I think it is a very sad comment on the church that I suspect that my son has a better chance of developing a sound Christian theology if I take him out of a Christian school. And before anyone argues that if what I consider to be a “sound Christian theology” and what the school considers to be a “sound Christian theology” differ, who am I to say that I am not the one in the wrong? And it would be exactly this point that would make me consider moving him. It is not what they teach as much as how they teach it that concerns me. I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that others will disagree with me on theological matters. That is normal and good. My problem is how frequently a Christian school’s theological stance is positioned in such a way that it cannot be contested.
By way of example, I am going to refer you to the video clip, played in an assembly at my son’s school this week, that has prompted me to write this post. It is John Piper speaking to the issue of why God allows evil to exist. I applaud the school for speaking to this issue. It is a critical question: nothing, apart from hypocrisy perhaps, does as much to undermine the gospel of a loving God as the presence of suffering in the world. That is precisely why I am not going to mince my words, and say that Piper’s stance on the matter is not only misguided but downright irresponsible, and that it was negligent for it to be aired to vulnerable children without any mediation.
Now I want to make something clear: this is not an attack on John Piper, it is an attack on his theology. I have no doubt that he is doing what he believes to be best in trying to live a life pleasing to God, and that is commendable. But the theology that drives him, by no means concocted by him alone, and for which he cannot assume sole responsibility, is utterly reprehensible. So if you read me speaking strongly to the message presented, please know that in my mind – even if that does not translate neatly onto the page – I can separate the man from his belief system. I have no desire to resort to cheap ad hominem attacks to make my point. Besides, what angered me sufficiently to write this is not what Piper said so much as that children were made to view it without there being any interrogation of it. Now I certainly wouldn’t insist that there be an opportunity to debate every theological position presented in every assembly, but when the position presented uses fear and guilt to emotionally manipulate people into adopting it unquestioningly, as Piper’s does, then I think it is imperative. If you have to use scare tactics rather than logic to make your theology appealing, there is a problem.
If I have to sum it up, I have two major issues with what Piper says. The core of his argument, in his own words, is this: “The glory of God shines most brightly – the glory of Christ shines most brightly – when we are seen to be supremely satisfied in Christ in spite of Satan’s torments rather than having those torments removed and liking Jesus because of it”. In other words, God allows suffering because if we suffer and still choose to love Him, then he knows that we really love Him, which He could not know if we had things easy” (I use the masculine pronoun here rather than my preferred gender-neutral “Hen” because I think the God implicit in Piper’s theology is very definitely a patriarchal tyrant). Am I the only one who sees the problem with that line of thinking? Surely I cannot be the only one who sees how repulsive and dangerous that kind of theology is? Put into human terms, it translates as: if my boy loves me when I allow others to hurt him, then I can be sure he loves me, which I could not if he was never hurt at all but said he loved me. So the whole point of our existence is a big test of whether or not we love a God we have never seen, and that for God to be certain that the outcomes are valid He needs to abuse us? Can I be crude? What a load of crap.
His line of thinking makes several erroneous assumptions. First, it locates Satan as the locus of all evil. Apart from the fact that I think Satan – as a physical being – does not exist (see here), assuming he did, Piper is arguing that God actively uses evil to achieve good ends. Let me make the distinction clear: Piper is not arguing that God can work with the results of evil things to achieve good (I have no problem with that) but that God deliberately and consciously employs evil to further His glory. It is a bit like a person who hires an assassin to kill somebody because he wants to keep his hands clean. It would be ludicrous to contend that he is any less guilty of the murder because he did not actively bloody his hands. That line of thinking makes a mockery of any sort of moral distinction between good and evil, of any concept of a just God. How can God hold us to account for our actions when they were instigated by another being (Satan), and directly ordained by the very God whom those actions offend and who must therefore punish us for them so that He can look good? Can you see how the line between good and evil is blurred by this theology and the concept of justice rendered nonsensical?
