Putting the answer before the question

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Nearly a month after a Nebraskan family of five was killed in a car accident on their way to a missionary training program, Lyn Jerde, a writer for the Telegraph Herald in Iowa, asked the questions that many Christians are asking:

What kind of God would call people to a holy endeavor, then allow them to be wiped out when they answer the call?

If anyone tries to tell me that God “took them home” — including three tiny little children — because “God needed more angels in Heaven,” don’t be surprised if I respond with violence or at least violent words.

Expect a similar reaction to “everything happens for a reason.”

But say, “It’s a mystery,” and I’ll probably respond with, “Amen.”

I agree with her on the mystery part. After years of deep thinking and praying on the subject, I’m inclined to think that tragedies like these aren’t divinely ordained at all, but rather a consequence of the old motto “Shit happens,” and they are just as likely to happen to Christians as they are non-Christians.

I appreciate Jerde’s questions, as they are not popular and not often addressed in church. After her post was shared on Friendly Atheist, the comment thread is being taken over by pointed inquiries about Jerde’s concluding statement: “I will continue believing that God is good.”

On the one hand, as a person of faith myself, I find that a noble endeavor. On the other hand, these response questions are perfectly valid:

How can you claim to honestly wrestle with those questions if you have already decided on a conclusion before even asking?

I appreciate all the introspection, Lyn, but your conclusion was the ultimate non-sequiter. Despite it all, you continue to believe in a good God? Why?

If you are absolutely certain that your religion is the true one, this ceases to be an issue. You know that you are working with a limited amount of knowledge based on what you’re able to see of the stage from peeking through the curtain; you don’t have the full range of view and context that the audience has, and your doubts will be addressed soon enough.

Then again, there is something highly coincidental about claiming your religion as “true” when it happens to be the one you were born into…and the most socially acceptable religion in your country of origin. And if you’ve never taken the time to research and eliminate other religions based on reliable evidence.

Therefore I don’t agree or disagree with the responses to Jerde’s piece, and turn the question back to my readers: is starting with a conclusion before even asking the question an intellectually honest thing to do? Why or why not?

See also: “God will never forsake you”

The limits of divine intervention

Comfort rather than answers

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12 thoughts on “Putting the answer before the question

  1. R.H. (Rusty) Foerger says:

    I appreciate how you framed this Beth. I approached the issue from a different point of view in “Do we get what we Deserve?” – in relation to the Charlie Hebdo attack over a yea and a half ago. I started with recalling when I had cancer, and the curious responses I got from colleagues who thought I should not have have had cancer due to being “a good Christian.” I was perplexed more from their thinking – than by having cancer – and I had time during the cancer period to chew over this all. Anyways, you are asking big questions, and your readers give nuance and angles to the age old question of God’s goodness/sovereignty. As one of your readers noted, sometimes the problem is with the question.
    For more: https://moreenigma.wordpress.com/2015/01/08/do-we-get-what-we-deserve/

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  2. hannah out loud says:

    Hi

    “Q: is starting with a conclusion before even asking the question an intellectually honest thing to do? Why or why not?”

    I think the answer is that the Christian author there was being intellectually honest as she is working through this terrible loss of life via the prism of her own worldview. Atheists and everyone else from other faith traditions- including me- do the same. None of us come to these things “objectively neutral ” and we all come to these discussions with our own beliefs, own vantage point , prejudices, biases etc .

    Liked by 1 person

  3. K. Elizabeth Danahy (@adelasteria) says:

    Hmmm. She ends her article with the belief that God is good, but she doesn’t try to make that a *conclusion* to a logical argument. There’s no argument, only an admission that she doesn’t know the answer but hopes/believes something in spite of evidence that seems contrary. It sort of seems like the commenters are jumping to the “religious person is illogical and superficial” stereotype, even though she never made an argument in the first place. 😦

    After all, maybe she has wrestled with the question a hundred times before. We don’t know that this is a “blind” belief she’s reaching.

    Or, maybe this was the only belief that comforted. That’s not logical, but she never presented an argument, so she doesn’t inherently need logic. Also, there’s a limit to logic in questions like this, because humans are not perfectly reasonable. We’re extremely limited in understanding the universe, and we’re emotional, too. So her belief (which is not the same as a conclusion) isn’t logical, but it’s not illogical, either. Who are we to judge, if we don’t know her or why she believes this?

