Answering Ivan, Or, Why the Church has No Theodicy

Here is a copy of the paper I read today at the Cranmer Conference, held at St John the Divine, North Bay, ON. It is an expansion of my initial reflections after Newtown, published here as “Where was God and Other Wrong Questions.”

Answering Ivan: Why the Church has no Theodicy

Two weeks after  the Newtown horror (“tragedy,” the default term for these events these days, is not nearly weighty enough), I wrote a short blog about the event that seemed to catch fire, generating over 1000 hits over 2 ½ days. This is not a huge number, but for a blog whose daily hits number in the tens, this is a significant increase. That blog essay remains the backbone of this short paper which I have entitled, “Answering Ivan: Why the Church has no Theodicy.”

Ivan stands for Ivan Karamazov and  I’ll get to him in a moment. First, let’s begin with the term, “theodicy.” Theodicy means, literally, the justification of God and it is the term used in philosophy of religion to cover the attempts to justify God in the face of evil. And in one sense, the title of my paper is obviously false: there have been many Christians through the centuries who have espoused many theodicies. The Greater Good defense that has its roots in St. Augustine. The Free-Will defense that also has roots in the fathers and such contemporary exponents as Alvin Plantinga. The defense from the imperfection of creation that ostensibly can be found in Irenaeus, and is associated with the recently deceased John Hick.

So, I don’t mean to say that there is no such thing as theodicy. There clearly is. Nor am I saying that such intellectual efforts are without merit. Though, as I will talk about in a moment, I find such exercises dubious in certain contexts, certainly, Augustine and Irenaeus, Plantinga and Hick are quite a quartet with whom to pick a fight. And I’m not going to. I have found and continue to find their works helpful as I reflect on this subject.

What I mean is, while there are many theodicies, the Church has not discovered in her Scriptures or enshrined in her Creeds one theodicy. And so while Christians may espouse one of many, the Church has none. (Ironically enough, the Church has enshrined the problem of evil in its creeds by insisting both that God is “Almighty” and the “Creator of all that is, seen and unseen.” But that is another paper altogether).

With that in mind, let us return to the internet explanations of Newtown. The same day of the horror, the internet exploded with advice to all concerned, advice that continued to be as offered as it was unsolicited for some weeks. The speculations, however, all seemed to coalesce around one question. Where was God while the shooting happened? In itself, this is a perfectly fine question to ask. It animates, for example, many lament Psalms in which the Psalmist cries out to God to intervene to end suffering and injustice, to bring victory over enemies and so on. It is a favorite question, also, of Job, who not only asks it, but also answers it with an audacious hope: “I know that my Redeemer lives and in my flesh I shall see God.” Of course, Job does not ask with the Psalmist for intervention. Job wants God to show up so he can put him on trial. It is, finally, the question of our Lord—his dying question in the Gospel of Mark. Where was his God? Why had he forsaken him?

So, in asking the question, the internet pundits were on solid ground. The foundation of many who went on to answer the question was, in my opinion, considerably shakier. Here’s one answer that I heard often.  “God was absent. Having scrubbed God from the public life of America, or North America, or the West (take your pick), we are now left to live with the consequences of our ‘cleanliness.’ God has indeed left and we are left to live with godlessness.” There can be no doubt that the callous way in which this answer was often set out invited ridicule from Christians and others. So I must confess right away to holding the content of this answer in some regard even if it is stupidly and insensitively presented by many.

It does, first of all, conform to the message of many of the Old Testament prophets when they are pronouncing God’s judgment on the people of Israel and Judah. The refusal to worship the God of Israel, the refusal to live in covenant with that God and with each other, would bring calamity on the land and its inhabitants. Eventually, the land itself would rebel against the people and spit them out. Cyrus would be presented as God’s anointed one, God’s Messiah, sent to chasten the people who had broken covenant. Let us set aside whether we can move easily (or at all) from the denunciation of an Old Testament prophet on an ancient nation to a contemporary jeremiad on American public culture. Regardless of the exegetical nuancing required by such a move, we can still see can at least see that the move itself has prima facie biblical legs.

