THE VOICE OF REASON
Theodicy

DOES GOD CARE ABOUT OKLAHOMA? 

The EF-5 twister that ravaged the town of Moore, Oklahoma a few days ago possessed more deadly force than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  So say meteorologists. This comparison drives home the terrible magnitude of the event suffered by residents of this breadbasket community.  It was years ago that I read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, but its numbingly graphic descriptions of horror remain with me to this day.  The loss and devastation occasioned by an atomic bomb blast or a monster tornado are both so terrifying and staggering as nearly to defy characterization. Homes and businesses razed to the ground in minutes, an incomprehensible and untold degree of human suffering, and the grievous loss of life are what this spinning beast left in its wake. I confess that I can’t begin to imagine the sorrow of taking one’s child to school, kissing him or her good-bye for the day, and then subsequently discovering in the blink of an eye that the child is gone, never again to take another breath on this earth.

As we ponder the horror of this calamity, one question is sure to arise.  It's one that will be stridently asked by some and privately, even silently, pondered by others in their hearts, perhaps in the empty darkness of a dead child’s bedroom – “How can an omnipotent but loving God allow such evil to occur?” It is a question that has perplexed Christian theologians for centuries.  There are no easy answers.

In another life I was a pastor.  I remember a father losing his little boy in a fire and, thereafter, the church losing the father.  With symbolism not wasted on anyone, this heart-broken man burned every Bible in his home.  Another incident, close and personal, occurred when my own sister died. I recall returning home a year later and observing that my mother had never turned the calendars from that tragic month and year.  It was as if time was standing still for her as she grieved the loss of her 24 year-old daughter. A bomb was dropped upon her heart and upon her faith too I might add.  Sometimes the indignation buried within her would surface when someone spoke of the efficacy of prayer.  “Don’t speak to me about prayer!” she once huffed. Many of you have probably had similar experiences.

Reconciling the fact of evil with an all-loving and all-powerful God is not simply an issue for the man or woman in the church pew, but also for philosophers, theologians, and literati.  Rabbi Richard Rubenstein became convinced, when considering the atrocities of the Holocaust that such a Deity is no longer a credible idea.  As Elie Wiesel puts it, “God died in Auschwitz.”  Professor Bart D. Ehrman, who was reared in a strict Presbyterian home, went on to study theology at Princeton University, and now teaches religious studies on the university level, became a devout skeptic because of this apparent contradiction that lies at the core of Christian doctrine. Professor Ehrman would be the first to ask, “Where was God when the tornado swept through Moore, Oklahoma?” 

The problem posed by evil, called the "theodicy" issue by theologians, is far from illusory. Consider the matter by way of an analogy.  You as a loving parent, let's say, are walking down a busy thoroughfare, hand-in-hand with your two-year old child.  Suddenly the child slips from your grasp and runs into the street.  A bus is half a block away, but roaring toward the little one. You are in the position to save your child’s life, but instead you intentionally decide to do nothing, and the child is killed. Question: Are you still a loving parent?  Who would dare answer this affirmatively?  I certainly would not. I would say that any parent who acts in this manner should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

One philosopher friend of mine, before he died, argued rather vociferously about the issue. “Scott, let’s assume that there is a God as you postulate.  When you look around and see pestilence, poverty, natural disaster, and all manner of suffering, don’t you then have to admit that he doesn’t give a good g-dd--- for anybody or anything?” The question, when put another way, is “why does such a God deserve our worship?” The question is troubling and won’t go away. 

I must confess that I’ve never been happy with many of the traditional responses which have been provided.  They can’t all be set forth here, yet one typical response is that God allows evil in the world in order to punish fallen humanity.  He, in other words, is the great cosmic fount of judgment and punishment. It is easy to fear a judge like this, but exceedingly difficult to love him.  “Though he slays me, yet will I love him.”  This attitude speaks more highly of the believer, I'm afraid, than the one in whom he believes. 

Another response is that God allows evil in order to circumvent greater suffering and tragedy which lies around the corner. It’s an argument from silence.  We don’t know what would have been around the corner.  We don’t know what the residents of Moore, Oklahoma might have done had their homes and businesses remained intact and their children not killed. We just don’t know.  So this often proffered “solution” to the problem dead-ends into as many questions as it answers. 

Allow me to show my theological hand. I believe in an all-loving and supremely powerful God. “Supremely powerful” and “omnipotent” are not synonymous expressions.  Yes, I believe that there are some occurrences outside even God’s control.  If human madness in the world causes various factions to take up nuclear weaponry and to render the planet uninhabitable, are we then to blame God for it?  I hardly think so.  Although a cosmic inferno is not what I think God desires for us, we human beings are nonetheless free agents and are endowed with at least “some” power over our destiny.  We can manufacture good or evil.  We can destroy, murder, and maim, or we can love others, encourage goodness, and create positives.  It strikes me as irresponsible for Christians to adopt the position that one need not fear human destruction of the planet, since such a result would be assignable to God alone. I can’t think of any perspective that lends itself to an irresponsible social and political passivity more than this one. 

The good news, according to the Christian gospel, is that God continues to love us and to do his part to make life an enriching experience for us.  He never leaves us to ourselves, but is always persuading us toward the good and bestowing upon us blessing after blessing.  I agree with Alfred North Whitehead when he declares that the historical tendency in Christianity has been to give unto God the attributes which belong exclusively to Caesar. Paying  “metaphysical compliments” of this sort to Deity is, in my view, theologically suspect and misguided. 

God never gives us more than we can bear, but sometimes people do.  As a constructive force, God helps fashion the world, although he is not its only architect. He creates along with other agents. He utilizes present evil in his future configurations of goodness, but this is not to say that he’s responsible for evil, or causes it.  

Can God be “God” and not be omnipotent?  This is the question, and it’s a challenging one that still gives me pause.  But I am far more comfortable – intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, and otherwise – praying that God cure problems when he may not be able to do so than asking that he provide a remedy when he can but won’t.  

So does he care about the people of Oklahoma?  Yes, he most certainly does.  He was and is there with them and, in the poignant phrase of Whitehead, is by their side as a “compassionate fellow-sufferer who understands” their sorrow and heartbreak. In response to their loss, he inspires sacrificial love that cascades into profound acts of heroism and charity.  He hasn’t given up on this world, and he doesn’t want us to give up on it either. This is the faith that sustains me during challenging moments like these.

 May 24, 2013