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.


St. Izzy said...

Maureen Dowd introduces a guest columnist:

When my friend Robin was dying, she asked me if I knew a priest she could talk to who would not be, as she put it, “too judgmental.” I knew the perfect man, a friend of our family, a priest conjured up out of an old black-and-white movie, the type who seemed not to exist anymore in a Catholic Church roiled by scandal. Like Father Chuck O’Malley, the New York inner-city priest played by Bing Crosby, Father Kevin O’Neil sings like an angel and plays the piano; he’s handsome, kind and funny. Most important, he has a gift. He can lighten the darkness around the dying and those close to them. When he held my unconscious brother’s hand in the hospital, the doctors were amazed that Michael’s blood pressure would noticeably drop. The only problem was Father Kevin’s reluctance to minister to the dying. It tears at him too much. He did it, though, and he and Robin became quite close. Years later, he still keeps a picture of her in his office. As we’ve seen during this tear-soaked Christmas, death takes no holiday. I asked Father Kevin, who feels the subject so deeply, if he could offer a meditation. This is what he wrote:


How does one celebrate Christmas with the fresh memory of 20 children and 7 adults ruthlessly murdered in Newtown; with the searing image from Webster of firemen rushing to save lives ensnared in a burning house by a maniac who wrote that his favorite activity was “killing people”? How can we celebrate the love of a God become flesh when God doesn’t seem to do the loving thing? If we believe, as we do, that God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why doesn’t He use this knowledge and power for good in the face of the evils that touch our lives?

The killings on the cusp of Christmas in quiet, little East Coast towns stirred a 30-year-old memory from my first months as a priest in parish ministry in Boston. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her.

They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief. The question in their hearts then, as it is in so many hearts these days, is “Why?”

The truest answer is: I don’t know. I have theological training to help me to offer some way to account for the unexplainable. But the questions linger. I remember visiting a dear friend hours before her death and reminding her that death is not the end, that we believe in the Resurrection. I asked her, “Are you there yet?” She replied, “I go back and forth.” There was nothing I wanted more than to bring out a bag of proof and say, “See? You can be absolutely confident now.” But there is no absolute bag of proof. I just stayed with her. A life of faith is often lived “back and forth” by believers and those who minister to them.

(continued in next combox)

St. Izzy said...

(continued from previous combox)

Implicit here is the question of how we look to God to act and to enter our lives. For whatever reason, certainly foreign to most of us, God has chosen to enter the world today through others, through us. We have stories of miraculous interventions, lightning-bolt moments, but far more often the God of unconditional love comes to us in human form, just as God did over 2,000 years ago.

I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.

One true thing is this: Faith is lived in family and community, and God is experienced in family and community. We need one another to be God’s presence. When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

A contemporary theologian has described mercy as “entering into the chaos of another.” Christmas is really a celebration of the mercy of God who entered the chaos of our world in the person of Jesus, mercy incarnate. I have never found it easy to be with people who suffer, to enter into the chaos of others. Yet, every time I have done so, it has been a gift to me, better than the wrapped and ribboned packages. I am pulled out of myself to be love’s presence to someone else, even as they are love’s presence to me.

I will never satisfactorily answer the question “Why?” because no matter what response I give, it will always fall short. What I do know is that an unconditionally loving presence soothes broken hearts, binds up wounds, and renews us in life. This is a gift that we can all give, particularly to the suffering. When this gift is given, God’s love is present and Christmas happens daily.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on December 26, 2012, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Why, God?.