The Job of Theodicy

Most people, I suspect, don’t think about diseases until someone they know is afflicted.  It’s natural enough to try to avoid thinking of the negative, and I know that I’ve always felt overwhelmed when it came to worthy causes seeking donations.  I surprised myself, therefore, but putting up a Facebook fundraiser for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.  Someone close to me was diagnosed with the disease, and seeing suffering first-hand has a way of changing your perspective.  You want to do whatever you can to help.  Instead of feeling completely at the mercy of chance, I put my fundraiser online and I’m hoping for the best.  A doctor I know informed me that foundations for diseases are among the most helpful websites for those with the condition.

In my mind, as in that of many others, disease is intricately tied in with theodicy—the problem of innocent suffering in the presence of a God supposed to be good.  Theodicy is frequently the first stop on the road to non-belief, as a careful reading of many of the “new atheists” reveals.  No theologian has devised a satisfying theodicy.  The question always comes down to the fact that a universe without debilitating diseases can be imagined by those of us with feeble human abilities, so why not by an almighty being with no limitations?  Human evil can be attributed to free will.  Natural evil, such as diseases not keyed to behaviors that lead to them, is a different matter.  Often we’re left to our own human devices against conditions we don’t fully understand.

Facebook may not be the best place to post a fundraiser, however, it has a reach far greater than this simple blog, and the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation page helps to get such fundraisers set up.  For all of its problems, Facebook does provide a way to bring people together for common causes.  Seeing someone we know suffering is never easy.  And there are so many worthy causes out there.  The situation naturally reminds me of the book of Job.  People who turn to it looking for an answer to why innocent people suffer (Job is presented as perfect in the prologue to the story) come away disappointed.  No reason is given and the question of theodicy is left unanswered beyond the claim that human understanding is limited.  God may ask how Job has the boldness to question divine action, but there’s no suggestion that he shouldn’t try to find relief with his broken potshard.  My Facebook fundraiser is my potshard, I guess, although the larger questions still remain.

Prelude to Chaos

Liquids are the enemy.  Don’t let the cuteness of this little guy fool you—there’s collusion here.  For as well as creating life, and being necessary to sustain it, water destroys.  Creator, annihilator.  We moved during a time when neither of us had vacation and we told the over-tired movers that it was okay to put our boxes in the garage.  We planned to move them soon, but, you know, work.  Then the rains came.  Not just sprinkles, but downpours.  The garage isn’t water-tight.  Boxes were soaked.  Many books were damaged.  This wasn’t a flood that can be claimed on insurance, it was simply rain pooling where people usually park their (normally waterproof) cars.  In their place sat our books.

We both worked the day after the rains.  When we discovered the damage the next evening, it looked manageable.  I had to work the next day, of course, and a few breaks sufficed to get the many, many boxes of damaged books out into the sun.  It was carnage.  We don’t have much in the way of material goods; we spend a bit of money on books, however.  Now they’ve become the victims laid out on this altar of home ownership which, at the time, seemed like a good idea.  We needed a house for our books.  We needed time to move them from the garage to the house.  Yes, old friend Morpheus, “Time is always against us.”  

Job sat upon his ash-heap and pondered why he’d paid the movers so much only to have his moved goods destroyed.  And in a manner in which insurance assessors are trained to point to the fine print.  Those who store their goods in the garage reap the wrath of liquid.  You see, when water reaches cardboard, or paper, the wood pulp sucks it up.  Carefully dried, the paper remembers the compelling nature of water.  Too little, and you die.  Too much, and you die.  No wonder the ancients thought that water was a deity.  It claims all—tries to get in through your roof.  Lays insouciantly on your basement floor.  And the garage—yes, who thought of the garage when the immediate concern was to shut the windows to keep Leviathan out of the house?  I spent weeks carefully packing those books against shipping damage.  Used up my vacation days doing so.  Chaos has claimed them.  I would weep, but that would be collusion with the enemy, even if nobody sees.

