instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

The problem with problems

Q. You're an Army captain. With you are two men: a sergeant and a private. You are all exactly 6' tall. There is a flag pole 30' tall, and you have one piece of rope, which is 12' long. How do you get a 2'x3.8' flag to the top of the pole?

A. You say, "Sergeant, put this flag at the top of that pole."

I suspect there's at least a touch of positivism in all of us. It's one of the follies of our age.

I think it comes out in the attempt to understand every situation challenging us as a problem to be solved. In fact, not just a problem to be solved, but a problem that can be solved.

The lack of peace in our world, for example, is certainly a situation challenging us. We think of it in terms of problems: "How can we optimize the Israeli-Palestinian sociopolitical situation to minimize the death and destruction?" But...what if lack of world peace isn't really a problem?

Consider poverty. Surely that's a challenging situation that is also a problem. There are even any number of proposed solutions (often involving Party A proposing to give Party B's money to Party C).

And yet we know that the poor will always be with us.

So what to do?

Here's a hint. When the Pope speaks of praying for peace, it's not boilerplate piety sugarcoating practical recommendations. It is the practical recommendation.

That's not to say we can or should do nothing about these situations. Indeed, we should do what we can. But we shouldn't necessarily expect to succeed.

It's also important to recognize that, even if a situation is a problem, it is not necessarily solvable. The lack of any moral solution does not make an immoral solution acceptable.

Christians in particular are apt to mischaracterize a mystery as a problem. God's Revelation is not a code to be deciphered; whatever fits inside my head is finite, and if Revelation is anything, it's not finite. The "depths" of Scriputre is a very apt metaphor; a lake may have a finite surface area, as Scripture has a finite number of words, but that doesn't mean the lake's volume (or the revelation in Scripture) is finite.

So when we speak of "the problem of evil" or "the problem of particularity," we are using "problem" improperly. Evil and particularity are not problems to be solved, they are mysteries to be entered.

There are of course problems in theology, for example, "What does Scripture say about free will?" But the solutions to these problems may well be mysteries, and we need to be prepared to recognize and accept mysteries where they are to be found.

(A failure to accept mystery is, to my mind, one of the primary errors of Open Theism, which seems quite proud of the fact of resolving the "problem" of free will by stripping God of His perfection.)