September 29th, 2016
Born in Dallas, he moved to California in the late 1940s when his father became the dean of Talbot School of Theology in Los Angeles.
He studied English at UCLA, then systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois (where he later became a professor). In time he earned his Ph.D from the University of Chicago.
For his masters thesis in seminary, he chose for his focus the book of Job–and for his dissertation, the topic of evil and suffering, which eventually became a book entitled The Many Faces of Evil.
In both cases the inspiration for his scholarly work was far than pure intellectual interest. His mother had suffered mightily during much of his childhood, contracting one disease after another. Then in 1987 his wife was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, a progressively and irreversibly degenerative disease of the brain that culminates with the loss of most bodily function. Compounding the horror of the diagnosis was the realization that Huntington’s being a genetic disease, the chances of any of their three children contracting it was 50%.
Those immeasurably painful and disquieting experiences set Dr. John Feinberg on a personal journey to offer carefully reasoned insight, from a theological perspective, into the nature of suffering and hope within it.
In a book by various authors on the topic of suffering, Feinberg penned a widely-admired article entitled, “A Journey in Suffering.” He recounts his own experiences with witnessing the pain of those he loves. He also makes a distinction between two kinds of problems we encounter when faced with suffering. Both enlist our resources to resolve them, but each requires very different approaches.
The intellectual problems we have with suffering–what he calls the philosophical–invite a dispassionate inquiry into the nature of things, of God, and of what are His precise promises in our suffering. Whereas the emotional problems attendant to suffering–what he characterizes as the religious dimension–represent a profoundly different conundrum; it is the emotional/religious dimension that is often impenetrable by the intellectual/philosophical answers. As we’ve said before, Anselm’s Ontological Argument for the existence of God is cold comfort to a husband at the bedside of a deteriorating wife.
Credible arguments may be made against the despair our suffering inevitably provokes; Feinberg has made many of them in his various books (the most recent released just last summer). But the soundest rational articulations all possess an inherent limitation against the deeply emotional toll most suffering takes. Feinberg’s meditations and experiences have helped him chart a course for others through pain and suffering. (HT: Mike Wilkerson and Ravi Zacharias for their telling of Feinberg’s story)
This Sunday we begin a new sermon series we’d like to omit, but dare not. We’re calling it “Redeeming Suffering.” We’ll explain what we mean by both words in the introduction Sunday. But as we’ve said previously, while suffering can never be entirely eluded, nor adequately explained, nor even satisfactorily mitigated, it can be redeemed.
Whenever I’m led to consider the nature of suffering and our faithfulness amidst it, I typically turn to an author, philosopher, and theologian you’ve heard me reference on a number of occasions: David Bentley Hart.
His intellect is among the most formidable, his writing an unparalleled blend of profundity and artistry.
He is not without his discernible faults: an intellectual facility as vast as his often reveals itself with a certain pomposity that can be entirely off-putting. Even if it could be shown defnitively his understanding indeed exceeds those thinkers he often takes to task–both from antiquity and more recent scholarship–the Christ of whom he speaks with such ardent and almost inarguable respect would be all the more adorned by a commensurate humility. But we all have our growth areas.
He himself has fallen prey to a deeply afflicting pulmonary condition in the last two years, an experience he speaks at length about in a recent podcast you can listen to here. It’s in those few moments of candor amid a longer conversation about his theological convictions that he offers a kind of wisdom with which we might properly preface a sermon series on suffering: when thinking about suffering it is sometimes more important about what not to say than about what to say. In other words, the well-meaning, well-intentioned, incandescently sympathetic efforts we instinctively take to be a palliative to another’s suffering can nevertheless be one more misadventure in speaking too soon or without adequate qualification (cf. Job 3-30).
As Hart writes in his renowned but slim book The Doors of the Sea, so much of what atheists employ as arguments against belief in a benevolent God during those spasmodic seasons of cataclysm (he wrote his book in the tragic wake of the tsunami in Banda Aceh in 2005) are criticisms of a version of God one does not find in Scripture or tradition, but whose outlines are somewhat attributable to the ways Christians often think and speak of Him.
So while Kevin and I have asked before but we will ask again, and often: for the help we need to speak clearly, candidly, and helpfully about how God is related to our suffering, how we are to think of Him and it in the midst of it, and how we are to be of help to one another whenever the call to bear those burdens arises. As something of a tag-line for our series, then, we let Job speak words that unite both our hope and our lament:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!(Job 19:25-27)