With recent tragic events in our world, it is more necessary than ever for a theologian to answer the question of the compatibility of a world that holds evil and the existence of an omnipotent and all-loving God. These events force the obscure and abstract study and thoughts of theology to encounter reality with an intensity that the latter seems to render the former trivial. Evil in our world seems to have shattered the ontological conception of theology, viz. the science of the Divine, because of the all the doubts, fears, and emotional stress that we undergo as a result of these tragic events. Yet, it is here that I maintain there is another definition of theology proposed by St. Anselm in the 2nd century—faith seeking understanding—that is quite apropos and helpful.
In a film called Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, a man was asked what went through his mind as the events of September 11th was taking place and he responded:
It was like- it’s weird, but it felt like our great- I mean, it was a great moment of separation. You know, there was nothing I could do. There was nothing I could do. My mother was in that, and there was absolutely nothing I could do.
Here is where our humanity sees its own limitations. The realization of helplessness and of vulnerability brings us back to realizing that God is God and we are not. All of our ambition to think that we can do anything and conquer anything will crumble in the presence of things that are out of our control.
When we are unable to make sense of these tragic events, we begin to either hang on to hope and our faith in God strengthens or we lose hope and reject God’s very own existence. Continuing with the Faith and Doubt, Reverend Joseph Griesediek’s statement about his faith can be used, in my opinion, to best sum up the opinions of many of us in these times of tragedy:
After September 11th, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn’t be counted on in the way I thought God could be counted on. That’s what I felt as I stood on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. And it was frightening because the attributes that I had depended upon had all been stripped away. And I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn’t so sure.
This is not the usual way people come to intelligibly understand the nature of evil since it involves an abstraction and an attempt to reconcile God with it. While it may seem absurd to assert, I believe this is theology at its most profound and uninhibited moment for it is here that hope must hang every piece of itself onto God. The question of and the demand for justice which so many ask after tragedies is not so different than C.S. Lewis’ personal inquiry prior to his conversion. Yet what is so profoundly interesting is that for Lewis it was a question which led to conversion, while for many of us it is a question that separates us from God, leading even to the rejection of His existence.
Moreover, the attempt to see good in tragedies seems to be fruitless for many of us since the degree of evil seems too great. This fruitlessness is neither illogical nor incoherent since it attempts to understand these tragic events with human reason. Yet, as it seems to me, faith in the Good demands a certain trust in mystery and this is simply the point made by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield from Faith and Doubt:
If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.
While we are real people in a real narrative, we must not fool ourselves into thinking that everything we know is everything that is to be known, or that human reason is sufficient to answer all the mysteries of the universe. We must humbly accept that we know very little and we know even less about the mysteries of God. But this does not mean that we cannot question that which involves us at the most fundamental level—life and death—for it is because of these questions that theology exists at all. Yet, this does not mean that theology is aimed at exhausting the answers to these questions, it is simply a means to glimpse at the totality of existence. In the end, we must either see the world with the eyes of faith or doubt. If we see the world with faith, we must be patient, hang on to hope, and recognize that there are mysteries beyond our own knowing. If we see the world with doubt, we remain as ignorant as those seeing the world with faith, but we differ with them insofar as we are hopeless people whose thirst for clarity for mysterious events will never be quenched.