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.


Steve said...

Nice to hear from you. I enjoyed the Vilna synagogue description and their web site. I see where one could go there to learn about cloud computing. That is good. I also am enjoying Scott's web site. Thanks for introducing him.

Matthew said...

You're welcome, Steve. Thanks for commenting. =)

Joel said...

I find there is no fully satisfying answer to that question. But I do enjoy a Stavesacre song on the subject, the lyrics of which are here. It's worth listening to as well because the loud and somewhat angry tone of the music fits well with the lyrics.

And I could also see how Boston could inspire thoughts on the subject :)

crystal said...

I'm still stuck on theodicy issues. One person I've read recently that at least seems to take it seriously is Marilyn McCord Adams. You saw those past posts about her book "Christ and Horrors" at Experimental Theology?

Matthew said...

Thanks. It seems important to remember that we're all complicit to some degree.

Nod, I read those posts. I actually have a copy of "Christ and Horrors", but I haven't read it yet.

Paul Maurice Martin said...

Nice visit to Boston through the eyes of someone musing on theodicy! Very unique as a post - and it works.

As someone who has it all - the skinniness, the flabby belly, AND the increasingly hunched back - I have to say that suffering bothers me less and less. I mean, existentially. And not just my own suffering, but suffering in the world at large.

I find and feel myself part of a far greater presence - whatever words people want to put to that is OK by me: "God," a "divine energy," or "being itself" in its fullness and completion.

I accept that it's all more than I understand and that I myself am part and parcel to more than I can know.

And I accept the reality of my faith in that condition or state of affairs.

Life is more than I understand. And I am of this more than I understand.

Maybe that’s both a sound and a silence – an answer and not.

Matthew said...

@Paul: I think that exchanging the God of traditional theism for "a divine energy" or "being itself" kind of excuses you from having to deal with traditional theodicy questions. But I guess even if you don't have to defend God, you still have to decide whether the world should be viewed with hope or despair.

It gives me hope that even though you "have it all" (skinnyness, hunched back, self-deprecating sense of humor), you are still inclined to hope.

Paul Maurice Martin said...

Whether it's the ways of traditional theism's God or the ways of the world/being itself, isn't it essentially the same problem - that the One in whom we live and move and have our being doesn't act the way that we think we would if we were in charge?

Matthew said...

I think it does make a difference if it changes your expectations.

We have good reason to expect the traditional theistic God to do like in the bible, parting seas and rescuing prisoners from fiery furnaces and things like that. But I don't think we have the same expectations for how "being itself" ought to behave. I don't think we expect "being itself" to intervene and rescue people in distress. And it seems that if the expectation goes away, then the need for theodicy goes away.

But I don't know, maybe we do have those sorts of expectations about "being itself"? Maybe everybody has to do some sort of "cosmodicy"?

Paul Maurice Martin said...

Yeah... the more anthropomorphic our idea of "what's in charge," so to speak, the more we'd expect that Being to consistently behave according to our values.

It does seem to be a matter of degree. "Life isn't fair" is something that most people have to grapple with at some point whether or not they're traditional theists.

Beth said...


I am writing a series of posts on this issue, but from the Thomist perspective (obviously). This series of posts is motivated largely by Scott's sermon and your comment and the subsequent plethora of books I am reading on the subject (Frankl, Kushner, C.S. Lewis, etc.) which makes for surprisingly pleasant poolside reading. I would love your comments on my recent and subsequent posts. Here's the link:

As always, my thinking on any given subject is framed within an Aristotelian metaphysics so it might not strike the personal cord of some theodicy treatises, but nevertheless, I think your thoughts would be a valuable contribution on my blog, since you are a thoughtful person.

Wish I was in Texas where the sun shines more than one day in a row.

For those who want to read my blog (I post on a weekly basis normally on subjects of Thomism and ethics) here's the site:

Matthew said...

Thanks, Beth. I'll check it out.

Wes Whatley said...

perhaps fodder for your next blog...

He's a bit extreme, bit this clip is funny at minimum....about the long legged mack daddy.

Matthew said...

"Long-legged mack daddy" sounds familiar ... I haven't watched it, but I'd be willing to bet it's the same wacky cult church guy that was going off on Obama during the election ...

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I have never thought of Job in the Eastern detachment level. Somehow in my mind, I separate the two religions and keep them keenly divided. It is interesting. Of course, as you say, who can blame Job for being attached to his children? And if the disciples left their families behind (as some people believe, but I do not), what does that say about them? That they were psychologically healthy?

It always bothered me that Siddharta left behind his infant son to become the Buddha.

Matthew said...

I like you, Emerging from the Fire, and hereby christen you "Eftf".

Paul Maurice Martin said...

As we approach the seven-month anniversary of this post, I christen you "Theodicy, Boston Edition."

Matthew said...

touche'. =)