Tag Archives: theodicy

The Fault in Whose Stars?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsTheodicy. I’m no theologian, but the problem of suffering erects a wall ever higher between wanting to believe and actual experience. Many great thinkers have laid down their faith because of this insuperable hurdle. The movie version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars opened last night, but I didn’t see it. It was difficult enough to make it through the book. I have to admit feeling a bit wimpy about finding a young adult novel emotionally challenging, but it just is. As I mentioned a few days ago, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been topping charts lately, but so has John Green’s novel of childhood cancer. Theodicy is deeply inscribed in this sad tale of loss and love. From a purely biological perspective, the death of the young is explicable, but that seems to be the easy way out.

I’ve been toying with The Fault in Our Stars since January. Picking it up long enough to read a few pages, then growing frightened and putting it aside for a few weeks. The story begins in “the literal heart of Jesus” in a church for a cancer support group where Hazel meets Gus, and, as young people do, falls in love. Green is clear on one point from the beginning: no novel where the protagonists are victims of cancer can ever have a happy ending. We just have to watch and wait for the inevitable. The children return time and again to the “literal heart of Jesus” but no healing comes. They face loss and every page you turn brings more imponderable questions. Yes, this is fiction, but we live in a world where childhood cancer exists. And childhood starvation. And childhood victims of abuse and violence. And still we try to find a way to fit it into a broken-down theology and wonder why we don’t smile more often.

I don’t shy away from provocative fiction. I read scary stories with all sorts of monsters. Finding ourselves, however, in a world where neither rationalism nor theology really makes all the sense they should, sometimes the scariest stories are the truest to life. John Green’s fiction, it comes as no surprise, is frequently banned. Reading it as an adult one finds parts predictable and parts handled too gently, but with enough realism thrown in to want to see it through to the end. Banning books, however, is merely an attempt to shield children from that which they need to see. We do no favors, hiding the truth from those best equipped by nature to accept it. The real question is whether theodicy itself can survive. Perhaps, like the characters in the novel, it will come to its own quiet termination with no real answers to offer.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.

Watchtower

Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.

Grendel’s Gods

GrendelGardnerSometimes I think that if I had to do it all over again, I might’ve chosen Beowulf instead of the Bible. Let me define “it” here: if I had to pick a vocation that would lead to personal fulfillment and personal penury, that is. Beowulf is the earliest written story in English and, it’s a monster story. What’s not to like? In honor of Banned Book Week, I decided retroactively to read a banned title, John Gardner’s Grendel. An early parallel novel narrated from Grendel’s point of view, we are introduced to the introspective, existentialist monster who is really just wondering, like the rest of us, what the point of it all is. Not surprisingly, the protagonist often addresses the question of religion—indeed, it might even be at the heart of the story.

In chapter nine, Grendel sits in the darkness in the ring of wooden gods of the Danes when Ork, the great, blind priest stumbles in and believes the monster is the Destroyer god. As Grendel toys with his theology, the old priest understands this all as a revelation, and although Grendel gives him no answers, the words are taken as divine utterances. The other priests, finding their leader out on a winter’s night, insist that he has gone senile, that gods do not reveal themselves like that. The old man, however, is unshakeable in his faith. As in much of the novel, there is more going on here than meets the eye. The deluded priest believes a monster is his god.

The question of theodicy (literally, the judging, or justification of God) is never-ending for theists. The world is a problematic place (made so, I must note, by human consciousness) for the creation of an omnipotent deity who is good. Too much suffering, Grendel, too many failed expectations. Clergy and theologians have, for centuries, tried to frame a convincing answer to the dilemma. The tack they all studiously avoid is that God is a monster, although some posit that as a straw hypothesis quickly to be knocked down. Gardner, although not a theologian, was the son of a lay preacher and farmer. One suspects that elements of that childhood crawled out through the pond with Grendel. One of the truly tragic characters, a “son of Cain,” Grendel still has an immense power on the imagination. And that power, at times, might even appear godlike.

By Jove!

