Jeremy over at AUFS has written an important post on abuse and theodicy. I found the piece moving on a number of levels. First, it is rare to find such a short post packed with equal parts confession and critique. It is both moving and forceful. Second, it picks up an weaves a number of threads that I find myself currently tangled in.
The post is in part a reflection of Jeremy’s clinical internship in psychology. More specifically, it is an engagement with the tragedy, pervasiveness, and damage of childhood sexual abuse. The post then moves towards to an engagement of how theologians could possibly respond to such a reality.
For this Jeremy sets two broad poles. There is either the ‘psychotic’ response of somehow saying this is all part of God’s plan. Or there is a broadly ‘process-oriented’ view that conceives God as a non-coercive reality and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of humanity. The first view is a clearly horrific and almost always (or ultimately) damaging articulation on a number of levels. The second view helps avoid some of the former’s inadequacies (to put it mildly) but is pushed and viewed itself as being too ‘convenient’ and a ‘cheap way’ of avoiding the question of such a God and such a reality.
As if Jeremy’s concise post was not insightful enough the comment thread bore out a range of responses to further thicken the engagement (with some developing and some falling into the initial account). As I mentioned above, I am writing this now because this is both a practical and intellectual question for me that is indeed pressing. So what follows is simply an attempt at articulating what I am already doing and thinking so it might further challenged or developed.
First I will begin with my ‘practical theology’. In the last two years I have been increasingly influenced by aspects of death-of-god theology and more recently process theology. Academically I consider myself an expert in neither areas. However, the result of this formation has, perhaps surprisingly, made one its greatest impacts in how I offer pastoral care. I have become keenly sensitive in how any forms of theodicy enter my own expressions of care. This has been helpful, and I have posted briefly about it before. The greatest difficulty in this has been trying to respond well when people are looking to me to console them with a particular notion of God (a God that might feel good in the moment but will come back with vengeance if followed too far), or when a well-meaning visitor is also there and invokes such theologies. I try and return the conversation to the strengths and support that I see manifest and while I am naturally a rabid ‘meaning-maker’ I refrain from doing so in that context.
But then I pray for them. I pray. I don’t know. I guess I pray like I lead the congregation in prayer on Sunday. I don’t really know what I am doing. The intentional part is one of naming, using language to vocalize and externalize particular realities; to put them out there before us, to have to sit with them. And then it is asking and seeking. I don’t know, I just do this. I hope. But this implies a theology of course. Just maybe there is a God who can intervene but then what does that tell me . . . And so theology runs aground and perhaps prayer is obscene. It definitely feels that way at times. It can be therapeutic but would it loose its magic if I named it as such?
I think prayer can remain viable but I am hesitant to let it slip into what I consider a vacuous liberalizing of it, but why would I be hesitant? If prayer is powerful, but perhaps not for the reasons I once thought it was, then should I not embrace and explore that differing power? But again lingering, what if God is listening . . . but then immediately after . . . so goddammit God has been listening?! I am hesitant and fearful about talking about God to my three year old, about praying with him. We do give thanks (but again there is lingering here). And I do try and invoke blessings. To prayers that are involuntarily on my lips are God dammit and God bless ’em.
The second half of my engagement with this post was regarding the related point of my intellectual development. I have been recently influenced by the process theology of Catherine Keller and some of the related orientation of Dan Barber (also a contributor at AUFS). The major shift here is thinking about what it means to try and keep nothing out of play, nothing unaffected. In this way I cannot hide an ideological/idolatrous ‘core’ that will determine in advance how I define and position people, groups, and situations around me. So, because of my profession and confession does this model, if followed through on, end in becoming a convenient or cheap way of avoiding the question of God and suffering? I think it depends. It does in some ways avoid the question. Or for me, at present, it rejects the question in most of the terms. But this orientation has given me a renewed understanding of bearing with the chaos (as Keller, and Barber, put it). But there is certainly no immediate payoff. It has not made me more effective. It does not make me more hopeful (but maybe not less hopeful either). At present it simply helps orient me to a tradition that has power, and could be more constructively powerful. But things are still at play with me. I hope it does not lead me away from the church. There is much strength in the tradition I work within. I also support me family with it. But I do hope I follow through on seeing and proclaiming a good news of life.
Around the time of reading Jeremy’s post I came across a little referenced passage in 2 Kings 6. Famine was severe. Pigeon shit had a monetary trade value. The king of Israel hears a story of a women who was convinced by another woman to cook and eat her son and that the next day the other woman would cook her own son. The first woman agrees and they eat her son but the next day the other woman (who suggested the plan) does not offer her son as a meal. The king tears his clothes and runs murderously out towards the Elisha the prophet. After all, the prophets at this time in the Bible are the ‘rain-makers’. The king says succinctly, “This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I hope in the Lord any longer?”
Elisha here is the only theologian who can respond in this situation. And he gives no refutation for this scenario. He seeks to save his own life when the king approaches him. He gives a ‘miraculous’ bounty the next day (to refute that such a miracle is not possible) but he apparently cannot resurrect the already consumed child (he did resurrect a child in 2 Kgs 4) nor does he mention him. This strikes me as the sort of bind any theology is going to find itself in with respect to suffering. Turning to Job he does not escape it either, but at least he does provide a resource and hope for engagement in our bondage (though the text of course includes its own problematics in all this).
I would like to have a better conclusion to all this, but it seems that is part of the problem so I will leave it at that for now.