The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

against calvinism

One of Roger Olson’s main problems with Calvinism is the difficulty it presents when wrestling with the problem of evil. Along with several other arguments on the matter, he invokes what we might call the “Objection from Cretinous Comfort” leveled by David Bentley Hart:

In The Doors of the Sea theologian Hart tells of a large Sri Lankan man of enormous physical strength whose five children were killed by the Asian tsunami of 2004. The man was featured in an article in the New York Times. He was unable to prevent his children from perishing and, as he recounted his futile attempts, he was “utterly overwhelmed by his own weeping.” Then Hart writes: “Only a moral cretin … 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.” Of course, most Calvinists would advise their followers not to say such things in such moments to such people. However, Hart reflects that “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.” (Against Calvinism, 90)

Now, initially Hart’s rule seems like a plausible stricture on theological speech. In the long run, our theology is measured by the cross of Christ and so it ought to be able to withstand the fires of suffering, adversity, and trauma in a sin-stained world. Nevertheless, if Hart’s test of theological truth proves anything, it seems to prove too much.

Consider our grieving father. I imagine only a moral cretin would look at him and begin to console him by saying, “Yes, your grief is real, but we also ought to reflect on the glorious reality that at the heart of the universe is the God whose life is the Father eternally generating the Son, and along with the Son, spirating the Spirit.” I mean, it’s true. And in a deep sense, it is a beautiful truth that can eventually bring comfort about the course of history. But I think it would require a particularly gracious, supernatural work of illumination by the Holy Spirit to make it seem like anything more than an insensitive abstraction, utterly irrelevant to the man’s grief at the moment.

To put a finer point on it, it would be equally morally cretinous and shamefully cruel to say to that same father, “Well, sadly, that’s life in a world with the libertarian free will requisite for moral responsibility. And if God were to regularly and unpredictably intervene to prevent such utterly meaningless tragedies, well that wouldn’t work. See, for humans to make rational choices, they depend on the course of the world operating according to law-like regularities such as gravitational force, wind speeds, storm pressures, and so forth, which create the sorts of Tsunamis which just killed your children. But, you know, libertarian free will is worth it in the long run.” If you said that, I’d be surprised if the father didn’t slap you.

All the same, the cretinous nature of the comment in the moment doesn’t for a moment determine the truth of the matter one way or the other. Or rather, the reason it seems obviously cretinous to utter such a statement is not because of it is wrong, but because it is not the sort of speech that is appropriate to the moment. The matter is folly not falsehood.

Of course, Olson or Hart may object that nobody would state the position like that. Or at least, it need not be stated like that. To which the obvious reply is that neither does the advocate of a Calvinist or Augustinian account of providence need to state things as crudely, insensitively, or baldly as they have suggested they might.

Now, this little riposte doesn’t settle the broader issue. Still, I think it at least shows some of the problem with Hart’s sentimental “objection from cretinous comfort.” Just about any position stated baldly and unflinchingly can seem trite in the face of catastrophe. It is not a problem that only Calvinists must face, but one which ought give us all pause as we contemplate the weighty task of comforting the grieving amidst the tragedies of this life.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. For a lengthy engagement on the issue of free will and permission, see Guillaume Bignon’s new volume.

I have a longish post on providence, evil, and the will of God here.

Finally, a post on the various doctrines we have at our disposal when trying to comfort the grieving.

Addendum: It may be objected (and has been) that I have mistaken Hart’s (and Olson’s) point. Hart has a strong, material point about the theology being always and everywhere repugnant. And I know that. My response is simply that the rhetorical and intuitive force of this passage is derived from our sense at how out of place it sounds in a moment of grief, and that this same sort of intuitive force can be used against other positions.

Additionally, I suppose I’ll simply reaffirm what I’ve said elsewhere: at some level, these intuitive appeals are often a matter of incommensurate, aesthetic judgments we already have. You either think it’s plausible God might have some reasons for doing things you couldn’t possibly fathom, or you don’t. Or rather, you may believe that he does, but you either see it covering the problem of evil, or you don’t.

That’s not to slide into relativism. I think Scripture, reason, tradition, and so forth have their role in theological argument. I switched from holding something like Hart and Olson’s position to holding the one I do now for reasons. Still, that subjective dimension is always there. And it is wise to acknowledge it in yourself (for humility’s sake) as well as your theological interlocutors (for patience’s sake).

18 thoughts on “The Comfort of a Moral Cretin

  1. Hi Derek,

    I believe you miss the point of Dr. Olson’s comment. He’s not trying to give a lesson on appropriate pastoral comfort in a tragedy, but he is hitting at the theology of divine determinism and how it would be impossible to honestly and genuinely offer God’s comfort in any sort of truthful way to the grieving father if one is a divine determinist. You certainly can’t say the God of Heaven wants to comfort you now but He in His providence took all your children. And if you don’t say that, then one is being disingenuous. Whereas a person who holds some sort of theology allowing for the free will of man to be responsible for the fall, he can honestly say “God is not the author of such tragedy. We live in a fallen world. But God has done something about it. His name is Jesus.” One can say this and be thoroughly genuine without going into theological reasons on why God allowed the fall. The difference is huge. And far more honest.

    • Job’s reply, when faced with the loss of his wealth and children and his good health, seemed to verge on ‘determinism’. Whereas he could have grieved “This is the tragedy of a world with free will”, he simply said “God gives and God takes.”

