Greenfield’s theology; or, Does everything happen for a reason?


Decent people agree that deadly disasters like the tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma are tragic.  We all feel to some degree that this is not the way things should be.  Regrettably, columnist Jeff Greenfield compounds the tragedy by propagating unsound, incoherent reflections about the realities of life.

His latest column begins by citing a common, often offensive, response to tragedy: “This is all part of God’s plan.”  Greenfield contrasts this with an answer he prefers instead.  Once, he asked a priest whether John F Kennedy Jr.’s tragic, early death was part of God’s plan.  The priest responded candidly, “Oh, no . . . this sucks.”

Hold on a second. Why think these two views are at odds?

Greenfield complains about another attribution to divine will.  You might hear this upon the death of a child: “God must have wanted another little angel.”  The columnist confesses that he would not “sign up” for a God who works like that. I’m not particularly fond of such angel-acquisition schemes either. Not because it’s distasteful to me, but because it’s not true!

The columnist treats the appeal to divine purpose merely as a means of consolation.  He claims that most serious theologians have moved on from the “simplistic” notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  This is just not the case.  With the minor exception of Open Theism, Christian theology still describes a sovereign God, who either causes or permits everything to happen for a reason.  Whether a specific reason is knowable is another question.  But core Christian doctrine does not change on the charge of simplicity or any other whim.

The only explanations Greenfield accepts are naturalistic or psychological: either the random physics driving thunderstorms and plate tectonics, or personal phenomena like greed, anger, and mental illness.  This mixing of natural and personal causes ought to gives us pause.

Are emotions like greed and anger really knowable causes, in the same way as weather patterns or plate tectonics?  On the deterministic worldview of materialism–precisely where the writer is coolly headed with his criteria for explaining tornadoes and earthquakes–there is no causation outside of the laws of physics.  Greed and anger aren’t real.  Mental illness is merely an unconventional arrangement of molecules.  There is even a subset of philosophy of mind that operates on these metaphysical assumptions.  It’s called eliminative materialism.  Some will go to great lengths to avoid the idea that there might be ultimate purpose in everything.

No one slighted by the harshness of reality–nor anyone, for that matter–can have it both ways.  Ultimately, either chance or design is king.  Ravi Zacharias has often quoted a poem by Steve Turner to great effect:

If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.

There are two candidates in the running to ultimately explain reality: chance or design.  Greenfield approaches the question based on who he would sign up for.  But how is ultimate meaninglessness in any way more palatable than a perfectly purposed cosmos?

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About cogitating duck
I study Christian apologetics at Biola University and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

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