Ask John is your opportunity to hear someone address the most crucial questions you have in mind. Prof. John Stackhouse is happy to provide honest, thoughtful answers to issues important to your life and spiritual journey. So take advantage of this open field and fire on! Present your question below, and we will seek to provide a response.
Q: I feel like I’m submerged in a flood of unreal messaging, a swirling, disorienting tide of advertising, political propaganda, and mass entertainment media. Fashions, fads, fanaticisms…What’s real? How can I get in touch with something real?
A: Get a toothache. That’s pretty real.
I got a toothache just once in my life, about ten years ago, when a molar silently fractured one day and an abscess set in that evening. I’ve sprained ankles playing basketball, broken bones in wrestling, and wrenched my back water-skiing, and I can assure you that nothing hurt like that toothache all one long, long night. And I knew for certain that I was in pain. No epistemological finesse there: My mouth hurt, and hurt worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.
If you’re not quite tough enough for that–and most of us, thank God, have dentists who keep us from suffering toothache–then feel pleasure instead. You can’t be in doubt about that, either. When you bite into that gelato (my top combination is dark chocolate and raspberry), when you laugh at your favourite comedian, or when your beloved bestows upon your grateful lips a long, long kiss–there’s no wondering about what’s real. That’s real, baby.
Beyond pain and pleasure, we encounter other pairs of phenomena that show us beyond any carping academic debate that the world is real and that ethics are real and that beauty is real. (In philosophical terms, we’ve just introduced metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic realism.)
C. S. Lewis, a veteran of the World War I trenches, wrote that war confronts us with the stark realities of cowardice and courage. Facing imminent death, as Samuel Johnson once put it, “concentrates the mind wonderfully.” It also brings to light moral traits that are simply indubitable: that man over there is damnably shirking his duty and running away, while that woman over here is commendably standing fast at her post, scared as she might be.
Media in this tabloid age also delight in shocking us with crimes of disgusting cruelty that we cannot possible confuse with acts of impressive generosity. Some people, that is, dole out far more suffering than can be even imagined, let alone understood, while others give and give far beyond anyone’s expectation. Cruelty and generosity are unmistakably real.
And when I encounter Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” or the interior of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, or South America’s Iguazu Falls, I don’t doubt for a moment that I am in the presence of Beauty. To deny that there is something there that is beautiful regardless of human estimation, even in the clever diction of the sociobiologists or poststructuralists, is to prate like a fool.
So the true, the good, and the beautiful are evidently, obviously, indubitably not mere matters of social construction. We encounter a real world all the time, if we will only pause from time to time to consider what experiences we are having in that respect.
The interesting questions then follow. How can I determine what is real among the many messages I receive from other human beings and institutions? How can I determine what messages matter most? And how can I connect my life with the true, the good, and the beautiful?
Well, one column can discuss only one thing. But for now, I’d say this: Make a list of your favourite realities, distributed across the categories of truth, goodness, and beauty. And when you encounter a single message, or a whole philosophy or religion, ask yourself how well this message, this story, this explanation actually corresponds with, and even illuminates, what you already know is real. If the message you’re entertaining tends to downplay, or explain away, or otherwise reduce what you are already convinced is real, you know the message must be false. But if the message powerfully connects with, explains, and puts in systematic order what you know is real, well, then you’re onto something.
For me, Christianity does that arranging wonderfully well. But that’s another issue for another time!
Q: There are lots of religions in the world. So how can a Christian presume that his religion is the only right one?
A: Short answer: A Christian shouldn’t presume that. His religion isn’t the only right one.
Slightly longer answer: If by “the only right one” a Christian is saying that everything his religion says is right and everything every other religion says is wrong, then he’s denying one of the fundamental claims of his own religion, namely, that Christianity is the fulfillment, not the negation, of the religion of Old Testament Israel. Furthermore, it’s just obvious that Christianity has a lot in common with both Judaism and Islam. And, in fact, Christianity has various teachings and practices in common with pretty much every other religion in the world: Christian missionaries have been building on those common features for centuries.
Even longer answer: First, let’s clear the ground a bit. Just because there are lots of opinions about an issue doesn’t mean that one opinion isn’t right and the others are wrong. A math teacher might receive a wide range of responses (= ”opinions”) on an exam, but she knows that only “x + 3” is the correct answer. You ask for directions in a strange town to the museum, and four locals give you four different answers, but the answers usually aren’t all equal in effectively getting you to your destination. So the mere presence of multiple opinions says nothing immediately about whether there is more than one correct answer—or even whether a correct answer is available at all.
