Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Adventures in theodicy: the phenomenon we call life

When arise we all awaken to news. I am always more than a little surprised to find each day that the world continues to turn when I am asleep, even though as I get older sleep does not come as easily as it used to. The news I am fixated on this morning is that Haiti was hit by an aftershock that registered 6.1 on the Richter scale, a fair earthquake in its own right. This fact tells us something important about this natural disaster and others like it; we call them natural disasters because they happen as the result of forces that are beyond our power manipulate. Haiti's earthquakes and the Asian tsunami of five years ago are attributable to plate tectonics, the shifting and moving that happens below the earth. Port au Prince sits on a fault line that extends all the way across the Caribbean to Central America. It seems a strange irony that the same geo-phyiscal dynamics that so devastated Haiti's capital also made the island of Hispañola, which the Dominican Republic and Haiti share.

Since the Haitian earthquake, I am even more conscious that my house, the very place I sit typing, is situated very near, nearer than I care to contemplate, to the Wasatch fault line, which runs north-to-south along the foothills of the Wasatch mountains, part of the chain of the great Rocky Mountains. This makes me realize that in important ways my life is not as secure as I often delude myself into thinking it is. My situation is only slightly less precarious than that of the Haitian people. I am firmly convinced that true solidarity with the people of Haiti can only arise from this awareness.

So, in a very real sense, to quote words from an old Howard Jones song, no one is to blame (i.e., "You can look at the menu, but you just can't eat/You can feel the cushion, but you can't have a seat/You can dip your foot in the pool, but you can't have a swim/You can feel the punishment, but you can't commit the sin"). Even at our most irrational we do not blame that damn old tectonic plate, at least not for more than a few seconds. As Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete surmises in his post over on America magazine's In All Things blog, whether we are people of faith or of no faith "our humanity demands that the question 'why' not be suppressed, but that it be allowed to guide our response to everything that happens. This is the only way to a possible redemption of our humanity." Indeed, why?, is the most human of all responses. It shows that as human beings we do not just seek or demand meaning, we need it, we must make sense of things. A detailed explanation of plate tectonics and geo-physical facts that contributed to the earthquake, or the tsunami in Asia do not satisfy us. So, we turn to God. This turn usually causes us to look up, to the great god in the sky, but the God of Israel is not the great sky god who manipulates the world as a puppet master. Neither is God the god of deism, who constructs the watch and lets the laws of thermodynamics run the course.

The fact that matters more that those of geo-physics, as Msgr. Albacete points out, is the Incarnation of God. Along with Lorenzo, "I cannot worship a God who demands that I tear out from my heart and my mind the question of why the suffering of the innocent happens". Hence, "I do not want an explanation for why this God allows these tragedies to happen. An explanation would reduce the pain and suffering to an inability to understand, a failure of intelligence so to speak. I can only accept a God who 'co-suffers' with me." Jesus Christ is the One in whom I place my faith. His living as a marginal peasant, His suffering and death are how I make sense of these things. More than those events, His resurrection, which, along with what we know about geo-physics, is also a fact in the world. It is the fact that gives me hope, which is not a kind of vague longing for everything to work out alright in the end, but a fact that gives me certainty that in Him and through Him the victory is always already mine! This, dear friends is the Christian faith. St. Paul shows this when he writes: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

'For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us"
(Rom. 8:35-37).

Typically, because we want everything to be alright without passing through (often painful) experience, we leap right from verse 35a to verse 37, from which we even pass over the word "No", thus deliberately avoiding "tribulation," "distress,"
"persecution," "famine," "nakedness," "danger," "sword," "being killed all the day long," being "regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."

Why is it this way? Does it have to be this way? Why did the Father choose to reconcile the world by sending His only begotten Son to suffer a cruel and unjust death and to be expiation? Why did God tell Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, which, oddly, means "laughter," and offer him as a sacrifice? Kierkegaard didn't get it and, frankly, neither do I, really. When I ask "Why?" in such situations the words of Rich Mullins' song Hard to Get start playing in my mind, not the polished version recorded by the Ragamuffins, but the scratchy recording featuring Rich, his guitar, and an old tape player, recorded just before his own untimely death:

"And I know you bore our sorrows/And I know you feel our pain/And I know it would not hurt any less/Even if it could be explained/And I know that I am only lashing out/At the One who loves me most/And after I figured this, somehow/All I really need to know/Is if You who live in eternity/Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time/We can't see what's ahead/And we can not get free of what we've left behind."

It also reminds me What Job teaches us.


  1. Very moving to me, Scott. I'm also reminded of the science exhibit at the New York Encounter -- without plate tectonics there could be no life on earth, particularly not human life.

  2. Exactly! These are the kind of connections we have to make. Too often, we short circuit reason