      To a person who is grieving, once we have provided comfort and loving care and a listening ear, either theological position might provide comfort.

      • Hi Abhilash – Job’s faith is admirable, yet I don’t think it is near determinism. Job’s arguments were that he didn’t deserve it. If he believed in true determinism such argumentation would be superfluous. He certainly didn’t understand what was happening, which is a sovereignty factor, but his faith statement I don’t think represents a total determinism. I believe both sovereignty and free will are necessary to understand God’s world.

    • Randystarky,

      I think your mistake in your post is equating Calvinist doctrines of God’s Sovereignty with some wooden form of determinism and also of implying that Calvinists reject any notion of free will. Neither could be further from the truth.
      Grace and peace.

      • As you can see from my comment I am critical of some strains of Calvinism but it’s improper to say “true” Calvinism holds to double predestination. There is single predestination as well as distinctions between infra- and supralapsarianism to be reckoned with if you’re going to charitably discuss the taxonomies of Calvinist thought. Furthermore, those Calvinist divines who most self-consciously upheld Thomist principles steer clear of determinism. It seems like the more nominalist one becomes the closer they move towards pure determinism.

      • Randystarky,

        That doesn’t necessarily result in the wooden determinism you seem to suggest. What I mean is, just because has decreed (determined) all things that come to pass, they are accomplished thru the secondary means of creatures with free will. When most people hear determinism, their first thought is that if everything is set in stone then there’s no point in any of it and they will do whatever they want. The tendency is to blame God. Just clarifying that in the event that’s the impression of Reformed theology you have.

        Back to the article. I actually find it comforting to hear God preordained the loss of something like that. It’s a reminder for me that God is just and holy and is truly working all things together my good and his glory. I’ve heard of countless others being comforted by those truths as well in spite of immense suffering. That’s not to say people can’t be totally presenting that truth, even to fellow believers in the Reformed tradition. Ultimately I think that Olson’s critique falls flat under scrutiny and it really comes down to an issue of wisdom and compassion on when/how to lovingly speak truth in those circumstances.

      • Hi Anthony,

        OK. We are in the classic Calvinism – Arminian divide, and that’s OK 😎. My main argument with God accomplishing determinate things through man’s free will is that really is not free will. It’s just determinism under a sematical guise as the person cannot actually act otherwise. I find zero comfort in that. It’s ultimately robotic. Now if you were to say foreknowledge I would be with you. And of.course God’s sovereignty can act at any moment. I find great comfort in that.

  2. Not to be a cretin myself (as I’m in the Reformed house-boat), but I think Olson’s critique has purchase at least insofar as our Puritan inheritance correlates with poor pastoral theology. You don’t really hear about Arminians comforting grieving parents with, “Well, that’s the nature of a universe with libertarian free will, innit?” But the caricature of Calvinism is regularly heard from pop-Calvinists to hurting people as the go-to consolation. I understand that’s verging on the anecdotal, but we all know there are entirely too many insensitive Calvinists ready to air-brush every terrible thing into the actually-good-thing God has directly done.

    I know Muller has demonstrated that the Reformed scholastics by and large didn’t buy into monocausalism, but a vast swathe of New Calvinists do because (don’t know how else to put it) Jonathan Edwards is their homeboy. We in the US aren’t directly influenced by Turretin and Mastricht and co.- our context is shaped by Banner of Truth reprints of preachers who glibly told congregations that their dead children were killed by God because they were too attached to their little ones. So I’m not sure the problem is with the bald, unflinching presentation of certain doctrines so much as there simply are versions of doctrines that genuinely are monocausal and therefore cannot avoid the dilemma of God as author of evil and clamp down on that hook. To be clear, I do not believe that that typifies all Reformed thought (I know I said that before, but I’m trying to show I’m not sniping from the other team). And yes, I think the popularization of the Puritans has something to do with that problem.

    Two cents that I hope isn’t taken wrongly.

    • Oh, I think you’re right that there is a lot of bad counsel out there, and much of it can come from this camp. No doubt. I have tried to push on that a bit myself in other posts.

      That said, the “anecdotal” caveat is important. I have heard plenty of bad counsel coming from Arminianish pastors who reject connecting any suffering with God’s will, and so they have to reach about for all sorts of other causes including the demonic, sin, the judgment of God, lack of faith, etc. And, let’s not underestimate the foolishness of young, free-will apologists.

      So, insofar as the point is a corrective warning? Sure. But I think it is meant as more than that.

      • You absolutely have pushed on that and I’m very grateful for it. And you’re certainly right that Olson intends far more than simply a course correction and I’m not sure his heading would get us out of the shoals either. Thanks for your response, Derek. May we all ballast our pastoral care with proper confidence and proper modesty both.

  3. Derek – to be sure, humility and patience are needed! 🙂 My apologies if I hit it a bit hard. I do think the quote and passage in question is more than intuitive force, but, at least for me, it’s a strong theological conviction that God does not foreordain and divinely determine all such events: that conviction being firstly in a hard core biblical fashion, and then beyond as well. That being said, regardless of one’s convictions, I believe approaching all discussions across the wider Body of Christ with humility and patience is always the best way. I just don’t do always do that perfectly :-).

  4. Pingback: Snippets from the interweb (18th March 2018) – Building Jerusalem
  5. Pingback: When A Theologian Goes Rogue: David Bentley Hart’s Universalism | Veracity
  6. Pingback: Why Wishful Thinking Can Make Us Blind to the Truth | Veracity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s