Tag Archives: evil

Post of the Year

Who am I to say what my post of the year is?  I suppose that should be decided by my readers.

We’ve arrived in Prince Albert and I’m fully into the early stages of the flu: runny nose, aching body, chills, headache. What a way to start the Christmas break!  I suspect it’s as a result of my trying to dig out the van when we hit the ditch the other day. I didn’t have proper snow pants on and spent quite a bit of time out there. Plus, my adrenaline probably ran out when I handed in my last assignment of the semester on Monday.

But I digress. I confess I have neither the will nor the strength scan through all of my 2010 post. No matter–I’m convinced this is the best one. In fact, it may well be the only post I wrote this year that I think is worth reading.

Written on February 19, 2010, it’s a reflection on good, evil, and God, prompted by a Bruce Cockburn song I was listening to at the time. This isn’t a post putting forward tentative theological ideas, as I usually do. These words came from my heart and my guts, which is why, I think, they continue to resonate with me.

* * *

how faint the whisper we hear of him! (Job 26:14, TNIV)

* * *

Here
is bigger than you can imagine
Now
is forever (Bruce Cockburn)

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about pain and suffering and genocide and natural disasters and…God.  Without diminishing the pain and horror, and without denying the legitimacy of our incredulity, our anger at God for allowing these things to happen, I do have the strong sense that we humans are awfully short-sighted in our assessment of what God is or is not doing in the world. What truths can we derive from our suffering when it is but a blip of an event in the continuum of history?  What do we, with our short lives, know about how these things fit in the great scheme of things?

And what of all the beauty and goodness we see in the world?  Should God get any credit for those things?  Should the bad things outweigh the good?

Perhaps it is easy for me to say this sitting comfortably in my Poäng chair at home, surrounded by books, family, love, health and…a roof and walls, but there runs inside me a deep vein of hope.  There is good in the world and it will prevail. I believe this deeply.

Hope does not do away with the pain and suffering, and neither does it justify or excuse it.  Hope does not mean we cannot or do not weep, grieve, shout at God in anger.  What hope does is see, if faintly and uncertainly, beyond pain and suffering to the time when, in Julian of Norwich’s wonderful words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well”.

Tonight I had Bruce Cockburn’s album You’ve Never Seen Everything playing in the background as I worked.  The title track is quite a powerful song.  On first listen it comes across as a heavily political song, which is not unusual for Cockburn.  It is a dark song, sparse instrumentation, with lyrics spoken in a low, tired, almost pained voice.

The listener is presented with a series of vignettes showing the dark underbelly of the world: viruses, suicide, murder, drug trade, sexual harassment, consumerism, poisoning of women and children, rage, greed, and so on.  After a couple of these vignettes, the words, “You’ve never seen everything”.  For example:

And a car crashes and burns on an offramp from the Gardiner
Two dogs in the back seat die, and in the front
a man and his mother
Forensics reveals the lady has pitchfork wounds in her chest –
Pitchfork!
And that the same or a similar instrument has been screwed to the dash
to make sure the driver goes too

You’ve never seen everything

The listener is shaken out of his or her stupor: there is so much darkness beyond that comfortable little world you’ve created for yourself, he seems to be saying. You think you get it?  You think you understand the world–like watching the nightly news gives you any sense of what’s going on?

For the longest time I would simply skip over the song.  It was too dark, too discomforting.  And the only reason I did choose to listen to it was to get to the chorus, which is a rich, beautiful melody dropped in the middle of those dark vignettes:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around

Until tonight I wasn’t sure what to do with that chorus, other than enjoy it as a brief reprieve from the dark images being spoken around it.  The song is the shadow, it seemed to me, and the chorus but a thin ribbon of half-light running through it.  But suddenly, tonight, perhaps in confirmation of the things I’ve been thinking about hope, I realized what the song is actually saying.  It ends with the chorus and repeated mantra:

Bad pressure coming down
Tears – what we really traffic in
ride the ribbon of shadow
Never feel the light falling all around
Never feel the light falling all around

You’ve never seen everything

It’s not the darkness we haven’t seen around us, it’s the light!  We think we’ve seen it all when we see the pain and sorrow of the world, but we haven’t seen everything: we haven’t seen the light falling all around, filling all the infinite space in which the ribbon of shadow moves.  We choose to ride the ribbon of darkness when we could just as well ride the light if we are willing to see it.

