Posted by: Dan | January 12, 2009

Review and Discussion of ‘The God I Don’t Understand’: Part 1, Introduction

Discussed in this series: Christopher J. H Wright, The God I Don’t Understand: Reflections on Tough Questions of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008).

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Introduction

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Christopher Wright’s latest book, The God I Don’t Understand, is an exploration of some of the ‘tough questions’ that confront those who confess the Christian faith and affirm the Bible, along with the God portrayed therein. Four focal points are chosen: questions related to evil and suffering, questions related to the divinely sanctioned slaughter of the Canaanites, questions related to the cross of Jesus, and questions related to the ‘end of the world’.

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Within this post I will first review Wright’s introductory remarks. I will then post some of my own thoughts regarding what Wright has written. Finally, I will post some thoughts from my brother Judah, whom I have invited to participate in this dicussion, and he will respond to both Wright and myself. This will be the pattern employed for the entire series, except at the end, when I will also respond to the whole of Judah’s remarks, and then allow him to respond one more time and conclude the series (NB: Judah will only be responding to a reading of my summary and comments, and not to a reading of primary text).

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For those who do not know Judah, I have invited him to respond for several reasons. First of all, he is a thoughtful and compassionate fellow with experience in both the academy (he received a Master’s degree in Restorative Justice under the supervision of Howard Zehr and is teaching part-time at a University in Ontario) and in social services, where, amongst other things, he has spent some years working in support circles for perpetrators and survivors of sexual violence both within his local community and within Canadian prisons. Secondly, I have invited Judah to participate in this dialogue because, although he has previously identified as a Christian, he no longer professes the Christian faith. Therefore, I think that Judah brings a doubly valuable perspective to the questions before us. On the one hand, he brings an ‘outsider’ perspective to the discussion – one that is essential for a genuinely honest confrontation with the questions under discussion. After all, despite our best efforts to remain objective, Christians are all too easily influenced by the to vindicate their faith (and their God!) and it often takes an outsider perspective to demonstrate how superficial or self-serving even our best efforts can be. On the other hand, he also brings the perspective of a former ‘insider’, and is, therefore, able to easily follow the discussion without confusion related to the terms employed, the events described, the overview of the Christian faith, and so on. Thirdly, I have invited Judah to this dialogue because I am tired of listening about confrontations between so-called ‘militant atheists’ and so-called ‘Christian apologists’ (don’t be fooled – this is just an ideological term for militant theists!) that are, for the most part, lacking in acts of genuineness openness to the other (each party comes with foregone conclusions), charity (each party is bent on destroying the other), and affection (each party views the other as an opponent). Consequently, I hope that the dialogue between Judah and I will demonstrate that openness, charity, and affection do not not have to be absent in frank discussions related to core questions and fundamental disagreements.

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Okay, then, on to the book.

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Summary: Preface & Introduction

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What becomes immediately apparent when one enters into Wright’s book is the tone which he employs to address the matters at hand. While many other Christians have approached the ‘tough questions of faith’ with self-serving pat answers or some sort of bravado that refuses to either genuinely listen to contradictory voices or plumb the depths of the problem, Wright enters into the discussion with the intention of being both honest and humble, confessing that some, or all, of these questions might not actually have any clear-cut answers available to us here and now. This, then, explains the title of Wright’s book, which differs from a good many apologetic efforts in speaking of a God the author does not undestand… instead of speaking of a God that the author has got all figured out! Of course, Wright explores these themes as a confessing Christian, and as a person who claims to both know and trust the Christian God, but he recognises that ‘knowing and trusting does not necessarily add up to understanding’ (13).

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Significantly, Wright highlights the observation that his lack of understanding takes various forms. Thus, there are things that he does not understand about God that leave him angry and grieved (like the reality of evil), things that he does not understand about God that leave him morally disturbed (like the story of the conquest of Canaan), things he does not understand about God that leave him puzzled (like stories related to the so-called ‘end of the world’) and things that he does not understand about God that cause him to be filled with gratitude and hope (like the cross).

