Tag Archives: theodicy

Something Lost

LosingMyReligion“Losing my religion,” I learned some time ago, means “going crazy” in some regions. It was that REM song that made me look it up. Losing My Religion, by William Lobdell, is much more literal. Having a hunger for spiritual memoirs, even if they end up with non-belief, has become an avocation for me. Growing up religious and having paid a pretty steep price for it throughout my career, I feel a bit like I’ve just risen from the analyst’s couch after a particularly helpful session. Here are people baring their innermost selves, trying to make sense out of a world that doesn’t add up. So it was for Lobdell. Since he was a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, his is the compelling story of a specialist who’s seen through the veil. His honesty is disarming. When I read such memoirs the question in the back of my mind is always, “what did it?” What pushed a believer over the edge?

By far the majority of these confessions I’ve read are those of women. Since religions have historically treated women poorly, it stands to reason that they might have second thoughts about what they’re being saved from. Lobdell, on the other hand, narrates what brought him to Christianity in the first place, and what forced him to conclude that it was wrong. Going the well-worn path from evangelical to mainstream Protestant to Catholic, he was seeking greater depth at each stage. Then theodicy. Theodicy is a god-killer. No matter how we frame it, there is no acceptable reason for good people to suffer needlessly. Out primate brains simply reject it. That’s not to say that for some faith can’t overcome such persistent doubts. It’s always a struggle, however, and, as Lobdell points out, not everyone is capable of believing what their mind tells them makes no sense.

One thing that stands out from all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read is how religion has such a difficult time explaining suffering. I suppose here’s where eastern religions generally have a stronger starting point. By acknowledging that life is suffering, they ask what we can do about it. Western religions, which often extol the good life, run into problems when theodicy hits. It’s almost as if the concepts can’t keep up with the realities of day-to-day life. Religions are often part of the culture you inherit, being born where and when you are. They also reflect belief structures from the age in which they emerged and those structures evolve over time. Today’s Christianity shares ancient concepts with the first century, but also modern sensibilities about psychology, culture, and philosophy. It can be a difficult mix, not least because it’s artificial and synthetic. As Lobdell notes, he isn’t alone in all this. It is, I might suggest, one of the reasons that studying religion is so important, even for those who do not believe.

Remember the Alamo

Midtown Manhattan is awash in litter, particularly on a Monday morning, or first thing after a holiday. I generally arrive in the city shortly after 7 a.m., before the detritus is swept away. Frequently I see, among the discarded food wrappers and cigarette butts, copies of Tony Alamo’s World Newsletter. You can get a pristine copy if you take the subway. An abstemious young man will gladly hand one to you with a smile. The articles are accusatory and unsophisticated examples of prooftexting of the worst kind. Even I know better than to use “you” all the time, implying that “I” am better. The following is typical: “It may seem fun to you to run wild, to do whatever you please, but remember…” Not that Tony Alamo would ever run wild, doing whatever he pleased.

I was curious about the movement. Ironically, Tony Alamo, according to Wikipedia, was convicted as a child sex offender in 2009. It is a pattern as familiar as it is unfortunate. Those who rail loudly against certain behaviors often find themselves practitioners of the same. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this phenomenon is that it never seems to change, as if the learning curve is just too steep to climb. In the case of evangelists, it may be that treating the Bible as a magical book—mashing all verses together out of context, cherry-picking the one that best seems to fit the sin of the day, creates an impossible standard to follow. The Bible both indicates that you should love your parents and hate them. What it might mean depends on context. Those who snatch a verse from here and a verse from there are practicing the old form of treating the Bible like a book of spells. It can be done, of course, since it has one author (God) and mix-and-match is as good a method as any. What if God was having a bad day?


The lead article I was handed last time on the subway confirms this: “Why Does God Bless and Why Does He Curse?” the pastor wonders. The answer to the latter question, which I have eagerly sought all my life, is finally made plain. What seems to be God’s curse is your own darn fault. You deserve worse, since you are such awful sinners. Pardon me, I seem to have slipped into the second person, based on the vernacular I have been reading. Classic blaming the victim. One can hardly be surprised when evangelists resort to this inexpensive explanation—theodicy has historically been one of the most difficult problems faced by those who declare God all-powerful and all-good. The 6 train squeals into the station. As the doors clinch shut behind me, I see passengers eagerly reading the newsletter. There are those who might give more reasoned answers to life’s pressing questions, but they can’t afford to hire young proteges to stand in a dank subway station to hand out their wisdom. It has to be found by chance, like litter on the streets of the city.

