The Question

Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?
-Abraham to God
Genesis 18:25

And if the suffering of little children is needed to complete the sum total of suffering required to pay for the truth, I don’t want that truth, and I declare in advance that all the truth in the world is not worth the price!

-Ivan Karamazov
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyoder Dostoevsky

“Where is God now?”
“Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on the gallows…”

Elie Wiesel

Despite tenaciously disturbing voices, it remains a necessary thing, it seems, to speak well of suffering.

As does Paul when he reminds the Romans that “we boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance” (5:3). James follows: “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.” (1:1) Comfort winds assuredly through two millenia of spiritual writing , anchoring us in trust that God would not send us adrift in a chaotic universe, and that when we suffer, there are reasons, every one of them for our own good.

Thomas a Kempis advised the believer to offer thanks “that You have …punished me with bitter pain, inflicted sorrow on me, and sent me troubles of every kind.” Francis de Sales used the example of the dual pain – physical and spiritual – of bearing a face being consumed by cancer: “I hold that we must not only love the disease, which is the duty of patience, but we must also embrace the abjection…”

So our spiritual tradition advises the benefits of suffering : It forms our character. It is just and helpful punishment for sin. It opens us to intimacy with God. The experience of evil sets good in clear relief, the latter all the more appreciated for the contrast. These justifications of the ways of God to men strain us sometimes, but we listen to the wise and decide to trust.

But then a vision appears at the window of the safe house we’ve made, intrusive, stubborn, disturbing. Perhaps it is, as it was for Abraham, the prospect of the destruction of innocents: tornadoes snatching babies from their mothers’ arms or entire villages being swept to mud- mired death by storms with clever names. And we argue with God.

Perhaps we, like Ivan Karamazov, read of a five-year old girl, hideously beaten by her parents, forced to consume excrement, weeping in dark solitude, “begging ‘gentle Jesus’ “ for rescue , to no avail. With Ivan, we rebel - against a God who seems to have violated His own standards.

Or we are flung hard against the certainty of suffering’s role in God’s plan by a child hanging from the Auschwitz gallows, twitching in faint life still because of the lightness of his body against the rope. The rumors of a mighty, compassionate God disappear among oven flames.

Even short of the final extreme response, we might nonetheless stand with the innocent, besieged Job, impatient with the sages’ hollow words calling him to find justice in total loss:

I have heard this sort of thing many times. Wearisome comforters are you all! Is there no end to windy words? …God has given me over to the impious; into the clutches of the wicked he has cast me. I was in peace, but he dislodged me; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces. (16:2-3, 11-12)

We wonder: Are there not less brutal ways of being blessed or taught or shown the beauty of the good, even punished? Surely we are not so thick to require the extremes of moral and physical evil - human skin fashioned into lampshades, the ravages of Tay-Sachs or Alzheimer’s - to get the message?

Asking the big questions about God and His apparently imperfect world is no less necessary than it ever was, for our views and theories, as incomplete as they may be, as to why the all-good, all-powerful One permits evil, determines our stance towards the evil we encounter, in turn. Augustine knew this – he understood that his own embrace of Manicheeism- a heresy which posited a second deity responsible for the presence of evil – had done nothing less than absolve him of responsibility for his own sin.

It is also – this question of theodicy, as it is called - one of the primary condemnations of theism offered by unbelievers. “Western atheism,” writes theologian Rick Watts, “is a protest movement against a God whom it holds responsible for inaction.” Our mission demands we at least try to articulate an answer, for the sake of opening minds closed to the richness of life in God by an apparently impossible contradiction.

In 1999, two of America’s finest writers attempted to grapple with the question of God, evil and suffering. Neither are theologians but both are Christians who bring deeply spiritual sensibilities to their writing, no matter what the form.

Catholic Annie Dillard is revered for meticulously written essays which evoke the transcendent through unstinting close observation of the natural world. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for Pilgrim on Tinker Creek.

One does not find anything as structured as an essay in Dillard’s latest, For the Time Being, a collection of observations, anecdotes and reflections which tease apart the vastness of the universe, the sheer number of transient human lives on the planet past and present, the existence of imperfection and evil, and a God who supposedly has something to do with it all.

Dillard travels the world, picking up pieces of this puzzle and showing them to us: Thousands of ancient terra-cotta statues of once living soldiers unearthed in China. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin contemplating the ages as he digs for ancient bones. Hasidic masters dancing in ecstasy and explaining the God they meet in their visions. Babies in maternity wards, one of billions, yet unique. Infinite varieties of puzzling, seemingly pointless and cruel human deformity, and always hovering , death. Dillard wrestles intensely, and never to her satisfaction, what life could mean, when all life eventually disappears into the dust.

And what of evil? Dillard assesses the modern situation: The “Newtonian God…who sits on his throne frowning and figuring, and..dishes out human fates in the form of cancer or cash..” – is not the God we believe in any longer.

