It seems that every once in a while, two or three deaths happen in a small community that affect everyone, whether we knew the individuals and families or not. If you did have personal connections, these recent losses to your world of important people, of individuals who have given you something good that will never be taken away, stings because everyday you realize that these beautiful gifts which should have continued, will not. And so these stories cry out for a divine purpose, for some meaning other than coincidence. But no explanation holds. Nothing makes sense.
If God was or is in charge, why do young, promising people get terminal diseases? If God was in charge how could the brave Iranian girl Neda, so full of democratic promise, be killed for her vision of peace? The question is not new and could be asked of any number of circumstances happening as we speak. It was asked by a nation after 9/11. It was asked by a race after the holocaust. It is a question designed to keep us from despairing over the fact that there are deep suspicions about God, about this religion: “Perhaps we are alone in this swirling, chaotic and unfriendly universe.”
“Perhaps that all good, all powerful God who lives supernaturally somewhere beyond us, but who has yet the power to intervene for us and on our behalf, may well be our own projection, as Ludwig Feuerbach suspected.” When tragedies hit us personally, the heart struggles to make sense of these fears and we struggle to restore God to believability.
Archibald MacLeish sums up the situation comically. “If God is God, God is not good. If God is good, God is not God.” In other words, his is the classic conundrum of theodicy — if God has the power to prevent tragedy and does not then God is malevolent. If God does not have the power to prevent tragedy, then God is impotent. We get tripped up on either horn of the dilemma. The result, is that this God cannot be acceptable, and theism is out; atheism seems the only alternative.
But is that so? In many ways this communal moment of suffering can also be a moment for us to consider how we might, in fact, restore our thought about God to believability. Deep times call for deep reflection.
Our stories, for as varied as they are, seem to bear some similiarities to each others’ because we all have had that childhood experience of being at the center of the universe. Secure and basking in the attentiveness of a parent. For some, that experience does not last long. For others of us, that security is later transferred to the stories we learn about the God who directed affairs such that everything works according to a plan that is ultimately good for us. We are either conveniently not taught about the inconsistencies of that story as a child, or we simply cannot process them. We hear about the story of the flood, and hear only about how good God is to Noah and nothing about the extraordinary loss of life. We remember the story of Jericho and God standing with Joshua, but nothing about the slaughter of the innocent children inside the walls of that city.
We were confident that our lives where at the center of all that is, and that these stories therefore adequately and honestly reflected the truth of it.
But then cracks began to appear in this story. And today we live with the knowledge that we are but a tiny speck in a unfathomably large cosmos. The sun, which once was the symbol of our special relationship with the divine, and which stood at the center of the universe, is now but a minor star of a minor solar system in a minor galaxay. We live with the notion that there may be life forms, about whom God cares, inhabiting other worlds.
And this is to say nothing of the new awareness in this closely connected, high-speed electronic world of the billions of other people with different histories and different prayers.
We are in a different place than those early Christians were who, like us in our childhood, rested confidently in comfort of the knowledge of being chosen by God, holy and set apart. And if the only conceptual tools we have to work with are the ones passed down to us by that tradition, we will be caught up on the horns of the theodicy dilemma and be left with atheism.
But fortunately, there are other stories of God to be heard and which may in the end deal better with our experience than the story so succinctly told by Archibald MacLeish.
The Jewish people throughout their history seemed to know that the popular, regnant conception of God was rarely, if ever, an adequate or credible representation of God. This is why they spoke so vehemently against idolatry and were so guarded about the way they spoke God’s name. God could never be captured in an image, in a scripture, in a name. They not only knew the negative point, that nothing like an image or a name could convey God’s reality, that God was not a static, otiose thing, they also knew the postive point, that God is creatively relating, that God, to be God is always being changed by the relationships God has with others.
Thus, for example the Jewish people spek of God as the wind. The wind was formless, shifting, and yet very real. One knew not from whence it came nor where it was going. It was impossible to hold and define. The Jews did not believe that God was impersonal like the wind. They instead used the impersonal and non-containable to speak symbolically of a personal, intimate relationship that, like the wind animated, vitalized and gave forth life, and would never be static.
I am thinking here of the image of the creation story where God creates Adam out of the mud at the riverbank and then breathes wind into him. Only after God’s mouth-to-mouth resucitation, does Adam come to life. Life itself, suggests this story is the medium through which God lives. I am thinking here of the glorious story of Moses at the burning bush being asked to go to the people and lead them in a daring escape from Egypt. Moses, trembling at the call to risk his life and limb, in a project he thinks doomed to fail, asks God what he should tell his people when the laugh at him. Tell them, says God, that I sent you. And who, says Moses is that Haya, replies God — the Hebrew word for becoming. God is becoming in the awakening of the creature to God’s call. God is
We have here two visions of the supernatural. One we recognize by awe and the shuddering of the creature at a god so powerful. The other we realise by moral reverence and by the moral value of the liberty of God’s children.
Elements of this later God are present in our tradition. The New Testament uses the word love to mean this view. God is love, says the Epistle of John, and whoever abides in love, abides in God. Love is not love unless it become the arena of our living — our abode. It is love that creates possibilities, love that opens paths to the future, love that calls us into vital communities. The point is that whenever love is shared, life is vitalized and the moral value of our liberty is increased.
Love as abode pulls God off the mountaintop of omnipotence and into the mix of human affairs. God pulls no puppet strings, controls not our fate, but is as interested in them and as involved with them as a parent her child.
For some, at a time of loss it may be a comfort to hear words that you know in your quotidian life are a falsehood — to hear that God, who has a plan for everything has taken away your beloved in the prime of life. You’ve heard the Hallmarky poems read at funerals.
Despite the mindless appeal these poems may have, for a great many others thrown in the paroxysms of grief, such platitudes smack of hollow comfort. They say nothing to us that sustain in deep reflection.
But when Jesus suggests in the beatitude that the grieving and those who mourn, will be comforted, he offers what I call “long-run comfort.” No magic potion for our immediate pain. But a way to come out the other side whole and ready to live. The Sermon on the Mount is clear — neither you nor I can control our fate in the world. Reality does not permit it. We cannot make secure our fragile, fallible lives. What we can do, and what I trust consists of real comfort, is to live in the abode of love — where love embraces us for who we are, for the pain we feel and for the possibilities that lie before us to new life.
The worship of God is not a magic potion. It will not keep us safe. It will — in the midst of our trauma — drive us into a new humanity. The worship of God, who weeps for our loss and is changed even as we are changed, will lead us to see past our loss, and recomit our lives to the abode of love that is never static, but always counseling a new adventure with life, a new breath. It will never seek vengenence or counsel despair in response to our tragedies. The grief of the mourner becomes a commitment to live so that the beauty of that life lost, entwined as it was with God, will be honored in our own living as though we made a difference to God, which we do.