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Gary Simmons

Wonderful reflections, John! I get what you're saying, but it's coming across with "Psalm 14" written all over it.

I can see in his article the modern assumption that suffering is to be avoided at all costs. Plus, as you mention, his (true) false dichotomy of causation.

What are your thoughts on how calamities impact people's theology? Do some people temporarily adopt a theological fatalism as a defense mechanism against the fear of vulnerability to calamity? Do others (hastily) assume divine judgment in order to assign meaning and thus escape theodicy?

Also, I think the one Haitian was not far from the mark when he said we sinned against the land. If Genesis is a normative story of faith, then this is true. In Genesis 3 we took from the land what was not ours. The next chapter had the perversion of human blood poured onto the earth. To save the earth from the corruption of violence, the flood... etc. And then Noah abuses the fruits of the earth RIGHT after God makes the new covenant with him. If we take the earth as a character in Genesis, then we did indeed mistreat it.


I was particularly annoyed by Wood's last line pitting reality against the God of the narrative. As a theist, and a firm believer in the God of the biblical narrative, I do not see the separation between what I experience as reality and the reality portrayed in the text. I read plenty of destruction, natural devastation and other topics that ignite passionate anger within me toward the God I love.

Anyways, Wood seems to me the perfect example of the New York leftist literati and thus I was intrigued to see his response. He's loosely religious (though an unbeliever), knows something of religion proper from his Presbyterian mother and generic Anglican upbringing. In other words, he's perfect for magazines like the New Yorker when they want a critique of the new atheists that doesn't come from a religious perspective (or when they can't get agnostic/deistic mystics like Robert Wright and Karen Armstrong to join in the conversation).

Although their writings and the responses seem so tired now, and I can't imagine the cultural impact continuing into this decade, Wood's "God in the Quad," tore the New Atheism to shreds. Unfortunately, it also showed a theological ignorance (although it obviously doesn't take theological maturity to dissect the writings he was critiquing). Thus, he exemplifies the leftist American who rejects faith, but needs something to fill the void...but fears actually digging deeply into theology. Naturally, the article received the expected rebuttal from Sam Harris, but surprisingly also from Thomas Long, who wrote in to defend Barth against Wood's interpretation (one should question those who attempt to defend Barth on any position, but I think Long was right in this regard).

This article only confirmed my opinion of Wood from his New Yorker article. He seeks to discuss the theological aspects without engaging theology too deeply. Thus, an article requiring a robust theological foundation ends up critiquing two views unjustly and concluding by forcing the reader to decide between a false dichotomy.


Gary and Ranger,

Thanks for the comments. I sometimes wonder if loosely religious atheists like Wood find it impossible to locate a classical theist in the circles they travel, someone they might carry on a decent conversation with on these matters, or if they avoid classical theists as if they were the plague though they know right where to find them.


You've asked the right question. It's no mistake that the recent n+1 panel on evangelicalism consisted of Wood, Malcolm Gladwell, who is "the son of liberal evangelical mennonites" and Christine Smallwood, who grew actually grew up in evangelicalism, was "saved" at a revival when she was 14 and shortly thereafter rejected evangelicalism (and possibly Christianity although she never really said?). There wasn't a single evangelical on the panel, the moderator was Catholic (I believe) and very few in attendance (from what I heard) would associate with evangelicalism.

Of course (as opposed to forty years ago) just about every major university in the United States has evangelical professors, many chair their departments. They are CEO's of businesses all over, and there are a few booming evangelical churches right in the heart of New York where I'm sure they could have found some interested intellectual evangelicals to discuss the topic with.

I think their circles are just very small and they are amazed to find people outside of them who are just as intelligent with different, dare I say, opposing viewpoints.


Honest-to-goodness Catholics and Orthodox, if they are at all articulate about their beliefs, are apparently not a part of the circles in which people like Wood travel either.

The cocooning reflex is endemic among the literati of a certain cast. Whenever I see this among evangelicals, which is often, I am equally appalled.

James Wood

Thank you for your comments on my piece. You are absolutely right that most of us respond to terrible events by concluding that (1) they are wake-up calls and that (2) it could have happened to me. You are also right to conclude that the idiomatic phrase 'there but for the grace of God go I' is a statement of humility -- I made it quite clear in the piece that this is obviously how President Obama intended it.
What you don't address is why any of these perfectly understandable and humane responses are in any way specifically religious. What does God have to do with it? A God at best inscrutably absent, and at worst non-existent. That is what irritated me about Obama's phrase -- it was dead religion. He was using a secular humility, and a secular notion of luck, but rather lazily invoking God because it 'sounds better'. I wish he had just had the courage of his actual beliefs and simply said: 'Mindful of the fact that it could have happened to us.'
And nothing you wrote adds a single tincture of understanding to this awful tragedy, in a theological sense. However you slice it, theodicy is a lousy game, and best left well alone.
The intellectual quality of your evangelical correspondents is low. When 'Ranger' says that I don't 'engage with theology too deeply' what he of course means is that I don't share his belief in God. It's not quite the same thing...
Best wishes
James Wood



It's nice of you to comment. My first reaction: one man's trash is another man's treasure. A theistic religion provides a wonderfully resonant context in which the perfectly understandable and humane responses referred to can be fleshed out. That's how I see it. I would be in the wrong profession if I thought otherwise.

You might be right that Obama's religiosity is lazy. I prefer to reserve judgment. Other explanations are possible, such as: a sense on his part that the discourse of civil religion requires more often than not a high degree of superficiality.

Note that in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech he deployed Reinhold Niebuhr to reasonable effect (to the horror, perhaps, of his Euroleft audience).

I'm not so sure that one can detach the humane responses referred to *without remainder* from a religious matrix. No one doubts that religion is, historically speaking, their matrix. Sever the phrases from a location in that kind of humus, and they become cut flowers to put in a vase of water, destined to die in a day.

Since I am convinced that the book of Job gets it right, I am opposed to theodicy. The book of Job, as I understand it, is an anti-theodicy. Some relevant posts:

Enjoy. I think you might.


Thanks for the response. I'm sorry that you were clearly insulted by my comments, and I promise to work harder at my "intellectual quality" in the future With that said, I still feel that what I've read of your work shows a lack of deep engagement (entailing a respectful reading and accurate articulation of the work in question), and it has nothing to do with your lack of theistic belief. Thus, my comments about how both theologians and atheologians responded to your piece on the New Atheism (which I praised).

I would have responded sooner, but I got sidetracked by the birth of our third child! I completely agree with your response and also think that evangelicals easily fall into the same trap.



You are going to be gloriously sidetracked for a long time! Our third child, a caboose as they say in this neck of the woods, is a source of great happiness.


Earthquakes happen because Earth is still a cooling planet. It has boiling liquid at its core. It is a "dynamic" Earth, as one scientist put it, that's why tectonic plates move. Earthquakes happen not by the will of some supernatural powers. If you believe that some god is responsible for causing it to happen, then prove it. But if you cannot prove that a "god" exists that controls our destiny, then it is best to keep quiet. As Buddha said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Sir, it seems to me that you have just written a stupid article.



Did you even take the time to read the above post? It would appear not. You are quite off-topic.

For the rest, but perhaps you do not know this, followers of Buddha think they know of all sorts of things. Such as, it's important to feed and wash the Buddha every day.

I don't say this to make fun of Buddhism. I just want to point out how carelessly unconcerned you are with the bigger picture.

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