When Zeus is taken seriously in the New York Times, even the open minded scratch their heads. It’s not because any of us really believe Zeus is up their hurling thunderbolts, but because anyone would even dare raise the question. Yes, Gary Gutting’s Opinionator article is lighthearted and perhaps even a little cynical, but it does raise serious questions. Did our ancestors believe in the gods with no “proof”? I can’t help but think of the phenomenally expensive video, I Still Worship Zeus. There are, in this day of high technology and low tolerance for non-scientific outlooks, people who continue to believe in Zeus. Well, his name does come from the same root as the old Indo-European word that gives us the Latin Deus, or “God.” And, let’s face it, the stories of the Greek gods can be pretty cool (despite sub-par big screen renditions). But to take any of this seriously…Seriously?

Jupiter_Smyrna_Louvre_Ma13

As Gutting points out, some of the great minds of Greek science didn’t question the existence of Zeus. I certainly wouldn’t care to pit my puny wit against that of Plato. Those scientifically minded Greeks, apparently, believed in the gods because of their explanatory value. Too many coincidences and synchronicities and epiphanies suggest something more than meets the eye. We don’t see gods today, so Gutting asks how we know the world hasn’t changed. Now, I take uniformitarianism seriously. It is the basis for geology and much of evolution. Our old, old earth shows no evidence of a sudden change in the way things happen. What is malleable is human interpretation. As recently as a century ago, belief in some kind of divine world was very pervasive. Only in the past few decades—since World War Two, I would guess—has the premise of the Judeo-Christian god become suspect. The daily experience of living in a world where theodicy just can’t explain all the suffering has led us to a kind of stalemate with the gods.

I once had a scholarly exchange with a colleague over the nature of the word “evidence.” Our little tiff was published in the Journal for the Study of the Old Testament. My colleague had suggested that Yahweh—the god of Israel—was considered a solar deity. I averred that evidence did not exist. With rejoinder and riposte, we had to agree to disagree. The evidence I was seeking was stringent, but as we all know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that is the point that Gutting makes, whether seriously or not. The question is not “Is Zeus there?” but “Was Zeus there?”. I decline to offer an opinion. I do applaud the New York Times, however, for attempting to get us thinking about serious issues once again. If Zeus did exist, then it behooves us to consider all the implications. And perhaps to reconsider home-owners’ insurance in a world where gods may roam at large.

God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

BruceAlmighty

One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

OhGod

Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

Angels of Ages

Angels&Ages February 12, 1809. Both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born. Some days can be momentous that way. Although I’d known about this coincidental birth for some years, I had supposed it was one of history’s curiosities and nothing more. Adam Gropnik’s Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life changed all that. What’s more, while both Lincoln and Darwin are secular characters, the book has a strong dose of how religion influenced and perhaps even emanated from ideas both of these giants had. Religion actually surfaces throughout much of the book, although Lincoln grew up as a skeptic, and certainly was not a “church goer,” and Darwin was groomed for the clergy but came, through nature, to have serious doubts about God’s existence. Religion may not be Gropnik’s main point, but it has a way of following these two historical figures around.

Using a biographical and intellectual parallelism, Gropnik lays the two men side-by-side in their Victorian lives and shows how death was really a factor that bound them. Both lost a beloved child at about the same age, and both found death’s pervasiveness a problem for believing in any kindly God. Of course, we all know that none of us would be here now if our forebears had not passed on, making room for us. It is the way of nature. Nature is hardly kind or just, however. Ringing throughout this fascinating exploration is the ubiquitous problem of theodicy—in a world of such palpable suffering, where, indeed, has God gone? How do we continue to believe when all the evidence is contrary? Some of our greatest doubters have become our greatest guides.

I appreciated especially how Gropnik ends his little book with some thoughts on religion. He makes the essential point that Darwinism, by definition, cannot be a religion. Even better is the clear-eyed vision that he has that religion and science are both needed by people and they may both be held as true. Even when they’re fighting. The truth is nobody has all the answers. Those who brashly dismiss religion or science are equally wrong. In his eloquent style, Gropnik makes a decidedly sane suggestion that we should learn from our assertions of pluralism. We are accustomed to thinking about much of life and culture as being equally valued, no matter where on the planet we find it. Why can we not do the same with truths? Some will find meaning in science and have little time for faith. Others will find religion to be their ultimate and will not be bothered by science. The vast majority of us are somewhere in the middle. And what brought us to this point was the fact that February 12, 1809 was such an extraordinary day.

