I’ve been rereading 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.
In it, David Hart 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.
Ivan admits there very well could be ‘a reason for everything’ that happens under the sun.
Ivan 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 or culled from scripture.
The test is whether we could say it to a parent standing at their child’s grave.
Hart’s axiom shows, I think, how only God-talk that’s centered in the crucified and risen Christ passes the test.