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While highlighting that this absence of understanding is one that is reflected back at the contemporary Christian – both in the bible and in a good many hymns – Wright ultimately takes Psalm 73 as his guide for how he approaches these issues. Wright notes that Psalm 73 ‘begins by affirming the essential faith of Israel’ and only after doing this goes on to express profound anguish over the apparent moral and spiritual inversion that the author (like us) can see all around him’ (22). However, even in this outcry, the psalmist does two things. First of all, he is cautious to not carelessly broadcast his concerns, lest he unsettle the faith of others (Wright refers to this as the establishment of a ‘proper pastoral limit to the voicing of protest, and he seeks not to transgress this limit). Secondly, the psalmist engages in his protest within the context of worship which, without changing the harsh realities of the present, does infuse worshippers with ‘a transforming expectation from the future that is both sobering and comforting’ (23). Thus, within this context, the psalmist moves from faith, through protest, to a renewed faith. Wright, then, tries to take the reader down a similar road. He writes:

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In seeking to be honest and realistic, I do not want to upset further the faith of those already disturbed. Rather, I want us to face up to the limitations of our understanding and to acknowledge the pain and grief this can often cause. But at the same time, I want us to be able to say, with this psalmist (73:28), “But that’s all right. God is ultimately in charge and I can trust him to put things right. Meanwhile I will stay near to God, make him my refuge, and go on telling of his deeds” (23).

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Thus, Wright notes how his faith, his location, and his pastoral concerns impact and limit what he does and does not say about the matters under discussion. However, his view of these limits is one that appears to be positive—they are portrayed as both necessary and appropriate.

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Dan’s Response

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There isn’t too much that I want to say in response at this point. I have already highlighted Wright’s humble tone and I am glad to see a Christian writer who is trying to encounter reality-as-it-is without immediately fleeing into comforting or self-serving obfuscations.

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That said, there are two issues I would like to raise. First, it is worth asking ourselves how Wright’s particular context and commitments – writing as he does as a Christian rooted within the community of faith, and operating with the a priori assumption that God is in control and will make everything right in the end – do or do not facilitate his encounter with reality-as-it-is. That is to say, while I do not want to take away from the importance the Christian community plays in the formation of a Christian’s identity and paradigms, I would also want to stress the importance of being rooted in other places, especially when it comes to the questions under discussion in this book. So, while Wright wishes to explore these questions within a community of god-worshipping people, I would suggest that there is great value to be found in exploring these questions within a community of (apparently) godforsaken people. Thus, for example, in exploring the crucifixion of Jesus, let us not only do so in the company of those who meditate upon the crucifix, let us also ensure that we do so in the company of those who are crucified today. Of course, one does not always need to choose between these various communities; rather, one should strive to be rooted in both places simultaneously. For, as much as being within a faith community can sharpen our vision, solely privileging our rootedness within that community can also warp our vision (if, for example, we lose track of the fact that our particular faith community is also a community of, say, conservative middle-class white folk – for every community is a combination of religious, economic, political, ethnic, and other factors that need to be explicated and often challenged).

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To return, then, to Wright’s particular context, commitments, and a priori assumptions, my concern becomes that Wright is limiting himself to a group that is, oddly enough, both too narrow and too vague. On the one hand, by writing as a Christian, with Christians, to Christians, the perspective on the topics under discussion risks becoming too narrow because it neglects the riches that are to be found when we begin to ask these questions in other places, and in solidarity with people with other commitments – say with Native Americans who survived the traumas of Christian residential schools, or say with the philosophy of a Sartre, the stories of a Camus, and so on. We must ask ourselves: when we a priori accept that God is in control, and that everything will work out in the end, how much are we capable of genuinely plumbing the depths of these questions? If we are responding to evil and suffering by saying, as Wright does, ‘But that’s all right…’ how much are we genuinely opening ourselves to the stark reality of these things? So, to be clear, my concern at this point is not that Wright is discussing these things from a Christian perspective – after all, I too am writing from a Christian perspective; rather, my concern is that Wright is too narrowly limited to only a Christian perspective.

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On the other hand, the approach taken by Wright is also too vague in that it fails to account for the ways in which our Christianity, and our responses to the questions at hand, are conditioned by the economic, ethnic, and socio-political factors mentioned above. Of course, having read some of Wright’s other works (notably, in this regard, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God), I know that he is aware of these factors and has engaged them in a way that I admire… it’s just that I would like to have seen these things dealt with more directly here as well.

