Sunday, 18 November 2012

Slogan Theology

We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand least." (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)

It's amazing how a folk culture permeates Christianity, what on blogger calls "bumper-sticker theology". I came across it this week in the phrase "God will never give you more than you can handle".

This probably derives from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength but with your testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it"

But this is completely taken out of context. Paul is warning the congregation at Corinth about idols, and about the temptation of worshiping idols - this is the "test" - temptation, in this context would probably convey the meaning better. If we put in the verses before and the verse after, the passage takes a quite different meaning,.

In the cloud and in the sea they were all baptized as followers of Moses. All ate the same spiritual bread and drank the same spiritual drink. They drank from the spiritual rock that went with them; and that rock was Christ himself. But even then God was not pleased with most of them, and so their dead bodies were scattered over the desert. Now, all of this is an example for us, to warn us not to desire evil things, as they did, nor to worship idols, as some of them did. (1 Corinthians 10:2-7)

If you think you are standing firm you had better be careful that you do not fall. Every test that you have experienced is the kind that normally comes to people. But God keeps his promise, and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your power to remain firm; at the time you are put to the test, he will give you the strength to endure it, and so provide you with a way out. So then, my dear friends, keep away from the worship of idols.  (1 Corinthians 10:12-14)

In this respect it is an encouragement to keep hope, but not be too proud to think you will succumb to temptation. Suffering has nothing to do with this passage. Paul is saying that temptations will never be too great, but if you are proud enough to think that you will not give in, you might. It's a call for humility as well. But one way of reading the bible - and probably one of the worst - is to take "proof texts", which are texts taken wholly out of context to support a particular position.

People who commit suicide, to take just one example, are a clear case of people who could not handle life any more. And that can happen to anyone, and does, I've known a committed Christian who, a few years ago, killed himself by an overdose. One blog has a piece about suicidal feelings. The writer says that what you don't want to hear, and what is no use at all, are people whose "idea of 'helping' you is spouting some cliché like, 'God never gives us more than we can handle.'"  This, they say, is not looking on the real world at all, which they say is "a world where people believe it is easier to die than to be looked upon with the stigma of mental illness."

There's a site on grief, and several of the phrases listed that are unhelpful related to the same theme:

The Lord never gives us more than we can handle. (That is not how I feel right now).
It was God's will. (Many people already feel angry with God and this won't help at this time).
It all happened for the best. ( This can feel shockingly painful).
Time heals all wounds. (Time doesn't heal all wounds, although healing takes time).

A caustic comment from another blog shows up how this phrase sounds to people who are suffering hardship and deprivation:

God isn't lounging around up in heaven doling out precisely what He thinks people can handle. He's not at an executive mahogany desk with a list of toils and snares saying to Angel Gabriel, "Yeah, those folks in Thailand are pretty solid. Let's toss them a tsunami. They can handle it. Oh, and that Mrs. Jay is a tough one. Let's give her cancer. She can handle.

Even worse is to couple this with the notion that God is somehow using suffering to help us. That natural disasters help bring people together, and bring out the best in people, and we learn through suffering. This is armchair theology, it's an attempt to justify the suffering in the world by saying that there is a final purpose, not that the world is a mess, and not as intended.

The Kabalistic notion of the Jewish thinker Isaac Luria, that the universe comes about through "the shattering of the vessels", and is therefore damaged, broken, fragmented, is a much more realistic and honest one. And Luria was part of group of Jews undergoing persecution in the Middle Ages; he knew a world of suffering and hardship. He went back to the roots of the second creation story of the expulsion from Eden, and the cosmic one at the start, and from those he wrought a much more nuanced interpretation of the world, and incidentally, one that coheres very well with the big bang. It's interesting that it has been embraced by some Christians - for example, the late Bishop John Taylor. And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks demonstrates in his book "To heal a fractured world", we can derive very positive ethical teaching from those ideas.

We have a tendency to ascribe agency to accidents, we hate to have no purpose, no sense. Tony Robinson in his programme last night on witches, showed how the early modern worldview had to ascribe causation where there appeared to be done. They dealt with the problem of sickness and natural disaster by ascribing that agency to the image of the witch, and fueled by this fantasy, the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th century burnt around 60,000 people as witches, of whom around 80% were women.

But if that door is shut, then making sense of a world which often seems devoid of meaning leads to justifying those events as having some higher meaning that we cannot see. And it is from that, and the contradiction between that and the idea of a good God, that all kinds of special pleading takes place to somehow reconcile that with the idea of a good God. I think that honest agnosticism at this point, even by Christians, would be a better response (and is after all, what we are left with at the end of the book of Job), but the desire to fit everything into a coherent framework often take priority. What emerges is a "best of all possible worlds" argument that gives rise to such trite phrases as "God will never give you more than you can handle" which I've heard bandied about by people who should know better.

There's an article about suffering by Tig Notaro which really lays the notion of "God will never give you more than you can handle" to rest. She had to cope with her cancer, her mother's death, her pneumonia, and her breakup, all over a few months. What she does is to take that slogan, and show how utterly absurd it is:

What's nice about all of this is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle.
When you've had it, God goes, "All right, that's it."
I just keep picturing God going, "You know what.? I think she can take a little more."
And then the angels are standing back, going, "God, what are you doing? You're out of your mind!"
And God was like, "No, no, no, I really think she can handle this."
"Why, God? Like, why? Why?"
"I don't know, I just, you know, trust me on this. She can handle this."
God is insane, if there at all.

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