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Book Review: Theology for a Troubled Believer (Diogenes Allen)

From its title, Theology for a Troubled Believer seems directed at people having a crisis of faith.  That’s not precisely true; this is not a work of apologetics.  The author, the late Diogenes Allen, did not intend to convert in this work, rather he “intended [it] to increase a critical but pious person’s understanding of the Christian religion.”  True, the spur for his writing the book was receiving a letter from a man troubled by the particular problem of theodicy.  The book itself, however, is a sophisticated philosophical overview of Christianity in which troubles, as such, play little part.  Thus, it might be more accurate if the book’s subtitle, “An Introduction to the Christian Faith,” were the title, and the actual title the subtitle.  Either way, the book is substantively excellent, if not an easy read.

Very many people struggle with theodicy—in essence, the theological question why God, if He is both all-good and all-powerful, permits suffering.  I don’t struggle with it at all.  To be fair, that may be because I have suffered very little in my life (as they say, though, past performance is no guarantee of future results).  But God does not guarantee us happiness in this life—quite the contrary.   The nature of a fallen world with free will necessarily implies suffering.  Nor do I think that suffering is part of God’s plan, that He will later show us why it was necessary for the fulfilment of His purposes.  Rather, with the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, I think that “God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark [a reference to Dostoevsky] were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ ”  If, or more likely when, I am forced to suffer, and if my reaction is not humility, it is more likely to be anger at God than disbelief in God, though I hope it is neither.

Allen was a Presbyterian, but he mentions in this book that he is part of the Anglican tradition, and apparently he was a regular preacher at both Presbyterian and Anglican churches.  Certain aspects of episcopal Christianity therefore appear often in the book, in particular a willingness to synthesize Biblical exegesis, tradition and reason in a way that might not be found in a more strictly evangelical theologian.  That said, all the theology Allen covers is unexceptional for any mainstream Christian—but very refined and treated with a depth that most people would not normally encounter.  Probably this is why this book is often used as a ministry textbook (I am not studying for the ministry; it was given to me as a gift by a friend of mine in our Bible study group).  This is not popular writing encouraging Christians to let the good times roll, of which Joseph Prince’s execrable Destined To Reign is one of a multitude, the only one I have had the misfortune to read.  Here, instead, you will find the detailed thought of St. Athanasius offered as the springboard for a discussion of why the Incarnation occurred, rather Allen’s own fresh interpretations of Scripture.

To further take that example, Allen emphasizes Athanasius’s point, that while the Incarnation was “a free action of God . . . even free acts occur for a reason. . . . [and] the Gospels do not tell us why God chose this particular way or means to save us, nor how it saves us.”  Allen’s point is not that any particular atonement theory is necessarily correct, but that part of any deep theology is exploring any given topic with a synthesis of Scripture, tradition and reason, as has been done from the earliest days of the Church.  This general approach is found throughout the book.  On the other hand, the book’s organizational structure is not traditional.  Rather than focusing on doctrine, Allen focuses on a set of broad topics, within which doctrine is discussed—but not all doctrines, just ones that are relevant and explanatory for the point at hand.  The broad topics are “The Nature of God,” “Suffering,” “The Divine Sacrifices,” “The New Life in God,” and “Responding to God.”

Thus, Allen first discusses the nature of God, beginning with Moses and the burning bush.  His point, here and throughout the book, is that God is “both transcendent and immanent.”  His purpose is to emphasize that while God acts in the universe, He is not part of the universe, and modern theology (or anti-theology) that relies on the premise of God being part of His own universe is getting off on the wrong foot.  We can never fully understand God, but He has shown, or revealed, enough of himself to us that we can know something of Him (as in Exodus 33 Moses is shown God’s back, but not His face).  Allen equates this transcendence with “holiness,” and rejects simply viewing God as merely “omnipotent, omniscient and all-good” as not adequately describing God, since there are aspects of God beyond comprehension.  Thus, with St. Anselm, we must approach any theological analysis with a sense of our own inadequacy.

Much of this is subtle analysis that both rewards and requires close reading, and nearly every page has relevant insights—such as, in this first section, that the creation story of Genesis is radically different than contemporaneous creation myths, because it speaks of ultimate origins (i.e., arising from the transcendent God), rather than the relations among existing natural processes, and that any treatment of God as a natural force is incoherent and a basic philosophical error.  The Christian God was not, as the enemies of Christianity would have it, originally theorized to explain natural processes, but rather was acknowledged “as a response to God’s initiative.”  In the same way, Christian (and Jewish) monotheism is not simply culling down the gods of polytheism to just one God otherwise similar in kind to other gods; the Christian God is wholly different, in particular existing totally independent of the universe.  None of this will convince dogmatic anti-theists, of course.  It’s not meant to.  It’s just supposed to demonstrate to “pious Christians” both what standard Christian belief is and why it is highly rational.