I also have an issue with what Piper assumes is God’s “glory”. In Piper’s theology, God is an egotistical megalomaniac, fixated with the notion that everyone should recognise that He is all-powerful. “God’s glory”, for Piper, amounts to the recognition by lesser beings that God is worthier, and the consequent decision to bow the knee. The problem with that is simple: it completely ignores Jesus. Piper attempts to turn it into a Christocentric theology by discussing how Jesus steps into the middle of all this evil and triumphs over it, but he completely misses how Jesus triumphs over sin and death. He does it by undermining worldly notions of “power” and “glory”, as I pointed out in previous posts (here, for example). If you take Jesus seriously when he says that if you have seen him then you have seen the Father (John 14:7-9), then Piper’s conception of what God’s glory looks like is clearly misguided. Jesus sees “glory” in service and humility, not in self-adulation. Let me make the point one more time, just in case it is not hitting home: God’s glory is not derived from accepting the praises of humanity, it is derived from serving humanity. The idea that God allows suffering so that we can see by contrast just how wonderful He is by comparison is ridiculous. It makes God look petty and capricious.
So Piper is essentially arguing that God not only permissively but actively allows evil so that we can see by contrast how glorious He is: I make somebody else hurt you so that when I don’t hurt you, you can see how nice I am. It is not only silly, but irresponsible as a theological stance: it justifies all manner of abuse of power. Still, I could stomach that kind of theology being presented to children if it were presented as merely one of many Christian standpoints. But Piper does not allow for that. Again, in his own words: “We can disagree – we can say that God ought not to run the world this way but if we do, we will reject God, we will reject the Biblical testimony and we will perish…forever, in Hell.” In other words, if you do not adopt the same theological stance as I do with regards to suffering, says Piper, you will burn eternally. I repeat aforementioned profanity: what a load of crap.
It is, to my mind, one of the primary problems in the Christian church that we are incapable of separating challenging somebody’s theology from challenging God. And here Piper falls into precisely that trap. And this is the reason that I actually write this: I know that there are many of you out there – some who probably sat in that very assembly and are reading this on my Facebook page – who have been fed this kind of garbage all your life. And you have felt isolated and scared and have been pressured to keep quiet because the consequences of even thinking that something doesn’t make sense are too dire to contemplate. It makes you feel a terrible burden of responsibility to rescue those you love who may think differently, because the spectre of their horrendous fate terrifies you. I want to assure you that there is a big difference between God (whom, I am sure, would have no issue with being challenged anyway) and thinking about God. A challenge to one is not the same as a challenge to the other. By challenging what Piper believes about why God allows suffering, you are not challenging God. You are challenging Mr Piper. And if challenging Piper’s thinking carries an eternal death sentence, then I am in for a toasty time. Fortunately, I don’t think that God a) is that kind of God, nor b) holds Piper’s theology in that kind of esteem.
Nor do I believe that by challenging this line of thinking you would be “challenging Biblical testimony”. Again, here are several problematic assumptions here (quite apart from the irony of the fact that Piper earlier concedes that the Bible is not clear on this matter). The first is the assumption that the Bible speaks with one cohesive voice and that this voice is God’s. That topic is too big to speak to here, but I have addressed it elsewhere (here and here, for example). The second is that it does not, in fact, reject the Biblical testimony. I would contend that it is in fact Piper’s theology that is out of kilter with the thinking of many of the writers who contributed to the anthology that is the Bible, and certainly flies in the face of the ethics and teachings of Jesus himself, so that Piper’s claim more accurately reads “rejects my interpretation of the Biblical testimony”.
Now I don’t have an issue with Piper being allowed to say this. I have a problem with this clip being played without any mediated discussion of its contents, as if Piper has the definitive Christian word. Let me reiterate: I have no problem with the school presenting to my child a theological stance with which I disagree. I have major problems with the school presenting said theology in a way that not only suggests but states outright that if he doesn’t agree he will burn forever. That is abusive and oppressive and unloving. As such, it is unChristian in the sense that it is out of alignment with Jesus’ teaching. Sadly it is typically Christian in the sense that it is in perfect alignment with much of modern Christian culture. And that is why I think one is more likely to develop a healthy Christian theology outside of a Christian school, where there is greater freedom to challenge ideas, wrestle with them and robustly engage with theology. Evangelical Christian culture (often oppressive and intolerant) and not Jesus-centred Christian theology frames the ethos and praxis of Christian education all too often, and I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off without it.