Answering Tough Questions: Tragedy and the Justice of God

July 31st, 2012
This article is featured in the Justice in the Church (Aug/Sept/Oct 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

When confronted with the reality of pain and suffering in the world Christians—priests, pastors and theologians included—have a tendency to launch into a search for immediate solutions as if pain and suffering were hypothetical situations. Often these “solutions” turn out to be shallow and unhelpful. In this article, I want to suggest three things.

First, that religious people are better off adopting a realist understanding in which pain and suffering are part of the world.

Second, that the problem of the justice of God, or the problem of explaining the love and care of God to victims of natural or human-made misfortune, is an empirical and not a metaphysical problem. I want to suggest that Christian theology and philosophy of religion have traditionally done believers a huge disservice by pretending that resolving the conundrums of theodicy would somehow help us understand, or effectively equip us to endure, human suffering.

Third, I propose what I call a humanocentric or human centered approach as distinct from a theocentric or metaphysical approach to suffering. My own approach has been shaped by the African experience of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in which in just over thirty years nearly 25 million people have perished and over twelve million children have been orphaned.

Suffering Is Not Hypothetical

I have said misfortune is empirical. This is to say that it is experienced here and now by real, embodied, sentient beings who undergo real physical and psychological pain. The reality of misfortune is everywhere. Whenever we think about it, we do not begin by speculating about the possibility of a world in which there is pain and suffering: for example, we do not say if there is pain and evil in the world then… or if there is a world in which people are victims of war, rape, and terminal illness then… The fact is that we do live in such a world, and at least on the face of it, there is more evidence of evil, pain, and suffering in the world than there is of their absence.

Of course, one does not need to be an African to know the ubiquity and experience of pain and suffering nor are pain and suffering experienced only by those undergoing major catastrophic events like AIDS. Pain and suffering are everywhere and they affect all of us. Understanding this will help us explain to ourselves, our parishioners, patients, and clients that we and they are not alone when it comes to suffering.

As part of understanding the reality of pain in the world, we can group suffering and adversity into three broad categories: the first category is made up of global political suffering which includes phenomena such as the distress of war, violence, and turmoil in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Syria and the widespread pain of poverty and disease all over the globe and especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The second category consists of suffering caused by the devastations of tsunamis and earthquakes in Japan, Indonesia, and Haiti as well as the outbreaks of deadly epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, which have wiped millions of people off the face of the earth. The third category of suffering is personal in which we deal with the reality of pain and distress in our own lives and in the lives of neighbors, friends and relatives: here we confront the agony of chronic illness; the sorrow of unanticipated joblessness; the hurt of betrayal by a trusted friend; the affliction of a life-threatening disease; not to mention the heartache of a divorce, the ordeal of addiction or the anguish of bereavement.

I have been arguing my first point, that what religious people need is a realist account of evil, pain and suffering. It is important to name, as I have just been doing, evil pain and tragedy rather talk about them in the abstract.

Our Answers Are Inadequate

My second point is that it is a mistake to look for answers to these problems in the metaphysics of traditional theodicies, seeking to solve conundrums such as if God is all knowing, why did God create a world in which there is evil and suffering? If God is all loving, why do babies and children die of AIDS, cancer, and other diseases? If God is all powerful, why does God not intervene to stop evil and suffering?

These theodicies run the gamut from denying the reality of evil, rejecting the idea that God is all-powerful, declaring the whole problem to be a matter of the mysterious ways in which God works, to claims that evil is soul-making (it is good for us as a source or moral growth), to the so-called free-will defense according to which the presence of pain and suffering in the world is due to the misuse we make of our free will. In this perspective, evil and suffering are the price we pay for freedom or they are punishment for our misdeeds.

Now, I have witnessed firsthand the unremitting suffering of victims of AIDS. I have counseled some and buried others, including siblings, cousins, and other relatives. I have seen the total disintegration of households and the cruel loneliness caused by AIDS. I have personally lived through harsh poverty and disease. As a professional theologian and philosopher of religion, I have tried to find solace in the traditional theodicies I was taught to throw at these problems and I have always been frustrated.

The trouble is that traditional theodicies begin with speculative questions to address urgent, concrete problems. This is precisely where they fail. They fail not because formal philosophical or theological arguments are bad in themselves but because they operate on a metaphysical level disengaged from the actual realities of misfortune in the world. There is no evidence anywhere that these theodicies work or have ever worked in providing help and solace to those in pain. It is not a question of rejecting the theoretical contributions of theology and philosophy but rather one of rethinking the whole problem in terms of how humans are called to address the suffering of others.

The Answer Is Love

It is here that I want to make my third and final point by proposing what I call a humanocentric approach. The focus is not on reconciling God’s love and goodness with evil, for that is a task ultimately beyond us. The focus is rather on responding through the solidarity of love and compassion to the adversity and anguish of victims of misfortune.

Again, my thinking on this has been shaped by the experience of the relationship between victims of HIV/AIDS and those caring for them. I have often been struck by the dedication and commitment of ordinary men and women as well as professional caregivers to the comfort of those suffering from this disease. I have concluded from this that a theodicy centered on compassion, care, and love gives sufferers the assurance of the presence of the caregiver. This presence is important because it becomes a point of recognition that one is not alone in one’s suffering. The cry of dereliction, my God why have you forsaken me? is answered not by pointing to a set or theories, however good and sophisticated, but by the generous companionship of the caring other.

The care-giver is a companion in lament and carries the awesome responsibility of witnessing to the presence of some concrete as opposed to some abstract force for good in the world. Indeed, it is here that people of faith can offer their response of solidarity, empathy, and love as the work of grace in their own lives. Our model here is Christ, the supreme care-giver who went about attending to human distress through the power of love. Jesus’ life and ministry powerfully dramatize and model what I am calling a theodicy of care.

The question is not whether God’s goodness and evil can be reconciled but rather what people of faith are doing to alleviate and assuage the suffering of others, and where possible, to rid the world of pain. There is no need to appeal to mystery here since such appeals are empty and nonsensical. A person experiencing tragedy is not comforted by hearing about God’s mysterious ways. He or she is comforted by being loved and taken care of.

For any of this to work, it is important to take seriously the humanity of sufferers and victims of tragedy irrespective of gender, status, disability, sexual orientation, or political and religious creed. The reason this is important is not only that tragedy, evil, and pain often disproportionately befall the poor, the weak and the marginalized but also that they dehumanize their subjects. Recall the complaint of the psalmist in Psalm 22:6 when, in the course of describing his own pain, he says “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” The challenge of human and care-centered theodicy is to ensure that victims of tragedy and those undergoing pain and distress retain or have restored to them a grounded sense of their humanity and their dignity. This is the work of love and compassion. It is important not to conceal from sufferers the fact that pain is part of the reality of our humanity and that compassion and love are the best theodicies we have.

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