Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.

God in the time of Trauma.


The Sandy Hook shootings still haven't really sunk in, nor should they. This is the nature of trauma, this unique kind of wound. If we were to comprehend it, it would make us inhumane, since events like this are something that humans cannot comprehend. We can only stand (or perhaps our legs have already given out on us) on the edge of what we see and wail, or sob, or be dumbfounded into silence. What stands before us is more an unfathomable event than anything else: this happened, this occurred. We can't believe our eyes, but it's there: the humanly incomprehensible. And that's a good thing, for all of us. 

What good comes from our individual and collective comprehension? I would say that it is a fuller comprehension of the relationship of ourselves to ourselves and to each other. But this is not the absolute comprehension of the event and the logic up to it. It is becoming clear that the young man was mentally unstable and that he shot his mother in the face with her own gun, and that he massacred over twenty small children along with a teacher, the principal, and the school psychologist. The word "tragedy" seems to have lost its meaning in these increasingly common circumstances. There really isn't a word for this. It's indescribable, and therefore, uncircumscribable. That's the nature of trauma. Language, itself, is wounded. 

Unsurprisingly, the traditional questions (and answers) of theodicy arise. "What kind of God…?", "Where was God?", "Why would God…?", "Who is this God that…?", "When was God going to…?", "How could God allow…?" And it's good that these questions come up. We need to talk about this. As tenuous as language is in itself, it still holds us together. Language relieves us from ourselves, as alone as we are. And talking to ourselves about this only gets ourselves so far and sometimes not far at all. 

It's good to ask these questions because there are plenty of people who will speak as God's mind, mouth, and fist. I think my current favorite of the worst kind is from the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, who said that God didn't intervene because the United States has eliminated God from its schools and that God "is a gentleman" and doesn't act where He isn't wanted. Fischer is quite sure about the absence of God because he believes himself to be in the presence of God, a foolhardy and hubristic belief if ever there was one. It's this kind of theological reasoning that demonstrates a special kind of cruelty. It's an evil of its own kind. 

There was a time in the broader culture, before mental illness was seen as a thing in itself, when the massacre would be ascribed to real demonic forces. That this was Satan acting in the world, that the shooter was a man possessed. And there will be those now, those in the conservatively theological camps, who will say the same thing. But for the most part, evil has lost its theological character and has attained a moral one. As Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy stated, "Evil visited this community today." And he left causation at that.

The morality of the act is still considered to have a certain kind of category and agency. And while the idea of sin may be tossed around, the idea of the conventional sinner is one who has a certain basic degree of rationale, even if they are perceived to have been substantially corrupted by their actions. The issues of mental illness and sin muddy the waters when it comes to rationality and irrationality. And this mentally troubled young man, like Arizona's Jared Loughner, Colorado's James Holmes, and Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho, acted in irrational ways to commit irrational acts of unfathomable consequence. (I'm leaving the Columbine shooters and Anders Breivik, the Norwegian shooter, out of this argument. I find them in a different category, a category broadly shared with Fischer.) So, with the psychological category of mental illness, we cannot merely chalk things up to facile explanation of the devil and sin in the world.

But even with active supernatural evil marginalized in the world's event, divine agency is still questioned. "What about God™?" [NB: I sometimes use ™ to highlight conventional definitions and understandings of key concepts and to challenge those concepts.] God™ is an enjoyable scapegoat. To use Aristotelian metaphysics, it's easy to pin the First Cause™ of everything on the Prime Mover™. If God™ creates everything and the capacity for which and within which all things can happen then everything is God™'s ultimate responsibility. Well, that was easy. And then things get muddy when the idea that God™ is Good™ is thrown into the equation and how can a Good™ God™ have such things happen. Some people might say "allow" such things to happen, but the "allow" is still within the limits of action, so the permissibility of the event is the ultimate causation. Even if an Evil™ act is one of privation (as Augustine would frame it) and deviates from God™'s teleology, Augustine is complicated on the individual's free will. How do we resist this lazy Manicheanism of Good™/Evil™, black/white?

So then we get into the issue of the critical examination of Good™ and Evil™. Is God™ Good™? What is Good™? And what is God™? And things get messy from thereon in. I've just finished reading some G. W. Leibniz, most well-known for his monads (which always sounds a little dirty) and his idea that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," a theory taken to task by Voltaire in Candide. In a nutshell, Leibniz says that this is the best of all possible worlds because God has created something greater than we can imagine and the bad is just part of some greater Good™ that we cannot conceive with our limited understanding. And in the Bible, we see this on occasion, (e.g., Jesus' healing of the man born blind, Jesus letting Lazarus die to make a point of faith, and perhaps most famously, God commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac). But what to do about it, when Scripture appears to say that there is something beyond the immediate circumstance? Do we let this pass so easily and extend it to a universal system? Or are these localized events in a particular canonical narrative?

Leibniz, a Christian who worked hard to resolve Protestant and Catholic tensions, puts some heavy lifting into this idea so that if it sounds problematic, at least he has a sophisticated explanation for it. The idiot (which etymologically, is someone concerned primarily with their self) who tells the mother whose child was just gunned down by a crazy person that "This was part of God™'s plan for a greater Good™" commits a terrible kind of hubris. Even to themselves, they don't comprehend what they're saying. The mother whose five year old is now a bloody mess in the classroom corner doesn't give a shit about God™'s greater plan. And if this God™ is the same one who is said, biblically, to passionately give a shit about the most vulnerable, then this God™ is an asshole. 

This is the problem of prooftexting from Scripture and with superstructural, grand unified field theories in theology, the folly of systematic theologies. They suture together credibility to the divine initiation and action of terrible, terrible things. They lock in systems and methods of divine action. The not only describe, but prescribe courses of divine action, as if they could see the system from outside of it. As if they had some sterile objectivity. And this hubristic objectivity is dangerous. This God™ is an idol and many well-meaning Christians subscribe to this God™, especially in crisis. This God™ does not exist. I can easily say I am an atheist here. People, you're praying to the air above you and to the idol in your heart. Deal with it.

Trauma elicits and necessitates suture. And so we suture together answers for our experience. We are bricoleurs. We take what is immediately available to us to create and sustain meaning for ourselves. In the midst of trauma, we must hold together. In the midst of massacre, of devastation, and heartbreak, we must hold together. We must not speak, but listen. We must comfort, not condemn. We can question, but there are no answers. In fact, we must answer to those who are hurting that we are here for them. God™ is dead. The system buckles under its own weight. We pray and lament and comfort one another. We live in the midst of systemic failure. Always. Our systems fail us. We are all too human.

We must be God's hands when all has failed. Our understanding of God has failed and will fail. Our understanding of Scripture is confused. Children, loved ones are dead. What to do? It is no surprise that President Obama ended his statement from Psalm 147 with God's actions of lovingkindness, "He heals the brokenhearted, binding up their wounds." It is in the midst of trauma, of deep wounding, that we can act to help relieve suffering in ways that we are concretely able, as insufficient as our actions may be. This is how we can act in such terrible, terrible circumstances: with love. It is only a matter of time – an unexpected time – until we will need such comfort, such sutures, ourselves.

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By Burke
Bleak Theology A post-punk counterweight to joy.


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