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had a conversation w/ a friend today. she confessed she finds it hard to pray for the victims of the tsunami in asia when she is praying to the guy who did it. i feebly recommended that she read lewis' the problem of pain, but i had to admit that i have no great answers to my own questions. in fact, i'm so daunted by the complexity of the moral and theological questions that this tragedy raises that i just slam my head in the sand and try not to think about it. not very pastoral, but i guess that i am still a lawyer for a few more months, and the truly pastoral stuff is probably best left to the pastors for now. still, i question, and i wish my answers were like what i imagine dr. tim keller's or tom wright's would be. then, tonight, i read a thinklings post that quoted @ length a piece by, of all people, michael novak in, of all places, national review online, a periodical not often found on renee's and my coffee table. i'm a self-respecting liberal, for heaven's sake, and i'm pretty sure it's incongrous for me to quote michael novak; neverthelss, what he has to say should be heard. here's just a portion of the piece that asks "who's judging whom?"
stand before the cross. look at the body of this suffering servant of god. look, perhaps, with eyes opened by mel gibson's all but unendurable the passion. if this is what god did to his own son — his own being, with whom he is one — then what hope is there that we will be treated "nicely"? the god who does this is not "the god of niceness." his scale of grandeur is far different from ours. one has no sense of him whatever if one does not feel inner trembling and vast distance.

he is not a god made in our image. we are made as (very poor) images of him — images chiefly in the sense that we experience insight and judgment, decision and love, and that we too have responsibilities.

this is the god who made the vastness of the alps and the rockies and the andes; who knows the silence of jungles no human has yet penetrated; who made all the galaxies beyond our ken; who gave to mozart and beethoven and shakespeare and milton and dante and legions of others great talents; who infused life into the eyes of every newborn, and love into the hearts of all lovers; and imagined, created, and expressed love for all the things that he made. he made all the powers of storms, and all the immense force of earthquakes, and the roiling and tumultuous churning of the oceans. he imagined all the beautiful melodies we have ever heard, and more that we have not.

god is god.

god is our judge.

we are not his judge.

the question is not, "does god measure up to our (liberal, compassionate, self-deceived) standards?" the question is, "will we learn — in silence and in awe at the far-beyond-human power of nature — how great, on a far different scale from ours, is god's love?"

it would be the greatest and most obscene of illusions for a man, any man, to imagine that he has greater love for a child mangled in the oily, dark waters of the recent tsunami than the creator of that child has. it would be like ivan karamazov being unable to forgive God so long as one single child anywhere went to bed at night crying in loneliness and in pain. who is karamazov to think that his own love for that child — a purely abstract, speculative, hard-case, counterexample love — is greater than that of the child's creator?

the tapestry on which god weaves human existence is not the tapestry within the framework of time that we experience. as we do not comprehend the power of nature (especially nowadays, when we live so far removed from it, so protected from it), even more we do not begin to comprehend the love and goodness of god.

the truth is, the sight and smell of awful human death is sometimes more than we can take. perhaps we should feel confidence in the power of god's love, but we do not see it. all we feel is the night. our darkness is as keen as that of the unbeliever and the nihilist.

yet in that darkness, we the believers alone (not the unbeliever or the nihilist) feel betrayed by One whom we love. we alone feel anguish because we cannot understand.

but it is not as if we had not often before bumped into the limits of our understanding, and recognized nonetheless that there are undeniable glimmerings of powers and presences we know not of. and, like job, we refuse to deny the power of the goodness and light which we do see, their power to go out into the night in which we cannot now see.

it does seem that the creator is not always kind, not even just, within the bounded space that we experience. it does seem that the creator acts with undeniable cruelty. in our time, we have seen unimaginable suffering. like job, we cannot deny what we see.

neither can we deny the Light, which is what makes the absurd seem absurd. only in contrast to Light is the absurd absurd. otherwise it is only a brute matter of fact. no less than the unbeliever or the nihilist does the devout jew or christian inhabit the night. but only the believers continue in the silence to utter the unseeing yes of our love. the yes that ivan karamazov cannot say in the night alyosha does say.
so, that's one thread of an answer, a very well reasoned one, to the question of evil and suffering. it's better writing than be right to expect from li'l old me, but i will pass along this that i wrote a while back after hearing a sermon that deeply troubled me so that i couldn't sleep for thinking about it. some innocent kids had died in a fraternity house fire in our sleepy little hamlet, and it was in the minds of all that came to church that sunday.
the preacher, who is a dear friend and mentor to me and whose name i won't divulge, recounted a funeral he heard years ago wherein the preacher foolishly said "god wanted x w/ him in heaven." my friend said he had decided years ago that "an all-powerful god cannot be all-loving; and an all-loving god cannot be all-powerful." not to mention running counter to the teaching of the church for millennia, my friend's statement isn't an accurate description of the god of the bible, even a god, as episcopalians are wont to say (and rightly so), most fully revealed in jesus. yes, god chose to take on our humanity and suffer, humble himself and die. yes, there are mysteries shrouding god, and he is, in some way, like the wachovia securities tv commercial that asks "what can a fitted sheet teach us about financial security?" the "moral" of the ad (catch that oxymoron?) was that just when you think you've got it covered, some corner pops up again. it's probably hubris to even think we, finite human beings, can apprehend the infinite. but, as my friend andy rambo used to say, "god's not hiding behind a rock." he wants us to know him, and scripture, teaching, tradition and jesus all reveal the mystery of godhood.