In fact, the album ends quite abruptly a few songs later on the word “hope”.

* * *
The original post is here if you want to follow the discussion that went with it (comments there are closed, but they are open here).

Evil and the Justice of God

From N.T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God:

It is not enough to say that God will eventually make a new world in which there will be no more pain and crying; that does scant justice to all the evil that has gone before. We cannot get to the full solution to the problem of evil by mere progress, as though, provided the final generation was happy, the misery of all previous generations could be overlooked or even justified, as in the appalling line in a hymn: “Then shall they know, they that love him, how all their pain is good,” a kind of shoulder-shrugging acquiescence in evil which the New Testament certainly does not authorize.

What N.T. Wright is rejecting here is the idea which, I think, led  to Dostoyevski’s Ivan in The Brothers Karamzov (as described in David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea) rejecting God. Perhaps I did not understand his argument (which is quite possible–it’s a very dense little book), but it seemed that at the end of The Doors of the Sea Hart had done just this–shrugged his shoulders.  He can do this, of course, because ultimately death and suffering have no meaning whatsoever. But still, shrugging the shoulders.

Wright goes on:

No, all theories of atonement adequate to the task must include both a backward look (seeing the guilt, sin and shame of all previous generations heaped up on the cross) and a forward dimension, the promise that what God accomplished on Calvary will be fully and finally implemented. Otherwise the cross becomes merely an empty gesture, ineffective unless anyone happens to notice it and be influenced by it to act in a particular way (97).

So he’s saying that evil is heaped up on the cross.  And yet it’s still there.  Something isn’t clicking for me. But this is a helpful reminder: “The “problem of evil” is not simply or purely a “cosmic” thing; it is also a problem about me (97).

Good point. Evil isn’t just something “other”, something “out there”, but it’s right here beside me and inside me as well. No use pointing fingers at this and that wondering why in blazes God doesn’t intervene there, when one could just as well ask the question of me. I’m reminded of the lyric from Sufjan Stevens‘ song about the John Wayne Gacy, Jr., the Chicago serial killer. The song, which I’ve mentioned here before, gives a short but heartbreaking account of Gacy’s life, actions and victims and then ends quite suddenly with these haunting words:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Of course, God is intervening–in me and in the world–but just not in the way I might expect or want him to.

We’ll see what else the good bishop has to say…

The Doors of the Sea

Some of you might have noticed the question I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday: how do you reconcile the existence of a good God with suffering? Some of you even responded.

I asked this question out of sheer frustration with my multiple failed attempts at expressing my thoughts in response to David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? The assignment was to articulate whether or not I thought that Hart provided a satisfactory answer to the question of how we reconcile the existence of a loving God with the existence of evil and suffering.

Much of the first half of the book is spent undermining the various theodocies articulated by both Christians and atheists shortly after the tsunami which occurred on New Year’s Eve 2004. I won’t go into more detail than simply saying that Hart dismisses them (with arguments, mind you).  According to Hart, the only real challenge to the Christian understanding of God is provided by the character Ivan in Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov.

He willingly grants, he says, that all wounds will at the last be healed, all scars will disappear, all discord will vanish like a mirage…and that such will be the splendor of the finale of all things, when that universal harmony is established, that every heart will be satisfied, all anger soothed, the debt for every crime discharged, and everyone made capable of forgiving every offense and even of finding justification for everything that has ever happened to mankind; and still rejects the world that God has made, and that final harmony with it…[because] the terms of the final happiness God intends for his creatures are greater than his conscience can bear” (38-9)

And then Ivan presents his interlocutor (Alyosha) with “a grim, unremitting, remorseless recitation of stories about the torture and murder of (principally) children — true stories, as it happens, that Dostoyevski had collected from the press and from other sources” (39). Ivan’s examples are truly heartbreaking and I could not–indeed still cannot–remove them from my mind as I tried to write my response.

