Holy Week is nearing — can you feel it? I wanted to share a few loosely connected thoughts on the human experience of suffering and evil as we approach those days of awe. In those days we come face to face with the unspeakable vision of evil’s apogee: God’s corpse.
Theodicy of theologians
After I read David Bentley Hart’s remarkable book on the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, my way of thinking about the problem of evil and suffering (aka theodicy) was radically transformed. It’s a book you read, re-read, re-read and then say, “I think I’m getting it now.” Now after the fifth re-read, it’s finally begun to seep into the deeper parts of my thinking. And after that fifth go-through, I decided I would read it again every summer until it’s so deep in my memory that it sinks from my thinking head into my intuitive heart. Why all this fuss over one book? Because I believe Hart offers an exceptionally compelling Christian view/Gospel response the problem of evil and suffering, which St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the chief intellectual obstacle to Christian theism. For me Hart’s book is nearly unrivaled in its honesty and clarity, and in its relentless application of the “word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) to every aspect of existence.
Here’s an example of Hart’s jolting and dense prose:
There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality — in nature or history — is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Theodicy of the poor
I sat and spoke about this book last summer with an older priest who has spent most of his priestly life working with the poorest of the poor. We had both read the book and sat together to discuss it. His insights were challenging/mind-expanding for me, but there was one comment he made that has remained in me ever since. He said,
It’s good to think about these things and use God’s gift of the mind to explore the mystery with language — that’s the gift of theology, right? But not everybody needs to get this to have faith. In my experience with the poor, I found they were far too occupied with day to day survival to reflect like this. How can you when you’re faced daily with children’s sudden death, insufficient food to feed the family, unemployment, abusive injustices. You know, all life throws at you. For these people it’s about faith, an unshakable faith that says behind all the chaos is a God who’s there always; that says saints are all around us walking with us and blessing us; or that God’s heaven awaits those who keep faith. This faith keeps their hope from dying, gives them the will to move on and not resort to violence, crime or succumb to hatred. They don’t speculate, they just kiss their crucifix, light a candle and move on.
Theodicy of Tears
Pope Francis, when he was in the Philippines, drew a huge crowd at Manila’s Catholic university. He came close to tears as he listened to two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned. The pope set aside his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish — which means from the heart — to respond to a 12 year-old who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. She said, “There are many children neglected by their own parents. There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them like drugs or prostitution.” She wanted to know, “Why does God allow this?” Here she is embracing him:
Here was his disarmingly simple reply:
…the heart of your question has no reply. Only when we too can cry about the things you said can we come close to answering that question. Why do children suffer so much? Why do children suffer? When the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something. There is a worldly compassion which is useless. You expressed something like this. It’s a compassion that makes us put our hands in our pockets and give something to the poor. But if Christ had had that kind of compassion he would have greeted a couple of people, given them something, and walked on. But it was only when he was able to cry that he understood something of our lives. Dear young boys and girls, today’s world doesn’t know how to cry. The marginalized people, those left to one side, are crying. Those who are discarded are crying. But we don’t understand much about these people in need. Certain realities of life we only see through eyes cleansed by our tears. I invite each one here to ask yourself: have I learned how to weep? Have I learned how to weep for the marginalized or for a street child who has a drug problem or for an abused child? Unfortunately there are those who cry because they want something else.
This is the first thing I want to say: let us learn how to weep as she has shown us today and let us not forget this lesson. The great question of why so many children suffer, she did this in tears. The response that we can make today is: let us really learn how to weep.
In the Gospel, Jesus cried for his dead friend, he cried in his heart for the family who lost its child, for the poor widow who had to bury her son. He was moved to tears and compassion when he saw the crowds without a pastor. If you don’t learn how to cry, you cannot be a good Christian. This is a challenge. When they posed this question to us, why children suffer, why this or that tragedy occurs in life – our response must be either silence or a word that is born of our tears. Be courageous, don’t be afraid to cry.