Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Ehrman's Problem

William Willimon--United Methodist bishop of the North Alabama Conference--reviews Bart Ehrman's God's Problem in the latest issue of Christian Century. Here's an excerpt:
Being subjected to the puerile theodicy of undergraduates while he was teaching courses in religion at Rutgers was the coup de grĂ¢ce for what was left of Ehrman's faith. So the professor ventured forth on the journey that he apparently considers heroic, even though it has been made by millions in the West before him: the journey of taking God less seriously and himself more so. While this is now an old story, Ehrman seems invigorated by the telling of it—I presume because it his own story. The radical subjectivity and narcissism of evangelical pietism must be tough to shake.

While reading God's Problem, I kept asking myself, why bother? There are no new insights or discoveries here. All of this is common knowledge to anyone who has taken a few Bible classes in any first-rate, state-funded, secular department of religion. And if one no longer believes in God, why attempt theodicy in the first place—who cares whether the God who isn't is just or unjust, caring or uncaring? Any argument against the goodness of God that begins with the announcement that God probably doesn't exist is a strange argument. Why beat a dead horse?

The answer to that question probably lies in Ehrman more than his subject matter. Ehrman proves the dictum that old fundamentalists never die; they just exchange fundamentals and continue in their unimaginative, closed-minded rigidity and simplicity. It's just too confusing to imagine that God's alleged omnipotence might be something other than what we think of as omnipotence or that God's love might be other than what we conceive of as love.

Ehrman appears to have a low tolerance for intellectual ambiguity of any sort. He demands logic as he defines it, and finding the God of Jews and Christians to be caught in a web of contradictions and irrationality, he therefore dismisses God. Ehrman showed this inability to tolerate ambiguity or interpretive dissonance in his book Misquoting Jesus as well. Trouble is, ambiguity, dissonance and conflict are the usual way that scripture presents its peculiar truth. Ehrman seems to want to read scripture as argument, defense and apology when many of the texts he cites are testimony, praise and narrative.
Read the whole thing.