Monday, March 31, 2014

Theodicy and not knowing (or, stop being a jerk and just admit that sometimes life sucks and you have no idea why.)

True confessions of a seminarian: I hate theodicy.

If you're not a seminary type, see this brief explanation from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

Theodicy comes from the words for "God's justice," and basically just means "if there's a God why do things suck for a lot of people and often for me?"

The problem with hating theodicy is that, as a seminary person, it's supposed to be all, like, THE BIG QUESTION and what not. It's supposed to be the thing that sort of gnaws at all our theological brains. And I hate it, not because it's a hard question to answer, but because I've seen it hurt a lot and I don't think I've ever seen it help.

I've heard a lot of awful things said to suffering people to explain why they're suffering.

And rarely, if ever, have I heard a suffering person say, "Oh, thank goodness you explained to me how my suffering still fits with your view of God! That's a relief!"

Maybe I'm wrong. Feel free to disagree.

Anyway. This has been on my mind this week because we talked about it in Emergent Gathering on Wednesday, and then I heard John 9 preached on Thursday morning, and then we talked about John 9 in my class on Thursday afternoon, and then I heard John 9 preached on Sunday.

You can read the text itself, but at least part of it involves the disciples assuming that some guy is blind either because he's a sinner or his parents are sinners, and Jesus tells them that's not true, but then goes on to say something that sounds suspiciously like "God made him blind so that we could all see how cool God is when he gets healed."

Many people, myself included, would argue that that's not really what the text says, but either way probably not a good one to quote to people who are in pain.

The thing that I find interesting about John's gospel, though, is that these long theological discourses that John's Jesus embarks on, such as in John 9, get scandalously interrupted by Jesus doing human stuff like crying and touching people who are suffering and getting thirsty and what not.

All the theological back and forth in John 9 can't really explain the fact that Jesus heals somebody by spitting in dirt and making it into mud and smearing it in the dude's eyes. There's all sorts of great theological symbolism in there, but what's more important, I think, is that it's physical touch and physical elements--mainly, dirt--that seem to mediate healing. Not just ethereal power, but skin and mud and spit.

Or, in the words of Whitley, "To touch something real / Will make your wounds heal."

So what I get out of that is that showing up and listening and touching and holding and playing in the dirt and saying things like, "That sucks, that really sucks," is probably better than trying to explain things. And I think that holds true even of the best attempts at explanation. Even Moltmann's "crucified God" or Caputo's "weak God" or the idea of the "freedom of all reality" that's sort of emerged out of religious engagement with post-Einstein science seem to me to fall completely flat in the face of real suffering. It might be good for my own theology, it might inform my response to suffering, but I probably shouldn't quote it in the hospital.

In contrast is the comforting power of the "I don't know" that Parker Palmer talks about in a conversation with a woman suffering from depression. She asked him why some people who are depressed kill themselves and some people don't. And Parker Palmer tried to come up with a good explanation and all he could come up with was, "I have no idea." And a few days later the woman sent him a thank you note. All of the people in her Christian circles had tried to explain it, and it had been awful. And Parker Palmer said, "I don't know," and it was a huge relief.

"I don't know. But I'm here if you need me."

Sounds a lot better than:

"Here's why there's suffering."

Sometimes, what's called for is a reverent silence and a steady presence. Because that might not help. But at least it won't increase the hurt.

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