"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Theologizing in the Presence of Burning Children

It was, I remember clearly, June 1989 when, as a teenager, I came across the deeply arresting statement of Rabbi Irving Greenberg which I never forgot: "No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children." That statement--originally made in the context of reflecting on the Holocaust--returned to mind this weekend in the wake of the ineffable horrors in Newtown, Connecticut (a scant 30 minutes from where my wife grew up, and her family still live).

Understandably the desire for some kind of explanation is strong, but I think that too many Christians say too much, and usually of highly questionable, if not outright heretical, value when trying to explain what is rightly called the mysterium iniquitatis. One of my earliest theological mentors, Stanley Hauerwas, is right, I think, to call for Christians to resist the urge to somehow rationalize evil as "part of God's will" or something "Providence intends" for some yet-unknown "greater purpose." In his early but still very important book Naming the Silences Hauerwas begins with the death of a child, an act that, more than any other, renders the world almost unintelligible and unbearable as I know from having watched my parents bury two of their children--two of my sisters. Having gone through that, nothing makes me incandescent with rage faster than listening to some pious dolt try to claim that "it's all part of God's plan" or "it's all for the best." God plans for people to suffer cancer and die horrible deaths while still young, leaving three small children under ten without their mother? God somehow had a hand in the massacre of innocents in Connecticut this week where He'll soon perform some kind of conjuring trick to pull "good" from this manifest evil so that we can all be reassured that a classroom of innocent first-graders did not die in vain? God was at work in the Holocaust, or any other evil we can think of? If that's the case then, like Ivan Karamazov, I should straightaway hand in my ticket to the Kingdom of God and have nothing to do with it or Him--for such a God could only be counted as repulsive. Rather than make such claims in the name of such a God, Christians would do well, as Hauerwas counsels, to observe a period of silence in which grief and rage--so prevalent in the Psalms and so unreservedly expressed there--can emerge and be expressed without pious treacle being poured on them in a misguided attempt to offer some kind of metaphysical "help."

The other person who has written intelligibly on evil--that is to say, who has recognized that it cannot be rationalized away, and any attempt to claim it is part of God's plan is monstrous--is the Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, some of whose thoughts may be read here. Hart's longer reflection on what used to be called "theodicy" may be found in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?
In both Hart and Hauerwas, we are reminded of the book of Job, and the fact that Job never gets complete or entirely satisfactory answers to the problem of evil. Job never received "closure," that most fatuous and fraudulent of modern notions. Like the apostles in the garden of Gethsemane hours before evil was visited upon another child, Son of the Father, Innocent of innocents, who was to be bound, tortured, and executed, we must "stay here and watch awhile" before daring, if ever, to open our mouths.

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