Longer Nights

Those who write put part of themselves into every piece. Sometimes that tiny fragment of the author is nearly invisible, while at other times fiction becomes difficult to separate from biography. One of my daughter’s assigned summer readings is Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Since I use the opportunity of her assigned readings to catch up on what I should’ve read long ago, I recently sat down to see what the play was about. A dysfunctional family. Alcoholism, tuberculosis, and self-loathing are the unholy trinity of much writing from the nineteenth and turn of the twentieth centuries. But God also comes into the mix. Perhaps the divine was nearer to the surface back in the days when you might assume every other American had been raised in a Christian household. O’Neill’s dark and disturbing Tyrone family might be considered good candidates for irreligion were it not for the fact that being Catholic was so much a part of Irish identity in those days. Perhaps in some quarters it still is.

In Act Two, Scene Two James Tyrone is discussing his wife’s as yet unrevealed addiction with his two sons. Edmund, the scholar (and in reality bearing the family position of O’Neill himself), has rejected belief in God. He asks his father if he prayed for Mary in the days when her difficulties began. “I did. I’ve prayed to God these many years for her,” James Tyrone declares. Edmund responds, “Then Nietzsche must be right.” The debate is the classic issue of theodicy—where is God when things go wrong? Mary, the wife/mother believes she was bound for a convent, having been raised in Catholic school. When her life spirals in unexpected directions, she chooses morphine over faith in God, and the men, soused in whiskey, wonder who’s to blame. James, the father, declares atheism to be the culprit.

I found this an interesting study. Characters either unthinkingly accept the religion with which they were raised, or reject religion altogether. Edmund follows up his declaration by quoting Thus Spake Zarathustra: “God is dead: of His pity for man hath God died.” Nietzsche is never simple to comprehend, but even in the declaration of the divine death is an implicit indication of the existence of deity. The subtle nuances here are often lost in family debates where God’s abstract existence is far less important than the human suffering that raises the question in the first place. O’Neill was writing not only in the shadow of Nietzsche, but also of Karl Marx and other theorists whose nails had been pounded into the heavenly coffin over the past two centuries. So Mary, in her morphine vision, returns at the end of the play to state, “I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.” The reader, however, along with Karl Marx, knows that this is really the opiate of the people finding voice through one of the faithful.

Problematizing Noah

As I continue to Tweet the Bible, I’ve been working through the story of Noah. Considering the number of children’s items imprinted with the friendly, smiling Noah and Mrs., and the cute, predatory animals they’re taking aboard their private yacht, the utter belligerence of the story is frequently lost. There is one seriously peeved God behind this. “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart,” Genesis 6.6 states. And it only gets worse from there: “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth… for it repenteth me that I have made them.” Indeed, the wrath of God is emphasized more than the wickedness of the humans that have spawned it. No matter what is done, it seems, God will still be in a rage.

The truly striking aspect of this account comes, however, when Noah is instructed on whom to save. “Thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife,” verse 18 dictates. Men first. Now, we cannot judge a product of the past against standards of the present day, but it is quite clear why many women find the biblical text less-than-friendly. Even the animals are explicitly paired from the start do not receive the radical disjointing that the women receive from the men. If the purpose is to procure a new generation, arguably pregnant women could have done that with the men treading water above the remains of Eden. If survival is the point of the story, as the saying goes, ladies first.

The flood story is a complex account of a deity with anger management issues and a preference for the company of men. Although theologians may say with a wink that God has no gender, clearly the Bible begs to differ.

Humans and animals alike are victims of the divine wrath, and even though humanity survives the flood can the relationship with deity ever be the same again? How do humans face a creator turned destroyer, knowing that they will never really please him again? The weight of such divine displeasure is surely greater than all that water pressing our ancient cousins into fossils on the primeval sea bed. I think back to all the children’s toys with the happy little animals and a smiling Noah and I know they resemble the biblical version only in the most fleeting of fashions. Yet the myth lives on.

What shape is your ark?

Artifacts or Theodicy?

