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Wright and Ehrman: Dialogue on Faith & Suffering

N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman recently completed a three part on-line exchange on the theme of faith and suffering (cf. In this post, I will briefly summarise the key points of their exchange (while avoiding some of the tantalizing rabbit trails and side points — which you can always go and read for yourselves) and then offer a few of my own thoughts.
Debate Summary
Round One
In his first entry, “How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith”, Ehrman initiates the conversation with some autobiographical comments about his own movement away from faith, and how he gradually progressed from believing in an actively suffering God, to believing that God is not active in the world. It was largely his confrontation with the magnitude and ongoing nature of suffering that led Ehrman to this transition. Thus, he writes: “We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this?”
Ehrman then concludes this by pointing to his recent book, God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, and argues that the biblical authors offer many, sometimes contradictory, and generally unsatisficatory, answers to this question (i.e. we suffer as punishment for sin, as a test of faith, as a result of the influence of evil cosmic powers; suffering is a mystery; suffering is redemptive, etc.). Ehrman emphasizes that, in this book, he is not attempting to “convert” people to his form of agnosticism; rather, he is encouraging people to think.
In his first response, “God's Plan to Rescue Us”, Wright gratefully accepts this encouragement to think, and then presses Ehrman on two general elements found both within God's Problem, and within Ehrman's post.
First of all, Wright questions the rhetoric employed by Ehrman, and wonders if Ehrman is simply engaging in an appeal to emotion. He writes: “I'm not sure what logical or moral (as opposed to rhetorical) force you add to your case by describing in such detail the horrors of the world.”
Secondly, and not surprisingly, Wright takes issue with Ehrman's analysis of the biblical material. He points to three main places where he thinks Ehrman gets things wrong, but the key point — and the one that remains dominant in the rest of the discussion — is that Wright thinks that Ehrman fails to account for the trajectory of the biblical narrative as a whole. In particular, Wright reads Scripture as the story of how God is going about responding to the problem of evil and suffering, and wants Ehrman to do the same.
Round Two
In his second post, “What About the Actual Suffering?”, Ehrman responds to the two central challenges Wright raises.
First of all, he argues that Wright demonstrates an inappropriate and “uniquely post-enlightenment position” by trying to exclude emotions from this debate (it's rather humourous to note that, from here on out, Ehrman and Wright go back and forth on referring to the other person's position as a “post-enlightenment position”!). Thus, Ehrman concludes: “The issue of human suffering is not a logical problem to be solved… It is a human problem that requires empathy, sympathy, emotional involvement, and action.” Consequently, he is “dead set against an approach to suffernig that thinks that human agony is to be seen from the distance of intellectual engagement with the 'issues'”.
Then, turning to the issue of how one reads the biblical material, Ehrman emphasise the diverse voices and perspectives found in Scripture and notes that many of these perspectives are “completely at odds with one another.” Indeed, he finds Wright's synthesis of the biblical material to be rather strange, for, given that Wright knows of the plurality of voices within Scripture, Ehrman is puzzled as to why Wright “act[s], speak[s] and write[s] as if it were otherwise”.
Finally, and most importantly, Ehrman points out that Wright has yet to deal with the problem of suffering. He writes: “You hint at the idea that you have some theological explanation for it all. But you don't indicate what that explanation is. I would like to hear it. My view is that it is impossible to reconcile the pain and misery all about us… if there is a good and all powerful God in charge of the world.”
In his second response, “What it Looks Like When God Runs the World”, Wright finally jumps in on the issue of suffering.
After an initial aside on the topic of the importance of emotions within a debate (while not wanting to reduce the discussion to “cold logic”, Wright fails to see how multiplying examples of the problem adds to the force of the discussion), Wright turns to the public career of Jesus in order to respond to, or, rather, redirect, Ehrman's question about suffering. Wright argues that Jesus' public career was “the inauguration of 'God being in charge of the world' in a new way.” As such, all our expectations about God, and how God should run the world, are challenged for Jesus offers us a “striking redefinition of power” and reveals that “What 'we would want God to do'… seems to be the very thing that Jesus was calling into question.”
