When Professor Bart Ehrman speaks at the Fox Theater this week, I will have a question for him. My question comes from an interview I heard on the radio program Fresh Air several years ago. I distinctly remember I was driving just outside of Ephrata in central Washington when Ehrman discussed his latest book “God’s Problem.” I remember because I hold a high esteem of his scholarship, and I was aghast at what I heard.
Ehrman was 16 when he had a born-again experience. He acted on his new Christian faith in a zealous manner that would characterize much of his venerable career. He became a member of Youth for Christ, trained for the ministry at the Moody Bible Institute, and went on to earn his doctorate in religious studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. At one point, he was able to recite entire books of the Bible from memory, and viewed himself as a Christian fundamentalist. He now holds the James A. Gray Distinguished professor of Religious Studies position at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As an agnostic, however, his views have changed. He no longer sees himself as a Christian, and he describes this transformation in “God’s Problem.”
As Ehrman talked with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, he portrayed his struggle to reconcile an all-powerful and loving God with the suffering in the world. “If there’s a good God who can stop people from suffering, then why doesn’t God do it?” He further conveyed his travail in “God’s Problem”, “The problem of suffering has haunted me for a very long time. It was what made me begin to think about religion when I was young, and it was what led me to question my faith when I was older. Ultimately, it was the reason I lost my faith.”
The issue at the core of Ehrman’s quandary, commonly called theodicy, isn’t hard to see. Plain logic dictates that if God is all-powerful and all-loving, then he would certainly have to do something about evil. Attempts to reconcile these positions seem like copouts. After all, God must submit to plain logic just the same as you and me, right?
Not so fast. If God has to submit to logic, then is he really God? Is he really all-powerful? Should we instead be bowing down to logic? Without getting too technical, there are differing ideas on logic and how it operates in reality. The view assumed by Ehrman is called Realism. If you’ve ever heard a preacher or a teacher say that God must obey this law or that, then that teacher is viewing logic as a higher existence, either on par or perhaps even higher than God. The enormous achievements of math over the last few hundred years have prompted many scientists to take this view. Christians, especially more recent varieties tending towards fundamentalism, also look at reality in this manner.
But mathematicians, scientists and fundamentalist preachers aren’t necessarily authorities on philosophical logic. Another view is more popular among philosophers who study this sort of thing for a living. They see logic more as a language to express a common way of thinking, something like collective human wisdom. We don’t really know why logic works, and we don’t really know the full extension of its application. We can’t say with any certainty that any particular logic applies outside of our immediate situation in the universe, and especially not to God.
Take Douglas Adams’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” as an example. If you’ve read the book, you know that the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything = 42. It’s funny because it’s so ridiculous. The answer to life and everything can’t possibly be reduced down to a mathematical formula. Yet this is exactly what Professor Ehrman does in “God’s Problem.” He’s minimized one of the basic questions of human existence. Think of all the art, all the literature, all the debates of scholars for millennia questioning good and evil, pleasure and suffering, life and death. Now Ehrman throws it all out with simple logic? You think nobody thought of that before?
My question for Ehrman is: did he consider his view of logic as a possible culprit in his decision to become an agnostic? Is the matter that God and suffering cannot possibly coexist, or is the matter a mystery beyond comprehension where human logic may not even apply? Perhaps God’s problem is really that, while Ehrman may not see himself as a Christian, he has never stopped being a fundamentalist?
Bruce Meyer writes about the relationship between the physical universe and the pursuit of spirituality.