The Doors of the Sea: A Review

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?

In the long history of Christianity, theodicy is comparatively young. Different generations find different doctrines more troublesome. Once, pagan philosophers looked askance at Christianity’s affirmation of the body and material creation; the idea that base physical matter could be brought into union with the Absolute was repugnant to them. Today, Christianity must contend with a different set of assumptions. The Enlightenment taught us to think of the cosmos as a vast machine; if it is so, and if it is designed and maintained by God, why doesn’t it always bring about goodness and justice, but often chaos and evil? The problem of human suffering tends to provoke a negative response to the theist’s portrait of reality. Its prominence as an object is probably due to the fact that it provokes a moral and visceral rather than merely intellectual reaction. It is a problem that cannot go unaddressed.

The Doors of the Sea is a short book (just over a hundred pages) expanded from an article written by David Bentley Hart in 2004 for the Wall Street Journal. Hart was prompted, as usual, by observations about the ongoing debate between Christians and atheists and serious deficiencies in the understanding of both sides. In The Doors of the Sea, he starts by reviewing the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, and the impression it made in the press. Some nontheist journalists, he noted, insensitively used this tragedy as an opportunity to bash the Christian belief in a good God; simultaneously, some Christians offered untimely (and, Hart believes, misguided) remarks about all suffering being permitted as a part of God’s perfect plan.

Hart finds neither position satisfactory. The prominent nontheist critiques he quotes do not begin to understand either philosophical theism or Christian theology, he remarks, but they cannot be simply dismissed. Beneath the false dilemmas they pose, between divine goodness and divine omnipotence, they point to a real moral horror at evil and desire for justice that Christianity itself inculcated into western civilization. These feelings are legitimate and deserve a better and more coherent response from Christians than they normally receive.

Hence, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005)

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A Conversation on Lent and Church Observances

This “Lenten” exchange has been taking place on Facebook, and as my responses were getting longer and longer, I decided to leave my latest response here. I have included the preceding conversation below. To my friends in the Facebook debate, I’m not trying to force the whole debate to move to this site, so please continue the discussion on Facebook if you prefer. (I’ve used initials as a courtesy to anyone who might prefer anonymity outside Facebook.)

Click here to jump to my response.

C.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” -Jesus, explaining how to fast, and thus contradicting the observance of Lent.

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Weekly Miscellany IV: Spiritual Seeking

Weekly Miscellany IV: December 30, 2013–January 5, 2014

 

Readings

John Dewey, Art as Experience (1934)

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880) FINISHED

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (1837) FINISHED

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (1972)

Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain (1997)

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (1961)

Jose Manuel Prieto, Rex: A Novel (2009)

Robert C. Solomon, The Big Questions: A Short Introduction to Philosophy (2002)

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (2001) FINISHED

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall (1928) FINISHED

Discussion

What do I really want? What am I really seeking?

Over time, the minute complexity of the problems that afflict one’s intellect and spirit begins to break down, and the entire region of the “unsolved” blurs into confusion. In this confusion, the answers grow more complex, but the questions begin to manifest in startling simplicity. If it feels at times that the edges of one’s map have begun to disintegrate, that the borders of ignorance where be only dragons draw ever closer to the heart of one’s philosophy, this contraction of knowledge is followed by a seeming expansion of spirit to incorporate not only those dragon-infested lands but the dragons themselves.

More prosaically, one is drawn from fearful awareness to acceptance. This acceptance is not passive. It does not incline one to stop questioning and seeking, but it is a happy and active embrace of mystery. I have realized the limitations of my intellect, the essential arrogance of ready pronouncements of understanding, and the importance of quiet, receptive contemplation. Macarius wrote, famously, “The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there…. There also is God.” Rather than merely the best system of doctrine, I seek a living theology, whereby I might descend into the heart, discern Christ, and sanctify it for his purposes. I do not claim to possess the whole map, or claim that the distant mountains are no different from the molehills on either side; I rejoice in the shade of the trees around me, in the shadow of the dim majestic shapes that falls on me every morning, until I am able to ascend to those mountains.

Given the near coextensivity of the sum of truth and my ignorance, it is necessary for me to intellectually reduce my spiritual questing to its essentials. Rather than fracturing my attention on hundreds of questions and conflicts, without knowing what end I have in mind; rather than wandering through the regions of a thousand philosophies, arbitrarily choosing between this table or that at which to sit and eat; it is necessary that I propose a fundamental question to direct my conduct. That question is, “What do I seek?”

My answer to this primal question is “Christ.” All else must be ordered that I may best discern him, follow after him, and become like to him.

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