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In Between

3 February 2010

In my experience, major newspapers usually avoid wading into the headwaters of theology unless the events of the day leave no other course–The Danish Cartoon Incident, for instance, or ongoing coverage of tensions in Afghanistan or Iraq.  That’s a reasonable policy in my estimation, if for no other reason than that it’s not in the interests of a publication’s coverage–not to mention their bottom line–to tackle such personal and divisive ideas beyond how they interact with matters of policy, human rights, and liberty in general.

So seeing James Wood’s op-ed grace the Times‘s website last week was a somewhat unexpected surprise .  In his piece, entitled “Between God and a Hard Place”, Woods tactfully suggests that theological responses to the recent earthquake in Haiti–and, for that matter, virtually all natural catastrophes–are wrought with inconsistencies, and that theodicy is as futile an intellectual exercise as could ever be devised.  To those of who have a degree in such futility, this is not exactly an earth-shattering revelation.  That said, the piece is really exquisite, and well worth ten minutes of your time at work when–let’s face it, eh?–you weren’t doing anything important anyway. Here, though, is what stuck with me:

Terrible catastrophes inevitably encourage appeals to God. We who are, at present, unfairly luckier, whether believers or not, might reflect on the almost invariably uncharitable history of theodicy, and on the reality that in this context no invocation of God beyond a desperate appeal for help makes much theological sense. For either God is punitive and interventionist (the Robertson view), or as capricious as nature and so absent as to be effectively nonexistent (the Obama view). Unfortunately, the Bible, which frequently uses God’s power over earth and seas as the sign of his majesty and intervening power, supports the first view; and the history of humanity’s lonely suffering decisively suggests the second.

Woods voices the same skepticism I have always felt around theodicy.  Those of us who view our lives and experiences through the prism of God seem to have an almost gravitational attachment to explanations, and to certainty.  Without even being conscious of it we seek a known outcome, or the certain frame of the Big Picture.  We do this, it must be said, not because it allows us to explain things like Port-Au-Prince or Birkenau.  Even if an earthquake is some sort of divine retribution or a boon wrapped in atrocious clothing, the rhyme or reason of who lives or who dies remains unanswered.  And if God is uninvolved, or is the ‘impotent God’ invoked by Berkowitz, then our understandings of how or why God figures into anything–let alone our repeated invocations of God’s actions–are as irrational and irrelevent as ever.  Theodicy is painfully aware of this, and thus its certitudes deal in ends rather than means.  They exhort us to keep our eye on the light at the end of the tunnel, rather than stare keenly at the darkness flashing in our peripheral vision.

I understand fully the human predilection for optimism, but I cannot identify with the dominant approaches to theodicy.  In the absence of any sort of plausible hypothesis of God’s role in disasters, all that is left is uncertainty, and that’s a scary thing.  It shatters the boundaries of our theological reflection, and puts paid to our desire to bring mental order to external chaos.  In embracing uncertainty, we lose the privilege of easy categorization.  We can no longer assign events monikers such as ‘tragedy’, ‘justice’, ‘revenge’.  And on a more fundamental level, it erodes the basis of many people’s relationship with God.  We no longer can speak with any conviction in saying that God is “watching out for us”, or even that we should simply “trust God”.

For a number of reasons, I’ve been forced to think about the Book of Job quite a bit in the last couple of days.  Most if it doesn’t bear going into, but I always bristle at the suggestion that Job was a perfect, faithful servant–a righteous sufferer par excellence.  Not because I wouldn’t phrase it that way, but because I think most people use those terms to mean patient, humble, trusting, and loving of God despite the cascade of sorrow visited upon him.  They tend, I fear, to forget the 30 chapters in which Job wails on God from the heap of ruins.  His searing anger, burning sense of injustice, and indictments of God as capricious, unfaithful, and cruel are somehow seen as an asterisk to the story, a believer’s momentary doubt amid the overwhelming, obvious truth of God’s love and justice.  Job’s words read as many things, but wavering and conflicted are not among them.  It is an accusation, and one that–ultimately–goes unanswered.  All that God reveals in the theophany is that God exists, is all-powerful, and is not accountable to anyone.  And really, that’s where Job’s relationship stands even when his fortunes are restored.  He recants his disrespect, but never the substance of his complaint. There is a recognition that they must deal with each other, but the certainty of how such dealings will go is gone.

That’s where events like the earthquake in Haiti remind us constantly that we are.  Nothing is certain–the divine included.  If we are unable to relate to uncertainty, to relate to darkness on its own terms, then perhaps–to paraphrase Gustavo Gutierrez–we do not relate to God, only to ourselves.

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