Thus, Wright argues that Jesus does not provide us with an answer to Ehrman's question; rather, he provides us with “the matrix of thought and life within which God's people are called to continue to grapple with the problem. A living relationship with God through Jesus transforms the “dark mystery of suffering” so that Christians can continue to have faith in God in the midst of a world shaken by horrible occurences (here Wright points out how the Christians who lived before modern medicine knew more about pain and suffering than most of us — yet their faith was not seriously shaken; thus, he concludes that 'the problem of evil' is largely a “post-Enlightenment construct [I told you they throw this post-Enlightenment thing back and forth at each other!]).
Finally, Wright also argues that the problem of suffering is one which requires an active response, and he argues that the life of the church should be the Christian response to evil today.
Round Three
In his final post, “God's Kingdom Has Not Come”, Ehrman continues to challenge Wright on the question of emotions, and on his reading of Scripture.
Beginning with “that ole emotion issue”, Ehrman argues that multiplying examples does add to the force of his argument. He writes: “My view is that numbers matter because people matter. They all matter and they are all that matter. If the Nazis had killed only one Jew, we would not be having this conversation (we probably should be, but we wouldn't be). They killed six million. Each is an example, and multiple examples matter, logicians (please, one might add) be damned.”
Then, turning to the biblical vview of suffering, Ehrman argues that Wright's summary “overlook[s] virtually everything the Bible actually says about the subject.” He then spends some time detailing some of the various views held by Scripture arguing that the dominant view is that suffering is the result of God actively punishing us for sinning, while also pointing to contradictory positions (like Job's view that there is no answer for suffering because “God is almight and not accountable to us peons”, and Ecclesiastes view that life is short, there is often no justice, things go wrong, and there is no afterlife to sort things out). Thus, he asks Wright, “how can you leave out of the equation most of what the Bible actually says about the subject?”
Secondly, and in the same way, Ehrman argues that Wright's overarching synthesis of the Gospel (and Pauline) message is one that “undercuts what each individual author actually has to say.” Ehrman continues to stress difference, and contradiction, over against Wright's emphasis upon unity and continuity, and wonders if Wright has simply created another arbitrary “canon within the canon.”
Furthermore, Ehrman challenges Wright's understanding of the inauguration of the kingdom, and argues that the imminence of the kingdom is central to the Gospels' understanding of the kingdom of God. However, “The kingdom never did come… The view that the kingdom is already beginning to be manifest in the life and ministry of Jesus hinges on its actual appearance in the (imminent) days to come. If that actual appearance is jettisoned, everything is changed.” Jesus, Ehrman argues, was talking about God breaking in now, but nothing has really changed, and the world goes on as it always has.
In his final response, “The Bible Does Answer the Problem–Here's How”, Wright continues to press these same points.
First, on the issue of rhetoric and emotion, Wright wonders if Ehrman's book wasn not “making a case” but rather “expressing an emotion.” Thus, he wonders about the relationship between the rhetoric Ehrman uses, and the “actual substance” of the case he is making.
Turning, then, to the “more substantial” issue of the biblical view of suffering, Wright finally realizes that he and Ehrman have been talking about two rather different things: Ehrman, Wright argues, wants to know why suffering happens, but Scripture, Wright argues, doesn't ask this question. Rather, Scripture assumes suffering and asks “what is God doing about it and/or with it”. Thus, turing to his overarching narrative framework (which Wright argues is not a “canon within the canon” but rather “the narrative offered by the canon itself!”), Wright argues that Scripture tells us that God began to address the issue of suffering by calling Abraham, and continued to address that issue through Abraham's descendants, through Christ, and, now, through the Church.
Wright then challenges Ehrman's kingdom theology, and argues that the resurrection (which Ehrman rejects) was actually seens as that which inaugurated the kingdom of God. Thus, following a resurrected Lord, the early Christians continue to challenge evil and suffering, by continuing Jesus' kingdom work: “Things did change. The early Christian did make a difference.” Indeed, Wright asserts that Christians must continue to actively work in this way (interestingly enough, Wright states that it was this line of thought that led him to leave the academy in order to try to energise the church to work more in this way).
Next, although Wright is glad that he and Ehrman want to stress the idea that people — Christians or otherwise — should be actively responding to evil and suffering, Wright concludes by questioning the reason why Ehrman thinks this way. Basically, he argues that, without faith in a good God, we have no real reason to pursue justice and mercy (nor he argues, can deeply rooted impulse to do justice and mercy be explained without the existence of a good God).
