Earlier this year I had the great pleasure of reading David Bentley Hart’s short text, The Doors of the Sea , originally written in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami, which resulted in the deaths of over a quarter of a million people in at least eight countries. It was a sudden and unexpected disaster which resulted in a catastrophic loss of life, and it was no surprise that it was followed by large scale-existential questioning from the international community. Like many horrifying natural disasters have done before, this event, at its rudimentary and terrible core, brings to the forefront of the mind the question of how a good God could exist in the light of the careless, untameable, primordial chaos; the cold calculus of the random, empty forces of the universe which extinguish human life on a whim, leaving the living to pick up the pieces and carry on.
The book, predictably so, functions as a theodicy, a defense of the character of the supposedly loving God confessed by Christianity in the face of the inexplicable and nonsensical evil which seems to challenge all notions of ultimate order, will and benevolence in the universe. Hart aptly and eloquently addresses various atheist critiques which, in their own way, he recognises as being poignantly and appropriately directed towards what appears to be an inherent contradiction of a Christian concept of God. How could there be a metaphysically necessary, independent ground of being who loves dearly and indiscriminately in the face of a coldly empirical universe? Drawing upon Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, he posits that the only real answer to this conundrum is the notion of eschatological hope: a deep yearning within the being and soul of all creation that all will be made right in the end, that the current state of existence plagued by pain, death and suffering will be made anew, where every tear will be wiped away.
As compelling reading as his engagement with existential and atheistic philosophy is on this topic, he takes a rather unorthodox tactic in addressing the issue. That is, what is particularly interesting in The Doors of the Sea is that Hart often seems less concerned about reaffirming the Christian picture of God in the face of the denial of His existence, as he is about reaffirming God’s existence in the face of the various competing claims conceived of by other Christians. In short, Hart spends a lot of effort arguing against what other prominent Christians think God is like, so that a true picture of this God might arise from the mire. This is due, in no small part, to the fact that Hart’s own text is an extension of a piece that he wrote in The Wall Street Journal in response to both atheist proclamations of victory over the Christian theological programme, but also in response to various other prominent Christian articles written as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. He perceived, it seemed, a false theodicy being perpetuated, which obfuscated the revelation of God in Christ.
His rather emphatic invective is saved for one image of God that is often promoted by Christians – the God of John Calvin and his subsequent Calvinist followers. Why is this? Simply put, the conceptual theological core of the Calvinist God is the idealised Medieval King. His word is law, necessarily defining and ordaining all things as according to his will. All that happens within his domain happens in accordance with his foreknowledge and approval unfolding as according to his predetermined design from before the foundation of the universe. To draw upon the kingly analogy, all the occupations that his vassals perform, be it the blacksmith, the pauper or the knight, are all determined by him. The times at which they eat and sleep – their very desire to sleep and eat, even – are determined by him. And ultimately, whether or not they even choose to obey or disobey him, is determined by him. He is the sufficient cause of all that happens solely by the measure of his own will inviolate will. He determines, plans and wills all things to happen long before they even do. Calvin discusses his doctrine of providence in his magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, saying:
“By an erroneous opinion prevailing in all ages,… i.e., that all things happen fortuitously, the true doctrine of providence has not only been obscured, but almost buried. If one falls among robbers, or ravenous beasts; if a sudden gust of wind at sea causes shipwreck; if one is struck down by the fall of a house or a tree; if another, when wandering through desert paths, meets with deliverance; or, after being tossed by the waves, arrives in port, and makes some wondrous hair-breadth escape from death – all these occurrences, prosperous as well as adverse, carnal sense will attribute to fortune. But whoso has learned from the mouth of Christ that all the hairs of his head are numbered (Matt 10:30), will look farther for the cause, and hold that all events whatsoever are governed by the secret counsel of God. With regard to inanimate objects, again, we must hold that though each is possessed of its peculiar properties, yet all of them exert their force only insofar as directed by the immediate hand of God. Hence they are merely instruments, into which God constantly infuses what energy he sees meet, and turns and converts to any purpose at his pleasure.”
Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.16.2, Translation by Henry Beveridge
Lest one simply read Calvin as saying that God is merely permitting certain acts rather than choosing that they come to pass, he himself declares that there is no distinction between the two – He only permits on the basis that He wills it:
“It seems absurd that man should be blinded by the will and command of God, and yet be forthwith punished for his blindness. Hence recourse is had to the evasion that this is done only by the permission, and not also by the will of God. He himself, however, openly declaring that he does this, repudiates the evasion. That men do nothing save at the secret instigation of God, and do not discuss and deliberate on any thing but what he has previously decreed with himself and brings to pass by his secret direction, is proved by numberless clear passages of Scripture.”
Calvin, Institutes, 1.18.1
And again, in defending his doctrine of predestination (that humanity, before the foundation of the world, has their salvation determined by God, and not primarily because of their individual choices):
“Here they recur to the distinction between will and permission, the object being to prove that the wicked perish only by the permission, but not by the will of God. But why do we say that he permits, but just because he wills? Nor indeed, is there any probability in the thing itself, i.e., that man brought death upon himself merely by the permission, and not by the ordination of God; as if God had no determined what he wish the condition of the chief of his creatures to be.”
