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Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Retreat of the Barron: Theodicy Dies Hard

Robert Barron has reconsidered his recent homily on God's solidarity with the human condition. In his latest video, he retreats into simple theodicy, and though he asks his listeners to consider why Christians refer to the Friday of Jesus's death as 'good,' he has abandoned the theme of solidarity. Why Fr. Barron would adopt a strategy of defeat in the face of evil and suffering boggles the mind. Even his title for his presentation, "Stephen Fry, Job and Suffering" betrays a hopeless juxtaposition that valorizes all the wrong things.

Though he rightly reminds us that the actor-comedian is not the first to present the problem of suffering in the face of an omnibenevolent God, Barron allows the obscenity of theodicy in the face suffering children to hold the day. We stipulate that unspeakable suffering is the single best argument against the existence of the God of the 'omni's,' but we do not stipulate that the incomprehensibility of God's will, wisdom, plan, etc., is the answer to incomprehensible, meaningless suffering and other evils of this world.

It's as if Barron had reviewed my embrace of his homily and thought better of his original thesis, or certainly my synthesis of it, and now rejects it out of hand. Perhaps a review of the distinction of potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta is appropriate here. Suffice it to say that God has (co)ordinated his 'omnipotence' in this world of ours to this world. After creation, God saw that all was good, that creation was imbued with process, intelligibility and integrity. He therefore aligns himself to his creation and orders his power to what he has decreed in his creation. He has created creatures in his image and likeness,  and imbued them with radical freedom. He loves, but performs no magic.

The answer to Job and his shadows is not the potentia absoluta, but the potentia ordinata which expresses itself as divine love of the impossibility of the possible. We call this impossibility Christ. The answer to human suffering is the suffering of God. This response of solidarity is what I found so liberating in Fr. Barron's homily on Job. It cut to the horizon of love where God has chosen to reveal himself, as himself, in his self-communication in the Christ-event.

When Stephen Fry takes God to task for abandoning children in their suffering, I take Fry to task for not being at the bedside of these children more often, redeeming their suffering and time of loneliness. Would it kill him to tell a few jokes on the wards of Memorial Sloane-Kettering? It would seem that any atheistic ethic would demand that all atheists participate in the sacred time of the most profoundly human events---death and suffering. For theists this is not so much an ethic as an act of faith and mercy. Either substrate gets human beings to be present to the suffering other, to witness to what it means to be human and mortal.

So why are the suffering and dying so often alone? Because most atheists and theists share a secret,  their dirty little secret of self-indulgent, self-serving apathy.

Just as Christians are required to remove the log from their own eye before they presume to remove the speck from their brother's eye, so, too, the atheist must shake his fist at his fellow atheist before he shakes it at God.

How could Fr. Barron have missed this profoundly pastoral moment (he has just written a wonderful homily on The Transfiguration that deploys a savvy hermeneutic, which moved me to comment, especially upon his use of 'icon')? While we tend to the horrors of cancer in our fellow humans suffering in silence, perhaps we should also tend to the cancer of theodicy that makes a mockery of creation.

20 comments:

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    1. I would never disparage Fry's activism on behalf of the LGBT community or his dedication to those who suffer from bipolar disorder. Robert Barron picked up on Fry's talking head in his gone-viral video about God giving bone cancer to children, and I simply rolled with it in my critique. I was using Fry to generalize about the popular atheist narrative. I apologize if anything sounded ad hominum.

      Dvinity that suffers and dies is not unknown to ancient religions. Catholicism, it is true, protects the immutability and simplicity of God by denying that God can be affected by anything. Still, embedded in the Tradition and dogma, is a God who loves as we do. We miss this God if we experience him on the horizon of Being only.

      Somewhere in the Dogma of the Logos and hypostatic union we find a God who is very close, as close as a placenta is to the maternal body. The possibility of crossing over is always there in hope and faith. Theodicy forces the withdrawal of God into distance, where he can remain utterly unknown, aloof, untouched and inscrutable. After the Incarnation, theodicy can no longer stand: what would/could incarnation mean in the face of an aloof and distant God?

      The Cross therefore, and the entire Christ-event, is a saturated phenomenon. Theodicy dissolves in the very excess of the God-man. Why? Because the justification of God to man is overcome by the justice of Christ.

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    2. I add this remark for completeness sake, not because you are unaware of the theology. The human and divine natures are united at the level of person in the hypostatic union. Though the two natures are not hybridized into monophysitism, the person is divine: the natures remain distinct in the single divine person of Jesus.

