On the question: "Why did this have to happen?"
My brother is successful. He is outgoing and larger than life. For many years, he managed large hotel properties for Hilton and Embassy Suites. He was very well-compensated for his work, single, and shrewd with his investments. By the time he was 50, he had amassed enough money to retire. Although his career placed him at the disputatious center of management and labor controversies, he was able to manage those disputes with integrity and empathy – his staff, as far as I was able to see, worshiped him. Indeed, he seems to have been the very epitome of a fair, self-effacing and effective boss. Thus, when he retired from the industry, he did so with a clear conscious – he had not compromised any of his essential principles and was regarded as virtuous, kind, and generous man.
My brother traveled widely and, from all the places that he had been, selected the Pacific northwest for his retirement. He located a beautiful tract of land near the Puget Sound, wooded, and lush with ferns and flowers. There was a majestic house on the property that he remodeled to meet his needs. (His long-time girlfriend retired a year or so later and joined him in this home.) This property is about an hour from Seattle via a scenic ferry ride – on a clear day, Mount Rainier floats majestically over the waters of the sound, a brilliant ethereal spectacle sometimes white as the harvest moon or purplish pink with sunset. His home is also about an hour from the austere glories of the Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park – an overlook onto a tumbled chaos of spiky peaks and glaciers stretching as far as the eye can see. There are awe-inspiring vistas all around. Bridges soar over estuaries in which mighty ranges of mountains are reflected and in the coves along the coast strange, green-shadowed rainforests throb with life. It is a wonderful place to live.
My brother built a shop and stocked it with sophisticated woodworking machines. He built a greenhouse with his own hands, a big gabled structure splendid with innumerable glass windows. While making that greenhouse, he noticed a peculiar, fixed, and troubling pain, accompanied with weakness in one of his legs. The diagnosis of his disease, ALS, is agonizing because the illness has to be proven by a process of elimination. That makes the disease’s onset all the more savage because it’s victim is tormented by hope. In my brother’s case, his physicians in Seattle and, then, at the Mayo Clinic systematically stripped away his hopes. His condition worsened and he became paralyzed. He is now confined to a wheelchair and unable to venture into his beautiful gardens and woods. The mountains are a memory to him. He is dying.
Is there a meaning to this suffering? Why did this have to happen?
This morning, I drove through a taco place for a breakfast burrito. This is my habit on Saturday morning.
It was four degrees below zero and the sky was very clear and translucent.
At the exact end of the road that I was traversing, where perspective made a vanishing point, I saw the full moon like a chip of ice or a faint hot air balloon hanging over the snow landscape.
This lunar spectacle reminded me of my brother’s terrible plight. Some consciousness of his illness and the enormous and brutal injustice of his suffering is always with me. The sun may rise and the celestial objects in the night may vanish in the bright, pellucid air – but those signs and portents, those reminders of the darkness of the night, are always there, merely masked by the blue enormity of yet another frigid day in Minnesota.
Is there a way to make sense of unjust suffering?
This is the traditional question of theodicy – that is, the justification of ways of God to man.
One of the leading Christian theologians arising during the new millenium – that is, after 2000 – is David Bentley Hart. Hart is a theologian whose thinking is guided by the Eastern Orthodox brand of
Christianity. After the tsunami devastated the Pacific coast-line in Asia in 2004, many militant atheists seized upon this terrible calamity as proof of the non-existence of God or worse – either God was a malevolent sadist or he didn’t exist at all, this was the proposition argued by these writers. Hart felt many of the essays written by these atheists were unfair or misguided, although he acknowledged the urgency of the problem and the passion that the unjust suffering of millions had provoked. Accordingly, Hart wrote a rejoinder to these accusations lodged against God in The Wall Street Journal. That rejoinder was controversial and engendered much correspondence, pro and con – ultimately, Hart expanded his short column into a book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami (2005). The book is elegantly written and densely argued. The question that I pose in this essay is whether it is convincing.
In non-Christian contexts, the problem of theodicy, often, doesn’t make much sense. Christianity, however, posits a loving God – indeed, a God whose very essence is defined by love. Therefore, unjust suffering raises fundamental, and foundational, problems for Christian thinkers.
