Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Theodicy, Boston Edition

Well, the last 10 days or so have been chock-full of theodicy, which means that I may finally have enough original material to put together a blog post.

It started last week, when I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, unquestionably one of the most terrifying books I have ever encountered. It's a postapocalyptic tale wherein a father and young son are trying to survive, but the skies are black with ash, nothing will grow and people have turned to cannibalism. The tiny book is heavy with despair.

On Saturday, after finishing that bit of sunshine and rainbows, I attended synagogue (more specifically, "Havurah on the Hill") at the Vilna Shul, which turns out to be a wonderful little building with a sanctuary above and a museum below. If anyone knows anything about theodicy, it should be Jews, right?

The Vilna Shul is the only remaining immigrant synagogue in Boston and is partially restored. The walls of the sanctuary (there's got to be a better word for for it than "sanctuary") are covered in paintings that were recently covered in beige, but the clever paintings are peeking out in places, waiting to be fully exposed.

The prayerbook that we used for the service had the words of the psalms and songs in Hebrew on the right, with a fairly free interpretation of the psalms appearing to the left. As the service progressed, we arrived at Psalm 29:

4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is majestic.

5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;
the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.

The interpretation, however, went something like this:

The cedars break, and the sound is the voice of God,
and the sound is God's silence.

The Shul is right next door, so I'll have to drop by sometime this week and get the actual text. A helpful physics software guy named Dallas, who guided a couple of us gentiles through the service, said that the interpretations were provided by Reb Moshe Waldoks, a local rabbi and co-author of "The Big Book of Jewish Humor".

The interpretations have a distinctly Eastern flavor, and this tidbit was no different, except that for some reason it jumped out at me and slapped me around a little bit. When bad things happen, can we understand them both as the voice of God and God's silence? Is it enough, as it said a few paragraphs down, to suppose that God's business is to allow us to "reap what we sow"?

I don't think so ... but the paradox is still interesting to me.

Then, on Sunday, Scott preached on Job. Why anybody would go and do a thing like that is beyond me, but there you have it. Maybe it was a lectionary reading or something. Anyhow, he started with Job, and summarized some things about the book, and gave a few possibilities for how to understand what God says in responding to Job. Then he made an interesting move and went on to the New Testament and pointed to the apostles. His suggestion was that the apostles were in a safer place than Job, that we don't see the apostles asking a lot of questions about evil or grieving over their suffering and persecution because they had already given up all their things. In other words, he was advocating a sort of (basically Eastern) detachment from the material world and an attentiveness to one's task (basically Western) that might make suffering less philosophically troubling.

I'm drastically simplifying, of course, but that's how I understood the sermon.

Altogether I thought he did well, and that the sermon was well-tailored for its audience, and that we would be well advised to do less storing up wealth and pleasure for ourselves and give a little more to doing good. But like the sabbath service, something about it rings hollow. Job doesn't need a sermon about how he was too attached to his kids.

On Tuesday, Reepicheep, who has just returned from Kenya, posted about a Bible study in which a Kenyan church member asked him about why a good God would allow so much evil in the world. Reep didn't give his response, but if I know his libertarian tendencies it was some version of the free will defense. With which i am also dissatisfied.

This afternoon, I read Richard's post, which makes reference to W. Paul Jones's Theological Worlds, in which he mentions paired ideas of "obsessio" and "epiphania":

An obsessio is whatever functions deeply and pervasively in one’s life as a defining quandary, a conundrum, a boggling of the mind, a hemorrhaging of the soul, a wound that bewilders healing, a mystification than renders one’s life cryptic. Whatever inadequate words one might choose to describe it, an obsessio is that which so gets its teeth into a person that it establishes one’s life as plot. It is a memory which, as resident image, becomes so congealed as Question that all else in one’s experience is sifted in terms of its promise as Answer. Put another way, an obsessio is whatever threatens to deadlock Yeses with No. It is one horn that establishes life as dilemma…The etymology of the word says it well: obsessio means “to be besieged."

Well that sounds familiar.

And then tonight, I visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I saw an amazing exhibit of Venetian renaissance painting: Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto ... just spectacular stuff. I also ogled their impressionist collection and the egyptian collection, with statues more than 4000 years old. But the thing that will probably stay with me the longest is a crucified christ who hangs in the museum's Catalonian Chapel. (On the left, below. So far, this is the best picture I've been able to find.)

Fashioned from wood and painted darkly, the Christ is a pathetic figure, with skinny legs, a slightly distended belly and a downturned face. Looking up at that Christ, it hit me, all of a sudden, how formative it must be to belong to a faith whose central figure dies, and not in glorious battle, but as a powerless, pathetic and essentially nameless human being, tortured to death by his fellow human beings and then forgotten. How could protestants abandon the crucifix? What will we become without that image constantly in front of us?

And then, as I rode home on the train, an older man ... well, probably not more than 60 ... boarded the train and flung himself into a seat. His back was horribly hunched, his face not just turned down, but turned into his chest.

And so there we were, back to theodicy again.