      Jesus, the divine person, suffered death and was buried. The Logos itself need not have 'felt' the pain to witness to it, and be touched by it. Metaphorical yes, at the very least. The suffering divinity of Jesus himself would suffice the illustrate the suffering and death of divinity.

      None of God's suffering can play out in the ontotheology on the horizon of Being. Only on the horizons of Love and Truth. The horizon of being has many metaphysical rules and boundaries, none of which contaminate the theopoetics of the horizon of Love, or for that matter, the apophatic space of 'unknowing' of the mystics (e.g., Nicholas of Cusa as elucidated by Keller in her _Cloud of the Impossible_).

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    5. It has been the constant teaching of the Church that only the Logos is involved in the hypostatic union. And I don't believe that dinosaurs and humans are contemporaneous, just for the record.

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    7. Thank you for not holding me to having a complete understanding of the Triune God.

      You have deleted some very provocative posts, and I find that regrettable. I do not have 'the' answer(s) for you, but I would have attempted a Catholic response. I will be blogging on some of this topic going forward but I did want to respond to the problem you hint at.

      When you speak to me of men walking with dinosaurs you speak directly to what I DO NOT want to be about. I do not want to provide cover for simplistic religion. For me, religion must be contemplative and critical.

      This blog provides NO cover for those whose faith is little more than fideism. This is the great problem critically religious people have. The problem with religion is that some who hold to it, hold to it simplistically, without any consideration for what's behind a dogma or doctrine, or for that matter, what lies just beneath the surface of scripture.

      I am not speaking about those whose faith is simple and pure: I want no part in damaging that either.

      But I am not to be mistaken for giving purchase, truck, credence to the idiotic, stupid and dangerous mindlessness that passes for religion in this world of ours.

      I am side-stepping those whose religion and God are metaphors of the Big Other from which they must be exonerated and cured. They can find another blog. Thye need a good dose of Zizek and fast.

      There are sound reasons for my faith, based as they are in experience and phenomena, even if they do not align with the bar of logical positivism, which rapes the very idea of knowledge as it violently cuts out other kinds of knowledge from the mind and spirit, while positing the most humongous, overwrought and draconian metaphysics ever invented to separate the human from the truth.

      I like your beach simile. You can be an atheist and retain a certain respect for your formative Catholic tradition. People do that all the time, even if you find that you can take the boy out of the beach, but not the beach out of the boy. You might find yourself like Odysseus, with an oar that will be mistaken for a winnowing fan.

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    1. I deeply appreciate how profoundly this event has touched you. It's as if it were yesterday: your grief is palpable.

      The death of Omayra resulted from apathy: local and regional leaders, 'experts' on site, could not even begin pumping water to protect her from the elements. An absolute lack of will to save the child led directly to her death. How many days does it take to find a pump? Decision-makers on the scene determined that it would be better for her to die than risk losing her legs. I do not locate those 'lies' in religion in this tragedy, but in politics and horrific leadership. Theodicy has no place in this context.

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    1. There are no guarantees in any of this: we agree.

      There is faith and hope, and the problem of a promise is that it can be broken, not matter how strong faith and hope are. Catholicism offers no guarantees; just a promise.

      A promise guarantees nothing. We hope and pray they are kept.

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  4. Theodicy has many guises. It can be the locus of determining the probabilities of the existence of God, the locus of a withdrawn and inscrutable God whose omnipotence is 'mysterious,' the locus of response to suffering. It is this last face of theodicy that I find obscene. To offer a God whose plan is unknowable, whose knowledge and wisdom is so transcendent, whose love is so incomphensible, etc., to the grief of parents who lost a child to some horrible illness or other catastrophe is unforgiveable and a heinous act of cruelty. It is the definition of obscenity. That the human mind cannot wrap its head around God's is a truth that is irrelevant in the face of human suffering. This is the theodicy I rail against.

    There is no solidarity with God in the theodical gesture. When Robert Barron said that solidarity is God's response to human suffering it was because the ugliness of theodicy haunted his onto-theology and broke through in a radical thought that is just under the surface of traditional theology. I thought to embrace that.

    In my own reading of the Book of Job I underscored how God's very non-responsiveness and making Job present to the wonders of creation brought them both 'closer': where God could restore (resurrect) Job to more a greater life. There is no theodicy in the book that supposedly brought theodicy into being, except as caricature.