Further, we cannot plausibly argue that that prophetic motif is set aside in the New Testament.  It echoes both in the teaching of Jesus and St. Paul—we might think of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse or St. Paul’s condemnation of Gentile and Jew both in Romans 1-2. To reject God for other sources of life and security is to exchange the truth for a lie and to live according to that lie is to have oneself given over to social chaos and even destruction.  As I understand it, this word of the prophets, Jesus and Paul for our time (as indeed for every time) is simply, “the consequence of sin is more sin.” And that, even if inappropriately stated and therefore worthy of censure, is sadly true.

My objection to this answer, then, is not that it is false. Rather, it is the corollary that all too often came with that answer made my skin crawl. God is off in his heaven with a cosmic case of hurt feelings and now we’re here to tell one and all, on God’s behalf, “I told you so.” The message the prophets and Jesus delivered in anger, but also with wounded hearts and eyes that were “fountains of tears,” was here delivered with a glee that can only be called perverse. There was too much smug satisfaction. And that such pronouncements came from the followers of Jesus is a shame on all of us. We who are preachers have failed our people if this is what we have trained them to do. What would Ivan Karamazov say to such speech?

Before we reflect on that question, I want to turn to a second answer to “Where was God during Newtown?”, one that affirms just the opposite conclusion as the previous one.  Far from being absent, God was present through it all–weeping, perhaps consoling, hastening a departure for heaven. This answer is often given as a response to the more unkind versions of the first answer. This answer immediately evokes compassion, kindness, and every other human emotion so lacking in the previous one. That is its strength. But while it does tug at my emotions, I find its content wanting. It is hard, in spite of all the ink spilled on the notion of a God who suffers, from the popular work of Rabbi Harold Kushner to the more academic work of Jurgen Moltman, to find biblical and theological justification to make the argument that God is fundamentally like us: emotionally engaged but otherwise passive in the face of suffering.

Its main problem, however, is not its relative lack of theological weight or biblical justification. Indeed, after the initial pull of sentimentality subsides, the emotional response that this position provokes in me is anger. For it rests on an analogy that moves from human passivity to the divine. Where this analogy fails is over the matter of presence. I was not at Sandy Hook. My passivity is therefore justifiable by geography. I could not have done differently.  Were I ever to be in a similar situation, and I pray I never am, I would hope that I have the same courage as the principal and other teachers who died intervening to stop the gunman and to save children. Unlike me, God was present at Newtown, so the argument goes. And he did nothing. To stand by and cry while observing such a massacre is the definition of cowardice. Not divine love. How might Ivan Karamazov respond to this understanding of God?

Well that makes twice now that I have invoked that most passionate of atheists, Ivan Karamazov. Let us now turn to him. Ivan is a literary creation of Fyodor Dostoevksy so vivid that I, at least, can almost hear him when I read his speeches. Ivan does not believe in God. He does not believe in God passionately. Even if God exists, Ivan will not believe in God. And that is where we need to begin if we are going to try first to sketch out his answer to the Newtown internet theodicists and then, reflect on it ourselves. Ivan’s refusal to believe is a willful refusal to trust and no mere denial of God’s existence of. That denial, he says, grows out of his observations of the world God has created. It is a world in which children suffer. And in his conversation with his believing brother Alyosha, Ivan piles on example after example after example of horrific suffering drawn, we are told, from Dostoevsky’s own reading of the newspaper. It may be, Ivan reasons, that God will at the end of days, raise these little children to life and explain to them whey their suffering was necessary even as he welcomes them into paradise. But for Ivan, this is too much. A world in which heaven is attainable only on the condition that children suffer, even only one child suffers, is a world Ivan refuses. And as a result, he also refuses the God who would create such a world. He says, “I don’t want harmony… too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission [to heaven].… It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.”

Ivan’s atheism is powerful because it is existential. Unlike Leibniz or Hume or Mackie or Plantinga, his theodicy is not disengaged from actual suffering. It is not about solving a logical abstraction through appeals to “free-will,” “the greater good,” or “ultimate beauty.” Ivan thinks, as one commenter put it, “with his solar plexus.” His argument begins not in abstractions, but with this world and the real suffering it contains and moves from this world and our experience of it to ask troubling questions about the God who created it. The God who created a moral universe in which the suffering of one child is necessary to attain the greater good of heaven, is a God unworthy of belief, says Ivan.

