Thinking about theodicy…

Being a spiritual humanist in a Christian seminary can be challenging. Thankfully Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is committed to an interreligious experience of dialogue, deep listening, and free thought. And I was raised in a healthy Christian family who provided a framework of faith. These help me engage Christianity from the perspectives of believer and apostate. One topic that has always fascinated me from both views is theodicy: otherwise known as the problem of evil.

Evil is especially prevalent in my mind right now. It feels like darkness is winning; I see a world on fire. No matter how many marches I attend, letters I write, and representatives I call, evil outpaces the good. Legislation that will help the wealthy and hurt the poor is allowed to pass. Walls across borders are being built. Dreamers are deported. Police get away with murder. Rapists are held unaccountable. Fires. Hurricanes. Climate change.

If god existed, how can god sit idle? Especially if god is all knowing, powerful and loving?

There are numerous attempts at an answer. Some involve free-will. Others focus on god in the moment on the margins. There is always the answer in Job where god just says, “You don’t know me. I do what I want!” Perhaps suffering is god’s version of tough love? Jesus had to suffer, right? Evangelical capitalists always talk about boot straps and exceptionalism; of course their god would kill his own son via capital punishment. It’s so we can succeed. And if people don’t… well, that’s their own fault.

None of this is sufficient; and I will not accept it. The universe seems largely apathetic to the human cause. I hold ourselves, myself, to blame for the evil. Justice, much like good and evil, is a human invention. If I were to pull the universe apart, I wouldn’t find an atom of “good” or a particle of “evil.” So why would they matter? Because I want them to matter. if I am going to exist in this world, hell, if my son is going to exist in this world, I want qualities like “justice” and “good” and “mercy” to matter. Otherwise I am helping build a hell on earth and sacrificing my own son to its machinations.

Am I up for the challenge? Not alone. I have surrounded myself with my tribe; people who crave justice, mercy and goodness. People who hold powerful love as the ultimate human ideal. And they keep me going; and they keep me honest; and they keep me safe. Because if I have learned nothing in seminary, it is that the role of the prophet isn’t to predict the future. It is to learn from the past and let it serve as a warning to those in power.

Because while I would rather bend the arc of the universe peacefully, there are other options. To those in the halls of power; in the life or privilege; while you sleep may you imagine the gleam of the pitchfork and of the guillotine, and remember the history of the world. There is still time to change course. But perhaps not much time. May you have a reckoning with your god. An eschaton is nigh.

I’m not good at radical love.

(I’m not good at radical love first appeared on the blog Loved for Who You ArePlease visit them for more stories on living and practicing radical love!)

training wheelsI’m not good at radical love. Scratch that. I don’t think radical love is something I can be good or bad at. It’s something I need to learn. Not to be confused with the radically easy love, such as my affection for my friends and family with jobs, education, well-read opinions and good taste in beer. I love a lot of people who are safe, comfortable and encouraging. I support them and they support me, without judgement or hesitation. This is love on training wheels and at close to 40 years old it’s time for me to grow up.

In my experiences of volunteer work in Romania and Mexico and the United States, I’ve learned that for love to be radical it can’t discriminate; it “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13: 7) and not just for people who are easy to love. If I truly want a just and peaceful world, radical love is required for the homeless man who hits me up for cash every time I go to Whole Foods for my organically grown and fair trade sourced bread. Or the mentally ill woman on the bus who smells horrible because she hasn’t showered in weeks and wants to talk to me about how the police have ruined her life. Or the fundamentalist Christian at the gay pride festival holding a sign that says “Burn In Hell.” Or the drunk guy who lives under the bridge in my neighborhood. Or the African American woman who comes into my office because she saw the sign outside that reads “Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center” and thinks that we have money to give her so she can turn the lights back on for her three kids in her studio apartment. I need to learn how to love the hard way; to grow out of my comfort zone to embrace people who need love the most.

69766d03f350498d6f6b73b525dcf2c0Radically hard love is the price I pay for being a father. My first child will be born around Christmas this year. My partner and I didn’t know if we could conceive. Now a baby is around the corner and the world is suddenly smaller because it is filled with baby-potential. And just like I would hate to have somebody come over with a pile of dirty dishes in the sink and dog hair everywhere, I am ashamed at the state of my world for which responsibility will fall on my child. The only way my son/daughter is going to succeed where my generation has failed is if I can teach them radically hard love, and I can’t teach something I haven’t experienced.

Radically hard love is the price I pay for faith. My Unitarian Universalist church demands radically hard love. Its seven principles challenge me to move beyond my safe relationships into the scary realm of solidarity with people on the margins of society. If I truly believe in “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” than I have to act for peace and justice in the world for every person, not just the easy ones. Otherwise the principles of my faith are just more words in a meaningless creed. Working at my non-profit I’m confronted with child trafficking in cocoa supply chains, human slavery involved in electronics manufacturing, mass migration due to global climate change, and what seems like a world going to hell in a hand-basket. It’s easy to succumb to compassion fatigue because everything is urgent and one man can only do so much. The only way I recharge is by going to church in solidarity with other peacemakers. But if I’m going to be honest and effective in my spiritual community, I have to learn radically hard love.

vocationRadically hard love is the price I pay for vocation. Years ago I had this crazy notion that I may be called to serve in some kind of ministry. Now that I’m studying at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, I am learning skills that help me connect with the prisoner, the beggar, the homeless, the gentile, the mentally ill, the foreigner and the outsider. There is a drive somewhere inside my head and heart (and maybe spirit?) that demands I overcome my unease and fear of people who may ask for more than I am comfortable in giving because these are the people who need radical love the most. If I’m going to true to this mysterious call to Vocation, in order to be true to myself, I have to learn radically hard love.

Because of my commitments to my children, faith and self, it’s time for me to stretch beyond the safe walls of my middle class life. I need to put radically hard love into practice in order to be the father, neighbor and minister I feel called to be, taking risks with my heart by connecting it to people who need it most. That being a Unitarian Universalist comes with a responsibility to creation and neighbor that mirrors the responsibility I learned as a child in bible class:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

lovewithoutexceptionssquare-500x500Now that I’m an adult, I’m no longer looking for salvation or eternal life but I can hear the wisdom in this story; that the whole world is my neighbor and the whole world needs merciful acts of radical love.