Last week the Huffington Post ran a story that ties archaeology, religion, and monsters together in a package too neat for some researchers. Digging in a sixteenth-century grave for plague victims (something that strikes me as being so foolhardy as to be religious) archaeologists found a corpse with a brick in its mouth. The preliminary conclusion? Sixteenth-century Italian plague-weary society was attempting to stop a vampire. The find has, of course, been disputed. Other archaeologists, the story notes, claim that a loose brick could have fallen into the cadaver’s agape mouth just making it resemble the little-known technique of stopping a vampire by bricking its mouth open. This story, written with Huffington Post’s usual pluck, raised an issue I quite often encountered as a doctoral student in ancient Near Eastern religions: anomalies are generally categorized as religious.

When my wife first pointed this story out to me I thought I might learn something of vampire lore—itself inherently religious—from the sixteenth century. The fact is, however, that artifacts (including people) under the ground accumulate a lot more than dirt. Mystery attends the lives of yesteryear, and the further back we go in time the less we understand. It was a standing joke among those of us in the textually-based field of religious studies that any artifact for which no function could be discerned would most certainly be labeled “religious” by archaeologists. When no logic attends an action, call it religious. This might be a motto for academics and their approach to the study of religion. There are some who claim religious studies is not a proper field of inquiry at all. Excuse me, but where are you intending to fly that plane?

Vampire scares (whether or not that’s what was found in Italy) do, however, follow their own logic. Although early scientists may have made connections implicating rodents (and their fleas) as carriers of plague, the average citizen would have only seen the supernatural dimension. Morbidity on the scale of the Black Death is almost inconceivable and as Europe suffered through periodic outbreaks of plague it seemed that a good God couldn’t be behind it all. Evil creatures, such as vampires, get God off the hook. They are a device of theodicy. “Theodicy” is the jargon for the theological justification of God in a world full of suffering. When God’s goodness effaces to such a point that people grow frightened, well, isn’t it just easier to say a vampire is behind it all? The conclusion that logic draws is quite different. Nevertheless, I think I’ll be replacing the garlic on my nightstand with a brick. What will the archaeologists of the future say?

Planet of the Monkeys

“If salvation is available only to Christians, then the Gospel isn’t good news at all. For most of the human race, it is terrible news.” That may not be Rachel Held Evans’s choice for the final word on the subject, but it is the privilege of all writers to be misinterpreted. I read Evolving in Monkey Town because of an odd confluence. Evolution always tastes like forbidden fruit to me, although there can be no real doubt concerning its factuality. Also, the spiritual journeys of women continue to fascinate me. Even if the women are young enough to be my daughter. I first learned about the Scopes Monkey Trial in Mr. Pierce’s tenth grade history class. In eleventh grade I argued the Fundamentalist side of an epic, three-day debate on evolution in current issues class. I set a reputation that I’m still attempting to live down. (Studying religion for the next ten years probably did me no favors here.) The end result is that I feel a personal connection to what happened in Dayton, Tennessee, although I’ve never been there.

Evolving in Monkey Town is a memoir of a struggling, skeptical fundamentalist. Reading it at times made me squirm a bit, seeing childhood worries and frustrations coming back to me through someone else’s experience. Some of Evans’s remarks could have come from me, had I the courage to write up my past so that others might view it. At the end of the book it was obvious that I could not agree with many of the author’s personal convictions, but she earned my respect. Under the constant pressures of pleasing a deity that can’t be seen, or empirically verified, Evans sees clearly the disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and Fundamentalist Christianity. She has a wonderful knack for clear sight and forthright comment. Like me, she has become aware that a Fundamentalist upbringing is something no one ever truly escapes.

The crisis that seems to have sparked Evans’s angst was the recognition that no matter how you arrange it, an exclusive religion cannot coexist with a just deity. The world is just too big for that. Any scenario in which God sets the rules and makes it impossible for the vast majority of humanity to attain those rules does reflect rather poorly on this pater familias. We are all reduced to a diabolical game of charades as we march merrily toward perdition. Theodicy is an insurmountable problem in this live-a-day world we inhabit. Reading about the altruistic traits of the primates most closely related to us reveals something about being a monkey’s uncle. When we look at the shenanigans religions enforce on people to make them more worthy of heaven, I think we would all have to admit to living in Monkey Town.

