Beginning around the time of the Enlightenment with people like Voltaire and Leibnitz, the problem of theodicy comes up at times of personal and massive tragedies, eg the death of a child or tragedies like the Holocaust and the recent tsunamis.
The Theodicy question simply put: “Why do bad things happen to good people if God is good?” It gets expressed in various guises, with varying amounts of heated rhetoric, but the gist is always the same – why continue to worship a God who allows such things to happen?
This, of course, depends upon one’s understanding of God in the first place. One view of God is that of the great Watchmaker (or Intelligent Designer) who has planned every detail of all creation to happen just so. This gets into the God of the Romantic era described by a lot of “omni” words – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc. One is then left to seriously question why God has planned such bad things to happen, and often tries to explain them by saying things like, “There is a greater purpose…” or “Something good will come of it…” or “God only gives us as much suffering as we can handle….” and so on. Such assurances may comfort some people, but at the end of the day for many of us they just make us want to question God and God’s purpose even more, and tend to glorify suffering rather than point us toward a palpable sense of God’s eternal love and compassion for all persons and all of the created order.
Another view of God, however, sees creation and cosmic history through a musical metaphor “as an unfolding creative improvisation rather than a divinely pre-ordained score.” That is, God has freely brought into being the created order in such a way as to allow it to be itself and make itself – that is, Creation itself is given “free will.” Further, we, people, have been created in such a way as to be allowed to be ourselves, and to be co-creators with God in making this creation what it is becoming.
In the first view, God knows and plans everything and therefore can be viewed as “allowing” suffering to happen. In the second view God makes it possible for the world and all of creation to unfold and participate in the unfolding process. As The Reverend Dr. John Polkinghorne, theoretical physicist and priest, has observed, “God interacts with creatures but does not overrule them, for they are allowed to be themselves and to make themselves. It follows from this that not everything that happens will be in accordance with God’s direct will.” That is, God does not yet know the unformed future, quite simply because it is not yet there to be known. A God who does not know does not “allow” anything to happen, but rather seeks to be in relationship with that which does happen.
In the wake of a devastating tsunami, William Safire reflected upon some of this in the New York Times of January 10, 2005. Safire suggests looking to the book of Job in the Bible as a good place as any to begin our reflection on the problem of theodicy. He notes several important aspects of that story.
Job’s friends, as some are doing today in the aftermath of the tsunami, assume that Job must have done something bad, read sinful, to deserve the horrible things happening to him and his family. The reader knows it is a test, a contest really, and that in fact Job has done nothing wrong at all. And Job, although angry with God, never loses faith nor does he abandon his belief in God.
It is important to note that Job stands in a long line of Biblical heavyweights who get angry with God – Abraham, David, Paul and arguably even Jesus had some questioning issues in the garden and on the cross. The idea that there is anything like “the patience of Job” cannot be found in the Biblical account. Job was angry and let God know it. The point of this story and really the whole Bible is that it is not blasphemous to challenge the Almighty One when moral wrong is inflicted upon us and all of creation. Challenging God is, in fact, presented by the Bible as a normative dimension of our relationship with God. God is often depicted as being so moved by our challenges that God changes God’s mind or chooses another course of action. Recall Moses persuading God not to abandon the Hebrew people in the wilderness after the Exodus.
As in other places throughout the Bible, Job demands that God stand trial. The surprise is, however, that God appears out of a whirlwind and delivers what Safire identifies correctly as “the longest and most beautifully poetic speech attributed directly to him in scripture.”
The foundation of God’s defense is, “Where were you when I was creating this universe in the first place? If you have so many good ideas you should have been there to help out!” The idea being that God, suggests Safire, is busy bringing light to darkness, imposing physical order on chaos, and leaves his human creations free to work out moral justice on their own. In fact, in Genesis God pretty much leaves the stewardship of creation entirely up to us.
An important detail to note is that Job’s tirade caused God to appear, demonstrating, much as Jesus does on the cross, that those who suffer and believe are never alone. An important truth with which Jews and Christians must come to terms at some point is accepting the fact that there are others who know and believe in God in ways that differ from our own – they too, like us, are “allowed” to be themselves in relation to the Almighty Force that has brought all things into Being.
Safire summarizes the lessons from Job for today, that is relating to the tsunami tragedy, as the following: (1) Victims of this (or any) cataclysm in no way "deserve" a fate inflicted by the Leviathanic (sic) force of nature. (2) Questioning God's inscrutable ways has its exemplar in the Bible and need not undermine faith. (3) Humanity's obligation to ameliorate injustice on earth is being expressed in a surge of generosity that refutes Voltaire's cynicism.
Perhaps it is possible that Theodicy asks the wrong question. In the end, as creatures who live in a creation that is “allowed to be itself,” the Theodicy question instead of being “Why?” might better be, “Where is God in all of this?” Those of us who know the God of the Exodus, the Cross and the Resurrection find God in those events in history that have liberated people from suffering, and in the responses made by God’s people everywhere – in those who reach out with heroic efforts to restore people’s lives and even in the smaller gestures like a hug or a prayer. Our God is in the midst of all suffering and has the wounds to show for it.
Viewed from this perspective, which appears to be a Biblical perspective, God has created the means for responding to tragedy, be it large or personal – and we are those means – we are with God, God is with us, the broadest root meaning of Emmanuel – God with us.
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Timothy’s School for Girls, Stevenson, MD