One of the books I felt drawn to rereading after I learned I had cancer was David Bentley Hart’s little book, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? It’s a life-changing kind of book by a former teacher whose work continues to shape me.
I thought of Hart’s book again this week when I read my friend Tony Jones‘ recent post ‘Where is God in the Earthquake?’The post is drawn from Tony’s new book, Did God Kill Jesus?, which you should
check out buy.
While I resist the same religiously motivated explanations for tragedies to which Tony objects, I also resist the explanation- because that’s what it is- he advocated; namely, that rather than causing disasters and tragedies God suffers them along with us.
By contrast, David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea, recalls reading an article in the NY Times shortly after the tsunami in South Asia in 2005. The article highlighted a Sri Lankan father, who, in spite of his frantic efforts, which included swimming in the roiling sea with his wife and mother-in-law on his back, was unable to prevent any of his four children or his wife from being swept to their deaths.
In the article, the father recounted the names of his four children and then, overcome with grief, sobbed to the reporter that “My wife and children must have thought, ‘Father is here….he will save us’ but I couldn’t do it.”
In the Doors of the Sea, Hart wonders:
If you had the chance to speak to this father, in the moment of his deepest grief, what should one say?
Hart argues that only a ‘moral cretin’ would have approached that father with abstract theological explanation:
“Sir, your children’s deaths are a part of God’s eternal but mysterious counsels” or “Your children’s deaths, tragic as they may seem, in the larger sense serve God’s complex design for creation” or “It’s all part of God’s plan.”
Or “It’s okay, God is mourning too” which is only a more sensitive-sounding but equally deficient explanation precisely because it still attempts an explanation.
Hart says that most of us would have the good sense and empathy to talk like that to the father (though my experience tells me Hart would be surprised how many people in fact would say something like it).
This is the point at which Hart takes it to the next level and says something profound and, I think, true:
“And this should tell us something. For if we think it shamefully foolish and cruel to say such things in the moment when another’s sorrow is most real and irresistibly painful, then we ought never to say them.”
Silence is the best thing to (not) say when there’s nothing to say.
Hart goes on to reflect on The Brothers Karamazov. In it, Dostoyevsky, in the character of Ivan, rages against explanation to his devout brother and gives the best reason I’ve ever encountered for not believing in God. Better than anything in philosophy. Better than anything science can dredge up. Better than any hypocrisy or tragedy I’ve encountered in ministry.
Ivan first recounts, one after another, horrific stories of tortures suffered by children- stories Dostoyevsky ripped from the pages of newspapers- and then asks his pious brother if anything could ever justify the suffering of a single, innocent child.
What makes Ivan’s argument so challenging and unique is that he doesn’t, as you might expect, accuse God for failing to save children like those from suffering.
He doesn’t argue as many atheists blandly do that if a good God existed then God would do something to prevent such evil.
Instead Ivan rejects salvation itself; namely, he rejects any salvation, any providence, any cosmic ‘plan’ that would necessitate such suffering.
He admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.
He just refuses to have anything to do with such a God.
So, Ivan doesn’t so much disbelieve God as he rejects God, no matter what consequences such rejection might have for Ivan. He turns in his ticket to God’s Kingdom because he wants no part of the cost at which this Kingdom comes.
When I first read the Brothers K, Ivan’s argument, which is followed by the poem ‘The Grand Inquisitor, took my breath away. I had no answer or reply to Ivan. I was convinced he was right. I still am convinced by him.
The irony, I suspect, is that Ivan’s siding with suffering of the little ones is a view profoundly shaped by the cross. It seems to me that Ivan’s compassion for innocent suffering and disavowal of ANY explanation that justifies suffering comes closer to the crucified Christ than an avowed Christian uttering an unfeeling, unthinking platitude like ‘God has a plan for everything.’
The test of whether or not our speech about God is true, Hart says then, isn’t whether it’s logical, rationally demonstrable, emotionally resonant or culled from scripture.
The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.
While I empathize with Tony’s revulsion at those who preach a God whose morality bears no resemblance to our own and who is the direct cause behind every natural disaster and tragedy that befalls us, I agree with Hart:
To preach instead a companionable, changing God who suffers with us (and is changed by that suffering) is to give meaning to suffering and evil.
Worse, it’s really nothing more than a variation of the more loathsome sovereignty of God explanations, for a God who uses suffering and evil for His own self-realization as God is complicit in suffering and evil.
The Gospel, that Easter is God’s (only) response to suffering and death is something far different.
As Hart writes:
“Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel — and none in which we should find more comfort — than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
“Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death – considered in themselves – have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.”
“The first proclamation of the gospel is that death is God’s ancient enemy, whom God has defeated and will ultimately destroy. I would hope that no Christian pastor would fail to recognize that that completely shameless triumphalism — and with it an utterly sincere and unrestrained hatred of suffering and death — is the surest foundation of Christian hope, and the proper Christian response to grief.”
Where was God in the Earthquake?
Not behind the earthquake, no.
Not in the earthquake.
Not suffering with those who suffered and suffer the earthquake.
But certainly with.
God, Hart writes, was and is:
“In and beyond all things, nearer to the essence of every creature than that creature itself, and infinitely outside the grasp of all finite things.”
“And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death…”
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