Finally, I should note that, although Wright does spend some time responding to the issue of plurality that Ehrman sees in Scripture (he challenges Ehrman's understanding of what the prophets are saying, as well as Ehrman's interpretation of Ecclesiastes), he mostly doesn't respond to the point that Ehrman presses. Ehrman had concluded his final post by arguing that Scripture has many, sometimes contradictory, mostly unsastisfactory, views on this subject, and Wright mostly neglects this point. One is almost left with the impression that Wright denies the suggestion that Scripture contains a plurality of voices.
To be honest (and to my own surprise), I found Ehrman to be the more compelling of the two in this discussion. While I agree that Ehrman and Wright were talking at cross-purposes for much of the discussion, Wright never goes on to address Ehrman's question. That is to say, even if the bible never adequately addresses the question of why we suffer, because it is focused on a response to suffering, the question of why we suffer should still be seen as a valid (albeit extra-biblical?) question. While I grant Wright the point about the focus of the biblical narrative, I wish that he had recognised that Ehrman, and others, will continue to ask this why question anyway.
Furthermore, I thought that Ehrman was right to “multiply examples” and I felt that Wright's argument, despite Wright's assertions to the contrary, was one that failed to account for the perspectives that come from the lived experience of suffering. Ehrman seems to experience suffering as a trauma, whereas Wright seems to experience suffering as a “dark mystery”. I think that Ehrman multiplies examples because he thinks we should also be traumatised by suffering, and Wright seems to fail to see why suffering should be seen as traumatic. “Okay, I get it,” he seems to say. “People suffer. No need to go on about it in so much detail.” To which Ehrman seems to respond, “If that's what you think, then you really don't get it at all.” On this point, I'm with Ehrman. In my opinion suffering is the great challenge to faith; it should traumatise us, and it should jeopardize the things we hold dear. This place of trauma — i.e. this place where our world is fundamentally disoriented and made unrecognisable — should be where we start (but, thankfully, it is not where we end, and it is here where I diverge from Ehrman). Now whether or not Wright has struggled with suffering to this degree, and has since developed on from that place, is hard to say, since he really refuses to engage suffering from this perspective (which, when coupled with what Wright actually says, leads me to suspect that Wright has never struggled with suffering at this depth).
Of course, there is more to be said about the way in which an active relationship with God through Jesus Christ transforms how we understand the “dark mystery” of suffering, but Wright never really develops this thought in much detail. This is really too bad because the way in which we relate to that “mystery” varies a great deal depending on whether or not we have encountered suffering as trauma. If we have not been traumatised by suffering, then the mystery thereof is sort of like a regretable, mind-bending riddle; if we have been traumatised by suffering, then the mystery thereof is something deeper, something aw(e)ful, something that throbs. Thus, in response to Ehrman's question, “Why do we suffer?”, I wish Wright had responded, “I don't know. But I continue to believe in God, and here's why…”. Of course, I don't believe that others will find the “here's why…” to be compelling, because I think that the only reason why we continue to believe in God, when confronted with the magnitude of suffering, is because we have met God. The reason why I find faith to be compelling is because God has chosen to come out to meet me, and I suspect that the only reason why a person like Ehrman would believe in God would be because God comes out to meet him as well. Now I can't help but wonder if Wright, in his efforts to engage in a substantial and reasonable dialogue, deliberately avoids this track, and where it leads, because it seems entirely too subjective and experiential.
Furthermore, sometimes our most powerful witness to faith in God in a suffering world, is found in silence. Remember Job's friends? They only truly exhibited their wisdom when they they first met Job and sat and mourned silently with him for seven days and seven nights (cf. Job 2.11-13). They became fools, and only deepened Job's sufferings, when they began to defend God. We would do well to learn from their example. We demonstrate our faith in God, not by answering the cry of forsakenness raised by those who suffer, but by sharing in their cry and refusing to stop crying until God answers.
And so, you see, Ehrman's form of agnosticism is a faith that I respect (and even admire) a great deal. Essentially, he appears to be a 'protest agnostic' — an 'agnostic for God's sake.' This, I think, is the same faith that Camus held, and portrayed so powerfully in The Plague. Furthermore, just like Tarrou in The Plague, Ehrman sees no reason why agnosticism should lead him away from a life of loving service for others. Thus, I was a little disappointed to see Wright trotting out the tired old argument that agnostics have no grounds for living sacrificial lives. Obviously a good many agnostics have lived sacrifical lives of love, so Christians should give up on saying, “Hey, you have no reason to do that!” For the agnostic simply responds, “What do you mean? I need some deeper justification to love others? Good Lord, I'm terrified to think of how you would act if you didn't believe in God!”