He tells of Turks in Bulgaria tearing babies from their mothers’ wombs with daggers, or flinging infants into the air to catch them on bayonets before their mothers’ eyes, or playing with babies held in their mothers’ arms — making them laugh, enticing them with the bright metal barrels of pistols — only then to fire the pistols into the babies’ faces. He tells the story of two parents regularly savagely flogging their seven-year-old daughter, only to be acquitted in court of any wrongdoing. He tells the story of a…couple who tortured  their five-year-old daughter with constant beatings, and who — to punish her, allegedly, for fouling her bed — filled her mouth with excrement and locker her on freezing nights in an outhouse. (39)

And then, perhaps the most heartbreaking part of all:

…he invites Alyosha to imagine that child, in the bitter chill and darkness and stench of that place, striking her breast with her tiny fist, weeping her supplications to “gentle Jesus,” begging God to release her from her misery, and then to say whether anything…could possibly be worth the brutal absurdity of that little girl’s torments (39-40).

Indeed.  Indeed.

This is the only real challenge to Christian thinking because it is a complaint that is deeply rooted in Christian thought (Dostoyevski was a man of intense faith). Hart’s final answer seems to be no answer–at least, no rational answer.  I’m fine with that.  That’s my response, too.

But before he gets there he argues for the distinction between what God wills and what God permits and how that relates to created human freedom.  God is not culpable, ultimately, in Hart’s view, and he then points us to God’s final victory–the thing Ivan believes in but ultimately rejects.

I don’t believe God is culpable either, and I, too, believe in the victory of God.

And yet, and yet, and yet…there is still that girl beating her tiny fists against her breast.  How can any response be made in the face of that image?  How can we do anything but be silent in the face of such suffering, as Hart, ironically, suggests would have been the most appropriate response to the 2004 tsunami?  My beef with Hart’s response–so far as it is one–is that no matter how you cut it, there is still that suffering little girl.

I struggled intensely with articulating my thoughts in this paper, and I think now it was because the theological and philosophical and ontological tension inherent in the question of evil had made its way into not only my head but also my heart.  While his belief that death and suffering and evil have no meaning or function in God’s economy (i.e. they are an anomaly), I was not ultimately not satisfied with Hart’s attempt at theodicy (reconciling a loving God with the existence of evil) because ever and again the image of that little girl crying and pounding her fists come to mind.  And yet I still share the same belief and hope as Hart: that God will one day make all things new.  But how to I reconcile that?

If there’s one thing I don’t have a solid grasp on in terms of faith, it’s the Christian notion of the victory of God now, rather than just at some point in the future. When Christ said on the cross, “It is finished,” he wasn’t talking about his life, but about the victory of God.  And yet evil appears to carry on apace. Again, how do we reconcile the two?  I asked this question in class today and my prof quoted Karl Barth (I think–it may have been Martin Luther), who said, “The old Adam is drowned, but the bastard keeps swimming” (that was what he said to me in private–in class he said, “the bugger”, which, depending on where you come from, is no less vulgar).  I approached him after class and asked if Barth’s statement (“the one about the swimming bugger”) wasn’t a contradiction–if he’s drowned, the bastard most certainly shouldn’t be swimming.  In response, my prof made another comparison: a chicken with its head cut off will still run around for a couple of minutes–it’s dead, but in a way it doesn’t realize it yet (or it’s in denial), so it tries to keep on with what ever it has been doing.

This made sense to me, but still isn’t satisfying. I guess I just want all suffering to stop–what sane person doesn’t?–and the fact that it hasn’t yet drives me nuts.  I don’t like that tension. But I realized that I’m a typical modern(ist?) evangelical, and my prof concurred, who likes to have everything neatly packaged and arranged and explained and spelled out.  We want answers and explanations. We want an apology (in the sense of apologetics).  There is not much place for mystery in the evangelical mind.

I was going to link to a .pdf of my paper, but it occurred to me that it won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t read the book and there’s no need to trouble people with out-of-context ideas.  I can’t say I haven’t marvelled at not falling into total despair, perhaps even rejecting God the way Ivan does.  But I don’t think this is the obvious or natural answer to the question.  Somehow–by the grace of God, I guess–I still believe that all shall be well, while at the same time recognizing that suffering is real and that there is no appropriate response to suffering in the moment of suffering other than silence or weeping.

I guess I’ll have to learn to live with that tension for now.