This is archived under “Book Review” but it is not really a book review proper. It is more of a statement. Last April I finished reading a short book by David Bentley Hart called The Doors of the Sea, a theological reaction to the Asian tsunami. In my short book log review, I just said that it was “painfully inadequate.” And that would have been that, except that someone mentioned to me recently that the book was garnering some whipped up excitement from some people who should have known a lot better. So let me say just two things.
Hart is an Orthodox theologian, and recognizes that he may have made Calvinism into his “particular bete noire” (p. 93). But though he disclaims this as his intention, it clear that he is fleeing from a bugbear of his own invention. Hart is a brillant man, and a subtle thinker, and when he doesn’t know what he is talking about — as he does not throughout this small book — it comes off poorly. This helps create a colossal blunder he makes in establishing a criterion for what we can say theologically about disasters like this. After telling the story of a Sri Lankan man who was unable to prevent the drowning of 4 of his 5 children and who, while telling a reporter the names of his lost children, broke down into weeping, Hart says this: “Only a moral cretin at that moment would have attempted to soothe his anguish by assuring him that his children had died as a result of God’s eternal, inscrutable, and righteous counsels, and that in fact their deaths had mysteriously served God’s purposes in history, and that all this was completely necessary for God to accomplish his ultimate design in having created this world” (pp. 99-100). And he is quite right there — only a louse would do that. I wouldn’t do that, even though I believe every word of what he wrote there. But then Hart takes a trapeeze leap worthy of all three of the Flying Bambino Brothers. “And this should tell us something. For if we would think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them” (p. 100). We should never say them, not just because they were out of season, but because they are constructed as a “vile stupidity and a lie told principally for our own comfort” (p. 100).
But if this Sri Lankan man, still grieving but now calm, came to my office six months later with the questions that were torturing him because a central part of his grief was the apparent senselessness of it, only a moral cretin would tell him, “Sorry, mac, some people’s kids just get caught in the machinery. No reason.”
This leads to the second comment I need to make, and which is the baseline comment. I have trouble comprehending Christian theologians like Hart who cannot or will not grasp the implications of creatio ex nihilo. This is a world that was put here by God, and after we screwed it up with our sin, it continues to remain here, continuing to exist, at His sole discretion and by His will. Nobody else’s. Those who cannot unpack the implications of this apparently learned their theology from the foolish women that Job referred to in his conversation with his wife. And this Job, every bit as stricken as the Sri Lankan man, did not refrain from saying what Hart very piously said must not be said. So now Job has another counselor, shushing him and telling him not to talk that way. But Job was a righteous man. The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, and blessed be the name of the Lord.