Monday, April 7, 2014

Doubting doubt, or the double-edged sword of epistemic humility

So on Monday I wrote about how I hate theodicy (i.e. if God is good why does awful stuff happen) and how that's sort of a problem 'cuz it's kind of a big deal in seminary.

As I hoped he would, my friend and former roommate Andy responded on facebook. Andy's a bit of a theodicy buff so I was glad he took time to comment. I'm just going to quote him here (since it's on facebook and public anyway):
"So you've got me on the fence. Part of me absolutely agrees that there is a time and a place for talking about theodicy and that that time and place usually isn't in the midst of suffering. On the other hand, wrestling with how my conception of God fits in with my experiences (individual and communal) of suffering in the world is what brought me back from the ledge and has kept me going on a number of occasions. Either way, I agree 100% that having epistemic humility and being willing to say "I don't know" has to be part of the equation."
Since I know Andy, and know a bit of his story, I know he's on to something here: his own wrestling with the "Why, God?" has been a huge part of his journey. So it was perhaps a bit arrogant of me to declare, in my last post, that theodicy is unhelpful in the face of real suffering.

Although come to think of it, Theodicy is Dead would be kind of a great name for a book.

The phrase "epistemic humility" that Andy mentions just means being humble about what we can claim to know. And what his response got me thinking about is how that sort of humility is a two-edged sword. I can declare that theodicy is irrelevant because it claims certainty in the face of deeply uncertain events; but can I acknowledge a genuine claim for its relevance?

And that question, in turn, got me thinking about my own journey. About how, in high school, when my mentor and coach killed himself and everything felt fragile and awful, I got so angry at the church because I felt like there were no answers there. And while my little church did the best thing, which was just to love me and keep telling me they loved me, I could also have used a few folks with some theodicy chops to yell at. Because as it was, it was just me--in one vivid memory--yelling at the ocean. Asking why, and how God could let someone be in so much pain, and whether someone who kills themselves goes to hell and if so what kind of God would do that and if not then why don't we all just do it? And honestly it was awfully lonely.

That's raw stuff when you're 15. It doesn't get too much less raw 15 years later.

So my own "I don't know" is a hard-fought one, and that's important to remember. Because while "I don't know" is often the best response, sometimes there is healing in the wrestling. Or, to be a bit more biblical with the imagery, maybe the wrestling is going to hurt but it's going to make us into a new person.

I guess what I'm left with is this: the "I don't know" of my response to suffering needs to inform what I believe about the world. And my belief about the world needs to inform my response to suffering. It's a conversation requiring a steady return to humility, on all sides. There's not one singular starting place with a solid path to the right answer.

But that's true even if I claim that the right answer is, "I don't know."

1 comment:

  1. Dear David,
    This brought to mind, "The Ministry of Presence."