indeed, he did choose to be humiliated and crucified, but that doesn't mean his power is confined in some divine weakness. jesus was "very god of very god," and it's appalling that he would dirty his hands with us. but the broader picture of "god" is incontrovertably one of omnipotence. he showed job just how strong he was, and just how puny job was. he confounded the gods of the eqyptians, rescuing israel and almost mocking their impotent deities in the manner of the exodus. he is the creator god, pictured at the outset of holy scripture as making all that is, seen and unseen, ex nihilo and by divine fiat. he is the god who holds the universe together even as i scratch these words (heb. 1.3). the weak god of openness theism gives up his ability to know what his creatures will do, and in doing so we have a nifty way of understanding tagedy, a larabbi harold kushner, but we lose the faith that god can do what he proposes, answer prayers, win it all in the end. we get a god whom we can't blame when tragedy strikes, but i fail to see how it's not also a god whom we also cannot blame when and if things don't turn out as he expect w/ regard to thinkgs like redemption, salvation and victory over sin and death. that's like trading a 56 topps mantle for an, i don't know, 1988 mark lemke or something. all the way around, it's a bad trade.

i don't think tonight's little bout with sleeplessness and an echo of a call i thought i might have heard in 1 tim 1.3 is going to make me go to my friend and command him to stop teaching false doctrines. in fact, i'm not sure i'm suposed to say or do anything. but i do believe that, for now, i'm encouraged to do what i can do positively to proclaim the gospel, including teaching, unashamedly, an orthodox christianity with a god who is both all-powerful and all-loving, and a world in which the fault of all tragedy lies solely @ the feet of a humanity that, in our power grab for divinity for ourselves, brought into being all the mystery and confusion that makes us shake our fists @ heaven. and it's only in shaking our fists and railing @ god, perhaps, that we ever see our true limitations and are forced to fall upon the grace and mercy of our holy lover. this world, ultimately, is not for our own understanding, but for god's glory. for whatever reason, he has allowed sin to enter the world with all the pain and chaos and darkness it carries with it. but far from being a powerless god who would have to sit back and watch events play out, he came down himself and defeated sin, routed death, claimed a people as his own whose very lives, whose salvation, whose election brings glory only to god. he is neither weak nor limited. he is not impassive, nor is he detatched and removed from us and our struggle.

he is the victor, and therein lies our hope.
my attemtpts at cobbling together a cogent theological response is, maybe will always be, a work in progress. for now, i'll tell you to read lewis' book, which is a bit dense but may be the bridge god crosses to meet you if you find yourself struggling w/ these questions of ours. and i'm truly grateful for novak's reminder about the obscene temerity of our hearts if we suppose that we somehow love the tsunami victims more than their creator loves them. we see the tapestry from this side, not from god's vantage point. oh, for the day when all death will be put down, the creation will be fully restored in its original perfection, and all of us can get a glimpse @ that tapestry from the other side. until then, we pray. and if we don't get answers right off, never we should mind, for the praying changes us.

further reading:


  • At 10:46 PM, Blogger Gabriel Syme said…

    I reached your blog by seeing who had "The Cost of Discipleship" in their list of favorite books. Reading your post "Unfathomable" was a blessed outcome. Thank you for writing it.

    Grace & peace,
    Gabriel Syme

  • At 11:32 AM, Blogger seth said…

    What part of Lerner's response do you disagree with?

  • At 12:33 PM, Blogger sammy said…

    i don't disagree w/ it all, seth. in fact, i wholeheartedly agree w/ his condemnation of the west's hypocrisy in being so apparently consumed w/ this story (especially as it affects american tourists or si swimsuit models) while tsk-tsk'ing @ global poverty. i also appreciate his prefatory "i don't know" which frames the rest of his remarks. on the other hand, i wholeheartedly deny lerner's insistence that we re-imagine god as "not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace, and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully." his "more vulnerable vision of god . . . not as the one responsible for everything that happens, but as an emerging voice of compassion and love in the midst of a world not totally under his/her control" is exactly the "weak god of openness theism" i have attempted, however inarticulately, to critique.

    and the stuff about "the gaia energy of our planet" and tectonic shifts (which even lerner seems to squint @ a bit) -- poppycock. not worth the time it would take me to write about it.

  • At 7:32 AM, Blogger seth said…

    Oh yeah, that stuff. I guess I sorta stopped paying attention to the piece after it diverged from the matter of the tsunami.

    Right on!


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