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    XI. Thou shalt not speak before thinking

    Fra Angelico, Peter Martyr Enjoins Silence, c.1441. Peter Martyr, known also as St. Peter of Verona, was an Italian Dominican friar whose preaching was responsible for returning many heretics, most notably Cathari, to orthodoxy. Catharism was a religious movement with dualist tendencies; that is, it held that there was a God of Good and a God of Evil and most members insisted that love (associated with the spiritual) and power (associated with the earthly) were fundamentally incompatible. Apparently at least one Cathar had all he could take of Peter’s sermons, let the God of Evil take power over his earthly body, and assassinated Peter by whacking him on the head with an axe (note the blood on his head). In this fresco by Fra Angelico, Peter enjoins us Christians to stop blathering. It’s not a bad idea. Image source: Bob Swain via Picasa

    Just last week, Chad at Political Jesus brought something troubling to our attention. We don’t like it, not one bit, but nonetheless we’re glad Chad posted about it. Thanks, Chad.

    We hate it hate it hate it when prominent Christians won’t cork it when they should. Look here to see how John Piper, a bigshot preacher, theologian, and author of seventeen gazillion religious books, has interpreted the heartbreaking disasters that struck Japan a couple of weeks ago. If you don’t want to read it all, here’s the clip-and-save message, and we do quote:

    God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011 that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives.

    The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom. The thunder-clap summons to fear God is a mercy to those who live.

    Earthquakes are ultimately from God. Nature does not have a will of its own. And God owes Satan no freedom. What havoc demons wreak, they wreak with God’s permission. And God has reasons for what he permits. His permissions are purposes.

    In his piece Piper, a straight-up Reformed guy and chock-full-o’-orthodoxy, employs, without irony, the creepy phrase “God’s unilateral taking of thousands of lives.” This is a collection of words that chills us to our poor weary bones. And we here at psnt.net thought we were theocentric. Good grief.

    Here are Chad’s opening comments on Piper, with which we agree heartily:

    The whole premise of Piper’s [piece] is that “after empathy and aid, people want answers.” Piper goes on to give many answers. I assume that this is because in his mind, he has already moved beyond empathy and aid. Even if not, why do we need to move beyond empathy and aid? Further, on what does he base this triune desire of victims? Is it possible that after empathy and aid, victims want running water? What if victims want their loved ones back? What if victims want talking heads to stop talking? What if they don’t want answers? What if the answers you are giving aren’t the ones they want?

    Chad’s article, which you can find here, is right on the money. You may also find Ravi Zachariassen’s recent posts on Piper, here and here, to be illuminating. And Alert Reader Brent White has pointed us to this essay (also mentioned by Ravi) written by David Bentley Hart for First Things. Thanks, Brent.

    OK, so that’s what other people think. How about us?

    Well, psnt.net is a blog about negative theology (among other things), so where does this fit in? We’ll tell you. In our view, silence is necessary in times of crisis and calamity, yet it is at these times that silence is most difficult to maintain. One feels an immense pressure to jump in and fill the silence with explanations and rationalizations and props. Anything to fill the yawning gap of silence, of not knowing. That gap judges us and mocks our ambition to know and understand.

    Think of Job‘s bonehead pals, sitting around and trying to make good sense of just how far their upright and God-fearing man had fallen. They couldn’t bear the burden of the silence. They tried, God love ’em, sitting around with Job on the ash heap for a few days. But they couldn’t take the strain and so they cracked. And once they started chattering, they couldn’t stop until God brought the show to a close.

    In our view Piper’s attempts to fill the void are like throwing spoonfuls of dirt into the Grand Canyon. The activity fools him into thinking he’s getting somewhere, but the truth is he needs the activity to keep him from looking over the edge. And over the edge is where God is.

    One last thing. We’re all into admitting our own lack of understanding, our own tendency to misconstrue, etc. So let’s say there’s an infinitesimally tiny chance that Piper is right about this (God help us all). OK. What then? He’s right, but does that justify his explanation?

    We think not. We believe Miss Manners should call him down and call him down hard. We can hear her telling him, with all the demureness she can muster (and that’s a lot of demureness), “Miss Manners suggests that there may be a kind of reverse statute of limitations on the proposing of theological explanations after the event of a calamity, Dr. Piper, and that that statute is proportional to the scale of the calamity. And in the case of the Japanese disaster, Miss Manners thinks you should keep your Reformed lips zipped for at least another ten to twenty years. And, for the love of everything decent that remains in this world, which isn’t much, she thinks it best for you to get yourself busy doing something useful.”

    Comment Pages

    There are 4 Comments to "XI. Thou shalt not speak before thinking"

    • Brent White says:

      You’ve probably read this before (one of the bloggers you point to mentions it), but it bears repeating. (This essay was my introduction to David Bentley Hart, a fierce intellect who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.) He really, really dislikes Reformed theology.



      • Paul Paul says:

        No, I haven’t read it. I like Hart. Reading him makes me feel like an idiot, and I mean that in the best possible way. Thanks for pointing it out; I added a link to it in the post.


        • Brent White says:

          Oh, good! It’s not just me! :-) Hart discussed somewhere what it takes to be a theologian, and basically it requires much more work than I’m able or willing to put in.


    • Tom Harkins says:

      At considerable risk of myself speaking before thinking, I would observe that waiting until some years after a catastrophe to give commentary as to any “why?” inquiries may move one into a “historian” role instead of a “counseling” one. I don’t doubt aiding those in distress is of substantial importance in times of great distress, and perhaps of primary importance. (Witness Jesus’ many healings and miracles–feeding the 5,000.) However, I also think that the persons “in harm’s way” are the very ones most likely to cry out, “Why?” when disaster strikes.

      IMO, I don’t think Dr. Piper’s “answer” is wrong because of its timing. It may seem hollow if he was not “moved with compassion,” a motive attributed to Jesus. (Who knows whether Piper contributed to aid or not?) I think the “sticking point” is that his analysis is “unwelcome,” i.e., not the kind of thing a person wants to hear. And maybe that “dissatisfaction” is well-founded–maybe he is wrong. But I don’t think he spoke “out of turn,” as it were.

      Was Dr. Piper right? Of course, this question of “Why do bad things happen?” has divided theologians and laymen throughout the history of the faith. One thing to keep in mind, though, IMO. Which would be better, assuming, as Piper obviously does, that there is a God of “activity” who could “intervene” in human history–to sit “blithely by” and allow “nature to take its course,” or to “guide events” with an ULTIMATELY benevolent purpose? The point can be argued. I would rather that God “take an interest” and therefore “take action” from time to time.

      If that is the case, the next point of inquiry would be, “Well, for goodness sakes, what possible ‘benevolent purpose’ could God have in a disaster of this ilk?” I don’t know if I am “tracking Piper” exactly, but it is a known fact (and I think you have said something similar, Paul) that people are less likely to think of “things eternal” when “things temporal” are proceeding “swimmingly.” Perhaps when the “earth” is in chaos, on might “look toward heaven.” And if it is the “things of heaven” that really matter, that “transition of focus” might be a good thing. That may or may not happen, and my answer may be amiss. But I consider the point worth thinking about, and it may give Piper’s commentary a tad bit of support.

      Tom Harkins



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