I am now blogging at a new blog: erdman31.com

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A few thoughts on grace....and Lolita

I just finished my reading of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita. It was better than I had expected, more powerful and even (dare I say it) redemptive, in its own way.....more on that later.....I thought I would post some extended thoughts from Herman (my future brother-in-law), who has a very thoughtful blog. His perspective is Christian, but Eastern Orthodox. The Eastern view of faith is quite different, and for many in the U.S. (particularly from evangelical backgrounds), the Eastern take on faith can be so unfamiliar as to even seem non-Christian.

So, here are a few of Herman's thoughts on sin, atonement, brokenness, and grace that might remind me of my readings of Lolita:

Let's say there's a murder, and we know who committed the murder.

We human beings didn't know it was going to happen before hand. We can't do anything about it afterwards. We can't raise the victim from the dead. We undo their relatives' exerience of sorrow. We don't know if the murderer will ever do it again. We don't know if the murder was overcome by an uncontrollable rage, or if he plotted for months. We are all fragile human beings, who could be murdered ourselves, and we are afraid.

And given those facts, it's actually pretty logical that human beings tend to react by punishing, imprisoning, or even executing the murderer. That is the only thing we can do. We're pretty powerless in the situation otherwise.

But God isn't. God knew it was going to happen. He knows what is going to happen in the future. He was there. He knows what it's like to be murdered. He can raise people from the dead. He knows the person's motives, state of mind etc. He can prevent the murderer from ever doing it again. God cannot be murdered as God, and as a resurrected man, Jesus can no longer be hurt. His approach to wrong-doers, whether murderers or shoplifters is radially different to ours.

We re-act. God is. I can't express strongly enough my horror and dilike for the western idea that God is angry with us, in the same sense as humans get angry. Yes, we have to use metaphores from human life to express truths about God, but the truths cannot be contained in our metaphores. God is, he does not get angry.

Or, as an Orthodox priest once put it (I may have already said this, but it bears repeating): "Orthodoxy is the lack of one-sidedness."

I think that whatever suffering we experience now, or after death (hell), is the product (like a chemical reaction, or a law of nature) of our own opposition to God. All death, sickness and sorrow here on earth are the product of our collective sinning because we sin when we are hurt.

Or, but another way, our turning away from God, on its own, is a sufficient cause for all suffering, whether now or later. God doesn't need to interfere, or subject us to something more than the direct results of our own actions. We're doing that just fine on our own.

We are wounded by the fallen world, and in our woundedness we contribute to the ongoing fallenness. All suffering is suffering at the hands of each other and ourselves, not at the hands of God. God is.

So grace, on this account, is the process where we learn how not to contribute to the fallenness, and where we can become healed from our wounds. Grace is God teaching us how not to be hurt, and how not to hurt.

[From the comment section of Holistic Christian Sexuality and Community]


aeyn said...

I'm not sure about this account of grace. Whether or not it is completely theologically sound is a question I'm not at liberty to attempt to answer. However, I will say that this account of grace yields the following conclusion: people suffer due to their own actions. Which is fine, maybe, for the person who clearly murdered someone, and is in jail for it. Or whatnot.

But what about the children... say, for example, in the Terezin concentration camp, who were killed? Was their suffering a "product of" their "own opposition to God"? And what about poor people, primarily of colour, and primarily on the continents of Africa, South America, and Asia? Have they turned away from God more strongly than white people in the developed world, and thus they suffer more? What's the standard of measurement here? When Herman makes a claim about this, since it it such a weighty and heavy claim, I would hope that he has a way to iron through these complex questions.

Also, I am confused with the meaning of some of these words. He says that our suffering is a "product" of our own opposition. And that it is "cause"d by our turning away from God. I use those words (product and cause) in a certain way, and understand their meaning. For example, if I let go of my tea mug, I cause it to fall. It falls as a product of my letting go. And there are other contexts in which I can use those words, and their uses have similarly measurable, traceable actions and effects.

But I am unsure how Herman is using the words here. If he's using them with the same, standard meaning that we use in everyday language, then I am unclear as to how we can determine, measure, know the causation of one's suffering. Especially innocent children, both in the past (concentration camps) and currently (dying due to lack of clean water and/or food in Africa, or whatnot).

Ultimately, it seems that the claim is the following: that person X's suffering is caused by person X's actions. If that is so, it's incredibly heavy, and warrants some substantial explanation. (IMHO)

Just some questions and some thoughts.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good points. Good questions.

I tend to agree with you.

I do tend to think of suffering as being "caused" by human sin, in some general sense--caused by our own actions or non-actions; but I wonder if that really and truly is the case. Is suffering really a causal thing? I suppose I have never really thought of it.

Maybe suffering is "uncaused" or "random" in some sense.