Holy Oak

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It was already ancient when first discovered by the early European colonists of New Jersey. The Basking Ridge oak is a well-known and time-honored New Jersey denizen. Over six centuries old, the white oak, it seems, is dying. Like it’s cousin, the Swamp Oak that I mentioned back in January, this tree is dear to many in the state. It is also historical. An article in the New Jersey Star-Ledger begins with some religious associations: George Whitefield, one of the evangelists responsible for “the Great Awakening” from which we’re still trying to awaken, preached under this very tree. George Washington also knew it. It has been tended and cared for by the town for so long that there is a reluctance to let it go. In the words of another New Jerseyan, “well everything dies, baby, that’s a fact.” Job, in a more optimistic moment, declared, “there is hope for a tree.” Like the Good Book, the good folk of Jersey wax religious about this sexcentarian, and for good reason. The human outlook is far too short.

Think, for example, of what was happening when the Basking Ridge oak was a mere acorn. In the early 1400s there were no Protestants yet. That didn’t stop Jan Hus and Joan of Arc from being burned at the stake, however. Although the Vikings, and perhaps others, had ventured here from across the ocean, North America was blissfully unaware of those waiting to claim for their own any land they could set foot on. Good thing too. The Inquisition was still underway and witch trials lingered on, flying in the face of enlightenment. Cambridge and Oxford University Presses were, in some sense, neophyte businesses. This Eurocentric view overlooks the great achievement of Machu Picchu down south. As the Dark Ages were beginning to lighten, this oak began its life’s journey. We who are a mere blink of its slow eye are still spouting hate for those who are different and are determined that nobody should outlive us.

The Holy Oak, as it is known, stands beside a Presbyterian Church. One of the trustees of the church is in charge of the tree. In the article he stated that this is about eternal life. From our perspective, trees seem to live forever. That’s because we are so dreadfully short-sighted. It’s surprisingly easy to become nostalgic for a tree so old. In terms of accomplishment, we think humans are exceptional for surviving a century of all the misfortune we dish out for one another. The tree, however, seems innocent by comparison. We’re changing the climate even now, making it more difficult for trees to thrive. We continue to shoot people for the color of their skin and although we don’t call it witch-hunting any more we still find ways of oppressing anyone who is different. At this rate we may need six more centuries to come to our senses. If only we had the perspective of a tree.

Tuesday Mourning

A mourning dove sat on my front steps today. I weep for Shaunakaye Williams, although I never met her. The death of the young is tragedy defined. I did not know Shaunakaye, but I know that she was a young woman of great potential. She had discovered FIRST Robotics in Newark and died while in California at a FIRST competition. If it weren’t for the FIRST connection, her death might of remained unknown to me, but it would have been a grave loss nevertheless. Becoming a parent has been the most wonderful and terrifying event in my insignificant life. Since it has happened, I have mourned every death of a child of which I’ve heard. The words of comfort fail. FIRST is the most optimistic group with which I’ve ever been affiliated, recognizing and rewarding the potential of bright young minds. Shaunakaye was part of that family, and her loss is deeply felt.

In the field of religious studies, those who would justify the actions of God in a world full of suffering are faced with a daunting task. Theodicy is the most unenviable and unsatisfying aspect of the theological endeavor. Even the stalwart author of the book of Job dared not ask the great unanswerable “why?” – there is no justification for the death of the young. Often the answer is there is no answer. Job’s friends cannot accept this truth and fabricate excuses to show that God is just. God himself affirms, however, that life is just not fair.

As a race, as a species, our children are our greatest assets. Bully governors and pedophiles notwithstanding, any society that does not promote or encourage its children has already cut off its entire future. I mourn for Shaunakaye Williams, and for all those who have not been given the chance to reach their full potential. I mourn for all parents who have had to face this most terrible of afflictions. And I will never be counted among the friends of Job.