TITLE: The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsumani?
AUTHOR: David Bentley Hart
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: A small book: 104 pages of core content, 5 x 7 pages, 1.5 spacing, medium type, no illustrations. Hardcover.
RAISON D’ETRE: After the Asian tsunami of Christmas 2004, a great many atheists saw it as proof that there was no God. The author challenges this view by reviewing what Christian history has actually said on the subject of human suffering.
STYLE: Heavy. The author uses large words and long sentences, and could probably have expressed the same ideas in simpler terms. In a word, it is an “academic” style: a book meant for researchers and armchair philosophers and theologians.
In response to the dismissive attitude of the atheists:
[It is] a curious delusion…to imagine that Christianity has never at any point during the two millenia of its intellectual tradition considered the problem of evil, or confronted the reality of suffering and death, or at any rate responded to these things with any subtlety. (p. 9)
In response to the arguments of the atheists against God:
They often seem to take issue with a God of their own devising (p. 13). Has any living faith ever enjoined on anyone to believe in the God in whom [they] are so desperate for us not to believe? (p. 23)
On the debt the atheists actually have to Christianity:
If we are honest in asking what God this is that all our skeptics so despise, we must ultimately conclude that, while he is not the God announced by the Christian gospel, he is nevertheless a kind of faint and distorted echo of that announcement. It is Christianity that not only proclaimed a God of infinite goodness but equated that goodness with infinite love. The atheist who argues from worldly suffering, even crudely, against belief in a God both benevolent and omnipotent is still someone whose moral expectations of God — and moral disappointments — have been shaped at the deepest level by the language of Christian faith. (pp. 24-25)
On how the Christian vision of the universe differs from that of the materialists:
Catholic Christianity — East and West — did not abaondon antiquity’s vision of a world alive in every part, charged with vital intellect; it saw the motive force at the heart of creation not as an unreasoning engine of material causality, but as an ecstasy of spiritual intelligence and desire. The entire cosmos, it was possible to believe, wasdrawn ever onward by the yearning of all things for the goodness of God. (p. 48)
Perhaps no doctrine strikes non-Christians as more insufferably fabulous than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe: that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God. (pp. 61-62)
On the nature of human freedom:
To be free is to be able to flourish as the kind of being one is, and so to attain the ontological good toward which one’s nature is oriented; freedom is the unhindered realization of a complex nature in its proper end (natural and supernatural), and this is consummate liberty and happiness. The will that chooses poorly, then — through ignorance, maleficence, or corrupt desire — has not thereby become freer, but has further enslaved itself to those forces that prevent it from achieving its full expression. (p. 71)
On the nature of evil:
Evil is born in the will: it consists not in some other separate thing standing alongside the things of creation, but is only a shadow, a turning of the hearts and minds of rational creatures away from the light of God back toward the nothingness from which all things are called. This is not to say that evil is somehow illusory; it is only to say that evil, rather than being a discrete substance, is instead a kind of ontological wasting disease. (p. 73)
On the conjunction of God’s providential will and human will:
God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in sayin that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. (pp. 82-83)
On the final destiny of all things:
When we learn in Christ the nature of our first estate, and the divine destiny to which we are called, we begin to see — more clearly the more we are able to look upon the world with the eye of charity — that there is in all the things of the earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the mose generous imagination or more ardent desure can now conceive. (p. 102)
The author, unfortunately, does not finally succeed in putting the criticisms of the atheists to rest. To his credit, he demonstrates quite well that God is not an originator of evil. He also gives a good explanation for why God tolerates human evil choices. But the event that occasioned the writing of the book was a natural disaster, and the author does not explain how permitting moral evil necessarily requires also permitting natural evil. As well, since the author brings up the enslavement of the natural world to the forces of darkness, who presumably are the moral agents behind the tsunami, the author must also explain why God would allow the demons to continue their negative actions, given that they (unlike humans) are incapable of repentence. He does not provide this explanation, and so his work, while a good start, is incomplete.
The bibliography contains helpful comments, but the lack of footnotes makes it hard to directly connect some of his references to the works referenced.
I think there is a hidden gem within the book, which I wish the author had explored more, and which might perhaps have responded in part to my above criticism. However, this exploration would have been highly speculative, and as his intent was to “bring forward” elements of the treasury of Tradition it might not have been appropriate for this book. What is this speculation? The author mentions an interesting idea of Maximus the Confessor, that humanity was made to be a “priesthood of creation” uniting the physical and spiritual realms, and that in the fall all of material existence was made subject to the dominion of death. In such a situation, the sins of man are, in fact, a kind of false worship in which man binds himself and all of creation to a false master. God has bound up the doors of the sea, but the sin of Man permits the doors to be opened by the reckless hand of the Evil One.
Another very valuable element of the book is an involved discussion of God’s nature, specifically the divine impassability, and how the Cross become a moment of triumph within the context of this divine impassability. This area is discussion of a specialty of the author, and his presentation of the issue provides a great response to the Open Theism movements popular today.
A GREAT QUOTE FOR AN EMAIL SIG:
“Strict materialism is among the most incoherent of superstitions.”
IN THE END:
I’m glad I read the book, and even if it doesn’t provide “the answer” it has opened up new avenues of reflection. I’m glad I have a copy for my library that I can easily turn to when I want to explore these questions further myself.