Organized religion is man’s greatest pre-technological invention. Since the renaissance, human ingenuity has been directed primarily at scientific innovation. But, in the vast caverns of time preceding the last five-hundred years, the best and brightest efforts of mankind were primarily directed at developing elaborate systems of religious doctrine. There is no reason to think that Australian aborigines gathering roots in the deserts 25,000 years ago were any less ingenious or thoughtful than modern people – the emphasis of their thought, however, was directed the consideration and devoted implementation of enormously elaborate mythological and cosmological systems. There were, no doubt, aboriginal priests as subtle and brilliant as Stephen Hawkings except that their understanding of the beginnings of time were non-scientific and based upon other grammars of assent. Accordingly, any summary of theodictic thought in other religions is necessarily simplified to the point of error. Nonetheless for comparative purposes, a brief consideration of theodicy (literally - "the trial of god’s goodness") is worth attempting.
At their primordial origin, most religion seems to be primarily sacrificial. Gods were supernatural beings who required that sacrifices be made to them. Evil or disorder was thought to arise from some imbalance in the relationship between man and his gods. Sacrifice was the technique ordained for correcting this imbalance – pestilence infecting the order of the world could be eradicated by propitiating god and, in effect, commissioning the deity to remove the infection shadowing the human community. Judaism begins with this proposition as does the ancient Hindu faith. The religions of the civilized societies in the New World were also based fundamentally upon the proposition that sacrifice was the intercourse that the gods desired with human beings and that blood, often human, was the lubricant required to keep the cosmos running smoothly. In his book, Hart cites a Hindu scripture describing a field of battle between gods and the tribes that they sponsor as a great altar "arrayed for sacrifice."
Greek and Roman religions begin as sacrificial and, therefore, transactional. The problem of theodicy doesn’t really occur in classical paganism because the gods on Olympus are not perceived to be good or virtuous or, even, law-abiding. Greek and Roman gods were just larger and more powerful human beings invested with super-hero powers. They were as fickle as human beings and could be even more stubborn and malicious. Thus, if the innocent suffered, this was as a result of the intervention of unreliable and, often, irresponsible deities from whom mercy and justice could not necessarily be expected.
Old Testament Judaism ascribed suffering to god’s wrath at the breach of his covenants – that is, his laws – imposed upon his chosen people. In its most primitive form, Judaism is tribal – the suffering of those outside the tribe doesn’t matter because people not contracted to Jehovah by covenant were, in effect, godless and, therefore, not fully human. God rewards and punishes according to his people’s obedience to his law. The historical and prophetic books of the Old Testament are largely chronicles of either the compliance of God’s people with his laws, or their disobedience – history is the record of the punishments and blessings meted-out upon the Chosen People in recompense for their obedience or transgressions. (The Book of Job, of course, shows the limits of this theodicy – Job, who is not Hebrew, is punished by a malicious god in league with the devil as part of a cruel thought experiment. Are men righteous because they fear God’s punishment or does righteousness have some other basis in the human spirit? Job is accounted righteous but destroyed notwithstanding his virtue but on the basis of a perverse alliance between god and Satan. No rational justification of Job’s suffering exists and the book’s final chapters, God’s argument from the whirlwind, although astounding as poetry evade the entire question posed by the book with a serious of thunderous non sequiturs – in effect, God says, I destroy you because I can.) Two other sinister developments in theodicy arise in the Old Testament: God punishes collectively – that is, he wreaks his vengeance on the entire tribe for the fault of one or several of its members. Second, God considers sin to be genetic – the evils committed by the father are visited upon his sons. Thus, Old Testament theodicy, sometimes, suggests that the innocent suffer because they are members of a tribal group that has offended the deity or because they are related by blood to someone who has broken God’s laws.
Eastern religions rely upon the idea of karmic destiny to explain the suffering of those who must be accounted innocent of any serious sin. Because souls are reincarnated, it is possible to be punished for offenses committed in an earlier existence in this present life. Thus, debts are repaid in the present that were accumulated in earlier lives. Buddhism dispenses with the entire theodictic problem on the basis of the radical doctrine that suffering and death arise from desire (or thwarted desire); dispense with desire, then, pain vanishes. Buddhist meditation techniques and other religious practices empower the faithful to overcome their desires and, thus, vanquish suffering. In some forms of Buddhism, the individual ego doesn’t exist and is merely an illusion. Thus, a Buddhist confronted with suffering that seems unjust and unwarranted might say: suffering is just desire and desire can be eliminated and, furthermore, there is no real self to suffer in any event. Buddhist thought, to use a phrase that Hart employs with respect to Christianity, defines suffering and death as purely contingent – by this, I mean that suffering and death are not fundamental truths; rather, they are conditional epiphenomena, illusory to some extent, at least, with respect to their ultimate significance.