Calvin, Institutes, 3.23.8
It obvious that this is extraordinarily problematic insofar as it renders unto God total responsibility for the many dead in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. It is God who, being in control, unleashes the doors of the sea ending in the death of thousands, all to his good pleasure. It is no surprise that Hart feels he must repudiate Calvin’s picture of God as it seems to wholesale abandon the project of theodicy altogether – instead of defending the character of God in the face of evil, it posits that God is evil, or at least, that evil is somehow good. The Calvinist contends that their god, in his foreknowledge, not only allowed or permitted the tidal flood waters to drown men, women, children, both born and unborn alike, but that he is the direct cause of it, and that this god is still good.
The problem is deepened even further on a closer inspect, as Calvin contends that not only is God’s determining will of all things simply relegated to the realm of inanimate, natural objects, it even accounts for the evil deeds of people. It is God who wills people to do evil against what he wishes, all to the end of displaying himself as king. If this is the love of God, it seems that it is so unlike human conceptions of love that any analogue we attempt to make would be more akin to calculated murder. There is obviously a deep problem that lies at the nexus of such a picture of God – a rotting theological malady which confuses God and the world.
Central to the core affirmation of Christianity is the notion that God is other, He alone is God, as Father, Son and Spirit, and He alone is eternal. He is the sole grounds of being which gives rise to the being of all beings. In this sense he is unlike all things which exist, because God is existence in itself; one finds this sentiment echoed in Exodus 3:14 where God reveals His very name to Moses: YHWH, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”. It is on this basis that all things that exist find their source and continued existence in Him. All things find their continued life and being rooted and grounded in Him, being inextricable and inseparable from His own divine life. It is plain to see that this truth is at least partly grasped by Calvin – his insistence on the overarching providence of God over all shows that he understands that all things are the fundamental core of their being depend on Him and find their existence in Him. The source of the issue is he conceives of creation being so rooted in God that it doesn’t have any sense of independence from Him.
Hart explains Calvin’s essential pitfall as so:
“Here, though, it seems worth noting that there is a point at which an explanation becomes so comprehensive that it ceases to explain anything at all, because it has become a mere tautology. In the case of a pure determinism, this is always so. To assert that every finite contingency is solely and unambiguously the effect of a single will working all things – without any deeper mystery of created freedom – is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is, for any meaningful distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of cosmic eventuality has collapsed. If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdities) then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else. Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of its God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous – some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might. Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism… it provides an excellent moral case for atheism…”
David Bentley Hart, Doors of the Sea, pp 29 – 30
“At its most unfortunate, this exaggerated adoration of God’s sheer omnipotence can yield conclusions as foolish as Calvin’s assertion in Book III of the Institutes, that God predestined the fall of man so as to show forth his greatness in both the salvation and the damnation of those he has eternally preordained to their several fates. Were this so, God would be the author of and so entirely beyond good and evil, or at once both and neither, or indeed merely evil (which power without justice always is). The curious absurdity of all such doctrines is that, out of a pious anxiety to defend God’s transcendence against any scintilla of genuine creaturely freedom, they threaten effectively to collapse that transcendence into absolute identity – with the world, with us, with the devil. For unless the world is truly set apart from God and possess a dependent but real liberty of its own analogous to the freedom of God, everything is merely a fragment of the divine volition, and God is simply the totality of all that is an and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power. One wonders, indeed, if a kind of reverse Prometheanism does not lurk somewhere within such a theology, a refusal on the part of the theologian to be a creature, a desire rather to be dissolved into the infinite fiery flood of God’s solitary and arbitrary act of will. In any event , such a God, being nothing but will willing itself, would be no more than an infinite tautology – the sovereignty of glory displaying itself in the glory of sovereignty – and so an infinite banality.”
Hart, Doors of the Sea, pp 90 – 91
What Hart is effectively saying, and rather powerfully so, is that Calvin, for all his wish to set God over and above nature, in positing a god that has control over everything – a god that extends his arm into the vast depths of the oceans, to the farthest distant star, into the intricacies and intimacies of human relationships, and even into the realm of the destructive demonic activity of Satan and his angels – this god is no different to the very universe that it controls, and the denizens therein. The very wave which drowns the newborn baby is the will of God; the murder and rape of a loved one is the will of God; and the demon who tempts the righteous man to abandon his faith, leave his family and pursue a lifestyle of hedonism is expressing the will of God. In each of these circumstances, it is impossible to conceive each of these people as independent actors for they precisely lose what defines them as relational agents. They are no longer people, they are merely objects – highly esteemed objects, no doubt, but objects nonetheless. What they wish, desire, pursue, and undertake, are identified exactly with the will of God itself, rendering the distinction between God and creation effectively meaningless. Without creation having some sense of freedom allowed by the creator, analogous to the creator’s own freedom, all creation is indistinct from God, as all are simply expressions of the divine will in the divine’s own stage, where his will is enforced in every place all the time, to the end of magnifying his might and power. In fact, that is all that is left – power. Not love, not self-sacrifice, not forgiveness, not justice. There is, as, Hart says, only tautology.
Thankfully, the God revealed in Christ isn’t subject to infinite banality, for it is by the way of the cross that we see that He is just, loving, kind, forgiving, and self-sacrificing. He is not interested in arrogating power to Himself and is therefore not Calvin’s god. The God in Christ shows that power is not the power of the Medieval King. He is infinitely more more interesting, compelling and, ironically, powerful – powerful because in allowing others’ freedom, the ability to rebel willingly against Him and even to act and impress their own wills upon Him, He is still victorious, defeating death by death. He’s powerful because He willingly cedes His control away from that which he creates – that he truly desires people to be people, for you and I to truly be you and I – and, somehow, He still wins in the end.