Today we begin a summer journey through Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be A Christian: A Guide to What Matters Most. We’ll be going through this one chapter at a time, two chapters per week (Thursdays and Mondays). Each chapter is about 5-10 pages long, so this pace will hopefully be do-able for you! If it’s too fast, leave a comment and we’ll see what we can do!
The format will be as follows: we’ll post a brief summary, Bible Study, or discussion prompt (or all of the above!) and then you’ll join the discussion by clicking the “comment” link at the bottom of the post. There we can have back-and-forth conversation about each chapter. Each chapter will have its own post so you can always go back and continue the conversation or review previous chapters and their conversation.
And now, without further ado, let’s get started!
The book is designed to help us sort through the core issues of our Christian theological tradition, to contemplate what we believe, and to figure out what that means for how we live our lives. In many ways it’s the theological equivalent of debunking myths–there’s a lot of stuff out there in what we might call “pop Christianity” that is only tangentially related to our actual theology, and some of that is harmful to both individuals and communities. Most of us have had the experience of hearing that “Christians believe/do/say _________” and thinking “really? We believe that? umm…..I don’t….maybe I’m not a Christian after all!” Or perhaps hearing something about “Christians ______” and even thinking “I don’t want to be a Christian, then.”
Have you heard, thought, or wondered about any things like this? What were they?
Chapter 1: God Causes Cancer, Car Wrecks, and Other Catastrophes
I feel confident that we’ve all heard this version of God before. Sometimes it comes out because people don’t know what else to say besides “God needed her more” or “It was all part of God’s plan.” Sometimes it comes out because people misunderstand what it means when we say that God is All-Powerful. Sometimes it’s derisive, sometimes it’s a deeply-held belief, sometimes it’s just confusion masquerading as comfort (for the self or for someone else). Sometimes we (subconsciously) think it’s karma, like a breast cancer patient asking “what did I do to deserve this?” But whenever it happens, it’s bad theology. So I’m just going to go ahead and get this out there:
God does not cause cancer, car wrecks, natural disasters, terrorism, or anything else like that.
The problem of evil or of suffering is a classic theological dilemma: if God is Good, and Powerful, and bad things happen, then something must be wrong.
The difficulty here is one of culture and language–power is such a culturally-bound concept that we have a difficult time imagining it to mean something other or beyond the cultural definitions. So for instance, what’s the first word or image that comes to mind when you think about power?
Many of us think of strength, of the ability to get things or people to do something we want…whether political power or physical power, it’s often about coercion or force.
But is that what God is like? 1 John 4 tells us that God is Love. Jesus didn’t coerce people. He didn’t use force against the Romans or the Temple Authorities (exhibit A: Good Friday). Paul spent a large portion of his life in prison. Apostles in prison sang hymns and prayed when their chains were broken, rather than escaping and forcing the guard into a difficult spot (Acts 12 and 16). The prophets tell us that God has plans for us–plans for a future with hope, plans for our welfare not for our harm (Jeremiah 29).
Plus there’s the example the author gives from the first few verses of Luke 13. Were workers killed in a building collapse worse sinners than others who escaped or others who lived nearby? No.
It’s true that God works in mysterious ways, but those mysterious ways do not include intentionally killing, maiming, destroying, forcing, hurting.
Another important aspect of this chapter is the section on suffering (page 6 and following). We often think of suffering as somehow redemptive–that if we suffer enough, we’ll somehow atone for our sins. This understanding of personal redemption comes from a misunderstanding of what Jesus did in his life/death/resurrection (which I suspect is something we’ll talk more about later!). The short version is this: Suffering in and of itself is not redemptive. However, God can redeem suffering–God can bring a bright side out of darkness, but God does not force us into the darkness in order to show us (or make us earn) the bright side.
A few quotes from this chapter that I found helpful:
“God did not take Daniel. Instead, God received him when he came.” (page 5)
“The idea that God does cause pain and suffering is “old-time religion” that Christians can and should abandon.” (page 7)
“I don’t believe in a God who kills 28 year old mothers with cancer.” “I don’t believe in that kind of God either.” (page 8 )
Bottom Line: Although God can and does bring good results out of tragedy, God does not cause tragic events to occur.
What brought up questions for you? What resonated with your experience? Were there quotes or ideas that really stuck out to you, things you want to think more about, things you want to be sure to remember? Does any scripture or any other stories/movies/songs come to mind?