Christian theodicy is largely a theologian’s playground because there is very little in the New Testament convincingly touching upon the subject. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus mentions a celebrated catastrophe, the collapse of the tower of Siloam that killed 18 Galileans while they were worshiping. (Luke 13: 1 - 4). The question arises as to why tragedy befell these virtuous worshipers. Jesus evades the question, suggesting that all are convicted under the Jewish law and, therefore, guilty. "Repent or perish," Jesus says to his interrogators. The default position in Judaism, and, also, Christianity, is that all are sinful by nature, therefore, catastrophic punishment may be justly imposed on anyone at any time.
In The Doors of the Sea, Hart expresses a sneaking, oblique admiration for the imaginative world of the Gnostics. First, Hart observes that gnostic vision of a fallen world tormented by demonic forces is integral to the New Testament – Christianity develops from Gnosticism and contains within its viscera vestiges of that belief system: there is no good thing in the flesh and the physical world is the dominion, at least in large part, of the Devil and his dark forces. Similarly, the gnostic idea that creation is both Ktisis and Kosmos underlies the New Testament – by this, Hart seems to mean that there are two way in which to perceive creation: as a chaotic assembly of elements, many of them randomly pernicious or malevolent – that is as creation out of nothingness (ex nihilo) or ktisis. Kosmos, by contrast, means an orderly whole operating according to rational principles. Gnosticism asserts that the Kingdom of Heaven is a Kosmos that is implacably opposed to the fallen world of the ktisis. Christianity is more subtle and evades the dualism pervasive in gnostic thought – our world is ktisis when viewed from the vantage of the natural imagination. Viewed in light of Jesus’ resurrection, the fallen world is redeemed and, therefore, a kosmos as well. It is our relationship to the world of facts, science, and material things that makes the difference – through the lens of the Gospel, the world is both ktisis with respect to death, disease and tyranny, but, also, redeemed into a kosmos by Jesus’ resurrection. The challenge is to see both aspects of reality, and hold them in the imagination simultaneously, without allowing Christ’s triumph to conceal wholly the reality of the fallen world while, at the same time, combating the tendency to discount that triumph because of the very real and present suffering in the world, suffering that blurs the meaning of Christ’s triumph over death.
Of all arguments for atheism, Hart acknowledges that the best by far is the argument based on the ubiquity of evil. The death of a child by cancer or the slaughter of millions by tsunami pose very real challenges to the notion of an omnipotent god of love. If the Christian god is defined by justice, mercy, grace, and love, then, how can those aspects of the divinity be reconciled with the obvious enormity of human suffering (let alone, as Hart notes, the suffering of animals)? The argument for god’s non-existence based on evil, Hart admits in a televised interview is one that even he finds "intermittently convincing."
We can’t wish away unjustified suffering. Christians have attempted to reconcile themselves to this suffering on the basis of several theodictic arguments. Hart’s first order of business in The Doors of the Sea is to sweep away those arguments that he finds unconvincing or morally incoherent. Voltaire is Hart’s first target, specifically the French philosophes poem on the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake, fire, and flood. Voltaire’s poem takes aim at a sort of complacent deism that characterized the Enlightenment: the watchmaker God contrived the universe as a marvelous machine operating in accord with a precise calculus balancing good with evil. Having assembled this machine, God, then, absconds to some other corner of creation. Voltaire’s verse-essay on the destruction of Lisbon challenges a theodicy that insists that evil is ultimately redeemed by the preponderance of good that God has made intrinsic to his machine. Hart’s initial observation is that Voltaire’s poem skewers a straw-man – that is, a parody of rational and naturalistic theology that posits a detached, indifferent God in which no one has ever believed. Since Voltaire’s theology is notably remote from actual Christian doctrine – for instance, the notion of Christ’s redemption of the world or the insistance that God is love – his attack , more or less, misses the mark.
More problematic, in Hart’s view, are the arguments advanced by adherents to Calvinist "reformed" religion. Hart’s acid characterization of those arguments is incisively memorable: the Calvinists are guilty of "gelid dispassion"– that is, an icy lack of empathy for human suffering. Calvin’s arguments are based upon his view of God’s omnipotence, a power that is most powerfully signified by predestination. The evil that occurs to human beings is predestined – it has been God’s will from the beginning of time. For some reason, God desired that the tsunami smite the coasts of Asia and murder millions of innocents. The holocaust in the southwest Pacific rim was God’s will. In effect, God wills evil. Hart will not accept that a loving God wills evil – indeed, in Hart’s view, God is love and love is the energy that organizes the cosmos; if God is good, God has no capacity to will evil – what is wholly good can not will what is bad.
