Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming.
It’s been a bleak summer worldwide. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it sucks.
I’ve found that when significantly bad things happen, I don’t write something. Sometimes, it’s because I have an incomplete blog post (Trust me. There are a lot.) that I could not contain or wrap up. Sometimes, it’s just overwhelming. Sometimes, there is the futile sense of thinking that what I write contributes in no way to the signal, but instead just adds to the noise. But, I’m writing now, because I just can’t not. I’ve just reached that personal threshold.
I don’t like theodicy, the theological consideration of suffering. Let me reframe that. I don’t like reading most theodical suppositions, those awful chimeric results of creating causes for perceived effects. Most theologies won’t admit that theodicy is phenomenological, meaning that the attribution of God to action and event comes from our subjective perception and encounter with the world. But it is we, ourselves, either individually or collectively, who assign action and event to God, depending on our understanding of divine encounter. This means that what action and motive we assign to God is what comes from our comprehension and interpretation of God’s ability and identity. So, it’s not what God does, but what we perceive God to do, whether it’s God or not. So, really, in theodicy, God isn’t the bad guy, here. It’s you and your horrible, finite, all-too-human “explanation” of why bad things happen to good people. And that means that we haven’t moved any further in our understanding of why bad things happen to good people, at all. And yet God is still is part of the conversation.
When we read Ecclesiastes along with Qoheleth, we look for God in particular ways, starting with the foundation that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new under the sun (observations that warm my heart, actually). And from there we see Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. We want there to be meaning, so we create it to give ourselves reassurance. This meaning is created because it is relational. It is because of our encounter with events and our imaginative ability to create meaning from our relation to them because they resonate with our sense of being human.
Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Is the world worse now than it was exactly one century before when the first shots of World War I have been fired? What about all the horrors humanity has inhumanely inflicted upon itself that have never been recorded or are so terrible they’ve never been uttered? Has the world increased in suffering? Is my question quantitative or qualitative? Trick question: Suffering knows no human limit. Neither in time nor in space.
What is increased is our awareness and devastatingly so. The internet and its rhizomatic social media have made our connections to the plight of the Yazidi in Iraq and Black youth in the United States almost instantaneous. And we immediately become a part of this encounter with injustice. And we can choose to care if we want or care about something else. Or create something to care about. Whatever. There was a time until recently that we learned about great atrocities post facto or in historical narrative. No longer. And once you see this suffering, you are a part of it. And theodicy or not, we are now held to account for it. We’re stuck. Deal with it. And that adds to our misery.
Because suffering knows no qualitative or quantitative limit in time or space, suffering requires acknowledgment and recognition to function. You do not notice you are breathing until you cannot take in air. Suffering is ubiquitous. It’s just a matter of noticing it, because it is always touching you. You are affected by suffering, you just don’t care until you’re made to because it has surpassed whatever threshold you have to prevent the floodgates of how awful things are. It’s really quite miserable when you think about it. And it’s worse for others, right now, when you think about that, too.
So back to theodicy. Theodicies are what we create for ourselves and our communities when our thresholds are overwhelmed. It’s not that we punt our responsibility. It’s that our encounter with tragedy is beyond comprehension that we assign a relation to ourselves that is beyond comprehension to handle the incomprehensible. (This blog post could get super interesting in a way that I’m not going to examine, but my apophatic theology friends just started to salivate a little, all the same.) This is not saying that God is a fabricated crutch. I’m saying that it is quite human to try to handle things on our own until we can’t. Or won’t. And then we hand it off, because explanations of ultimate origins are harrrrrrrrrrrd!
When the apocryphal verses “God never gives you more than you can handle”, “When God closes a door, He (sic) opens a window”, or “Everything happens for a reason” get trotted out, responsibility and action is being reassigned – and pathetically so. ISIS and ebola are killing children daily. These glib verses evaporate in tragedy’s midst. Just war theory will not save the refugees. Positive thinking won’t heal the terminally hemorrhaging. What to do?
Ferguson. ISIS. Robin Williams’ suicide. Gaza Strip. Ebola. Border refugee crisis. Ukraine. Syrian civil war. Boko Haram. Global warming. Just mentioning these words, if you recognize them and their context, evokes tragedy. What to do?
Act justly. Just action restructures theodicy, reframing tragedy’s identity and event such that beneficial change can occur. The challenge is then, what is just? And how does one act justly in one’s immediate context? How can I act justly against Boko Haram? Against the Ferguson police department? Against.. against… against it all? Well, I don’t have a good answer for that. But I know it’s not liking a cause on Facebook. That’s not just futile, it’s pathetic. And a poor excuse for spreading awareness about a cause.
But if we encounter God, then we encounter the commandment and requirement to act justly in reaction to that encounter. It’s that double bind of the duty to love. (It’s fucking annoying, I know.) The problem is, then, how does one subjectively act? Well, good luck with that. Because it’s our responsibility, in light of this framework of divine encounter, of our self to act authentically for the benefit of who has suffered injustice. I told you this summer sucked. So, go love and see what happens in the meaninglessness of it all. That means even if you get the shit beaten out of you.