Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Theodicy and Nativity

Of all the arguments against the existence of an omnipotent, loving God, the problem of the existence of evil is probably the most serious. How can one believe in a wise, loving, all-powerful God in a world where there are earthquakes, floods, & other natural disasters, let alone in a world where moral evil leads one gunman to kill nearly two dozen elementary school students and another to set a fire just so he can kill the firefighters who show up to put the fire out? Such things offend our notion of both a loving God and an all-powerful God. And wrestling with this conundrum has made shipwreck of the faith of many.

This morning at Mass, the priest was a stand-in from Ft. Jackson. I doubt that anyone who gives it any thought would dispute that a military chaplain is in a unique position to see the clash of Faith and Evil. We have demanded too much of our soldiers, both in extended and in too-frequently repeated tours in fields that are too difficult and too ambiguous. There have been increases in both ugly stories from the front lines and in suicides both at home and abroad. The priests in Newton have become intimately acquainted with the incarnation of evil and of the problem of theodicy; the chaplains charged with tending the souls of our military have lived with these incarnations for years.

At the morning Mass today, our chaplain priest made a connection between theodicy and the Nativity. And he was not the first to direct my attention to this connection. I have been giving a bit of attention (too little, I fear) to this connection since reading what was to me both an astounding and a sensible admission in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Here is §272:

272. Faith in God the Father Almighty can be put to the test by the experience of evil and suffering. God can sometimes seem to be absent and incapable of stopping evil. But in the most mysterious way God the Father has revealed his almighty power in the voluntary humiliation and Resurrection of his Son, by which he conquered evil. Christ crucified is thus “the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor 1.24-25) It is in Christ’s Resurrection and exaltation that the Father has shown forth “the immeasurable greatness of his power in us who believe.” (Eph 1.19-22)

There are other, related passages in the CCC. Take a look at §§309f.,  §412 & 413f.

The big trouble, to my own mind, is the frank admission in the CCC that there is no good, logical argument to be brought to bear here. The only way to thread the needle is a life of faith and trust. Cf. §273 “Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power. (2 Cor 12.9; Phil 4.13.)” and §312 “In time we can discover that God in his almighty providence can bring a good from the consequences of an evil, even a moral evil, caused by his creatures: ‘It was not you,’ said Joseph to his brothers, ‘who sent me here, but God.... You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.’ (Gen 45.8; 50.20; cf. Tob 2.12-18 (Vulg.).)”  &c.

While this *does* accord with my own experience that a life lived taking faith in Christ quite seriously is much better than one rejecting, ignoring, or simply paying lip service to a life in Christ, it does little good for those who want a compelling argument *before* casting their die and testing/trying/attempting a life of faith. And in this regard I have to note that the one Biblical book that deals most explicitly with the problem of evil, Job, makes it clear that Job never knows what the evil he endures either intends or effects. Job himself, the most righteous man on the face of the earth at that time (Job 1.1, 8), is left with no idea why he suffers. It is left for the audience of which he has no knowledge to draw the inferences.

And so, by analogy, are we left. We live in a world filled with evil and pain. We are told (and many of us believe) that there is a loving, omnipotent God who apparently *could* fix all this crap, but Who apparently chooses not to do so. And we (are told to) take it on faith that this is all for the best.

And what has all this to do with the Nativity? The Christian story tells us that the almighty, loving God took on human flesh, that He was incarnate, born, and lived as one of us. He was persecuted, tortured to death, & buried. He could have stopped this at any moment, but did not. He could have imposed perfect justice and ended His own pain at any moment, but did not.

What the Nativity tells us is that God has chosen not to end our pain, but to enter into it and walk with us in it. He has not wiped away out tears before sharing them with us. He has not eradicated our pain, nor given us the reason(s) for it, but has humbled Himself and shared it. He has walked with us in our pain, and has wept over the death of a friend. Further, we will be judged not for our own capacity for ending suffering, but for our incapacity for walking with others in their own suffering (Matt. 25.31-46).

In all honesty, I would have preferred that He had chosen to wipe away our tears before they were shed. I would wish to be spared from the pain caused by sin, both my own and others’. To a limited extent I understand and can even feel the benefit of having God become one of us and share our grief, but who among us would not prefer that the grief be avoided altogether?

But God has chosen not to answer our questions. He has chosen instead, in His nativity, to walk with us. He suffers as we suffer and calls us to suffer with others, or at least to be with others in their suffering. He has not wiped out suffering, as I would wish, but has called us to sit with other in their suffering.

God is love. That love does not eradicate our pain, but shares it with us. That love demands not that we eliminate others’ pain, but that we walk with others through it. Emanuel, God is with us. And He has not chosen to delete sin and its effects, but to enter in and share our pain with us. He calls us to do the same.

Nativity is God’s answer to suffering. I, personally, find it insufficient. But the Creator, against my limited wisdom and my very limited love, demands NOT that we eliminate the suffering of others, but that we share it; not that we heal the sick and spring the imprisoned, but that we sit with the sick in their illness and visit the imprisoned in their cells. The Nativity demands that we imitate Christ. We can not explain or remove suffering, but we must share it, must accompany others as they go through it.

Emanuel. God is with us. And so, we must be with each other. We are not called to remove another’s suffering, nor called to explain why God would let one suffer. We are called to imitate Christ and to be fully present with each other in our suffering.

 I trust that eventually we will be told the answer to why, that we will know the reason(s) for pain and suffering. I trust that theodicy will be apparent not as an intellectual goal, but as an objective reality. Until that day, I can only know that my responsibility is to imitate Christ by being with those who suffer.

This is the lesson of Nativity.