Second, we can think of religions as maps and directions on how to best use the maps. They describe reality and tell us how best to negotiate reality. As such, religions that patently fail to describe reality accurately or to tell us how to negotiate it effectively fall out of use in favour of religions that do a better job.
We can also assume that religions that do work, at least somewhat, will make assertions about reality that overlap with assertions made on other maps. If we’re trying to walk from the western edge of Venice to the eastern, any decent map is going to include a description of the Grand Canal and of at least one of the very few bridges that cross it. So even the worst map that actually works—that anyone living in Venice will give you–will share at least some information with the best map possible.
So of course the world’s religions share various claims and practices with others. The world is what it is and living in it is done most effectively this way rather than that, so religions that approximate those realities are going to share a lot of the same claims.
Third, allowing then that more than one religion can be true in important respects doesn’t mean that all religions are equally good, nor that one religion isn’t the best of those available. If you actually had a map and a guidebook furnished by the founder, planner, builder, and ruler of the area–who also demonstrably has taken great pains to communicate with you as truthfully and helpfully as possible–then you’d be very glad to have such instructions and you would have good grounds to consider them the best available. You might even want to share them with people you care about.
That’s what Christians do when they preach the gospel. They say, “We are so thankful to have been given The Directions by The Maker. And they’re free! Come get them!”
Maybe there are better directions available elsewhere. If so, please tell us. We, like any other sensible people, want the best help we can get. But we hope you won’t be angry with us if we’re pretty enthusiastic about what we think is the best map and guidebook we’ve ever seen and we want to share it with you.
In fact, shouldn’t you be angry with us instead if we wouldn’t?
Q. Isn’t making out a Christmas list kind of crass? Shouldn’t we be more concerned to give than to get at Christmastime?
A. I agree that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” But I also quite like to receive, don’t you? And other people who love me want to know what to get me, so I help them by composing a Christmas list. Plus it’s fun to finally just put right down there what I really, really want.
I once heard my colleague, Cambridge-trained professor of Old Testament Iain Provan, lecture on the story of Jacob. That’s not a typical Advent story, of course, but it’s interesting–which is to say, startlingly confrontational–to consider it in this context.
Dr. Provan noted that when Jacob rests one night while running from his vengeful brother Esau, God reiterates the promise he once gave to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham during Jacob’s famous dream of a ladder reaching to heaven: “The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring” (Genesis 28).
But when Jacob responds to God’s extravagant promise, he mentions nothing about gaining an entire land, or having numberless offspring, or being a blessing to the whole world. He says nothing at all on that stupendous scale.
Here’s what he says instead: “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God.”
Provan points out the shocking disjunction between what Jacob wants and what God offers. And as I listened to this story, I was suddenly struck by the embarrassing disjunction between my own paltry desires and God’s great promises.
I confess that I want the usual items on the modern middle-class list: economic security, a spacious home, a nice car, a pleasant vacation each year, career success, and a few high-quality toys. Oh, yes: and good health, and peaceful sleep, and a happy family.
But God offers the following instead: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).
Well, now, I think, that’s very kind of God to offer me those pleasant things. But how about a Pioneer Elite 60-inch HDTV with a McIntosh home theatre surround sound audio system? That would be cool!
And God promises to transform me into the very image of his Son (Rom. 8:29).
Well, I’m happy to say thank-you to God for this lovely prospect. But then I quickly reply, When will I be able to trade in my banged-up minivan for the Maserati or Aston Martin I’d much, much prefer?
And God tells me that he has prepared a place for me in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).
Well, I’m willing to sing a little song of praise to God about all that, because it does sound nice . . . and then I wonder when I can finally move into that half-timber-plus-fieldstone waterfront mansion I’ve always thought would be such a good home base from which I could serve the Lord so much better. You know: the one with the private airstrip and Gulfstream.
And God gently asks if I am completely insane, utterly lacking in perspective, preferring the relatively trivial and ephemeral to the absolutely wonderful and eternal.