So, what would this most passionate of atheists say to our internet theodicists who pronounced on God’s absence or presence at Newtown? I think he would heap scorn on both groups, and with justification. For the former, a God whose bruised feelings are at least partly responsible for the deaths of over 20 children and two adults trying to save them, is quite simply a God unworthy of belief. Again, belief here not in the sense of the mere assertion of existence, but of trust. Such a God, Ivan would say, is a moral monster. Even were this God, on the last day, to raise all these little children to new life and welcome them into heaven with the words, “your deaths were necessary to teach your culture a lesson,” that would not be enough for Ivan. Nor should it, I would submit, be enough for any of us. A God deliberately deploys the suffering of the innocent to utter a cosmic “I told you so,” is a God whose sovereignty remains intact at the cost of his goodness. Such a God is at bottom, Will without either Reason or Compassion. Such a God is unworthy of being God, so to speak. And with Ivan, we too must return our ticket if this is a true picture of God.

For the latter, I think Ivan Karamazov would skewer the idea of a God who is present but cannot intervene beyond offering emotional support. If anything, an impotent God, one who created all that is at the price of condemning himself to the role of some sort of divine spectator, weeping that the suffering of his children and impotent in the face of evil is, even more unworthy than the moral monster above. A God who willingly comes along side us, puts an arm around us, and, Oprah-like, offers to “feel our pain” with us but doesn’t really change anything, is, I think Ivan would submit, the idolatrous creation of a culture addicted to the therapeutic. A projection of our own imaginations necessitated to help us make peace with our own passivity, whether chosen or unavoidable, in the face of suffering. A God who is just like us—to the degree that he cannot prevent horrors like Newtown—is a God whose ticket also needs to be returned.

Ivan Karamazov would, I believe, passionately impugn both the conception of God that makes suffering a necessary condition of the good (we may think of Liebniz especially here) or preserves God’s compassion at the cost of his power (Rabbi Kushner). What is left?

Without challenging the academic exercise that is theodicy—I really do mean that—it seems to me that when confronted existentially (rather than theoretically) with the problem of evil, followers of the Crucified one must first recover the language of lament. This is hardly an earth-shattering conclusion. But as I look at the internet theodicies spawned in the wake of Newtown, the leap over lament into the quagmire of explanation and argument is striking. Why was lament not the first response? This is a striking question to me especially since in the language of the Bible, lament seems to me to be always the first response. Whatever explanations came, they came later. When confronted by suffering and injustice, the first response of the Bible is lament.

So it was a severe gift to me that the Psalm appointed for the Sunday after Newtown was Psalm 80. It is a Psalm of lament that derives its power from its strong convictions in the power of God. “Stir up your might,” begs the Psalmist, “and come to save us.” The plea is made in the conviction that the “Shepherd of Israel,” not only can act, but has acted to deliver his people from evil in the past (“You brought a vine out of Egypt,”). The Psalmist eschews explanation, presumes God’s power to deliver, and calls upon him to act. God’s refusal to act, indeed, is a matter of faith-shattering concern: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them enough with the bread of tears. . . .” In lament, we do not presume to know the mind or purposes of God and so say nothing about the necessity of suffering. At the same time, the rationality of lament rests on the assumption that God can change the situation. So, we do not affirm God’s compassion at the expense of his power.

All too often, the theodicists seemed to feel that God needed them to come to His defense. This is as admirable as it is mistaken. However much for the sake of the integrity of faith, we might want to become God’s champions, God does not need us to defend him after Newtown. On the other hand, the people so shocked and grief-stricken by their encounter with the demonic evil unleashed that day certainly did and do. They needed and need words with which to give voice to their encounter with God’s enemy. And what they needed to hear was part of the Christian vocabulary that our culture has lost. The vocabulary of lament. If God the Son has so taken up our nature as to make the lament of Psalm 22 his own dying prayer, then it seems to me, this is where we should begin if we are to answer Ivan: eschew explanation; learn lament.

A final thought about lament from the book of Job. It is striking to me that throughout Job’s suffering, Job’s friends talk to Job to defend God while Job, ever more exasperated at the end of each speech cycle, circumvents his friends and appeals directly to the God who can deliver but, to Job’s deep confusion, anger, and near despair, has not. And Job, in his continuous appeal to God, his unceasing proclamation of his innocence, and his acknowledgement in the light of God’s response that the answer he seeks he lacks the capacity to receive, is judged righteous. It is Job’s friends, who have mastered God and his ways who are judged to have spoken falsely. Who need a mediator—Job himself—to offer sacrifices lest the wrath of the Almighty consume them.