What is your view of suffering? Do you view suffering as random?

aeyn said...


first, 'twas a shame to miss you last weekend. i hope the bowling wasn't too dull, all things considered.

On To Suffering.

I guess that I, in some sense, have to think that suffering is random. If not, then I have REALLY done some horribly stuff to warrant some of my life (which I don't think that I have), and so have most of the people in Sub-Sarahan Africa, and for that matter, most people of color. And women, in general, get the short end of the stick, as it were (there's a pun in there somewhere).

So, really, if suffering is caused, then the question of causation comes into play. Who causes it, and how can we determine that? If it is us, then again, the people of sub-Sarahan Africa really want to suffer in some fundamental way. Slaves really wanted to be sold to work in the fields of our country for over a century, in some fundamental way. And so on.

So, maybe God causes it, in the sense that he either just allows Satan to do it (take the dialogue between them at the beginning of Job as a good example), or he directly does it himself (various direct interventions of God with the Jews in the OT come to mind, and Noah with the flood, etc.). If THAT is the case, then God really wants blacks and women to suffer more than whites and men (and that would make him, using modern day norms and terms, a racist, sexist bigot who REALLY wants the people of African descent to suffer much more than the people of European descent, all things considered, over the past 200+ years). At least it seems to be the case to me. But let's not jump to conclusions.

Ultimately, we all suffer. I know. Even white, middle class American men in 2010. We all have our pains, trials, struggles, and whatnot.

And so, I choose to believe, based on any lack of evidence to the contrary, that suffering is relatively random.

However, that randomness is not completely and fully random. For example, part of why sub-Sarahan Africans suffer so much is due to exploitation and power structures that exist through multi-national corporations, governmental agencies, non-governmental agencies, and so on. Racism, fear of the other, and desire for resources play a part as well.

But then when we look at cancer rates (for the non-smoking, healthy eating, not-working-in-radiation-lab folks like me), pedestrians getting hit by cars, and so on, I think that randomness plays a part.

(Then, here's one of many rubs: does randomness even exist, on a fundamental, sub-atomic quanta, physical level? A question that I have a sense of, but do not even have the tools and knowledge to fully grasp, let alone to begin to try to answer.)

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts for the moment.

And now, back to work.

aeyn said...


One more thought/question:
If human suffering is, as you write, "caused by human sin, in some general sense--caused by our own actions or non-actions," then while that explains racism and slavery, the exploitation of labor in countries populated primarily by poor people of color, women's subjugation by men (power), and whatnot...

While it explains these things (possibly), it doesn't explain the leukemias in 3-year-olds (or healthy 27 year olds), nor the seemingly randomness of pedestrian fatalities, or natural disasters.

Take natural disasters. Did human sin, in some general sense, cause people to build cities on coasts, and then tsunamis and earthquakes to come and tear the cities to shreds? I think the thesis might fail here. And thus, we'd need a different explanation.

IF that is the case, and we offer up a naturalistic explanation for suffering from natural disasters, and this explanation is not grounded in human sin (say: did earthquakes exist before the fall? I posit: Yes.), THEN, why can't that naturalistic explanation (randomness + physics, perhaps?) be carried over to the other aspects of suffering? (randomness + physics (physics also being the physical properties that shape and affect emotions, power structures, desire, and all that jazz).)

But, I'm opening up more and more cans of worms, and have yet to fully deal with any of them yet.

Really now... i must get back to work. BLAH! -smile-

Jonathan Erdman said...


Yes. I think you make some important points.

So, in one sense, there are many examples of where human actions (or inactions) cause suffering. When the U.S. bombs civilians, then this is a direct action that causes suffering. There are kind of indirect actions that cause suffering, like shopping at Walmart.

There might even be much suffering that has causes, but that they are unknown. Like, maybe certain cancers are more prevalent in the modern, industrial age due to unknown chemicals in the water, air, or food. For example, there was a time when we did not know that smoking could cause cancer.

Then there are natural disasters. These seem to be fairly random. It's also interesting to think of natural disasters, because prior to the modern area, the natural world was assumed to be under the influence of God (or gods). So, people would explain what we now think of as "natural" or "random" as being some divine punishment, or reward if it was sunny with enough rain to grow the crops =) Much religion seemed to originate around explaining this randomness as having a divine cause, or somehow contributing to the divine plan. It still does today, of course, for some.

And yes, maybe quantum physics will one day tell us that there is nothing random.....or that everything is random....then we will have a good deal of interesting things to discuss!

I hope you are well, my good friend. I will ring you soon and we can chat on the phone. Some nice weather has been had by us here in the Midwest. My apologies for not getting back to your comments, but I've had a bad head cold/flu that has kept me down for nearly two weeks. (Do I blame God for this? =)