This time, I stop and think. And I shamefacedly acknowledge in a murmur that my aspirations are pathetically low. And I realize that my appreciation for what really counts is preposterously small. I am, it is evident, clearly deranged.
What I want so badly to get is just so much less than what God wants to give.
It’s time to make a new, different, better Christmas list, one that beautifully combines getting and giving. You know, the kind of list God would compose for us….
Q. I ask you questions because I’ve studied with you. Other people, I assume, ask you questions because they have heard you speak, or read something you’ve published, or seen you interviewed. But why do so many of us reserve our questions for such dubious, if not scandalous, “authorities”? How do so many pop religious figures–who have little in the way of credentials, whether academic, professional, moral, or experiential–get so popular? And among smart people, too, who I think ought to know better?
A. Believe me, I’ve wondered about that, too. I’ve spent most of my life trying to be as well-informed, well-spoken, and well-what-a-nice-guy as I can be, and then I find that the Reverend Herr S. See has a pop religious bestseller, while Mr. Big Teeth has a rave TV show, and Ms. Not-Too-Bright is packing them in to arenas to hear her spiritual “teaching.”
Stackhouse’s Rule of Odd Behaviour: When clearly intelligent people do clearly unintelligent things, it’s not about intelligence. And people like me who tend to over-value intelligence–indeed, who overvalue particular, restricted forms of intelligence (the kind valued in the academy instead of, say, the kind valued in entrepreneurship or in the care of small children)–can be pretty stupid about realizing how appealing other qualities can be in a spiritual advisor. Transparency, humility, honesty even about failure and regret, enthusiasm about positive possibilities and even miracles, indomitable hope, and all of it put simply, vividly, and with emotional punch–doesn’t sound much like a professor, does it? But boy, do we all pay attention to someone like that.
The problem, of course, is that answering some questions really does require expertise. You can have the world’s most honest, sweet, and convinced financial planner advising you, but if he doesn’t know a stock from a bond or an insurance policy from a retirement fund, you just have to look elsewhere, don’t you? In fact, some questions primarily require expertise, which is why certain specialists (surgeons, car mechanics, lawyers, plumbers) can have terrible affects and still do quite well in their businesses: because most of the time they are simply right.
So I find that how someone construes religious questions makes all the difference as to whom they will consult. If a religious question is a matter of basic human competency–like knowing how to break up with someone properly or knowing how to deal with a taciturn teenager or knowing how to survive deep disappointment–then we ought to look for certain basic human qualities, and forget the Ph.D.’s and the “Reverends” and the like. But if a religious question is a matter of special knowledge and skill–like knowing how to diagnose and treat a disease, or knowing how to analyze and respond to a market shift, or knowing how to find the way along an obscure path to a remote destination–then give me an expert, and I don’t care if she’s winsome or not.
What, then, are religious questions?
I think some are of the first sort, hence the testimony of religious traditions around the world that wisdom can be found in people in all walks of life. And some are of the second, hence the testimony of religious traditions around the world that wisdom on these matters can be found only in adepts, scholars, elites. And some, to be sure, require both kinds of wisdom, and must be sought from those special people who are authoritative on both counts.
So perhaps what we need more of in our religious, spiritual, philosophical, and political conversation is conceptual clarity as to what sort of question we’re asking. Only then can we determine what authority we ought to consult. And if we make a mistake on the former, as I think many people do, we will then consult the wrong people and get the wrong advice. And isn’t there a lot of that around nowadays!
Q: I know so many people ask this, but this is a question that bothers me still. Why does God allow so much evil in the world? Why does he not stop acts of cruelty, or is he there at all?
A: The problem of God and evil can be posed in three distinct degrees. First, does not any evil at all seem inconsistent with the idea of God? If God is all-good and all-powerful, and God made everything, then how can there be a single blemish in creation? Now, such a perfect world, or even a slightly-marred alternative, seems a very long way from our badly-troubled globe, so this question appears rather academic. But it is a crucial one: why is there any evil at all?
As we move on to the world as it actually is, it is obvious that there is in fact a lot of evil in this world. Can we really believe in God in the face of this much evil? Surely philosophers who have tried to argue that this is “the best of all possible worlds” have been badly mistaken. Surely we see around us, every day, multiple instances of evil that God could ameliorate or even remove without resulting in any evident corollary harm.
