683 Hauerwas: Hanging onto hope in the face of evil

Looking back through Stanley Hauerwas’ life—as he does in his new memoir “Hannah’s Child”—the great theologian has been prodding us to rethink our values and our communities in light of our faith for more than 30 years. Two of his books from the 1980s, “A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic ” and “The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer In Christian Ethics,” still inspire and provoke readers. In this 4th and final part of our conversation with Stanley, we’ve chosen to recommend a 1990 book, “God, Medicine and Suffering,” because it wrestles with the burning question of “evil.” We recently featured Cathleen Falsani, whose new book celebrates the Coen Brothers’ movies. Falsani writes about their latest film, “A Serious Man,” in light of the urgent interest in the problem of “evil”: Why is it evil so relentless? Why can’t we conquer it? Why does God allow evil to exist?

Pt 4, Stanley Hauerwas on ‘God, Medicine and Suffering’

DAVID: The last thing we’ll talk about is your prophetic work in the face of evil. And I say it that way—“in the face of evil”—because you are fearlessly confronting it in the hope of faith. You’re not trying to explain evil away. This is a startlingly different response to what’s often called “the problem of evil” or sometimes “theodicy.” Your book, “God, Medicine, and Suffering,” was published partly as a response to Rabbi Kushner’s very popular book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” In your view, Kushner gave people poor advice. We shouldn’t even be asking a question like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Am I right about what you’re saying?

STANLEY: Yes, absolutely right. That’s what I’m saying. The original title of my book was going to be, “Naming the Silences,” and I still like that title. My publisher Eerdmans thought that was a bit obscure for a title. I am trying to focus on the so-called problem of evil. Basically, the approach to this problem that is called “theodicy” goes hand in hand with the assumption that what people really believe in is not God anymore—but humans. People really believe in humanity as the center of the universe. If we keep God around, it’s just as an insurance policy.

DAVID: You’re arguing that this whole effort to “explain away” evil is really a tragic excuse—a way of continuing to believe in God’s protecting power. You say this really is discounting faith.

STANLEY: In this way of thinking, humans really do become the center of the universe, not God. So you start asking questions like this one, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The assumption there is that we’re good people and we’re the very center of the universe, not God.

I don’t see how people who were brought up on the Psalms can think like that! The Psalms are extended training in recognition that God is God—and we are not. Suffering doesn’t need explanation. It needs our presence. It needs the presence of other human beings who are not afraid of the sufferer. That’s the kind of perspective I was developing in that book.

DAVID: This may sound a little abstract, but these challenges are right there in our daily life—every day in the headlines. How do we respond to shocking evil? How do we respond to suffering? We published an interview with Cathleen Falsani about her research into the Coen Brothers’ movies. We talked about their latest movie, “A Serious Man,” and we got counter arguments, especially from pastors, about “A Serious Man.” I must have heard from a dozen clergy who hated the idea of that movie. One major reason is that it ends like the Book of Job with a huge whirlwind, a tornado in the movie, coming toward a public school just about to wipe out a schoolyard full of children. You’re saying: We don’t need to explain away the tragedy of the tornado.

STANLEY: Right. You don’t need to explain away the whirlwind. The very notion of an explanation is a problem. Trying to come up with an explanation means: I’ve got this figured out. I’m in control.

I say: Forget that! That kind of thinking will lead you straight to Hell and you will, along the way, impose unbelievable suffering on others all in the name of trying to explain suffering away. We Christians should have a very different stance toward this. The great poem at the end of the book of Job, where God talks to Job, is as a way of saying to humans: Look, you think you get to play the game and, if you do something bad, then I have to punish you. But that’s not the way I play the game. How can you think of Creation and see it all as somehow meaning that I’m under obligation to punish you if you do something wrong. That’s not the kind of God I am.

DAVID: You’re talking about something that’s sooo hard for pastors and teachers and caregivers and parents. There’s such a desire to explain evil away. We want to make people feel better, right?

STANLEY: This is difficult. This challenges head on our popular idea, these days, that God really is made in our own image. Of course you can understand that response from clergy. I’m giving the commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University and my title is “Speaking Christian.” I’m arguing we have to start speaking Christian again. Our language as Christians oftentimes is shaped by sentimental presuppositions that are not disciplined by the gospels. Want to see this happening? Go to a home where someone has died unexpectedly and the temptation is to use this grammar: “Well they’re in a better place now.” You’ll hear people say that, won’t you?

DAVID: Sure. We want to help. It’s sooo tempting to say that.

STANLEY: I say: Never say that! Never. God is not a place. The very idea that you comfort one another with that kind of language, that just—that just betrays what it means to be a part of the communion of saints! I say: Atheism is not our problem today. If only we can produce some interesting atheists, which we obviously can, then that’s not a problem at all. The big problem is we’re not interesting as believers. We’re sinking into the worst forms of boring and misguided sentimentality.

DAVID: Well, I certainly agree with you that we’re entering a time of post-denominational mish-mash of spiritual influences. Here’s one example: In spiritual terms, the single most interesting group of Americans today is called “None”—those millions of people who now answer, “None,” when pollsters ask for their religious affiliation. They haven’t left religious faith, necessarily. Many of them are just picking out the beliefs that make sense to them—and see no reason to give a religious affiliation.

STANLEY: That’s a real problem. If the breaking down of denominational traditions were a part of a rediscovery of faithfulness to the gospel—and if it was helping us to rediscover that our unity is more profound than our differences—then it might be good. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think with the breaking down of denominational identities, we’re really trying to emphasize our own individualism. Now, I don’t think there’s anything so crucial about our denominational distinctiveness. To a certain extent, that distinctiveness really was all about just trying to get our share of the market. But forming ourselves through a tradition is absolutely crucial. We have to learn that we don’t just get to make Christianity up. I think a lot of people who are calling themselves post-denominational think they get to make up Christianity. That’s not what I teach.

I’m a Book of Common Prayer Christian and I believe we do not get to make it up. My task in this life is to learn how to pray these prayers I am given in the Book of Common Prayer. If we start from scratch as individuals, there’s not enough defense left against narcissism. There’s a lot of that temptation in nondenominational churches.

DAVID: Thank you for talking with us about these very difficult issues. I think it’s one of the greatest affirmations we find in your approach to faith. You see these hard truths—and you don’t try to explain them away—yet you’re hopeful. Is that fair to say? You’re hopeful?

STANLEY: Despair is a vice for Christians so, of course, I’m hopeful. It is a theological obligation given cross and resurrection to believe that God has never given up on the world and God will continue not to give up on the world. I don’t have a lot of hope about the future of mainline American protestant Christianity, but that’s not despair. I assume God will raise up Christians from the stones, if need be. And, if not here, then somewhere else in the world.

I find being a Christian just makes you so joyful—and joy and hope are closely connected—and this gives us a way to go on. Hope is putting one foot in front of the other and I intend to continue doing that. I find being a Christian is such a complex and wonderful way to live.

You can order “God, Medicine, and Suffering” from Amazon.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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