Sunday, April 18, 2010

Theology for a Troubled Believer -- Review

Theology for a Troubled Believer: An Introduction to the Christian FaithTHEOLOGY FOR A TROUBLED BELIEVER: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. By Diogenes Allen. Louisville: WJK Press, 2010. xvi + 223 pp.

In the Second Century of the Common Era a group of theologians emerged who sought to defend and define the Christian faith in the context of their Greco-Roman context. We call them, the Apologists. They didn’t apologize for the faith, they gave a spirited defense. Down through history other theologians and philosophers have done the same thing. Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers is one of the best examples of such a genre. Diogenes Allen’s Theology for a Troubled Believer stands in this tradition, though his audience isn’t the cultured despiser, but rather the “troubled believer,” the person struggling to make sense of their faith.

We tend to think from and write from the basis of our own training and background. As a historian, I tend to do theology from a historical perspective. Diogenes Allen, on the other hand, is a philosopher of religion, and in writing his theology he leans heavily on his specialization. Allen is Stuart Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton Seminary. He is, of Greek background, but is a member of the Episcopal Church (and that affiliation shows throughout the book). He is not a traditional conservative, but he’s not a liberal either. He accepts, for instance, the legitimacy of evolution and affirms the importance of reason in understanding the Christian faith. But, he still comes at the questions of faith from a rather traditional perspective, putting little trust in modern explanations of reality. He rarely engages contemporary theologians – Barth is mentioned once – and the few references to process theology are negative – to the point of equating it with Greco-Roman pagan ideologies.

Bringing together a mix of traditional understandings, a philosophical starting point, and a desire to understand the biblical narrative, Allen sets out to write a theology that would try to provide answers to questions of meaning and purpose. That is, after all, one of the reasons the people turn to Christianity. He offers six reasons why people turn to Christianity – they have unworkable lives and need answers; they appreciate the beauty of Christianity’s ideals, such as love and service; a sense of failure and guilt, accompanied by a search for relief; a hunger for God, as evidenced by Augustine’s famous saying about restless hearts; spiritual experiences; and finally they are seeking meaning in life. It is this final quest that drives the book.

Allen engages in a dialogue between philosophy and the Bible. As noted earlier, there is little interaction with contemporary theologians. He is more comfortable with Scripture, philosophers, novelists, and early Christian thinkers such as Athanasius, though he likes Pascal and Simone Weil. As a theologian, he starts from the premise that the foundation of theology is Scripture. It is the primary source, but that being said, theology would not exist had the Greeks not entered into the conversation, asking of the text the question “why.” Theology, therefore, in Allen’s view, involves the “examination of various themes in biblical history, such as creation and the incarnation, where possible asking and answering questions about what they mean and imply, and in that exploration often seeking to relate these themes to what other fields of investigation are uncovering, such as history, archaeology, cosmology, psychology, or biology” (p. xix).

With Scripture as the primary source, Allen begins his theological journey, in conversation with other fields of investigation, focusing on five primary areas – The nature of God, suffering, the Divine sacrifices, new life in God, and response to God. Coming at the end of the book, Allen gives the briefest of discussions to such theological questions as the Holy Spirit, the church, the sacraments, sin, evil, and hope. His primary concern is trying to understand the nature and purpose of God and the way in which this relates to the question of suffering. Indeed, he expends three chapters on suffering and four on divine sacrifices. In his quest to understand the nature of God, he begins not with creation, as one would expect, but with the revelation of God in the Sinai to Moses. He does this because the message of the Bible is focused on Yahweh making Israel a people and being for them a personal God. Only after this is established is the reflection on creation important. He writes:

Taking things in this order will enable us to understand how the very notion of creation is transformed by the Jewish claim that Yahweh made the heavens and earth. What Yahweh is affects what creation is understood to mean (p. 3).

Although philosophy is an important part of his presentation, he is clear that the questions begin and end in Scripture. With that primacy established, he is content to move on to reflections on creation and the challenges of science.

Allen is concerned not just with offering an argument for the existence of God. Indeed, he finds the traditional arguments for God’s existence ultimately unsatisfactory, including that of Aquinas. Nature can provide a witness, but it is limited, and thus we must ultimately rely on the witness of Scripture. What he is most concerned about is affirming the holiness of God, by which he means the goodness of God. He seeks to do this in the face of intellectual questions, but also in answer to the questions of theodicy, which is why he focuses so heavily on suffering. While he finds process theology less than compelling – comparing it to Greco-Roman paganism – he goes part of the way with process. He notes that the idea of divine omnipotence is not biblical. We make a mistake, he suggests, if we treat the biblical word “almighty” as being equivalent to “omnipotent,” because while “omnipotence,” suggests that God “can do all things,” the word “almighty” suggests that God has authority over all things. One word speaks of ability to do something, the other speaks of rule. While the idea of omnipotence is foreign to scripture, it is also philosophically indefensible. Ultimately assertions of this nature have to be qualified to such an extent that the meaning is not that God can do all things, but simply that God has great power. Otherwise, the question remains – if God can do all things, then why does God not prevent evil and suffering?

As for Christology, he accepts the traditional definition of the two natures of Christ, which he pictures as the intersection of two planes of existence. Everything he does and says is done and said simultaneously as both divine and human. On the question of atonement, he doesn’t find any of the traditional answers complete, and so he contents himself with staying with the biblical story and not going beyond it to traditional theories. There is suffering, affliction, separation, but ultimately it is the combination of both God’s love and God’s power that makes the cross holy and salvific. He writes: “Of itself, the crucifixion is but a judicial murder. Only God’s power and love make it a holy and saving sacrifice. We are asked to see and confess that Jesus’ crucifixion is the wisdom of God” (p. 126). As for atonement, a concept he seeks to reclaim, it is “the restoration of the human capacity to know, love, and obey God – the restoration of the image that God bestowed in the first creation” (p. 127). Resurrection is ultimately God’s vindication of Jesus.