Girl Meets God…

Once in a very great while I find a book that I simply can’t put down. It is a rare windfall when that book feels like it was written especially for me. I was instantly engrossed in Sarah Sentilles’ Breaking Up With God. Like Susan Campbell’s Dating Jesus, this book reinforced the fact that women experience a side of God’s character generally closed to men—the idea that God might be a lover. In our distorted, still patriarchal culture we have yet to grow beyond the idea that God is male. This simple, persistent teaching ensures that a gender-divide will always remain in effect when it comes to monotheistic religions. What truly spoke to me from Sentilles’ book, however, was not the theology, but the heart. Although the gender view from which I approach concepts of divinity must necessarily be different, here I found someone with a journey in many ways similar to mine. The honesty with which the author lays open her experience is beautiful and terrifying.

One of the recurring questions on this blog is whence the concept of God arose. Anthropologists, psychologists, and theologians come up with varying answers but the fact is the real impact is felt in very human minds. We have, perhaps unwittingly, devised a punishing image of the creator of the universe. A God who causes, allows, or at least condones arbitrary human suffering. A God who permits atrocities daily to be committed in his name (for this is a masculine god). A God who has left a burning ruin in his wake. Those of us who’ve attended seminary, as Sentilles makes vividly clear, are taught perceptions of the divine that can never be translated into the pulpit. Those of us who go on to graduate school are permitted a rare glimpse behind the veil to see something that it frightens us to contemplate, let alone write or speak about. It is a burden best worn like a hairshirt—beneath other clothes so that people don’t know it’s there. Many of us are then cast into the career outer darkness with nothing but our highly educated, disturbing thoughts for comfort.

Sarah Sentilles has given the world a gift with her revealing, sensible, and very human story. Having grown up with the image of God as a father, it was a shock when a seminary professor once revealed to me that God could never really fill that role. Nor, he added, could the church. While it cannot be the same as breaking up with God, the realization that what you were taught as a child was merely a metaphor forces a grand reevaluation of perceptions. My professor was, of course, correct. Carrying around a faulty image of God will lead only to intractable complications further down the road. Although Sentilles started down the path some years later than I did, it seems we have wound up in the same neighborhood. Her book deserves to be read widely, thought over carefully, and pondered for a time. We need to consider: what hath man wrought?

Finding Nemesis

Philip Roth was an author unknown to me (shame on me!) until this summer. Over the past several years I’ve taken it upon myself to read my daughter’s high school novel-reading assignments so that we can stay current (in an aspect where a parent is permitted to do so). Her school requires summer reading and this year Roth’s novel Nemesis was on the roster. As a recent book, it is unusual in being assigned before the test of time has rendered its verdict. Set during a fictionalized polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, Nemesis follows the fortunes of Bucky Cantor, a Jewish physical education teacher in charge of a summer playground program in Newark. As his kids begin to fall to the disease, the protagonist flees to the Poconos to be with his fiancée at a Jewish summer camp. As the situation deteriorates, Bucky questions God’s role in the world of disease and in the war that continues to rage in Europe and the Pacific.

It is the classic issue of theodicy. Having been raised in a tradition that espouses God’s goodness, the protagonist has to face the death and disabling of children by a disease for which there is no cure (at the time). The issue of God’s role in the disaster is a recurring theme throughout the book. In the final chapter when the atheist narrator—himself a victim of polio and one of Bucky’s former students—questions Cantor about his beliefs, Bucky holds onto a dogged insistence that blame must be ascribed. His student opines: “it’s a medical enigma… His [Bucky’s] conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two—a sick f**k and an evil genius.” That statement gave me pause. Traditionally theodicy assumes the goodness of God and tries to bend the facts to fit the premise. Here God is in the dock and all interpretations are permitted in cross-examination.

The angst of dealing with the concept of omnipotence is real enough. In this Tea-Party world where selfish personal aggrandizement is seen as divine prerogative while children starve in misery and die painfully on an hourly basis, very real questions should be asked. Instead, most people assume the religion they have been taught is correct: often the facts of history are distorted to make such a belief match pre-decided outcomes. God is good as long as I get my share.

Reviews of Nemesis have been mixed, but Roth does a powerful job in his final chapter of this novel. The action is almost as predictable as the heat of summer, but the real substance, as usual, lies in the interpretation of the events. When God is brought into the equation, the temperature is sure to rise even further.

