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.

Life isn’t (un)fair…

universe-hd-photo95-JPGA long time ago I stopped believing in a fair universe. From everything I’ve observed, life is a mix of intentionality, chance and inevitability. I have a small amount of agency; I work hard and pay my taxes and volunteer all of which come with their own rewards. But for the most part, life is just as likely to kick me in the balls as it is to let me win the lottery. Nature has no sense of justice outside of its laws of cause and effect. It is up to me to create fairness from an otherwise apathetic life.

When I believed God was in charge of everything, I had mantras like “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to fall back on whenever undeservedly bad things happened to good people. (let’s be honest, bad people deserve it, right?) Eventually they all became platitudes. Because as more curses and blessings stacked up, most of which without any catalyst, God’s plan began to look like trying to read tea leaves and God had a funny sense of what people could handle vs. what they should have to handle. In the end I was forced to reject the notion of a just God because a just God wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of so much injustice.

free-willNot just the kind of injustice that people intentionally cause; not crime or war or corporate greed or any of the millions of ways we dehumanize each other. I’m talking about the stupid everyday injustice, like car accidents and slipping on a patch of ice and breaking your leg. Accidents with horrible consequences. The butterfly effect of causality that reaps human life. I can’t even buy into the “free will” answer: God doesn’t intervene because he loves our free will more than he loves starving children. It’s bullshit, because that’s not love or justice, that’s an excuse. Therefore, I was left with either rejecting my preconceptions about God or believing in a lie.

Recently, my father-in-law passed away. While he was not perfect, he lived a good and clean life. He didn’t smoke. He drank less than occasionally. He was a runner. He attended church, was married more than 30 years and was an overall good man. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which spread to his brain and eventually to the rest of his body. The doctors originally gave him 6 months to live. He fought for over 4 years until May 11th, 2015. There it is; blessings and curses all wrapped up in a whole ball of intentionality, chance and inevitability. If a just God did exist, this wouldn’t have happened.

BristleconeThe ironic part is I wish I still believed in a just God because right now I could really use something to blame. I want to look God in the eye and say “You are wrong! You did this! This is your fault and how dare you proclaim love and justice and mercy and compassion when you let good men suffer and die!” I am angry because Andy didn’t deserve to die. Not this way; not like this. He deserved better from his God than he received. There are millions of other people in the world who are more deserving than he was to die of cancer. This is a horrible statement but right now I feel horrible and selfish and hurt and confused and broken. And tired.

Right now I am just. So. Tired. Because what is the point? Why should I work so hard for ideals that go against the very fabric of the universe? Why should I care? In a just universe I’d be able to look at my son and tell him that life will be kind. But right now all I can tell him is that he will never know his grandfather; that he was robbed of having a good man in his life because life isn’t fair.

Life just is.

It is a hard lesson and I’m left with one lonely realization; if there is going to be justice in this world then I’m going to have to be the one making it happen. It’s up to me to create justice where it doesn’t exist. Because that is what I want to do. The responsibility has been passed from God to me and it’s a heavy load. 11238228_10153338843751934_1951030714927036305_nFortunately I know a whole lot of other people who are working to lighten that load. I know miracle workers on the margins of society who squeeze justice from life like blood from stone and I want to be just as strong and powerful and tireless as them. And maybe if I can just keep trying, keep believing in love and justice, I can make my father-in-law’s death mean something.

Because I think that’s what he would have wanted. And it’s what I want. Rest in love Andy. I’ll keep working on the justice.