Calvinists evade the idea of God willing evil, by a ruse that Hart describes as "shapeless sentimentality." Those not able to accept that God desired and caused evil in the form of the tsunami, assert that in some mysterious way, the death of those legions of Indonesian children, serves the good. We are not able to see how slaughtering innocents serves the good, but sentimentalists disinclined to imagine God as willing evil (which a true flinty Calvinist accepts) argue that by some mysterious dispensation the havoc wreaked upon the archipelagoes of the Pacific somehow adds up to something that is ultimately good. Hart condemns a theodicy based in the notion that harm, even harm on the colossal scale, somehow serves the good as inauthentic and evasive. In this context, he also criticizes a metaphor that is sometimes used in Catholic circles to excuse God’s complicity in suffering. When someone suffers, I have heard clergy say, that the victim is "joined to Christ’s passion on the cross" – that is, the victim takes up Christ’s agony when he was crucified. Hart doesn’t think this formulation is necessarily wicked, but it begs the question: so what? Further, this formulation of the problem, really not solving anything, runs the risk of confusing the issue: Christ died for me on the cross, that is, for my sake; I don’t suffer for the sake of Christ – indeed, my suffering adds nothing to God in any way. Finally, Hart observes that this argument is "oddly imperious" when advanced by a Christian – the vast majority of those killed by the tsunami were non-Christians so how is there any value for them in "fellowship with Christ’s suffering on the cross"?
The most profound challenge to Christian theodicy, Hart alleges, arises in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky was passionately Christian and, therefore, his concern with the problem of innocent’s suffering in this world is informed by his faith and, therefore, particularly agonized and penetrating. Ivan Karamazov adduces the story of a five-year old girl savagely beaten by her parents, punished by being forced to eat excrement, and, then, locked up on bitterly cold nights in a stinking privy. Karamazov believes without reservation in God and God’s goodness and accepts that somehow God will turn this atrocity to his ends – God can turn the child’s torture into "eternal harmony." But, on this point Hart says:
Ivan rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds. He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue (transforming the child’s pain into beatitude) – anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary. He grants that one day eternal harmony will be established and we will discover how it necessitated the torments endured by children...But, still, Ivan wants neither harmony nor the knowledge of ultimate truth at such a cost: "for the love of man I reject it"; even ultimate truth is "not worth the tears of that one tortured child."...And so, not denying that there is a God or a divine design in all things, he simply chooses (respectfully) to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom, After all, Ivan asks, if you bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?
Hart concludes his analysis of unsatisfactory theodictic arguments with this summary:
Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible. Dostoevsky sees – and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality – that it would be far more terrible if it were.
Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea is a lot of fun to read. Indeed, it’s suspenseful, like a good crime novel – how is Hart going to solve the problem of evil in a way that doesn’t indict God? One turns the pages with increasing urgency as the short book comes to its end and climactic rhetorical peroration. Further, Hart enlivens the proceedings with his witty and intensely eloquent style. In his attack mode, Hart’s prose is avuncular, scathing, epigrammatic, and forensically accomplished: he chops logic with the aplomb of the best scholastic authors and devises memorable epithets of opprobrium: one writer is guilty of "inane anthropomorphism", materialism is "among the most incoherent of superstitions", a fundamentalist minister in Virginia is accused of "sadistic bellowing", and so on. In his prophetic mode, Hart’s prose style derives from John Ruskin and Cardinal Newman – that is, it is very much a late Victorian style, proto-Proustian, effortlessly weaving long and complex sentences with numerous dependant and subordinate clauses. Hart also decorates his rhetoric with little scintillant gems that require the reader to reach for his dictionary – the archipelagoes of southeast Asia are "catenate" (that is, "linked"), the interval between creation in its fullness and "the nothingness from which it was called" is said to be "umbratile" ("shadowy"); demons and other evil creatures are "delitiscent" (that is, hidden symptoms that become manifest after a disease’s incubation period has run.) Having stated the theodictic problem in the book’s first half, Hart’s prose yearns for the solution – rhetorically, the book stretches, reaches for a formulation adequately stating Hart’s conclusions, a vision of God’s goodness that is ultimately a matter of faith and not logic. Thus, Hart’s showy prose style is like a river with its sources in high mountains – as Hart ascends to rhetorical heights, the current of his prose and its rhythms accelerates and the water runs is swift rapids over translucent linguistic stream beds glittering with rare and beautiful specimens of quartz and amethyst as well as turquoise, agate, and jade...
So how does Hart conclude?
