"What God ordains is always good":Theodicy, Pietism, Dawkins, and Lutheran Hymns

Today being Father’s Day, I went to church with my family at their Lutheran parish (don’t worry–I went to Mass last night). Always a chance to have a good sing. Some of you may not be aware that I have another blog dedicated to hymnody and singing (“Sing Lustily and With Good Courage”) where I usually write about this sort of stuff. But singing a couple of hymns this morning recalled for me an entry I read on the First Things blog last week by managing editor Anthony Sacramone entitled “Why do the Heathen Rage?”. Sacramone was reflecting on a video (204 Mb to download from Video Google) conversation between Richard Dawkins and Alister McGrath (Nb. The latter will be in Melbourne speaking about the former from Sept 27 to 30 — see here for more details). He says:

In the hour-and-ten-minute clip, the professional atheist Dawkins comes across as almost fair-minded, and Alistair McGrath demonstrates a crisp and vital intellect.

But McGrath does stumble. When Dawkins puts to him how grating it is to hear parents thank God when a child of theirs is saved in a disaster that takes the lives of thousands of others, and asks McGrath to explain to him the “rationale” of such a God, McGrath, I’m afraid, dances around a bit, leaving Dawkins—quite rightly—frustrated. What McGrath describes sounds like a clockwork world with a bent mechanism and a genuinely sympathetic clockmaker who is either unable or unwilling to offer up a replacement part…

Was there no better answer McGrath could have offered Dawkins, other than that the world is what it is, like it or not, but we mustn’t blame a God who, having assumed human flesh, suffered too?

Sacramone then has a go at offering a “better answer”, but don’t get your hopes up. The fact is, neither you nor I have ever heard nor are ever going to hear a really satisfying answer to the philosophical question of theodicy: that is, how could a God who is both truly good and all powerful allow suffering to exist in the world?

Yet this morning, as I sat in the pew at St Paul’s, I found myself singing the following verses of a hymn I have known since childhood. Bear with me, as you need to read thew whole hymn to get the impact of it–in fact, you have to sing it! (See Together in Song #109, the Australian Lutheran Hymnal #415, or any good Lutheran Hymnal):

“What God Ordains Is Always Good”
(“Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan!” by Samuel Rodigast, 1649-1708

1. What God ordains is always good;
His will is just and holy.
As He directs my life for me,
I follow meek and lowly.
My God indeed in every need
knows well how he will shield me;
To Him, then, I will yield me.

2. What God ordains is always good.
He never will deceive me;
He leads me in His own right way,
And never will He leave me.
I take content What He has sent;
His hand that sends me sadness
Will turn my tears to gladness.

3. What God ordains is always good.
His loving thought attends me;
No poison can be in the cup
That my Physician sends me.
My God is true; Each morning new
I trust His grace unending,
My life to Him commending.

4. What God ordains is always good.
He is my Friend and Father;
He will not let me come to harm,
Though many storms may gather.
Now I may know Both joy and woe,
Some day I shall see clearly
That He has loved me dearly.

5. What God ordains is always good.
Though I the cup am drinking
Which savors now of bitterness,
I take it without shrinking.
For after grief God grants relief,
My heart with comfort filling
And all my sorrow stilling.

6. What God ordains is always good.
This truth remains unshaken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine,
I shall not be forsaken.
I fear no harm, For with His arm
He shall embrace and shield me;
So to my God I yield me.

Now at the beginning of this hymn, it may sound as if the author, Samuel Rodigast, has had rose coloured glasses nailed to his skull–but by the end of it (verses 5 and 6) you see that he is well aware that there is suffering in the world, but that he, speaking only for himself, has decided that whatever suffering he has to endure, he will accept it as God’s good and benevolent will for himself.

It is essential that this hymn is in the first person singular. Of course, this comes out of the German Pietist tradition, which focused on my existential devotional relationship with God. We usually bag these sorts of “individualist” hymns, in favour of more communal hymns of the 16th Century couched in the ecclesial first person plural. But this hymn could not be sung in the first person plural, and certainly it could not be sung in the second person. If it were, it would be me or us singing about how you should experience and know God’s benevolence even in your dreadful suffering. And if I tried this, you would rightly punch me on the nose.

