What’s Your Problem?

For years I told people that I liked The New Yorker because of the theology in the cartoons. I once put together a proposal for a book to be called “The New Yorker’s Idea of Heaven” which, I thought, would be a good match for that wonderful map you may have seen: “The New Yorker’s Idea of the United States.” I had dozens of cartoons available to illustrate my proposed book, many showing a black-garbed figure with a sickle and many with clouds and a gate of heaven and St. Peter checking in new arrivals.

Now The New Yorker has gotten more serious about its theology. The double issue for mid-June has a serious of short essays on faith and doubt and a longish book review of Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. It’s part of a sudden wave of books attacking the God idea, intended, perhaps for an audience too young to remember the “God is Dead” wave that came by some forty years ago.

The New Yorker’ s reviewer starts us off with a summary of the events of May 15, 2008: fifty thousand or more dead in China, some hundred thousand in Burma, ten killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad, a dozen by a missile strike in Pakistan, a policeman by ETA terrorists in northern Spain. Some days are worse than others, but sheer numbers are irrelevant. The question arises more sharply when the victim is someone you know well. I had been ordained only a year or two when a member of the parish I was serving in Brooklyn ran a stolen car into a group of people killing several, and another, on the same day, known to me as a member of a Cosa Nostra-type of enterprise, was found shot to death in a car on the docks. The mother of the first man died of a heart attack when she heard what had happened. The wife of the second conspired with me to conceal what little money she had from relatives determined to spend it all on his funeral without regard for the needs of their three small children. More recently I visited a couple whose daughter, now in her teens, has never been able to walk or talk. They carry her from place to place and care for her lovingly.

Why? Job’s question is not new nor is the answer changed.

“Consider the ostrich,” God says to Job. “What do you know about creation?”

Exactly. What do we know? The circle of what we know expands out at an increasing rate of speed and expands at the same rate our awareness of the vast unknown beyond. Astronomers grapple with the questions of dark matter and the expanding universe and begin to wonder whether they will ever have final answers. But they can be sure they will have more questions.

I was talking some years ago with a woman dying of cancer who told me she wanted to be able to see what would become of her children. “You will know,” I assured her. “But I want to hold them,” she said. And what do you say to that?

No one can spend a lifetime in parish ministry and not face unanswerable questions or wonder what logic there is to the events of daily life. I have never been one to tell people that “God has his/her reasons” or “God wanted him/her” or “It’s all for the best.” I’d rather follow Dylan Thomas’ advice: “Do not go gentle into that good night . . . Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” No one can convince me that the bereaved couple in China whose only child has been killed in the collapse of her school are part of a larger plan. I remember walking through a military cemetery in Normandy and thinking of all the lives that were never lived. Is this evidence of a merciful God?

I have often said that I am keeping a list of questions to get answered hereafter. I am not looking for answers now because there are none that can satisfy me or any other reasonable person. I can offer some partial answers: free will accounts for a lot. Where there is love there must be freedom and where there is freedom it will be misused. If we were puppets dangling from God’s fingers, there would be no evil because there would be no freedom. Those who believe we are all part of a plan God is working out in infinite detail have a much greater problem than I do. Their God has much more to answer for.

Those in the new wave of deniers have much in common with the fundamentalist. Both imagine a God who is constructed to their specifications and to meet their own needs. “This God,” says the denier, “cannot be because I cannot understand the logic of such a God.” “This God,” says the fundamentalist, “can be because I can understand the logic of such a God.”

I remember the title of a book by J.B.Phillips, “Your God is too small.” If you, denier or believer, have all the answers, you do not know God. God, by my definition – and my definition is as likely to be wrong as anyone else’s – is not limited to my logic. The God I can understand is not God.

But I have other questions that need to be answered. They are like Job’s, but, perhaps, more immediate: “Have you considered the rhododendron and the peony?” Is there not more to account for there than in the earthquake and flood? The earthquake heaves up and subsides; the flood sweeps in and recedes. It’s over and we can move on. Yes, the sorrow and grief remain, but they also ebb with time. They are not renewed every day. The events in China and Burma have power to astound us just because they are out of the ordinary. The problem of evil consists to some degree in its random and occasional nature.

Not so the rhododendron. That mass of flame bursts out again predictably every year and reminds us of the omnipresence of beauty. The daffodils give way to the lilacs and the lilacs to the peonies. Is there a need for all of them? Would the balance of nature be any less balanced if there were no lilacs? Is there a special need for the gold finch that the purple finch can’t supply? Would the New England forests be an less effective in their role of converting carbon dioxide to oxygen if there were only black oak and not red? Would we be aware of something missing of we had never seen maple leaves turn red and gold in the fall, if they simply turned brown and fell? Why is the world so filled with beauty and why are we so moved by its existence? If the presence of evil leads you to question the existence of God, do you not also have to consider the presence of beauty?

I have no sufficient answer when I am asked to explain the pain and suffering that are all too frequently in the news. But equally I have no answer for the problem of beauty which is seldom in the news because we take it for granted.

I haven’t read Ehrman’s book, but I like the reviewer’s attention to the problem of what he calls “negative belief.” “The rebel is stuck,” he writes, “in an aggrieved nostalgia for belief.” I knew several such rebels myself in college. More passionate in their unbelief than believers in their faith, they spent hours in the college library looking for further evidence for their position. But there was a narrowness about their concerns, a self-blinded focus on the pain of the world and a blindness to its beauty.

I’m with them in wanting answers but not so confident of human mental capacities that I expect all the answers any time soon. We are, after all, asking about a Creator and no answer will be satisfying that looks only at the disasters. There’s more than
that to account for: explain to me also, please, the existence of beauty.


AnonymousJune 16th, 2008 at 7:40 am

Thank you so much for your blog, I really am enjoying your garden pics. Is there a book that would tell me what to plant so I could always have some color in my Dallas garden?

Thank you for any help you can offer.


ChrisJune 17th, 2008 at 6:55 pm

I have never been in Texas and can’t be much help in suggestions for a clinate so different from the hills of northern Connecticut. Our sequence is forsythia, daffodils, lilac, iris, poppies, and peonies, beauty bush, day lilies in terms of perennial color, and after the day lilies, it’s up to the annuals: marigolds, salvia, and a vast array of possibilities. But any garden center could give you advice.

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