FEBRUARY 20, 2003
In the aftermath of the recent Columbia disaster, the nation mourned together. The grief of the families and friends of the Columbia astronauts was deeply personal; the loss of seven lives in such unexpected and dramatic fashion was painful for them in ways that we, despite our best intentions of empathy, cannot know. For those millions of us without a personal connection to the astronauts, however, the tragedy touched a different nerve.
One network, in search of a new angle on this story, ventured to the streets of Baghdad to get the response of local Iraqis. While some expressed sympathy over the loss of life, one voiced the sentiment that it was neither an accident nor a tragedy: the United States thinks it's so great and powerful, but God is greater, God is more powerful. It was clear this man's analysis of the situation was inserted into the report not to offer fatalistic comfort, but to incite anger and resentment in the watching public. Certainly the notion of fate, or a strong conception of divine providence, is easier to swallow when it seems essentially benevolent towards us. Thus, perhaps what we as a nation do share with those more directly affected by the disaster is a sudden sense of vulnerability: born in the gap that such an event opens between our faith in the power of God (fate, the government, whoever is supposedly in control) and our faith in its (or their) essential goodness.
While we have a word -- miracle -- for something inexplicable that seems to affirm the power and goodness of the divine, there is not any easy term in our language for something equally inexplicable which forces us to choose between power and goodness. Sometimes theological argument explains tragedy as a necessary component of the best of all possible worlds, an aesthetic element providing contrast like the darker colors in a painting. Sometimes we are asked to believe that any evil is just a good in a disguise we don't recognize. More Manichean arguments relegate evil to an equally powerful malevolent entity in competition with the good. But ultimately, none of the standard defenses seems adequate when the tragedy touches one personally. As Marilyn McCord Adams has argued, the problem of evil may be resolvable on a small scale, but it is simply insensitive and cruel to transfer the same "solutions" to instances of "horrendous evils."
Certainly, a pedagogical solution to the problem of evil, the idea that we are intended to learn a lesson, be it moral, scientific, emotional, or otherwise, from tragic events, is no less subject to Adams' critique than other attempts at resolving the problem. I would like to suggest, however, that part of the reason the Columbia accident so captured the hearts of the American public was that it came like a lightning bolt shattering the moral clarity espoused by President Bush. His readiness to identify an axis of evil in the world and to demonize particular states and individuals reduces a complex world to a mythic struggle between the good and the bad. When suddenly bad things happen to the good people, such a vision becomes clouded. There is no easy answer to the suffering that tragedies entail, but at the very least, they serve as reminders of human frailty and our potential for error.
The world is complex, the divine will, or fate if you prefer, remains inscrutable. While I don't agree with our Iraqi critic's assertion that the United States is being tried for its hubris, perhaps in these uncertain times we would do well to leave quick judgments of good and evil behind and remember words from the book of Proverbs (1:7, 11:2) -- the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and with the humble is wisdom.
Kristen Kingfield Kearns is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Her dissertation examines the connections between Hans Urs von Balthasar's understanding of theological analogy and his conceptions of love.