deal that gives us free will,” and a few more. Some of these are hideous. Some contain some element of truth.

Finally, Spufford asks, “How then do we deal with suffering. How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is we don’t.” He says we believers live with the question, the tension, the contradiction and go on.

I think that is true, at least for me. Why? Well, for one thing, our attempts to explain evil often seem (as with Job’s friends) a way to distance ourselves from suffering, to persuade ourselves it won’t get us or those we love. Beyond that, our “answer” as Christians is not a logical explanation, it is a story, the story of Jesus, of man and God on a cross, and of his resurrection.

There is, however, one framework that Spufford does not consider, but which is emphasized by my friend, Fleming Rutledge. It is “the three agencies.” Here’s a bit from Fleming’s book, Advent.

“Many people . . . have grown up assuming that there are two actors on the biblical stage: God and the human being. The presenting problems of injustice, corruption, rapacity, exploitation, oppression, ‘battle, murder and sudden death,’ are owing to the failure of the human being to live up to his or her potential . . . but this is not the biblical picture at all. The New Testament presents us with not two but three agencies: God, the human being, and an Enemy who variously called Satan, the devil, Beelzebul, ‘the ruler of this world,’ and ‘the prince of the power of the air,’ among other biblical designations.”

In such a framework, Jesus comes as an invader into Satan’s occupied territory (think C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe). To be baptized into Christ is to become a citizen of a new realm and a new king. It is to join the battle with Sin and Death, both in ourselves and in the world.

Many moderns have, of course, set all this aside in favor of what Fleming calls “the two agencies” framework. Any talk of a Devil is dismissed as outdated poppycock. But that has left us ill equipped when it comes to naming and opposing evil. (For more on this I suggest Richard Beck’s book, Reviving Old Scratch: Demons and the Devil for Doubters and the Disenchanted.)

I’ve gone on a bit longer than I meant to, but will leave the summary here for now. Next week’s chapter is “Yeshua,” (later Latinized as “Jesus”). I hope you will find it as meaningful as I have. For now, grace and peace be with you all, and with our broken world.


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