Watchers and the Holy One

WatchersI’m not really a fan of Dean R. Koontz’s thrillers, but I do find myself turning to them from time to time. Like Stephen King’s, Koontz’s books are easily found at book sales, but you don’t always have your choice of which titles. I picked up Watchers because it had a vaguely biblical sound to it. The title seems to fit the story only loosely, but there are a number of points where God is invoked in the tale. Watchers is a book about genetic engineering, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Scientists have produced a dog as intelligent as a human being, and a monster that kills indiscriminately; a Cain and Abel. As this is being explained to one of the characters, he says “If we can do this, we have the power and, potentially, the wisdom of God.” Here, in a nutshell, is the debate about intentional genetic modification. We don’t have the ability to see ahead very far, and although we like to think ourselves god-like, we could very well be creating catastrophes. At least, in this story, God is deemed wise.

Some time later another character in the story opines that when humanity can create an intelligent species, it is our responsibility to act, in a sense, as its deity. “If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God.” Interestingly, there is no question of theodicy here. The justice and mercy of God are assumed, despite the many wakeful nights and unsettled days of the theologians. Casting God as the “good guy” is not as easy as it used to be, and our own “engineering” isn’t always assumed to be for the good of our own planet.

Finally, as some of the characters are discussing who has the right to own this super-intelligent dog, God is invoked once again. The qualities of the dog (a golden retriever, since, one presumes, a Rotweiler, for instance, might have different qualities), its courage, ability to distinguish right from wrong, ability to love, and selflessness, make it more in the image of God than human beings. Again, God here is unquestioningly assumed to be the great good, the advocate of humankind. I realize novelists are under no obligation to be theologians, yet it is difficult to tell a tale of genetic tampering without invoking the Almighty. What I find so interesting here in Koontz is that despite the evil of some of the characters, the goodness of God is never called into question. It is assumed that the evil we create is our own while the good in the world belongs to God. It’s a view of the world that could be called almost biblical. Those who professionally reflect on these things, however, often come to a different conclusion.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.


In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.

The Fault in Whose Stars?

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsTheodicy. I’m no theologian, but the problem of suffering erects a wall ever higher between wanting to believe and actual experience. Many great thinkers have laid down their faith because of this insuperable hurdle. The movie version of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars opened last night, but I didn’t see it. It was difficult enough to make it through the book. I have to admit feeling a bit wimpy about finding a young adult novel emotionally challenging, but it just is. As I mentioned a few days ago, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy has been topping charts lately, but so has John Green’s novel of childhood cancer. Theodicy is deeply inscribed in this sad tale of loss and love. From a purely biological perspective, the death of the young is explicable, but that seems to be the easy way out.

I’ve been toying with The Fault in Our Stars since January. Picking it up long enough to read a few pages, then growing frightened and putting it aside for a few weeks. The story begins in “the literal heart of Jesus” in a church for a cancer support group where Hazel meets Gus, and, as young people do, falls in love. Green is clear on one point from the beginning: no novel where the protagonists are victims of cancer can ever have a happy ending. We just have to watch and wait for the inevitable. The children return time and again to the “literal heart of Jesus” but no healing comes. They face loss and every page you turn brings more imponderable questions. Yes, this is fiction, but we live in a world where childhood cancer exists. And childhood starvation. And childhood victims of abuse and violence. And still we try to find a way to fit it into a broken-down theology and wonder why we don’t smile more often.

I don’t shy away from provocative fiction. I read scary stories with all sorts of monsters. Finding ourselves, however, in a world where neither rationalism nor theology really makes all the sense they should, sometimes the scariest stories are the truest to life. John Green’s fiction, it comes as no surprise, is frequently banned. Reading it as an adult one finds parts predictable and parts handled too gently, but with enough realism thrown in to want to see it through to the end. Banning books, however, is merely an attempt to shield children from that which they need to see. We do no favors, hiding the truth from those best equipped by nature to accept it. The real question is whether theodicy itself can survive. Perhaps, like the characters in the novel, it will come to its own quiet termination with no real answers to offer.

