Windows into Theodicy: Of Hurricanes and Sunsets
The Cedar Coffee Company is reason enough to move to Two Harbors.
While I’ve got it ridiculously good in my home OMG study, perched at my wooden desk under two wide skylights, writing and reading while surveying my Queendom over vibrant colors of changing leaves next to the tall and stalwart green conifers, sometimes even this introvert chick needs to get out.
And so I do.
I shove my books and computers into my satchel, and I drive down my tree-lined driveway, and I glance to the left with a grin at my apple orchard just before I hang a right to get to town, and within moments I say “Hello!” (I really do, every time: I don’t care if you know that) to vast and blue and grand Lake Superior.
Just a short stretch away from where Stanley Road meets historic North Shore Highway 61, rests the Cedar Coffee Company, nestled right in the woods (and sharing space, by the way, with a most terrific bike shop called Spokengear).
I order my latte and carb-of-the-day, find a table, and begin to write and think while surrounded by the gorgeous North Shore woods.
It could be worse, I find myself saying, almost every day since we have moved into the welcome serene beauty that is abundantly here.
Yesterday, though, I was more right than I wanted to be.
A stark contrast played out between my views through the open windows to the outside forest, and my views of the open windows on my computer.
There, the wrath of Hurricane Matthew splayed itself out, hitting Haiti with deathly viciousness, and threatening the same to Floridians and Georgians across their state.
More than once, I’ve heard people looking, say, at a gorgeous sunset wonder out loud, “Who can not believe in God, when you behold such natural beauty!”
I get it.
But I’m a systematic theologian.
So part of my goal is to encourage people to think critically about their theology: for example, if we say one thing about God over here, we have to say the same thing about God over there…or articulate a good reason as to why we don’t.
So if God is in the brimming sunset…is God not also in the deadly hurricane?
The fancy theological word for this sort of question is, “Theodicy,” meaning to inquire after the justice of God in the face of terrible evil and suffering.
The idea of theodicy shows up in any number of ways, not least of all in terms of the language of “plan.” Did God cause (fill-in-the-blank) event?
And if so, how, and what does the event reveal about God?
Trouble is, sometimes the answer depends on the answer-er.
So in 2009, for example, the ELCA voted for the full-inclusion of the the GLBTQ community.
It was not a pleasant discussion, not a pleasant vote, and the effects of the decision are still rippling out in positive and painful ways yet to this day.
Interestingly, immediately as the conversation began, there was a surprise storm. It was a pretty decently violent one, and one which for all the world seemed to aim itself directly at the Church where the Assembly was held.
In fact, the very steeple of this Church was zapped by lightening.
Naturally (so to speak) all sorts of speculation led some to believe that this tornado was God’s warning to the ELCA and all who would dare to follow suit with the welcome to GLBTQ people.
Others, in contrast, pointed out that as soon as the successful vote was taken, days of rain and grey skies were chased out by the warm, warm sun.
So how much, indeed, does God have to do with the creation of natural devastation, and is there a point, a plan, to it or not?
In yet another compelling On Being show, Krista Tippett interviews Mr. James Moore, scholar and biographer of Charles Darwin. Here Moore tells of Darwin’s take on the violence in and caused by nature:
There was a moment, a very poignant moment in the 1860s, when a friend of his lost a relative and wrote to him, rather distraught about the meaning of human existence and the meaning of death in this universe and how awful it is to lose a relative. And Darwin wrote back and he said, ‘Hey, that’s nothing compared to the death of millions of species throughout recorded history in the collapse of the solar system.’ And then he inserts in the letter little words, sic transit gloria mundi with a vengeance — and so passes the world with a vengeance. There was something deep inside Darwin that I think he wanted to bring people face to face with the appalling depths of nature that it produces morality, nature, but it’s not a moral place. There’s no comfort in the nature. He grits his teeth and he makes us look at it in The Origin of Species. For all the God and the glorification of God’s creation you find in The Origin, there is also this bloody-minded insistence that there are no simple solutions.
While Darwin scores zip on pastoral care points, he does have something right: tragedy happens all of the time. And there is no clear meaning to it, be you pure scientist or pure religious person or a mix of both.
Suffering happens, as unsatisfactory as that truism might be.
Unsatisfactory as it might be, that truth can’t help but move us to humility and reverence and awe and mystery.
With one more nod to On Being, its useful to consider this following exchange between the book of Job, and scholar Dr. Jennifer Hecht.
First God’s retort to the audacious (and yet appropriate) questions of Job:
Have you walked in the depths of the ocean? Have the gates of death been opened to you? Where does light come from? And where darkness? Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow? Has thou seen the treasures of the hail? Hath the rain a father? Who hath begotten the drops of dew? Out of whose womb came the ice?
And now Dr. Hecht, by way of an excerpt of her marvelous book, Doubt: A History.
This is how God accounts for himself. He does not say, Here is proof of justice or of my existence; he simply cites the weird glory of the natural world…. [The Book of Job] is not a parable of divine justice. It is a parable of resignation to a world-making force that has no justice as we understand justice. God comes off sounding like a metaphor for the universe: violent and chaotic yet bountiful and marvelous.
You see, that’s the point: the universe is a contradiction, a reality, a mystery.
So, systematician as I am, I turn again to the key event of our Christian faith, the resurrection.
If God were in the business of an agenda of horrific death and despair, the end of the Jesus story would have been Good Friday.
God would have called it a satisfactory wrap with the satisfactorily wrapped dead body and the women weeping at a distance from the tomb.
Only an evil cackle would have been yet wanting, thrown in for flair.
Instead, however, the Christian faith says that new life was created, and unexpectedly.
There, in the empty tomb, and in the surprise joy, and in the promise of new life, does one see God’s agenda splayed out and played out.
There, in the wiping away of tears, and in the healing of hopes and lives, in the possibility of new possibilities (though perhaps only dimly seen, if seen at all) does one see God’s presence.
Creation is messy. It is raucous and shocking and beautiful and terrible and unpredictable.
We are not automatons, and nature is not a pre-planned computer progam.
God is active in the world, as are we (in fact, to complicate matters, some say that weather events are yet more evidence not of God’s malevolence, but of humanity’s wanton and callous active contribution to climate change and its manifestations.)
But not only is God active, and are we: so too are the tectonic plates, and the warm and wet winds over the oceans, and the roiling volcanoes.
And so today we look out our windows–those opening us to our immediate outdoors or to the world far away–and we behold either beauty or destruction.
Regardless, we have the opportunity to recall our humble place in the world, and we rediscover reverence and awe, and we move into creation to re-create and to recreate in the name of the active God who is committed to life and not death.
And, if possible, we might as well also move to re-caffienate and ponder it all at a spot as welcoming and wonderful as the Cedar Coffee Company in my newly beloved Two Harbors.
If you’re in the area, you just let me know: we’ll figure it all out over coffee and carbs, on me.
When Paul in II Cor 5 writes, “He made him who knew no sin to become sin,” it is as though the Father turned Jesus into a black hole and emptied his wrath into Jesus. On Easter a new universe erupted through Jesus who is not only the first fruits of those who sleep, but the creator of a new heaven and a new earth.
I sent an email earlier today and then came across this. The key is truly the resurrection and I thank you for the reminder.