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The second issue I would like to raise is Wright’s pastoral concern not to deeply unsettle the faith of others or ‘upset further the faith of those already disturbed’. Now, I’m no pastor, but on this point I find that I completely disagree with Wright. It seems to me that one of the grievous problems with Christianity in our context is precisely how settled and undisturbed it is both by the God of the bible and by the world around us. Consequently, I think that faith – if it is to be genuine, take root, and lead to action that anticipates God’s reconciling new creation of all things – needs to be unsettled, disturbed, and thrown into crisis. Thus, unlike Wright, I do not think we should place any limits upon our protests and our outcry. Indeed, unless we have been confronted with such a cry, I do not know how we can determine if our faith is real. After all, the unfiltered, unconstrained cry of another shatters all the is illusory about my faith, and reveals whether or not my faith has any reason to remain. So, for example, I may think that an appropriate conclusion regarding evil and suffering is ‘That’s all right, because God is in control…’ until I try to say this as a way of comforting a homeless girl who was recently gang-raped and she responds to these words with an unfiltered cry. Then I quickly realise that this is actually a horrible thing to say both because there is nothing ‘all right’ about gang-rape and because asserting that God is in control is a way of telling the survivor that God permitted her to be raped. Consequently, returning to Wright, I cannot help but wonder if his pastoral sensitivity simply ends up maintaining the sort of faith that is illusory and damaging to those who have been thrown into the depths of the cry. (Of course, to be fair to Wright, we have not yet explored what he has to say about evil and suffering, and the great sensitivity he demonstrates in that exploration, but it is worth highlighting this quotation because it reveals where Wright wishes to lead the reader, and the assumption out of which he is writing.)

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Judah’s Response

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Hey Everyone – I’ve finally made it onto Dan’s blog, as a writer. Look out! Here’s my chance! Dan, along with my other 2 brothers, is one of my favourite people. We did just recently have an alcohol-fueled argument that degenerated into name-calling (on my part), but we love each other all the more for it (right, Dan?). He’s younger than me yet in so many ways he is much older and wiser, having taken on a lot of shit at a young age and continuing to do so throughout his adult life.

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I did stop reading his blog for a while though. For a time, it started to feel like the same old fundamentalist bullshit, but instead of asking Jesus into my heart I had to ask the poor into my home. Both things I’m not really prepared to do. Especially the Jesus one. Anyhow, I’ve started to read it again in the past few months and think that Dan is starting to adopt a bit of a softer, more patient tone with people….according to me anyways.

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As to Wright’s writing, I haven’t read it but I have a few thoughts based on Dan’s summary and response.

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(1) I agree with Dan as to the ‘that’s all right I can trust God’ comment made by Wright. No, in my opinion suffering and evil is not all right and I wouldn’t be willing to attach that kind of a statement to it.

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(2) Secondly, I personally am not willing to trust or wait for a god to work things out. If there is a god – he, she, it (I’m very tired of most xian others referring to god as a man) – seems to be totally absent and uninterested in human suffering or doing anything about it. Human beings have the ability and potential to wreak a lot of havoc, but even more so, the capacity to take care of each other. So, rather than wait for ‘god’ I’d like to see humans – xians, jews, muslims, hindus, buddhists, satanists, secularists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc, etc – band together more and do something about suffering and evil. I’m not willing to resign myself like Wright appears to suggest.

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(3) I also agree with Dan (this ain’t turning into too much of a debate) that his comment about being pastoral (when it comes to the ‘tough’ questions) is not healthy for Christians. Further, I would say it is condescending – as if he, or others like him, are the strong in the faith and they are the only ones who are allowed to truly wrestle with the most difficult questions. What’s he scared of?

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(4) I like his emphasis on not understanding…very refreshing!

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(5) This is fun – thanks for the invite Dan.

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Responses

  1. interesting post….

    i just watched ‘battlecentre’ by leo regan documenting about the Jesus Army in the UK.

    very interesting film, not sure if you’ve watched it dan, but i would love to hear what you think of the movie.

    i think that it has some connection to this post in terms of struggles and doubts within community of believers and hypocracy in our faith all observed in the eyes of a non-believer….

    anyways, i would love to hear what you think about this particular film.

    Ceasar

    ps. i’m not sure if i have your correct email, what is it?

    pps. my wife and i might be stopping by vancouver on the way home to toronto from australia in the spring time, i would love to hook up and catch up…

  2. Dan, excellent review (i am resisting buying the book). Great to hear from your brother Judah as well, thanks, daniel dn on whidbey. ps, any chance Wright will respond?

  3. I look forward to reading more of how you engage with Wright’s book, Dan – and your responses, Judah.

    With the profoundly positive impact you had on the faith of my three kids many years ago, Judah, I confess that it saddens me that you no longer self-identify as a “xian”. I would love to discuss why IRL at some point – with little to no attempt on my part to convince you otherwise.

  4. […] I began a review and discussion of Christopher J. H. Wright's book, The God I Don't Understand (see here for Part 1).  At that time, I was discussing the book with my brother Judah, who espouses a […]

  5. I have four questions if you can answer them please and thanks.
    What was Mr. Wright’s main theme? Why does he have trouble understanding God? Why is evil such a conundrum for God’s children? Does Mr. Wright provide any answers to help us with the problem?


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