Tuesday, March 09, 2010

On John Piper:Answering Radio Interviewers on Why Suffering

Scott Simon interviewed the Jesuit priest James Martin on NPR Saturday morning, March 6. Martin just published The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (Harper One, 2010). The last question Simon asked was this: "If there is a God, why do little children suffer?"

John Piper, gracefully, took umbrage with Martin's response and offered his own response.

Piper's insistently Calvinist answers ring more and more hollow in a world that is rapidly leaving that particular strain of dogmatic certainty behind. Martin's answers (and unanswered questions) were much more honest and satisfying that Piper's surety.
I find it harder and harder to hold to the simplistic idea that God created us with our flaws, desires, quirks and imperfections, then placed us in a broken, evil-riddled world and in societies, bodies, and even families that encourage our moral failure, then stands back and says, "…and you're lucky you're not burning in hell, you lout!"
So, to Piper, he may have provided answers, but they are surely not good enough.

Our world and the experiences here – including suffering and evil – may well be part of a maturing process. Some of the greatest thoughts I've read on the redemptive power of suffering are in the papal encyclical written by Pope John Paul II entitled "Salvifici Doloris" – it deals with these issues consistently with Martin, but much more in-depth – and completely superior to Piper's fundamentalist response.

I also believe the "best of all possible worlds" defense of evil & suffering in our world – that a world such as ours with its evil & suffering is simply the "best that can be created" if there is to be meaningful free will and autonomy.

I cannot believe that, to quote a friend, "God puts us in an imperfect, fallen world – and seems to set us up for failure – [which] suggests a kind of hopelessness in which even God isn't particularly for us". This is exactly the problem I have with Piper's position – if God is going to judge us under those conditions, what kind of God is he? And what kind of mercy and justice is this? 

My counter is that you can't book-end our kind of existence with a God waiting to send us all to hell for being essentially as he created us to be. Piper is just wrong when he says we're "lucky to be sitting here" instead of in hell. Instead, my view is that God created us as we are, put us where we are and knows the deck is stacked against us. Further, he is on our side, cheering and hoping and working for our victory, suffering alongside us and waiting with open arms to receive us. The idea that the things God has created are repulsive to him – that things he has created in our very nature are such an affront to him - that any hint of its existence merits eternal, radical and complete torture and punishment of his children I cannot accept.

I would hold that our purpose and mission is to, through these difficulties and trials, learn to love each other, serve each other and build community and in doing this become more godly – "redeeming" creation bit by bit – "proving" God's great experiment of love and free will as worthwhile.

(And, BTW, contra Beck of late, this seems to mean social justice: the practice of mercy, the love of our enemies, and the care of poor.)

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