This is a two-part rant that probably does not belong the week before Christmas, but neither do mass shootings or national political leaders vomiting their own ugliness on the rest of us belong in the public square either.
What follows here in Part-One is an email chain I was engaged in shortly after the Paris attacks in November. The questions I received were insightful and provocative, and I found them helpful in processing the sorrowful events taking place. I hope you find this series equally helpful.
Q. What about God in this (November 2015 Paris attacks)?
A. Did you ever read, “Night” by Elie Wiesel? If not, I recommend it.
At the beginning of the Book of Exodus it says that God heard the cry or moaning of the Hebrew slaves. More particularly it says that God saw, heard, and knew their suffering. This image, it seems to me, says that God suffers with us – is not unaffected or removed. My friend always responds, “Well what good does it do for God to suffer with us?” But to me, the notion of a God that is unaffected by what is happening in the creation is abominable. I don’t know what good it does but I don’t think God is all about our good anyway.
So short answer to Paris or Rwanda or Auschwitz is, I don’t know. But my hope is that God is suffering with us and not removed and unaffected by it.
Q. Good answer; one I’ll have to ponder for a bit. I’ve read “Night” many, many times, and Ellie Wiesel is a man I wish I were more like. Forgiveness is a tough nut to crack, and the greater the pain, the harder the task. But even more, in response to you, does this mean that God has ultimate faith in man’s ability to struggle through suffering to some kind of equipoise? So far we have been a sorry showing of that. There seems a fundamental glitch in our divine design, no?
A. Seems like a flaw to me too, but our perspective is pretty doggone small so in truth, I don’t know.
Q. Small perspective. You’re right. Hey, can you say you don’t know?
A. Hey, I do it all the time. I’m supposed to be truthful.
Q. But you are a man of God. Surely you have thought about these ideas with a more studied eye than people like me, for instance. It’s not really a question of knowing, because you’re right, how can we know. But what do you think? I have never been able to reconcile the idea of God and evil.
A. 1. No one has and I’m limited to a Twitter answer since I’m on my phone. There’s a story in my book related to it though. Twitter answer: God is present with us and that is as much as we can expect…still, strange possibilities happen.
A 2. (a few minutes later) Unlike the rational and scientific mind, spirituality is at its core mystical and that means the expectation to reconcile such maddening things is abandoned. We do not get to know and likely never will. The heartache and rage in the face of tragedy and evil must then be reconciled with something other than knowledge and understanding.
Q. What is the ‘other’ in your last sentence? Is that what faith and spirituality is: An acceptance of evil in a world of God? Are these answers as individual as the askant?
A. An acceptance of the fact that we do not know, and a trust in God. The universe is not about us. Human evil is of our making and if we truly don’t want it’s presence then it is up to us to do something about it. Natural evil, as in death and natural disasters, are simply the nature of the existence we live in. The trust in God is that all of it, beyond our conception and imagination, “is good.” “And God saw that it was good.” We can’t see beyond our own self-interest so we do not recognize the goodness in something that includes our pain, suffering, and death. But I trust God that somehow, it is “good” even though I also rail against God bitterly when it doesn’t seem good to me.
Q. OK. That makes some sense to me. I like the part about the universe not being about us. I think I have always somehow ‘assumed’ that the universe should be good so that when evil appears, my faith over time is shaken to the core. I’m not sure whether faith in God and trust in God are one and the same, but I find my faith lost at the moment and I am having trouble connecting with it again. These major events of evil simply hide it from me further.
A. This is how I imagine what we have been conversing about, the individual elements on a descending scale of depth. We do not “live” on any of these levels; we visit them only. Trust is the rock bottom and belief the most malleable. When evil is palpably present our thoughts look for how evil can fit into our beliefs and so evil rocks our sense of reality in our faith. Trust is the rock and unshakable, if we can find it.
Belief: ideas about God, life, etc. – thought.
Faith: the memory of encounters with the holy – experience.
Trust: encounters with God that tell us we are infinitesimal and that it is all about God not us, and somehow that make it all ok – mysticism.
Q. That’s a complex matrix. Thanks for that concise description. But still the question begs attention: when trust is rocked, and by your description, significant foundational support, how does a person re-gain it? Is it possible that some disruptions of trust are rifts in such a fundamental fabric of understanding that the structure cannot be healed? This is the place where, (I believe), people who have studied God differ from their laypeople. How can you maintain faith when your trust is rocked to the core, given your structure?
A. There is no answer to that; that I know of. All I would say is that it is your trust and you are in control of it. How we frame the world and our experience is not a foregone conclusion, it is something we choose. It can be a battle of pain and with personal demons but it is ours to imagine. If not, no one would get sober; Elie Wiesel would have ended up radically different; any victim of any hurt, abuse, or violence would always remain only a victim. Trust, along with perspective, is ours to imagine and hold. So we give the power of that away to evil at our own peril.
Q. It never feels quite that simple, though I agree with you to some extent. Still, the thought of evil in the world is unsettling and I don’t feel that I’m giving away any personal power; it is simply the way the world seems to be.
A. Too true. The world has evil in it and we are vulnerable. The bristling nuclear teeth lined up opposite sides of the Cold War made us feel that vulnerability and so does the dark specter of climate change. In truth, we are our own worst enemy and our capacity and power to save or protect ourselves is limited. That is a fact we live with – just as on a personal level we live with such things as cancer and alcoholism. It helps me to imagine God is present in all of this and not the fixer. If we don’t look to God as the cosmic solution to our problems I think it is easier to see and recognize God in the midst of it all whether our personal experience at any given moment happens to be a struggle or pleasure. Expecting God to save us, free us, fix us, cure us only limits our spiritual perception.
THE CONCLUSION…to follow.