Book Review: D.B. Hart, The Doors of the Sea

David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005. 108pp. Hardcover, $11.20 (Amazon).

David Bentley Hart’s theological treatment of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 is an odd choice for an inaugural book review for this blog. This selection is not odd because the book is quite short, which, at merely 108 generously-margined pages, it is; nor is it odd because Pentecostal theologians have all-too-rarely interacted with those from Orthodoxy, though there are happy exceptions to this narrowness of vision.

No, The Doors of the Sea is an odd book for me to review for a far less sexy reason: The Doors of the Sea is a theodicy, a book which tries to answer the problem of evil. While theodicies tend to be hip reading in theological circles, I must confess to the readers of our little corner of the interwebs that I’ve never been much for the genre; my approach to the problem has generally been rather minimalist: “God wins.”

However, I quickly found that I had a friend in Hart in at least one regard: he also has little time for traditional theodicies, writing that

“A sound ‘natural theology’ is by definition sober and (ideally) mildly depressing: since it cannot assert anything more about the world than that it possesses a marvelous complexity of design, nor anything more about God than that he is an immersurably wise and powerful engineer, it has far more room in its arguments for the economy of life and death (in all its brutality) than it has for “paradise.” In fact, the principal task of theodicy is to explain why paradise is not a logical possibility. The Christian vision of the world, however, is not some rational deduction from empirical experience, but it is a moral and spiritual apittude – or, rather, a moral and spiritual labor. The Christian eyes see (or should see) a deeper truth in the world than mere “nature”, and it is a truth that gives rise not to optimism but to joy (pp. 57-58).

For Hart, it is this joy which is ultimately the answer to the problem of evil. For the Christian recognizes that there is not always an explanation for each instance of suffering, and, as Ivan Karamazov recognized, this is a far better state of affairs than if there were actually an explanation for each incidence of evil.

I’m inclined to agree with Hart on this, and with his corresponding dismissal of the neo-Calvinist response to the problem of evil (proponents of which attacked Hart in the days following the publication of the Wall Street Journal column that later grew into this book). But despite my sympathy to this position, some problems persist. Of particular note is Hart’s dismissal of the idea of divine passibility, which Hart dispenses with as being foreign to patristic logic. I’m not convinced that Hart either fairly engages his opposition (chiefly Juergen Moltmann) on this point or shows why his position is ultimately more compelling than Moltmann’s picture of God as “fellow sufferer who understands.” I’m inclined to agree with the merits of Hart’s position (mostly because I think that many modern theologians don’t give the Tradition enough credit) but to say that he’s fair here would be a stretch.

That major criticism aside, though, The Doors of the Sea is a provocative and poetic answer to the problem of evil which is worthy of thoughtful engagement and reflection.

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