Were it not for my own encounters with God, I believe that this for of agnosticism would be the position that I would take. I'm not sure if Wright would concede this point. He seems to think that there is more to be said for an objective apologetics (although he does stress the significance of a relationship with God for our exploration of these things, so, as I said, I'm not sure what Wright would concede, or why he approaches the issue the way he does).
As for the hermeneutical points that both Wright and Ehrman were trying to make, there isn't a lot that one can say in response. Due to the limitations of the chosen form of dialogue (something both Wright and Ehrman lament), the hermeneutical debate doesn't progress much beyond making assertions (Ehrman: “It doesn't fit together; biblical authors contradict each other”; Wright: “It does fit together, and your contradictions are more apparent than actual”). However, Ehrman does (implicitly) raise a good question: “What are the criteria that we use to understand the way(s) in which the various elements of Scripture relate to one another?” Indeed, Ehrman implies that there really are no good criteria for relating the various elements of Scripture to one another in any sort of coherent “synthesizing” manner. Unfortunately, while Wright presents an attractive synthesis (and one that I, personally, find compelling), he never explains the reason why his synthesis is justified. Here, I think, we are at a confessional impasse. I suspect that Wright believes that Scripture can be synthesised because God was at work in the process of producing Scripture, and offering us Scripture as a life-guiding narrative, whereas Ehrman, as an agnostic, sees no good criteria for tying together such an eclectic collection of ancient manuscripts. Apart from faith in Scripture as a witness to the revelation of God, I can't think of a reason why one should try to synthesize Scripture, and it is quite possible that, apart from this faith, one would be unable to see why certain passages are more central to the ongoing narrative than others.
Of course, at this point we arrive at an hermeneutical issue that is an ongoing contraversy within intra-Christian dialogue. That is to say, although I find Wright's metanarrative to be compelling, there are many other Christians who see it as flawed, and so they argue that the texts Wright chooses to highlight, as excellent “short-hand” illustrations of the broader story, are either misinterpreted or are poor choices. Ultimately, I don't think that this issue can be objectively resolved. At the end of the day, I think that all of us are (more or less) open to the criticism of having arbitrarily selected what passages we highlight, what passages we reject, and what coherence we find in Scripture (of course, the “more or less” is an important proviso here!).
So, in conclusion, let me say that I enjoyed the thinking stimulated by this discussion and, although I believe that Wright wins the point concerning what Scripture says and does not say, I believe that Ehrman wins the point concerning our own existential confrontation with suffering. Wright, I believe, is the better exegete, but, in my opinion, Ehrman appears to have more honestly and openly confronted the pain of the world in which he finds himself. Thus, I return to a point I made about Wright in my reviews of two of his recent books (cf. Although I am inspired by his move from the academia to the Church (in order to encourage the Church to be an agent of new creation within the broken places of the world), I cannot help but wonder if his efforts in this regard are stifled by his rootedness in places of privilege and power (not to say that such places necessarily stifle our efforts or our understanding — Ehrman, after all, is comfortably situated at UNC — but I suspect that they go a long way to stifling the efforts of many).

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  1. Fine job of summarizing, and i liked your insights afterwards. I do have a few questions tho. i’m curious re: if Ehrman’s responded to the transcendental arguments that Wright brought up. I think such reasoning is just as annoying as the next guy. but even so, the questions are legit and deserved an answer. Erhman resorted to a similar line of thinking the second he asked Wright about what should be the standard guiding principle that unites the plurality in scripture.

  2. Great reflections. My response: Not that Ehrman is the best exegete, but at least within this debate, he nailed Wright to the wall exegetically. Wright isn’t that great an exegete anyway. He’s great at creating narratives and slotting texts coherently into the narratives of his creation, but the texts that don’t fit in get pretty screwed over, exegetically speaking.
    I agree with your assessments of the debate, except for the one about Wright’s synthesis being more compelling. I mean, it may be compelling aesthetically, but it doesn’t work if you’re going to read the text like an historian–a category Wright tends to make conveniently fuzzy.


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