David Hume reflected upon this, and recognized that perhaps God could not always suspend natural law wheneversomeone decided to do something foolish, such as drive a vehicle too fast around a bend. If there were no likely evil consequences to such behavior, people would drive any way they liked and we soon would have an utterly fantastic world of vehicles careering this way and that with all sorts of supernatural interventions to prevent harm being done. It is impossible to imagine, in fact, what sort of world this would be.
But for now, at least, we can follow Hume’s logic to ask why God would not at least occasionally suspend those rules, or convince the person not to drive so fast in the first place, or cause a tire to deflate before the person reached a dangerous speed? Furthermore, wrote Hume, granted that we can regulate our behavior by observing the function of natural laws, that it is good that there is such order in the universe, what about freak accidents? In the nature of the case, a freak accident cannot be predicted (at least not by human beings) on the basis of our knowledge of natural laws. So whatever good comes from living in a regulated universe cannot be gained in such instances. Therefore, he asked, why doesn’t God prevent at least them?
Such accidents belong to what philosophers call the third degree, gratuitous evil. One contemporary writer recalls being roused from sleep in a cabin. Screams issued from the woods as an animal was slowly killed and devoured, and then finally ceased. This horrible experience, he writes, confirmed his atheism. Predation was bad enough. But the prolonged torture of this innocent animal for no good reason at all was too much. Surely no good and powerful God could allow this instance of suffering, much less condone such an event as part of the normal workings of nature.
When presented with this story in terms of a deer attacked by wolves, one of my students suggested that the suffering of the deer might not have been gratuitous after all. Perhaps its cries accomplished the good of warning away other deer from the ravening wolfpack, while a mercifully quick death would have left the other deer vulnerable. This suggestion points to a major line of theistic argument: what might appear to be gratuitous evil is not necessarily without good result—we just don’t see the good, and so mistakenly conclude that there is none. This argument is, strictly speaking, an argument to a stalemate with the critic: no limited human being can know whether any evil is in fact gratuitous.
Can we do better than appeal to our limited understanding of things? I think we can. But that would take another post–at least! So I’ll reply with Part Two soon.
In the meanwhile, a hint: Look at all the evidence there is a God who is in fact good, and powerful, and compassionate, so on the face of those evidences it seems unlikely that any evil that happens is in fact escaping his notice or concern. And that’s the clue I’ll follow up next time.
UPDATE: Here’s the second part of my response.
Why Does God Allow So Much Evil in the World?
I don’t know. That’s the bottom line, so let’s just face it now. I don’t know. And, so far as my research has taken me, nobody else does, either. But here are some thoughts that help me make at least some sense of what God is up to.
I have concluded that we do in fact live in a good world, and “good” in two crucial respects: (1) it is a world that conduces to our benefit, and is meant by a good God to do so; and (2) it is pretty effective in conducing to our benefit.
What it isn’t, to be sure, is perfectly conducive to our happiness. If God’s main objective in creating and maintaining this world was the same as my own objective usually is—namely, to maximize happiness—then he is obviously doing a terrible job. So either we believe God is, in fact, doing a terrible job—either because he means well but is in some great measure incompetent (the argument of Harold Kushner’s bestselling When Bad Things Happen to Good People), or because he is not really as good as we are hoping he is (and resembles Zeus or Shiva instead)–or God doesn’t exist at all.
But happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World (a book that deserves better than its fate as a mandatory high school text), makes it clear that a drug-perpetuated happiness is not what most of us aspire to. And God aims higher than that, also.
God aims, in fact, much, much higher. God aims at shalom—which gets my vote as one of the best words I have ever encountered. Shalom doesn’t mean merely “peace,” but flourishing, and in every respect, along every axis. Shalom means that each individual becomes an excellent version of itself; every relationship blossoms; every group realizes its potential; and the whole cosmos relates lovingly and creatively to God.
So God is working toward shalom in the world and it’s mostly us, the lords of the world (as Genesis 1 says we were created to be) who get in the way. Pretty badly in the way, not least because we don’t think we’re pretty bad.
Yes, most of us think there are three kinds of people in the world. There are really wonderful people—Mother Teresa and, well, whoever else you think is saintly. There are terrible people, and we can bring out the usual suspects: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, & Co. And then there are the vast “rest of us,” who chirp that “nobody’s perfect” but “at least I haven’t killed anyone!”