She has a point of course. In his new book, God's Funeral, British writer A.N. Wilson deftly traces the "death" of this God among nineteenth century intellectuals, beginning with Hume's assertion of the impossibility of miracles and the weaknesses of the cosmological arguments for God's existence, through Immanual Kant's immensely influential epistomology which put the perceiver rather than the perceived at the center of knowledge. Add to this the formative systems of Darwin, Marx and Freud which were, literally, godless, and you see why most of us, like Dillard, consciously and unconsciously formed by the post-Enlightenment shrinking of God into a subjective Feeling, might sometimes ask:

“Then what, if anything does he do? If God does not cause everything that happens, does God cause anything that happens? Is God completely out of the loop?”

Dillard finds roots for her answer in Kabbalistic creation myths that in turn made their way into Hasidic thinking. They suggest that God created the world by withdrawing a portion of himself from infinity. In that pocket, we live, seeing occassional glimpses of God who has “left outside himself the domain of necesity, in which he does not intervene. Even in the domain of souls, he intervenes only “under certain conditions.” “

It’s an interesting way of dealing with the issue of omnipotence and evil, but not terribly comforting, despite Dillard’s reminder, tossed almost as an aside that “God suffers the world’s necessities along with us….Christians might add that Christ hangs, as it were, on the cross forever, always incarnate and always nailed.”

Southern novelist Reynolds Price, winner of a 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for Kate Vaiden, and translator of the gospels of Mark and John in Three Gospels (the third is his own reconstruction of the story), takes a different approach than Dillard. It is not the cosmological puzzle that absorbs him in Letter to a Man in the Fire; it is the suffering of one individual.

In 1997, Price received a letter from a young medical student suffering from cancer. The student, had read Price’s account of his own battle with spinal cancer, A Whole New Life, and had a question for the writer: Does God exist and does He care? This small book is an answer to that letter.

Price answers the first question honestly: He believes in God first, because he was taught so by his parents, and secondly because of experiences he’s had that confirm it, including a vivid dream in which Jesus washed the wound from his cancer in the Jordan River, forgave him his sins, and, he believes, healed his cancer.

He rephrases the second question elegantly: “In an unbroken note of the most serious eloquence, from the known beginnings of sacred potry, the cry of humankind has begged to know how the hand that made us has likewise struck us down or has let some other force destroy us.”

Price takes a view directly opposite of Dillard. While she says “God is no more blinding people with glaucoma…than he is pitching tornadoes at towns,” Price, true to his Calvinist background, is perfectly comfortable with God’s absolute freedom to be absent or present, and to do anything He wants:

“I have no reluctance in believing that a just God who chooses to survey the human spectacle will find sources of outrage so flagrant as to warrant his responding with a ferocity that may consume bystanders who are more or less innocent.”

One of the most interesting points of Price’s stance is his sense that our characterization of God as “Father” has little Scriptural grounding except in the words of Jesus (who, he suggests, might have rethought his words as he hung on the cross), produces “unproved familial expectations” that God will always act in accord with our ideals of earthly fatherhood.

In the end, what Price has to say to his correspondent is: trust and hope. It is futile to resist God’s will, and further, whatever happens is good because it is His will:

“Love is the only motive for creation, therefore we must trust that what happens is borne somehow or tolerated or permitted out of love…."

Dillard and Price have both written thought-provoking books well worth reading if one keeps their rather obvious omissions in mind: Original Sin and the Passion of Christ.

Both authors, despite their Christian faith, follow in the flawed footstep of philosophers who have tried to develop a theodicy by forgetting an important point:

This is not the way God created the world to be.

When we try to find ways in which God's existence is consistent with the existence of evil, we turn our backs on that truth. God created a perfect world. The misuse of free will has perverted that world - even, mysteriously, the natural world, if we take Genesis seriously as God's revelation of the way things are. God bursts into this broken world again and again, to invite us to join Him in making it whole once again, culminating in Jesus, who certainly didn't tell people to sit around and learn from their suffering: He stopped it, then and there, restoring creation as surely as people's faith allowed Him to.

John Paul II, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, ties up these loose ends for us when he reminds us of the inadequacy of the philosopher's wordy games that fail to take into account these truths: All we need know about the relation between God, evil and suffering is embodied on the Cross:

"His wisdom and omnipotence are placed, by free choice, at the service of creation. If suffering is present in the history of humanity, one understands why His omnipotence was manifested in the omnipotence of humiliation on the Cross."

In other words, God's solidarity with human suffering goes beyond comforting words in the midst of it to the glorious news of the possibility of salvation from it.

It's not an answer that satisfies our rational minds, as Paul knew when he described the doctrine of the Cross as "sheer folly." But it is an answer that comes closer to explaining the mystery of suffering than words ever can because it is about Presence, which is, incidentally, the place Job's combative cries ultimately lead him. It is well for us to remember, after all, that it is not Job's rationalizing friends who were rewarded by God: It was Job, audaciously demanding that the Presence of God meet him in his suffering.

I knew ofThee then only by report, but now I see thee with my own eyes, Job says in the end, words we can repeat, eyes on Calvary and the God who is willing to suffer.

Originally published in Our Sunday Visitor