This is one of those books that one has mixed feelings about. There is much that I enjoyed and yet I also found some parts less than helpful. He is wrestling with important issues, but in many ways his discussions seem dated. That may be one reason why I wish he had interacted more with contemporary theology. Another issue has to do with audience. The sub-title suggests that this is an introduction, but the writing style is rather dense and likely not appropriate for most general readers. One needs at least some philosophical and biblical background for it to be understandable and useful. Ultimately, however, the point is well taken – we must wrestle with the difficult questions of faith – and that requires that we bring to bear reason on questions of faith. His perspective might be best summed up in a few sentences found early in the book.

Belief in God is not something below the level of reason, and so irrational. Rather, it is something that is above reason, suprarational. By God’s very nature, God is unbounded, without limits, or infinite, and God’s fullness is incomprehensible to anything less than the mind of God itself. But God through God’s loving actions on us enables the mind and heart to rise above their normal ability , and to respond with faith in God, who reveals Godself to various people known to us in the Bible and above all in Jesus. (p. 53).
Whether this is sufficient to calm the troubled heart of a questioning believer is uncertain.  What is true here is that Allen wants to present an intellectually credible witness to the biblical God, which in the mind of this reviewer is a worthy goal.

7 comments: said...

In the preface to 'The Path of Perfect Love,' Allen mentions contemporary theologians he admires, among them Rowan Williams and Robert Sokolowski. But to my knowledge he doesn't refer to them in his own writings. You're right, he's more comfortable with the old masters. Among his books I've read, 'Temptation' stands out as the best.

Peace to you,


Steve said...

As a "troubled believer" myself, I'm sorry to see that Allen is dismissive of panentheism, as, were it not for Process Theology, I would not know where to sit at the Christian table. Allen's supernatural god, by definition (his), creates the theodicy conundrum by posing a question that cannot be answered: How can a loving, all powerful God, allow evil? The only viable answer, for me, is to jettison the classical notion of omnipotence and accept a God who would if that God could, but can't; at least for now. This God is in process, as is the cosmos, and the ultimate desire is to finally bring shalom, wholeness, to bear on every aspect of existence. Until that final moment comes, we are stuck with evil and, without Process, Allen's conundrum remains.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Steve, what is interesting is that although he rejects process he also rejects the idea of omnipotence. He doesn't give enough attention to process to truly know where he stands.

David Mc said...

It doesn't matter what God is, but what God does. Doing nothing takes a lot of self-control. Imagine being all-powerful, with a will powerful enough to (usually?) not step in.

How important are the details to the average Christian? Faith in goodness is all that is required. Nature, including humans', should satisfy our curiosities.

John said...

Steve's issue regarding the reach of God's power and the implications of God's failure to exercise it seems to me, in my humble opinion, to be mis-focused.

"Omnipotence," and "Omniscience," and "Omnipresence" for that matter, are all human constructs imposed on God as we attempt to map out the contours of what we believe constitute the requisite characteristics of an infinite being. Isn't God, to the extent not otherwise revealed, supposed to be a mystery to humans? Are we not engaging in graven image making when we impute such characteristics to God?

Isn't it enough to say that God is transcendent, and to acknowledge that we cannot know what it means to be transcendent.

Who knows the reach of God's power but God. Graven image-making aside, there seems to me to be little benefit in surmising definitive answers to solve this mystery. One result is that in assuming that when the presumptively "omnipotent" God appears to human senses to be unresponsive to evil and suffering and they continue unabated, we are forced by our own logic to conclude that God is powerless to respond, or that God is indifferent.

I see that "conundrum" as little different than the problem of the irresistible power and the immovable rock. The problem is not which is stronger, but how the issue is framed - and here we have done so in definitional extremes and in black and white colors.

While it's just a guess on my part,
I highly doubt that God is unmoved by evil and suffering in our world. HOW God should responds is not for me to determine, nor is it even for me to necessarily know WHETHER God has responded.

The fact that evil and suffering continue to exist in human affairs leads me to conclude that evil and suffering are part of the human condition - the only way to prevent them is to pluck out the eyes which apprehend them - and then they will remain, only unseen. (The poor will always be with us.) Again it is only a guess, but my assumption is that for God to intercede more dramatically would result in a fundamental change in the human condition, and a fundamental alteration in the relationship between God and his human creation. A change which God does not desire to happen - for reasons only God knows.

So my personal response is that God knows what God is doing, and my guess is that God continues to invite humans to respond with active compassion where God's direct response would be counter-productive.


John said...

I read recently that metaphysics is the ultimate form of violence. It begins with intellectual violence. It seeks to impose order (metaphysicians would say discern a pre-existent order) by FORCE of will where humans have no authority and little if any reliable information. Humans naturally seek to force everything we encounter (or imagine we encounter) into a rational pattern through which we can navigate.

Having engaged in intellectual violence we usually resort to physical violence to compel others to ratify the metaphysical construct which we have effectuated/discerned.


David Mc said...

"The poor will always be with us."

And war is inevitable?

Just because these have been truths so far, doesn't mean they have to sap our imagination or our will to overcome. Besides, poorness is relative. I would argue that the people of Costa Rica, for example, have richer lives than us in the US and have less to feel guilty about.