The Bible, however, corrects that self-serving, self-destructive delusion. We’re all sick with sin, mortally sick (we’re dying from it), lethally sick (we kill others because of it), and so sick that we can’t even recognize how sick we are.
So since we won’t believe our Divine Physician (and Psychiatrist) when he merely tells us we’re in bad shape (through the Bible, the Church, conscience, and other means), he persists in helping us by showing us how bad we are. And what’s the most graphic way to do that? By letting us be really bad: indisputably bad. Like he let Germany—arguably the most sophisticated culture in Europe in 1914—lead the self-confident western world into two successive wars of unprecedented brutality and devastation.
I think God loves us and hates to have us suffer any more than we absolutely have to. So I look around and think, “Wow. God has to resort to that to get our attention? To challenge our complacency? To demonstrate how evil some people are and how others of us allow them to get away with their evil? To warn us that we need saving, and that simply carrying on trying to reform the world really won’t be enough to solve what’s so very deeply wrong?”
I realize this answer isn’t complete. I don’t understand why God lets a deer die an agonizing death in the woods (even as one of my students pointed out that the deer’s cries serve the good of warning others away from the wolf pack). I don’t understand why God doesn’t terminate the life of my mother, who is dying even as I type these words in confusion and sadness and bitterness. I don’t understand why God allows AIDS/HIV to ravage Africa, or toxic waste to pour down a Hungarian hillside, or earthquakes and floods to destroy the lives and livelihoods of millions.
But I do see, if I catch my breath and look, that good does come out of these irrefutably evil situations. Sometimes, it seems, we are so resistant to doing what is right that somebody does have to die at the crosswalk for the city council to finally put in a traffic light. Sometimes, it seems, millions have to die before countries change their public health policies and drug companies change their pricing practices. And that’s not God’s fault, is it?
If God is not going to simply reach down and make us all good by sheer reprogramming, but instead wants to treat us as the freewill agents he made us to be, then he has to work with what he’s got. And I’m afraid that my own life experience shows me that I am so evil in certain respects—not all respects, of course, but some!—that if God does not resort to teaching me the hard way, I don’t learn at all.
So he does. Because he loves me. And he loves the world.
That’s not all there is to say on the matter, of course. I wrote a whole book that does try to say at least what I have to say on the matter: Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil. But perhaps this answer gives you something worthwhile to consider. I hope it does!
Q. I pursue what makes me happy, and you pursue what makes you happy. Isn’t that enough? Why do we have to argue over religion and philosophy?
A. Happy is good. I like happy. I’d love to be constantly happy (I’m not, alas), and I believe Christianity promises constant happiness in the life to come.
But what about now? Well, Christians testify that they experience a deep joy–joy from sins forgiven, a fresh start in life, purpose for the present and hope for the future. And those are Big Things. Christians also testify, however, that their religion tells them to grow up, to become adults. And not just any adults but mature, wise, and good adults. Growing up, as you’ve noticed, is often painful. Indeed, anyone older than about twenty knows that many lessons in growing up are learned only via some difficult experience and honest reflection upon it. So yeah, life isn’t always happy, and especially if you’re trying to become a better version of yourself.
This is what I call the Brave New World Response. If happiness is all that matters, then let’s all drug up on soma and be blithely, stupidly, blandly happy all the time. And some days, I admit, that option looks pretty good.
Most of us most of the time, however, want more than mere good feelings. We want to count, we want to amount to something. And we want happiness to flow from positive engagement with reality: from good relationships, successful and meaningful work, absorbing play, excellent food and drink, strenuous exercise, artistic creativity, and so on.
This is what I call the Bus Is Coming Response. It might make you happier to just skip along the sidewalk and street, carefree in ignoring hazardous traffic. But if a bus is bearing down on you and you’re in its way and it can’t stop, your being happy won’t save you from becoming instantly non-happy. Your happiness was out of sync with the universe and destined not only to end, but to lead you into happiness-ending danger.
Religious and philosophical disputes (at least, when they focus on vital matters rather than details), are about the meaning of life and the nature of reality: What it means to live an authentic human life and how we can live it in accord with the way things actually are.
So let’s talk, even argue. For if one of us is settling for an illusion, and particularly a dangerous one, it is an act of love, not conceit or arrogance, for someone to help the other with a better view of things. We’ll all, ultimately, be happier if we do.