I Can’t Either
Last Sunday, there was a natural gas explosion which killed 7 people at a resort a few kilometres from the one we were staying at in Mexico. Two of the victims were from Mexico, five were from Canada. Among the dead was a nine year-old boy and two people who had been married to their spouses for only a matter of days. In the midst of the manufactured paradises of Mexico, the tragedy, chaos, and pain of life rears its ugly and terribly familiar head. Once again, the illusion of a morally-ordered universe is laid bare. While my friends and I were thanking God for the gifts of friendship, leisure, and natural beauty, lives were being ripped apart just down the beach.
On the flight home and several times over the course of this week, I have reread these words from Miroslav Volf in an essay called “I Protest Therefore I Believe” in Against the Tide:
Why did the omnipotent and loving One not do something about the tsunami [earthquake, hurricane, mining disaster, natural gas explosion, insert tragedy here…] before it struck? I don’t know. If I knew, I could justify God. But I can’t. That’s why I am still disturbed by the God to whom I am so immensely attracted and who won’t let go of me.
A haunting question indeed. And of course we feel when we are impacted by tragedy. My mind goes quickly to the writings of C. S. Lewis. Here’s a classic:
“My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such a violent reaction against it?… Of course I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if i did that, then my argument against God collapsed too–for the argument depended on saying the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my fancies. Thus, in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never have known it was dark. Dark would be without meaning.”
And once again I find some solace, albeit temporary. But I remain disturbed and awed by the God who will not let go of me.
It’s not God that perplexes me in cases like this…
what mystifies me is how tragedies like this bring into light the ugliest forms of false compassion that serves our own self interest. Like I said in my own post – why is it that the rich people whose choice to be in that place came out of affluence bear our strongest pity while the almost nameless Mexican victims can be so easily erased from our memory. If God is to be held to account for these life wrenching things – how much more are we to be held account for our blindnesses. Before we ask God for an apology we might ask for forgiveness first!
Who is the “we” you are talking about here? Who needs to ask for forgiveness for “false compassion?”
sorry – i shouldn’t be such a jack
compassion is a funny thing. We can describe the loss of young son or newly married groom as horrific or tragic and in doing so we can express our compassion for that situation. But what if Richard Branson (of Virgin Inc) were to die in an accident on one of his tourist space planes that he is hoping to have flying very soon. Would we say that is tragic? Would we really feel compassion toward him or his family in the same way as we do to these families that lost their new son-in-law or nephew? Clearly the feelings would not be the same.
Seeing this situation as worthy of asking God a question about the meaning of tragedies like this seems to reveal that we think this situation is honorific of some idealized sense of tragic loss deserves our pity (and perhaps provokes our doubt).
We seem to be missing the fact that a greater pity is liked deserved from us for the Mexican workers who were killed. It is interesting that we know a lot about the Canadians who died and almost nothing about the Mexican ones.
I suppose you might accuse me of espousing the idea that one life is more valuable than another – and you would be right if you recognized that it is the people who we make invisible (through our neglect and through the systems of domination that keep them relegated to obscurity) that deserve to be honored with a deeper, truer compassion. False compassion in this context isn’t a lack of genuine concern for people – it is a kind of failure to be compassionate about the right things. To that end I think that before we start asking God to justify his actions in the world we might ask ourselves (me included) whether we have the right picture in view whenever something as horrific as this appears in our experience.
As I have said elsewhere – I mean no disregard for the horror of loss that the Canadian families must be experiencing….
Thanks for the elaboration, Dale. I certainly agree that compassion ought to be properly exercised. For whatever it’s worth, my initial post was provoked simply by the randomness of the event. A man goes to get a coffee for his wife and he is gone. Or, a resort worker is simply doing their job cleaning tables or mowing grass and they are gone. The nature of the tragedy crosses socioeconomic boundaries. That’s not to say that questions around the role we play in unjust economic systems or the levels of agency involved in Canadians vs. Mexicans being at the resort at that time aren’t worth discussing, just that I didn’t have them in view here.
I certainly respect that the perspective you were drawn to did not have the concerns I brought forward in view. I am not trying to be asinine or even accusatory in providing the feedback that I did. I often wonder if my own preoccupations are well placed or guided with due accuracy. I did not mean for my comments to be tangential. My initial inquiry was provoked by the attention you drew to the question of God needing to justify (or not justify) his action (or inaction) in these tragic situations. It’s not that I think that this inquiry isn’t (or shouldn’t be) available in this situation. It is just that for me it was a question I hadn’t even come close to considering in this situation. There seemed to me to be much more worrisome questions that laid bare, “the illusion of a morally-ordered universe.” Again, I recognize that my own situated 😉 perspective may be coloring the focus for me.
It is certainly a classic, Ian. Thanks for sharing it.
Re: “If I knew, I could justify God. But I can’t. That’s why I am still disturbed by the God to whom I am so immensely attracted and who won’t let go of me.”
The inability to justify God or the impossibility of it is, of course, the reason many lose faith. Or, it is the way many justify their atheism – atheism as protest.
At the time of the Babylonian exile it was different. Believing they were being punished is the way the people of Judah justified their faith that God existed and was as powerful and steadfast as they hoped (or the instrument the priests and aristocrats used to justify their continuing power, if you prefer the Marxist version.) Similarly, when Jesus, the Messiah, was crucified the first Christians justified their keeping their faith and hope, in part, by the belief that his death was an atonement for their sins.
We are not like them. We are morally superior. We are disturbed by a God that punishes.
Like the ancients we won’t let go, or, as we say, God won’t let go of us. But we have no explanation for God. Ours is a nihilistic faith and arbitrary hope. Such faith and hope is an easy target for the evangelism of new atheists. They offer intellectual and moral superiority unfettered by an embarrassing God.
You’ve covered the “disturbed” part of the quote and there are elements of it that are certainly familiar. What about the “immensely attracted” part? Is there any room for that, in your view? Or is a “nihilistic faith and arbitrary hope” the last word for you?
(Needless to say, I don’t agree that the new atheism offers intellectual and moral superiority, but I suppose we’ve covered that ground enough here.)
For me the attraction is large, although personally I am not much concerned about God’s moral problems as Volf, some of the new atheists, and many others do, as much as I am concerned about God’s apparent superfluity.
Where I see the nihilistic faith and arbitrary hope is in modern Western culture generally and in Western churches generally, liberal and evangelical.
I know that you don’t agree with new atheists that new atheism offers intellectual and moral superiority. I meant only that those are the benefits new atheism’s evangelists and converts claim. Personally, like you, I am unpersuaded.
Personally, as I think about my use of the word God and try to be honest with myself about what I believe, I find that my use of the word God is probably closer in meaning to some of the religious naturalists than it is to the use of the word God in Volf’s writings (and not just his, but many others.) The God of the religious naturalists does not have moral problems. (They are surprisingly, perhaps, similar to the ancients or pre-moderns in that sense.)
I think there are trade0ffs with every view of God. The God of the religious naturalists may not have the moral difficulties of other conceptions (or at least the same kind), but I think the price is too high. God as first principle or immanent presence in the cosmos does not redeem, and for me, redemption means everything. That’s where my attraction lies.
Yes, I too know this attraction. It is grace.