    I present a God who suffers over and against patripassionism. You are right to point out that a God experienced on a horizon of love does not exonerate us from a God on the horizon of being: but the point is that God loves 'before' he 'is'. And that implies solidarity. Theodicy precludes solidarity because it locks God into a transcendent 'essence' hopelessly locked in a metaphysics that precludes God's appearance on any horizon of love. But this is Jean-Luc Marion's thesis, and I defer to him to place it on firmer ground for you.

    As far as radical freedom goes, we have discussed this before. Radical freedom, in order to be truly radical, is ordered to responsibility and love. Otherwise, such freedom is nothing more than license; and that has more to do with the will to power than free will. We must think of the 'freedom' of radical freedom with a very lower case ' f '. God does not embrace the exercise of freedom to enslave, deprive, kill, etc. as authentic. It can only be radical if it is ordered to love of the Other.

    God insists that we radicalize freedom into forming the Kingdom, and that is impossible. We are asked to do the impossible so that, as John Caputo has argued, God can exist.

    You obviously agree that God has no agency in the here and now. And Caputo, for one, would agree with a certain atheism that tends to such a lack of agency. But it's the possibility of the impossible that some people call "God", and getting a pump to pump out some water would have brought God into existence before tragedy struck. But I know you dislike Caputo, so enough of that.

    The proper response to human suffering is to be human. Offer not platitudes but presence. Empathy. This is a kind of solidarity. It is often silent. It is a Catholic hope that the Cross is God's witness to the human condition: that in the person of Christ, God is present in a unique way: we call that the hypostatic union, and the Logos is present to the humanity of Jesus in a way that cannot but experience, witness, what it means to be human. But you know all this. It doe not make any of this less mysterious, just a bit more bearable. Why? Because God can do nothing about any of it but be present: this is unconditional love. Solidarity means love; it does not mean make things not happen.

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    5. Mary Daly never comes out of nowhere; I recall she was the one who put Buber's _I and Thou_ in my hands. The feminist voice in theology is authentic and invigorating. My debt, to Catherine Keller for example, seems to increase daily.

      I do not think I would pass for an atheist, though I admit that Catholics have been accused of atheism since the 2nd century.

      Rahner is our greatest theologian. I am hesitant to disagree with you because you are an excellent and critical reader of Rahner, but I must say that, all things being equal, Pope Francis and even Karl Rahner would entertain the idea of a God without agency in this world. You once read a kind of Platonism in Rahner's work, to which I responded with incredulity. Platonism is what Rahner's theology expunges. But on the other hand, I never considered, at that time, that you could be referring to the platonism that might be coming in the back door with the mystics. It is in the apophatic realm of the mystic that a God without agency can be discerned. I am writing about this phenomena in the blog now; expect more of it.

      Rahner uses philosophy as a scalpel in his work. It is never hybridized with his theology, into some kind of philosophy of religion, or philosophical theology. It is that scalpel that opens up the apophatic space for the utter mystery of the infinite that is God. This is how I'm reading him these days. His love of the Catholic mystics (e.g., Theresa of Avila) is very much a part of why he would entertain a God without agency.

      I think this conversation likely to become a blogpost of its own.

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    6. When God disappears a tumor, how is that not a form of agency? When God the Son unites with human nature in Jesus, how is that not a form of agency? When the Spirit transubstantiates the water and wine through the priest speaking with the authority of Christ and the physical reality of the bread becomes Jesus without losing its physical appearance and physical effects on us, how is that not a form of agency? When Jesus's dead body became something else and physically disappeared from inside his tomb, why is that not a form of agency? When he asked Lazarus to come forth, and the dead Lazarus ceased to be dead and walked forth, how, is that not a form of agency in our world?

      You believe that the Jesus did changed physical, psychological chemical and biological processes in ways. In ways that are, at least, impossible for any human to do, especially in the direct causal way he did them.

      You do see that your god is not a god without agency, yes?

      At the very least, you see that God certainly had agency through Jesus, right?

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  5. Reading this again, I am amazed at how weak your arguments are here. Shockingly weak. The lowest point is when you have the audacity to say that because Fry isn't perfect, he should shut up about God. That's probably the stupidest argument you've ever made, Joe. It's also sleazy.

    When pressed into this corner when you have to deal with theodicy, that is when you are always at your weakest. This post itself verges on desperate.

    Like Joseph II in Amadeus, I can only say, despite any passion, you don't persuade.

    If anything, abysmal pieces like this (and your "Miracles I & II") show that you're not able to cope with these questions at all. That's okay. Barron can't either.

    No Christian can cope with them. A Christian who copes with theodicy is called an atheist.

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