Contending with the Hard Questions: How Calvinist Theodicy Erases Incarnate Thought

[Content Note: rape, rape apologism]

One of the weirdest parts of being a blogger is that people will send you articles and links that they find frustrating but can’t articulate why. These well-meaning friends send them in the hopes that you’ll be prompted to write about it, therefore hopefully articulating their feelings of frustration and giving voice to their reactions. And…I’m generally happy to do so, though there are times I get sent a piece that is so maddening, so horrendous, that even I, the ever-articulate, struggle for how to respond properly.

This article is one of those pieces. It was sent to me by an old college friend of mine who was in several theology classes with me and we’re often on the same wavelength when it comes to theodicy. Which is why I’m going to try and take this on. Hold on to your butts.

The piece is attempting to confront the age-old question of “why do bad things happen to good people?” in light of a recent episode of Downton Abbey in which, once again, rape is considered a viable substitute for character development. I don’t watch the show myself – I did watch the first season and then sort of gave up, because period dramas aren’t really my thing unless they’re really well done, and this show felt like a retread of Upstairs Downstairs and frankly I’d rather watch video of paint drying on repeat than more of that.

But back to this piece: in attempting to explain the rape scene as more than just bad writing, Collin Garbarino sees a message of the Calvinist principle of total depravity:

We ask why bad things happen to good people, but that’s the wrong question. None of us are good. None of us are innocent. The question becomes, “Why do bad things happen to bad people.”

Sometimes I protest that I’m not that bad and that I don’t deserve this particular calamity. I need constant reminder of what the Bible teaches. I am that bad, and I deserve hellfire. But God in his gracious mercy gives me better than I deserve.

There’s a lot here on theodicy to be unpacked. Theodicy, for those readers who aren't familiar, is the philosophical short hand for the question of how evil exists and how an eternally good God allow evil in the world. This is the question that leads many away from Christianity, often because of answers like the one quoted above.

When I was in college, I took a J-term class called “Suffering in the Bible.” I don’t remember a whole lot about it because it was sophomore year and that was eight years ago now. But one of the things I do remember is the importance of how we talk about suffering and how we approach it from a pastoral perspective. The lesson that stuck with me is that sometimes, the search for explanations and the eliding of suffering by trying to figure out “why” is often not pastoral, not caring, and can deepen hurt by failing to recognize its veracity.

Garbarino, here, does precisely the opposite. There are places for these philosophical and theological discussions, for talking about the purpose of suffering, but Garbarino’s words here lack the precision and the care needed when discussing such a hard topic. By treating rape as a part of a fictionalized universe, rather than recognizing that many, many people are the victim of an attempted or completed rape, Garbarino ends up entirely removing the human component from his piece. He’s forgotten that rape is a real thing, not a tired literary trope or a philosophical quandary.

But we find the reason for this treatment of rape as a philosophical quandary rather than an actual event that requires careful thought right in Garbarino’s writing. He cites Augustine:

I’ve been reading Augustine’s City of God this week. It’s weird that I read a passage on the rape of Christians the same day that I watched the Downton Abbey episode.

Augustine says that Christians don’t have to fear the depredations of others. Those who harm the body cannot harm a pure mind and soul. According to Augustine, calamity, including rape, is part of God’s plan. It strips pride from the Christian’s spirit. It leaves us more humble. It leaves us more dependent on God.

Those without eyes to see will still find this idea monstrous. But if God really is the only unadulterated Good in this world, we should bless his name when he brings us closer to him.

Can we say with Job, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD”?

I trust God to work things together for our good. I wish I could say the same thing about Julian Fellowes. We’ll see.

I appreciate Augustine’s contributions to the history of theology and the Christian church, but this is one of the many things upon which he is dead wrong.

I’m a big fan of the repeated axiom that bodies matter. What happens in our flesh informs our experience of that amorphous I that makes us people. A person’s skin color, their gender identities and how they present themselves, a disability, mental illness, or body shape all inform how we view ourselves and who we are at the core of ourselves. To say, fairly flippantly, that “a body cannot harm a pure mind soul” is to completely and totally erase the importance our physical bodies play in the development of our identities, our worship, and our theologies.

This theodicy is, in a word, callous toward the very real experiences of trauma and the evil which men inflict upon their fellows.

What’s more is that, combined with the idea that there is no such thing as a “good person,” this kind of theodicy creates a complex in which a rape victim is to blame for what happen because of sin, and should not feel the pain if they are a Christian. Because if you are depraved, then evil things happen and asking yourself “I’m a good person, why am I suffering?” is considered the wrong question. According to Garbarino.

But cutting off the suffering person’s ability to ask why and replacing it with platitudes about theological states of depravity fails to confront pain. Instead, this theodicy hands us various reasons why we should pretend it doesn’t exist – which is far from the message we get from the very concept of an Incarnational Christ. Christ came to earth as an embodied man primarily to experience and defeat pain. But the experiential part is just as important as the resurrection. Garbarino’s theology is ultimately a failure of incarnation, of sitting with the pain and understanding it without attempting to explain it away.

What does an Incarnational theodicy look like?

I’m not sure at this point – that’s the part I’m still struggling with articulating. So I’m going to throw that out to the readers – this is an age old question, but it’s an important one. How does incarnation impact our perspective on evil in the world? How does embodiment change how we respond to physical evils? If we’re not just “meatsuits” and our physicality is just as important as our spirituality, how should that change how we respond to acts of evil?

Let’s wrestle with that.