Theodicy, Round Three

Jerry Coyne responds with his customary dismissive sweep to my post (followed up here) on theodicy. Coyne:

When a tsunami sweeps away a bunch of Indonesians, when a baby dies of leukemia, when Jews were driven into the gas chambers of Auschwitz: how, exactly, are those ways of “letting go to God”?  Or of “recognizing one’s own mortality and limits”?  This is intellectual nonsense.  These are words without meaning. And they are insulting and infuriating to anybody with a brain.

I wonder what facts would make Sullivan find the argument convincing?  It can’t be the existence of yet more innocent people suffering needlessly, because, Lord knows, we’ve already seen enough of that.  In fact, I doubt that there is any evidence that would convince Sullivan that there’s a problem, which is why he has no intellectual credibility on the issue of faith. “His faith teaches him” means, of course, that somebody told him that suffering was part of God’s plan, and that’s why he believes it. For someone who’s supposedly an intellectual, Sullivan shows a distressing tendency to accept authority and avoid thinking for himself.

I wonder how much of my writing Coyne has ever read, how much of my wrestling with doctrine and theology and faith he has perused before he dismisses one side of an ancient debate as “insulting to anyone with a brain”. Obviously, my case of letting go to God reflects a Christian understanding of what one’s response to suffering could be. This does not deny suffering, or its hideous injustices, or the fact that so many in the animal world suffer without any such relief or transcendence.

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world. This Christian response to suffering merely offers a way in which to transcend this veil of tears a little. No one is saying this is easy or should not provoke bouts of Job-like anger or despair or isn’t at some level incomprehensible. The Gospels, in one of their many internal literal contradictions, have Jesus’ last words on the cross as both a despairing, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” and a letting go: “It is accomplished.” If you see this as less a literal error than a metaphorical truth (i.e. if you are not a fundamentalist), you realize that God’s only son experienced despair of this kind as well. And resolution.

My own reconciliation with this came not from authority, but from experience. I lived through a plague which killed my dearest friend and countless others I knew and loved. I was brought at one point to total collapse and a moment of such profound doubt in the goodness of God that it makes me shudder still. But God lifted me into a new life in a way I still do not understand but that I know as deeply and as irrevocably as I know anything.

If this testimony is infuriating to anyone with a brain, then I am sorry. It is the truth as I experienced it. It is the truth as I experience it still.