This recalls to me the great book of the bible which reflects ad infinitum and ad nauseum upon the question of suffering, namely the book of Job. Job speaks from the depths of his experience (nb. his experience does not equal that of Rodigast), but his “comforters” lecture him about how he should acknowledge God’s justice and kindness to him even in suffering. If you take the hymn above and change it to the second person–voila! You have the script for Job’s comforters.

Which leads me to think that there is something about the issue of theodicy that may never be fully satisfied with conventional philosophy or theology, but which is transformed when

1) it becomes an existential question of my experience of the reality of a benevolent/malevolent divinity,

2) it becomes the language of doxology and praise.

This whole point was driven home finally when we rounded off the service this morning by singing another great favourite German hymn “In all my ways, in every task” (“Where’er I go, whate’er my task” / “In allen meinen Taten“) (TIS #553, LH #579 – By Paul Fleming, originally sung to the tune “Nun ruhen alle Wälder”/”O Welt Ich muss dich lassen”, but sung here in Australia to Catherine Winkworth’s translation and Australian tune by Johannes Paul Löhe “Traveller”). Note again the first person singular!

1. In all my ways, in every task,
the counsel of my God I ask,
who rules all things aright;
unless he guides both thought and deed
the wisest plans cannot suceed;
in vain is human might.

2. I lean upon his mighty arm;
he keeps me safe from every harm
and all calamity.
If by his guidance I shall live,
whatever’s useful he will give,
and naught can injure me.

What would Prof. Dawkins make of that?

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3 Responses to "What God ordains is always good":Theodicy, Pietism, Dawkins, and Lutheran Hymns

  1. Athanasius says:

    Hi David

    I read the Sacramone article as well, and had a similar reaction. Anyone who really thinks we have ‘solved’ the problem of theodicy simply hasn’t suffered enough to know better.

    But I don’t think this amounts to an argument that a loving omnipotent God is illogical. In fact, Alvin Plantinga wrote a very good book demonstrating that you can’t logically justify this result.

    So you’re right, the problem isn’t at the level of logic. Something in our gut cries out against suffering. When one child is saved while others die, we simply feel this is unjust. And the atheist is making an appeal to this sense of cosmic unjustice.

    But we are wrong to say we know this, because we can’t see the full ledger. Dawkins would draw the line at death, and say that the arbitrariness of suffering in this life proves there is no justice. But that arbitrariness is a consequence of the arbitrariness of the line he draws. He can’t prove death is the end, and until he can, his argument is not compelling.

    The upshot is that neither side can offer a compelling account of suffering. The problem of theodicy cuts both ways.

    But I think that theism provides a much better and more coherent account of our gut reaction than atheism ever could. It’s very hard to see where an atheist can get the idea of cosmic justice in the first place, so their appeal to the idea of unjust suffering is incoherent, and our gut reaction is inexplicable to them.

    But to a Christian our gut reaction is a predictable and appropriate reaction to our natural hunger for justice. We’ll never explain suffering, but the fact that we think this argument is important is testimony to the image of the just God that we all bear. Even Richard Dawkins.

  2. William Weedon says:

    You can take the lad out of Lutheranism, but you can’t take the Lutheranism out of the lad…at least when it comes to hymnody! Thank you for the thoughts on the MUST of the “I” vs. “we” here. Illuminating!

  3. Schütz says:

    You’ve nailed me there, Pastor Weedon! Its hymnody is the best thing Lutheranism has going for it, I reckon. (Also–good blogs from you lately too–I intend to comment on these soon).

    Athanasius, excellent observation about theism being necessary before one can even posit the idea of cosmic justice. Curious though, ain’t it, that belief in good God gives rise to a sense of the need for universal justice, which need in turn raises questions about the existence of a good God?

    In my ruminations, I was thinking that the hymnwriters understood that it is easier to come to terms with personal suffering through faith in a good God than it is to come to terms with cosmic suffering or suffering in others.

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