Friday, April 4, 2014

"How Good Do We Have to Be?" by Harold Kushner: A Review

How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and ForgivenessRabbi Harold S. Kushner is probably a name many would recognize.  His most famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People argues that God is good, but not all-powerful. We suffer, not because God is malevalent, but because he is weak. Though his intentions might be well-intentioned, he leaves the reader hopeless and alone. A weaker God is not the God we need when tragedy strikes.

Born out of that premise comes another volume from Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? A New Understanding of Guilt and Forgiveness.  In this book Kushner seeks to offer the reader the assurance that his weaker God doesn't stand over us in judgment for every fault we commit, but rather understands the complexity of what it means to be a human and offers us forgiveness.  Again what Kushner seeks to offer might be pastoral (in one sense) is nothing short of heresy.  Instead comfort, he offers despair.

There are three main problems I wish to highlight. First, Kushner affirms evolution and this create a number of problems in his interpretation of the Bible and theology.  He doesn't see Adam and Eve as historical characters but representative of our modern understanding of homo saphiens: moral animals. Furthermore, he rejects Cain and Abel (and other aspects of the creation narrative) and interprets them as representing nomadic cultures against domestic farming cultures. Also, this influence of evolution seeps in throughout the book as he relies heavily on men and practices like Sigmund Freud, Charles Darwin (arguing that we're moral animals, but still animals), psychology, sociology, etc.  This leads the author away from the biblical text.

Secondly, Kushner has a serious problem with Genesis 3.  He argues that the typical interpretation is depressing and so reinterprets it. Convenient.  The interpretation he offers is rather far-fetched and only makes God look weaker and more like us (thus making us look more like God).

Thirdly, Kushner rejects the doctrine of Original Sin. Regardless of the clear Biblical record, Kushner goes out of his way to reject it. He argues that such a doctrine makes us feel guilty all the time and he has already established that we're good just the way we are and that God believes in us. If only we will accept ourselves. Again, convenient.

I have no idea what this book has to do with forgiveness. Guilt I understand what he is saying, but forgiveness? I am at lost.  The Christian understanding that we should forgive because we have been forgiven only makes sense in a belief of God's holiness, wrath, and love combined with Christ's propitiatory work on the cross which reconciled us with God through belief and repentance.  When we realize that we have been forgiven much, then we can honestly understand the power and scope of forgiveness towards others.

Kushner comes close to this twice.  First, the book begins and ends centered around the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur).  The author, however, misses the significance of this day.  This was the day where atonement is given for the purpose of forgiveness.  Its an ancient ritual of the Jews that goes all the way back to Leviticus and the days of Moses and Aaron.  But Kushner completely misses this point.  Christians see the significance of this ritual in that Christ became the final atoning sacrifice by which our sins can be forgiven.

Secondly, Kushner laments that we are not good enough in a world where we have guilt.  When God is holy, just, judgmental, and powerful, guilt is natural.  We have sinned against God and He reserves the right to punish us.  Kushner is right in pointing out that in such a world, we cannot earn God's love and forgiveness.  He has no idea how close to the gospel he is.  The gospel says we can't, but Christ has.  We can't earn God's love.  As a result, salvation and forgiveness must be the result of grace; God's unmerited favor.

At the end of the day, this book, like his others, is nothing but heresy and instead of offering hope, it offers empty theology.  But at the same time it is a reminder of the power and necessity of the gospel.  If we want true forgiveness then come to the cross and leave modern, man-made theories behind.
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