Hart’s theodicy takes very seriously the existence of evil in this world. Contrary to Calvin, Hart’s God doesn’t will evil nor does he necessarily "permit" bad things to happen. Rather, the present world is entrapped in the dominion of evil. Mutinous powers that oppose God’s will are everywhere and the work of the devil is ubiquitous. Of course, God has defeated evil and rendered it ultimately ineffectual against his creation – evil is an absurd nullity that is purely negative, that is, the absence of the Good that ultimately predominates. But this is not to deny that evil pervades the world and that, indeed, the scripture writer may have been partly correct when he defined the devil as the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4)
In suffering, we don’t see god’s will. To the contrary, we see the work of the devil. Suffering is "real, horrible, and unjust" – it is a "scandal." But suffering is ultimately insignificant in light of Christ’s triumph over death and evil. Death and pain, scripture tells us, are the last enemies that shall be defeated and, although, the war against evil has been won, it seems, that the demonic forces are allowed rearguard actions, that their retreat from the field of this world is complicated by last stands and die-hard defense and, even, perhaps, sporadic robust, if doomed, counter-attacks. In this material world, Hart maintains that god’s will can be resisted or the efficacy of his grace can be concealed by cosmic corruption. Simply stated, death and suffering are not the work of god, but the work of his enemy. The devil’s work persists because the world is broken, shattered by human sin. Why is sin permitted to exist? Because human beings have free will. Why do we have free will? Because we are created in the image of God and God is characterized by free will, by his ability to do anything that he chooses. Human beings, therefore, are equipped with volition, a will that can be deformed toward the baffling nothingness that is sin – the opposite of the abundance of being that defines God.
The scandal of unjust suffering summons in Hart three reactions: silence, perfect hate, and ecstatic hope. Silence is required by the gravity of the problem: when we encounter a person who has suffered terribly, we should not compromise the horror and dignity of that suffering by cheap advice – indeed, we should stand silent in the face of what the person (or persons) have endured. Hart counsels us to leave the question of theodicy to another day – compassion and silence on the subject of God’s will are required in the immediate presence of suffering. Anything else would be indecent.
Second, Hart authorizes us to "hate with a perfect hatred" the forces of evil that disfigure our world. We should valiantly oppose such evil and hate it with all of our heart – death is not mankind’s friend but our ancient and vicious adversary. Paradise, Hart says, is laboring in subjection to the evils that God has overthrown on the cross. "When I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of god but the face of his enemy" – an enemy that we are obliged to hate.
Finally, Hart reminds us that the material world, afflicted with armies of demons, is, also, apparently, filled with angelic hosts as well. It is a rational cosmos in which god’s glory is everywhere manifested. Since we know that god intends good for all of creation, the eye of faith (which we possess only "intermittently") sees the world as a dazzling spectacle in which light overcomes the darkness. Death and suffering hide god’s glory. But that glory, nonetheless, transcends all darkness.
Hart’s final pages are less an argument than a proclamation. The world contains the rational light of its own overcoming. Faith sees this light. In this context, Hart’s prose surges upward into a symphonic declaration of praise:
(When we behold the world "with the eye of charity")...there is in all the things of earth a hidden glory waiting to be revealed, more radiant than a million suns, more beautiful than the most generous imagination or most ardent desire can now conceive. Or, rather, it is a glory not entirely hidden: veiled, rather, but shining in and through and upon all things. The imperishable goodness of all being does in fact show itself in all that is. It shows itself in the vast waters of the Indian Ocean, and it is not hard to see when those waters are silver and azure under the midday sky, or gold and indigo in the light of the setting sun, or jet and pearl in the light of the moon, and when their smoothly surging tides break upon the shore and harmlessly recede. But it is still there even when – the doors of the sea having broken their seals – those waters become suddenly dull and opaque with gray or sallow silt and rise up destroy and kill without will or thought or purpose or mercy. As such times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain: but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of the Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.
I suppose it can be said that I have written this essay in disobedience to Hart’s injunction of silence in the face of suffering. These notes originate in contemplation of my brother’s illness and it may be that what I have written is specious and superficial in light of the enormity of affliction that he must endure. Maybe, after all, it would have been better to write nothing at all.
However, there is something to be said for hating my brother’s affliction with a " perfect hate" that does not necessitate scorn for god and his creation. And, of course, a Christian has, perhaps, a duty to hope. Hart says that he rejoices that god "rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom...will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes.." So, hoping against hope, I abide in the desire that god will somehow raise up my brother and ease his pain and, in a way that I am unable to understand, make him whole again.