    (So, basically, I agree with Beroli above).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Woebegone but Hopeful says:

    In the UK we have a situation where:
    (1)There are a body of fashionable atheists who will pounce on any pronouncement of faith with a vehemence and start producing all manner of quotes and polemics to prove their point. Trying to have a dialogue is pointless.
    (2) The majority of people don’t care much, unless of course its in response to an ill informed tabloid press article on Muslims or Islam.
    So religion here is very much on the defensive.
    It seems to be that God gifted us with Free Will and this world to be ours to be custodians over.
    How we worship and reach God is a wide and varied place; as long as we have Compassion, Respect and Tolerance, why should I fuss over someone else’s approach?
    (PS: If I was to mention God giving us Free Will on some UK forums, I would be howled down by both some Bible fundamentalist and their brothers and sisters in tolerance from the atheistic wing telling me there is no such thing)

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  5. th3platform says:

    I’ll refer you to my post “If He created everything, did He create sin?” I talk about this very subject in that post. No this isn’t a promotion but a request for you to see my perspective on this.

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  6. socalkdl says:

    Well there are definitely problems associated with the blanket assertion that God is in complete control of everything. A completely providential God is either responsible for both good and evil, or there is ultimately no evil for all will work out for God’s glory. I hear Christians make that God allows bad things to strengthen us, teach us, etc, but it is hard to see how that worked out for the above mentioned family. What did they learn, was their faith strengthened? It seems more likely that God has created a world, where randomness and chance are a part of the very structure of it.

    Having lost my son at age 19 I know loss. I know that the pat answers we try to incouragement each other with fall far short of truly answering the nagging question, why? For me it is enough to know that God is with me, and somehow suffers with me in the hard times. Life is hard, at times unfair and too short. It is something everyone faces, some more so than others, but He is there to see me through it.

    I just started reading a new book that looks very promising…”The Uncontrolling Love of God” by Thomas Jay Oord. In it he talks about these very things. So far enjoying it very much.

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  7. Beroli says:

    I think it depends on the kind of question. I don’t think faith is inherently intellectually dishonest unless someone tries to pass it off as reason. You cannot reason to a religious conclusion–though a religious belief can be falsifiable and thus possible to reason away from (e.g., every prediction that the world would end before 2016 August 29 CE has been falsified). I don’t think Jerde ever meant to imply “I am subjecting my religious beliefs to scientific analysis and will discard them if they don’t measure up,” and the people who castigate her for not doing that have too much in common with those Christians who tie themselves in knots to declare atheism invalid.

    I’d also point out that:

    If you are absolutely certain that your religion is the true one, this ceases to be an issue.

    implicitly assumes that there is one (1) true religion, not more or less, which strikes me as a proposition of faith in and of itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Beth Caplin says:

      “I’d also point out that:

      If you are absolutely certain that your religion is the true one, this ceases to be an issue.

      implicitly assumes that there is one (1) true religion, not more or less, which strikes me as a proposition of faith in and of itself.”

      I’m not ruling out that there is one (a ‘true’ religion). But you are right that that statement is a proposition of faith.

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        • Beth Caplin says:

          I actually lean more toward “There are zero true religions” than “There are multiple true religions” because they all contradict each other. Though that’s not to say they don’t all have good things in common.

          Liked by 1 person

    • socalkdl says:

      “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” John 20:29 NIV. It is interesting that ever since the confrontation with Islam during the Middle Ages, Christians have been trying to “prove” Christianity. The anti-science movement of Fundamentalism; the “God is not Dead” films; the “Truth Project;” the Scopes monkey trials, the general scoffing at Atheism because it is not reasonable, there is a concerted effort among conservatives to pass off Christianity as both intellectually superior to any other form of philosophy and as some how provable.

      This is not to say there haven’t been some brilliant thinkers involved with Christian theology, but there have been some very smart men who have backed themselves into some very indefensible corners, like the doctrine of total depravity, or inerrancy of Scripture.

      Being honest, one might want to ask themselves, indeed, is God “Christian?” This is what Larycia Hawkins at Weaton College was attempting to demonstrate earlier this year. We worship the same God as the Muslims, albeit differently and with different understanding of who He is. The Jews had a very insular, restrictive idea of God and His relation to other nations at that time. Jesus, followed by Paul threw the door wide open. We must not forget that.

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