Allen next treats suffering.  This section is excellent, but no summary can really do it justice.  Unsurprisingly, Allen begins with Job, and then moves through discussions of God’s justice, the parable of the workers in the vineyard, a distinction between “almighty” and “omnipotent” (God is not omnipotent in Christian thought—for example, He cannot contradict His own will), and natural disasters and mass murder.  This section treats theodicy, and thus is the core response to the “troubled believer’s” immediate theological problem.  I don’t know if it’s convincing to someone with that concern, since as I say I don’t really share it—for me, God’s love is either sufficient for ultimate ends, or it is not, and I prefer to believe the former.  But this section is probably very much worth reading for someone focused on this particular problem.

The third section of the book talks about sacrifice—not ours, but God’s.  Here Allen does an outstanding job discussing such obscure but critical concepts as the simultaneous and indivisible dual humanity and divinity of Christ, and how the temptations in the wilderness demonstrate the hypostatic union (a term he doesn’t use), for to accept the Devil’s offers would elevate Christ’ divine nature over his human nature, breaking that union.  Most critically, Allen addresses the effect of his own death on Christ, a matter that has always held particular fascination for me.  Put bluntly, while it’s certainly very unpleasant to die by crucifixion, many people die in unpleasant ways, and while God doing it is obviously not the same thing, by itself Christ’s death doesn’t seem as radical as it is often presented in passing.  Painful, sure, and not something I’m going to volunteer for, but if in the next instant you’re at the right hand of the Father, not obviously all that dreadful.  Allen, similar to Hans Urs von Balthasar, theorizes (for there is no accepted single Christian position) that what Christ felt was abandonment, “to be at the farthest distance of all from God.”  Combined with the generative analogy sometimes used for the Trinity, enduring this, being forsaken in this ultimate way (perhaps even when not earlier expecting it, as the Garden of Gethsemane suggests), but still trusting the Father, becomes infinitely more powerful, even we do not understand its actual impact on Jesus or as to why it was necessary.  “In the cross we see most fully the wisdom of God. . . . God takes the consequences of sin and evil into [Himself], displays the effects of sin and evil on the Son, and hopes to win us over by this great love.”

Allen next turns to a discussion that is a little bit less downbeat.  Not that the sacrifice of Jesus is “downbeat,” but it’s not a rollicking topic, any more than the earlier discussion on suffering.  Allen discusses what all this, we hope, gets us—eternal life.  Again, he shows the inadequacy of most casual understandings, such as those of the New Atheists, that “eternal life” means “unending life.”  (Allen often shows by example, although he’s too polite to say so directly, the extremely shallow and stupid reasoning of nearly all modern anti-theists, who never allow their epistemic closure to be shaken by exposure to sophisticated thought.)  He further discusses (here using even more Scripture than usual) matters such as why the Resurrection is, at the very least, highly plausible (relying also on N. T. Wright), as well as the resurrection of the body.  Also here he focuses additionally on a topic he introduces early in the book, the “essential continuity” between the message of Jesus and what Christianity thinks today, noting that once-fashionable claims to the contrary have “failed by the standards of historical-critical scholarship itself.”  Finally, Allen discusses the reinforcing, rather than oppositional, tendencies of revelation and faith, touching on everything from Galileo to Pascal, and he finishes with a complex discussion of the basis of human hope for the future.

There are occasional odd or false notes.  In more than one place, even though this book was published in 2010, Allen adduces “Western democracy and Marxism” as both relevant to modern political thinking, and talks about “Marx’s view of justice” as though the history of Marxism doesn’t make that risible.  In other places, he explicitly endorses the idea that “God continuously generates everything that exists.”  I wouldn’t call that a heresy, but the more typical Christian position is that God created the world, not that he “continuously generates” it.  What Allen describes is rather mainstream, Ash’arite Muslim theology, where all cause and effect are an illusion.  But the most jarring problem is not one of philosophy, but one of locution—throughout the book, multiple times on each page, Allen refuses to use any pronoun for God.  He uses the term “Godself” as the reflexive for God, rather than “his,” and uses “God” where a pronoun would go.  As in “God gives Godself to everyone who hears God’s call and responds; for that is all that God has to give.”  This is clunky, at best.  It destroys the flow of his book.  Moreover, Allen frequently butchers his own phrasing to make this locution possible.  And then, every so often, Allen slips and uses “he” and “his,” further jarring the reader.

As Anthony Esolen has pointed out, in English this type of trendy “gender neutral” usage necessarily sends the “message that God is not personal at all, but a concept, a thing.”  Dropping the pronoun as a matter of course is theologically unsound for precisely this reason.  Using “she,” while theologically just as accurate, since God has no sex, would be even more jarring, because it is artificial and forced, and conveys a political message distracting from the meaning of any sentence in which it is used.  Not to mention that Jesus instructed us to call God “Father” and, of course, Jesus was male, suggesting certain masculine characteristics are emblematic of God.

On the other hand, this book is already a book the reader has to read closely, so maybe this error isn’t fatal.  It certainly doesn’t help.  If the reader struggles through this, though, he will be rewarded with not only not being troubled, but with a substantial increase in his understanding of basic Christian precepts.

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