Malleus Practice

Misfortune takes a quiet seat in the back of the bus for many people, but it is always there riding behind you. My recent trip to Salem is now over, but it has left me with that haunted feeling that sometimes tragedy just won’t let go. Reading up on the history of witches and the belief therein, it is pretty clear that the whole idea began as a form of theodicy. Misfortune happens. When a one-to-one correspondence attends it, people don’t worry too much. (John has a stomachache. We know that John slapped Bob, and Bob punched John in the stomach so there’s no supernatural agent at work here.) When the adversity comes out of nowhere, to all appearances, we naturally look for a cause. As long ago as ancient Sumer, and probably before, the answer was sometimes the baleful influence of enemies with supernatural powers. The witch was born.

This idea has remarkable longevity. Even as the eighteenth century dawned, just a few short years after the tragedy at Salem, Puritans and politicians embarrassingly looked at their feet and admitted this mockery of justice had been an unfortunate error. Yet they still believed witches existed. The concept is alive even today in parts of the world minimally influenced by schooling in science and logic. (I taught at a seminary where various witch hunts still took place; books were even burned.) Who doesn’t know the feeling that a totally natural disaster was in some way targeting them? Whether tornadoes, tsunamis, or rain on your Memorial Day picnic, the normal human response is one of a minor (or major) persecution complex.

To solve the riddle of witches, horseshoes and witch bottles are not necessary, but education is. Witchcraft was not considered Satanic until the late Middle Ages when apocalyptic fever raged through Europe with the Black Death. Not understanding microbes, the populace supposed a great war presaging the end of times was escalating between God and Satan. The minions of the Dark Lord were spawned by witches and demons. (Add Tim LaHaye and you’ve pretty much got Left Behind.) To solve the problems of the righteous, sacrifice a few innocent victims. If we call them witches—actually any undesirable name will do, eh, Senator McCarthy?—we will feel justified in doing so. The real solution, namely, working together to overcome natural and human-made afflictions, is really just too hard.

Conscious Cats

To pass yet another rainy Saturday, and to celebrate Earth Day, my family went to watch Disney’s African Cats yesterday. An avowed nature-film junkie as a child, I watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on a weekly basis and have supplemented that fare with nature films throughout my life, when possible. It disheartened me a little to learn that some of the adventures were spliced together from different filmings, but I always believed every word avuncular Marlin Perkins said. After all, the show ran on Sunday nights, and who’d dare lie on a Sunday? Noting the humor even as a child when Marlin Perkins would stand back as Jim Fowler wrestled the anaconda or outran the crocodile, I could not get enough of authentic nature footage. As a child, wildlife sightings were limited to squirrels and rabbits, a number of birds that looked disconcertingly similar, and many, many bugs. Once a king snake slithered down an alley down the street, and we felt like Marlin Perkins, keeping our safe distance.

A trend in recent years has been to anthropomorphize animal films to engage children’s interests. So it was with African Cats. Each lion and cheetah family was described in human terms with human motivations, longings, and emotions. It is clear from watching many, many episodes of Zoboomafoo with my daughter (we even saw the Kratt Brothers live at a New Jersey Greenfest a couple years back) that animals genuinely do experience emotions. Anthropomorphizing them, however, has always disturbed me. I’ve been a vegetarian for well over a decade now, believing that animals have the same right not to be eaten that I fervently hope they respect in me. But placing them in the same level of consciousness as humans increases the suffering in our world a little too much. Both lions and cheetahs die in this G-rated movie. That is the unfeeling course of nature. Suffering comes at the level among humans of being aware of this misfortune, and taking it to heart. Theodicy is among the most intractable of theological problems.

Today as millions of Christians celebrate resurrection, my thoughts are with the animals. African Cats shows incredible footage of millions of wildebeest migrating, but packages them as mere prey for the hungry lions. What of the inner life of the wildebeest? In our society where the few lions demand the best while countless prey animals go about their daily grind, eking out a living from an unfeeling earth, the subtle message was almost overwhelming. Yes, the vast wildebeest herd can spare a member or two to predation. What if that member is you or me? It is the trick of numbers and the curse of consciousness. I respect and admire our animal co-inhabitants of our planet, but without the myth of resurrection isn’t giving them consciousness just a little bit too cruel?

James Temple's cheetah from Flickr, via WikiCommons