I wonder whether some of the theodicists—and this is only a wonder—leaped to God’s defense, leaped to speech about God, because their own ability to speak to God had somehow gotten lost along the way. Of course, this is a pastoral and deeply personal matter and I offer here simply as a speculation. Does the writer of Job actually capture something of the “religious” imagination when he indicts those who speak on God’s behalf not simply for the sin of presumption, but for presumption’s attempt to mask the inability to pray?

Lament, however valid it is as a first response (and a second and third) to Ivan’s indictment of God, is only the beginning. We cannot remain in lament if we are to answer Ivan’s existential argument. Do we move on then from lament to explanation, to defending God? I don’t think so.

I read somewhere that Dostoevsky never really answers Ivan’s complaint and in so doing, even though he remained an Orthodox Christian, he ended up delivering one of the most powerful essays for atheism ever. I’m not sure that’s true. I think rather that the rest of the novel, which focuses on Alyosha and especially his relationship with a group of children, simply is the answer to Ivan’s atheism. The answer is not an explanation, but a life.

This suggests to me that rather than returning to explanation, we are wise if after lamenting or even while we still are, we continue our answer to Ivan with actions. To get at what I mean, let’s look at the outcome of another primary school shooting. In 2006, Charles Roberts shot and killed 5 Amish girls and wounded five others, aged 6-13 before turning his gun on himself in Bart Township, Pennsylvania. The immediate action of the local Amish community was to tear down the school and build another on a different location.  Inspired by the quiet decency of the Amish response to the horror visited upon their children, non-Amish residents of Bart Township and nearby Quarryville began to respond in remarkable ways, ways that included attending the gunman’s son’s soccer games, and providing his family with Christmas presents. This is what one local artist called “living forgiveness” looked like. Such a response, moreover, renders our lament intelligible in that it also rests on strong convicitons about both the goodness and power of God. Convictions that render God and God’s ways, if not explicable, then—possibly—trustworthy.

To move to loving, forgiving, trusting is not to deny lament, but to insist both during and after that God remains trustworthy and however much this world waits for his final salvation, the cross and resurrection and ascension give us a clue. Not an answer, a clue. A clue that suggests that God has not willed the suffering of any child for a greater good, but has himself taken on our nature, and with our nature engaged in a battle with all that would inflict horrors on his children. He has wrestled them to the ground and then held them up to ridicule. He has done so not because his suffering or theirs is somehow necessary to pull the disparate strands of human foolishness together into one finally beautiful tapestry, but, as David Bentley Hart has put it, “because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave.”

And now, we are called in trust to live not as though nothing has changed with Christ’s ascension—a keep plodding onward in stoic acceptance of all that comes. Rather we are called in trust to live as though everything has changed—to keep trusting, loving, forgiving in a holy refusal to give in to despair. To cling, if only by our fingernails, in trust to the one who embraced God-forsakenness for us and to live in joyful anticipation that his victory will soon be revealed to all.

So, the Church has no Theodicy. The Church recognizes full well the mystery of sin and evil. It is not blind to the suffering of evil. But the Church has no explanation for why this is so. The Church has no theory to mollify the rage of all the Ivans in the world. No explanation will work; no theory can stand with a parent at the grave of a child.

The Church has, instead, acts of lament. The Church has words to give to our grief when our words fail. How long O Lord? You have made us eat the bread of tears enough! Turn and save us. The Church has, instead, acts of love that persist in the face of suffering and evil. Acts of love that cannot be legislated or driven by rules. Acts, rather, that are entirely free. Acts that express trust in God, acts that embrace love of friend and enemy alike. Instead of a theodicy, the Church has a Cross to which it points, and about which it proclaims, here is where the problem has been solved and then lives as though that is true.


3 thoughts on “Answering Ivan, Or, Why the Church has No Theodicy

  1. Very good essay. This lines up with N.T. Wright’s thoughts in his book on evil: Scripture doesn’t tell us why it exists, but it tells us what God is doing about it. Here you take that one step further and show how the church, as Christ’s body, can live that out.

  2. Tim, my heartfelt thanks to you for this thoughtful essay. The humility in “the church has no answer to Ivan” is refreshing and compelling.

Leave a Reply