January 17, 2005
The Theodicy of Everyday Life
Martin E. Marty
Sightings was overwhelmed with more theological news clippings in the wake of the Asian tsunami than at any time since September 11, 2001. Not being free to go on here at book length, I choose this week to shift the genre from "op-ed" or "civic pedagogy" to "mini-essay." The viewpoint and interest will clearly recall my first vocational role, that of pastor (1952-1963) a job from which one never retires.
The theological theme will be theodicy, that is, "defense of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil." Let us leave, as I often do, the "omni-" words; we will focus on "goodness." Theodicy is every person's enterprise when bad things happen. I have never read a satisfying theodicy, and want to "spit on the explanations" isn't that a line from the movie Zorba? when experts glibly give accounts that attempt to do justice to cases of evil and suffering. The painful death of one infant from a brain tumor creates as big a problem for theodicians as does the death of 150,000 from earthquakes, tidal waves, or terrorism. That trio evokes the kind of explanations that reach prime time and page one. But, on varying scales of loss, they are the stuff of daily existence for hundreds of millions of people.
I will begin by rating theodicies from worst toward better there are no bests. The worst, whether from Christian, Muslim, or Hindu sources, are those that are sure that God or the gods are punishing yes, punishing someone else. You probably heard the weirdest such explanation from an American who "knew" that God was killing those Asian tsunami victims because Americans practice abortion. Second worst are those that are sure God is punishing not "them" but "us." Muslims and Christians often favor this one, without explaining why some of us endure punitive suffering and not others.
More seriously, there are some genuine and intelligent struggles with the issue within the narrow confines open to Christian thinkers. We "Bible believers" are boxed in by scriptures such as Isaiah 45:7, tucked into a favored chapter: "I make weal and create woe, I the Lord do all these things" (or "I create disaster," as the New Jerusalem Bible renders the verse). Christians get around the 'singled-out by God' explanation through Luke 13:4, Jesus' physics lesson: if a tower falls, and you, an innocent or a guilty person, happen to be standing under it, you get killed. So people who happened to be on shores where the wave happened to hit got killed.
With thanks to the major columnists, philosophers, and theologians for their nice tries, I come to my point: looking back over newspaper accounts from sundry locales, the best clips came from reported interactions between local pastors and their faithful. These were not the "Sunday-after-disaster" worshippers, but regular strugglers and celebrators. The clerical or lay person in a sustained pastoral or chaplain-like role has been at the bedsides of innocents a thousand times, stood at the side of victims in divorce courts, grieving parents of the stillborn, citizens of communities swept away by flood or tornado, and have heard, every time, "Why?" Or it's almost a cliché after September 11 and the recent tsunami "Where was God in this?"
Whatever is uttered or gestured (embraces help!) by families, counselors, and pastors at such times are the relative positives shared in the face of absolute horrors and they show that affirmation comes among those who have lived with occasions for offering theodicies, and found some meaning.
Last week's Sightings mentioned that "the administration initially offered $35 million for relief ...." That sentence started a bidding war, as subscribers corrected Marty. We read figures such as "$750,000," "$15 million," and "much smaller than the commonly quoted $35 million." But one person added, "you're in good company even the New York Times had to correct itself on this one." I leave it to the readers to decide whether Marty's figure appeared because he was too reliant on early sources, bad at numbers, or characteristically (or uncharacteristically) generous toward the administration.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.