Any Witch Way

Witches&WitchHuntsIt’s easy to feel smug over the past. At every moment of human civilization we deem ourselves higher than those who came before. There’s no doubt that the eradication of the thought-processes that led to the witch hunts of past centuries seems decidedly positive for all parties involved. Wolfgang Behringer’s Witches and Witch-Hunts, however, is a surprising book. I’ve read a fair number of studies of those dark ages when people were cruelly tortured and murdered in horrendous ways because they were deemed to be in league with Satan. As usual in such books, Behringer begins with that history. What makes his study surprising, however, is that he doesn’t stop in the eighteenth century when, in what we’re usually told, the witch trials ended. Behringer points out that witch hunts are still happening, and that the rates of those killed perhaps rival those, per capita, of the numbers during the Middle Ages. How can this be? In an era of global awareness, we sometimes forget that the focus isn’t always on Europe or America.

In many parts of the world, witches are still part of local belief systems. Not all of these are women, by the way. Many cultures favor the male witch. What these cultures do have in common, however, is their natural fear of black magic being suppressed by colonialism. More “civilized” westerners came and enacted laws which, to the minds of the locals, protected the witches! Local tradition of eradicating those who practice black magic was considered righteous, and now the government forbids it? That seems strange, especially when many of the colonizing forces were also interested in Christianizing as well. Missionaries wanted to affirm belief in the supernatural, and, ironically, often became the vehicles that allowed beliefs in witchcraft to continue. As Behringer points out, some populations converted to Christianity precisely because it allowed the continued belief in physical evil—therefore witches—and the eradication thereof.

This creates a vexing problem. When cultures meet they inevitably attempt to assert their values. When the technologically superior force their ways of life on those behind on that front, a kind of pressure of misunderstanding builds. Instead of bringing witches to trial, they lynch them instead. It seems we may have underestimated the pull that belief in witches has on people. Traditional societies uninfluenced by the developments in Europe also came up with the idea of witchcraft independently. Witches, it seems, stand for the classic issue of theodicy—explaining why things go wrong in a world that should be ordered by deities. Coincidence is always cold comfort in explaining loss. Even the rule of law breaks down. At the same time, how can it be right to allow the murdering of those suspected of witchery even in the enlightened twenty-first century? This fear is one of our most abiding demons, and the solution remains out of reach, unless, of course, we allow ourselves to resort to magic.

God Spell

I had some good news from God recently, if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are to be believed, anyway. It had been a trying week in some ways, and who wouldn’t welcome good news? Back when I was unemployed, I used to natter with the Witnesses when they came around. Like a stray that you feed one time, however, you’d better be expecting them back from time to time. I was reminded of a phone conversation I overheard (in New York City generally everything is overheard by at least someone) where a woman was saying, “I keep praying Jehovah will straighten her out.” I didn’t know who the “her” was, but I did wonder why the Witnesses keep using a name that we know is technically incorrect. “Jehovah” is actually what you get when you read the Masoretic device of using the vowels from “adonai” with the consonants for “Yahweh,” in a Germanic language. Since Jews don’t pronounce God’s name, they used this little symbol to remind the reader to use the sobriquet “lord” (adonai) instead. Some literalists lined the letters up and came up with a Teutonic-Hebraic name that was never historically used for God.


Well, the good news volume of the Watchtower addressed that. Sort of. Chapter 2, “Who is God?” notes “In English it [God’s name] is usually pronounced ‘Jehovah.’ But some people pronounce it ‘Yahweh.’” Historically and critically it is the other way around, but who’s counting? Orthodoxy doesn’t always make somebody a good person. In fact, most of the Witnesses I’ve met have treated me better than the majority of people in my own faith tradition. Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Religion often has a way of bringing out the worst in people. Since this was the good news, I decided to accentuate the positive. I turned to chapter 8 to learn “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?” Theodicy is probably the largest generator of atheism that monotheism faces.

“Evil began on earth when Satan told the first lie.” Although, I wonder how you define a lie? According to Genesis 3.17, the conclusion to God’s first word to Adam was, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The last part of the sentence, “surely die,” is an emphatic in Hebrew, the original language of Jehovah. But it doesn’t literally happen. Most literalists allow this infelicity to stand, or explain it away as a “spiritual death,” while the Hebrew is quite plain in its meaning. Thou shalt surely die is non-negotiable. Not exactly true, however. I’m no theologian. I’m just a reader attempting to make sense of the world I see around me. Good news is there certainly, every now and again. But that theodicy question trips me up every time. Until we can face the implications of not surely dying, I’m not sure we’ll ever find out.