Theodicy

Rev’d Canon Edward N. West

The readings for the 29th Saturday, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Putatis quod hi Galilaei prae omnibus Galilaeis peccatores fuerint, quia talia passi sunt? Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?

JMJ

Back in 1985, I took a year off college. I really wasn’t sure what I was doing and by a twist of the post office and federal record-keeping no one could tell me where my financial aid forms were. Thus, three days before the school year started (I was already living on campus) as I was sitting in a student club office in the Loeb Student Center, I freaked out, filed for a leave of absence, and moved out of NYC to Atlanta. That worked for about 4 months. When I went back to my parents’ house for Christmas I stayed. Then, in the back of the (Episcopal) Diocese of New York newspaper, I found an advertisement for the Institute of Theology. It was a “late vocations” program as we would call it now. It met on Saturdays (and a couple of nights in the week) and was taught actual professors from actual seminaries. I begged permission from everyone to attend, got my pastor to write a letter, got references from some surprising folks, begged and got a waiver on paying for it… and off I went. A semester in “Seminary” to see if I liked it: a pre-vocations program if you will.

My favorite class was homiletics, taught by the Rev’d Canon Edward N. West. That’s him up there. He called me (and anyone else under the age of 70) “Ducky.” He was as familiar with Eastern as with Western Liturgy, and in terms of heros and people I’d like to be like when I finally grow up, he’s on the top of the list. He had a life-sized painting of the late Czar Nicholas in his apartment that was a gift from a scion of the Royal Family. His first public liturgy was the funeral of Mayor Laguardia. Ok, enough geekery.

My least favorite class was called, “The Problem of Evil.” “Theodicy” is the technical term for this.

I know this has bedeviled Christian theologians for two millennia – and it’s in the Books of Job and the Psalms as well. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s classic work, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has given a cliched phrase as a talking point. This issue is best put this way: If God really loved us he would fix it so things did not suck. If there is a loving God, things shouldn’t suck. If there are sucky things (and there are) it proves that God is either not loving or not all-powerful.

We had a whole class on this. Two weeks in we had to discuss why people die. I blundered in with “Everything in nature dies, that’s just what happens. And we sinned. So we get to be natural too.” The professor countered with “What about good people?” And I responded with “There are no good people: we’re all sinners.” And he pushed back really hard. Then dismissed me as a young’n who didn’t know nothin. And I had essentially failed the course.

I’m kind of cold I think. Life sucks. Jesus offers us no reason at all why some folks were crushed by a tower and why others were turned into mortar for Roman masonry. And then he says, “Look, you know life sucks, so repent.”

This is God talking. It made sense to me, having lost my brother, his best friend, and the best friend’s sister within 1 year when I went to college in 1982, I find this oddly comforting. It was even more so when in 1984, I lost my grandmother. The world sucks. Yeah, so?

The Greek word most often rendered as “sin” is ἁμαρτία harmatia. It doesn’t mean “breaking the rules” but rather “missing the mark” as in not hitting the bullseye on a target or maybe better missing the target altogether. This is not a more-liberal reading of this verb: in fact, it expands it. It’s not just this sort of thing here – it’s a whole class of things! It’s not just a rule broken: it’s a relationship. With that idea in mind, we can see what St Paul means. An addict doesn’t just get drunk, doesn’t just shoot up: she ruins lives including her own in the present and future tenses. A moment of harmatia breaks communion.

St Paul doesn’t talk about breaking the rules: he talks about “sinful flesh” σαρκὸς ἁμαρτίας sarkos hamartias. What is in the flesh misses the mark. See that? Our flesh is not out and about breaking rules (although we do do that sometimes, yes). It is not being “bad people” that makes life suck: it’s being humans in the flesh. What we have here is a broken, dysfunctional thing. We should not be surprised that it is broken and dysfunctional.

This problem of evil raises another concern: what’s evil? I think we know what evil is: it’s anything we don’t like or – sometimes – don’t understand. We are convinced the Christmas Tsunami was evil, that the boss I hate so much is evil, that the diagnosis of cancer is evil, that having my car broken into is evil, that this election or that is evil. What we may mean is these seem wrong but we’re saying Evil not wrong.

Later in Romans 8 St Paul says, Scimus autem quoniam diligentibus Deum omnia cooperantur in bonum, iis qui secundum propositum vocati sunt sancti. We know that to them that love God, all things work together unto good, to such as, according to his purpose, are called to be saints. (We’ll get there on Wednesday next week in the lectionary.) And so, if all things work together for our good – even the things we call “evil” – is there anything actually evil that can happen to us?

We can be killed, we can become ill with cancer, we can have a tower fall on us, we can have our blood mingled with cement for the Empires building projects, but: if we love the Lord, if we desire to be saints, these things are not evil. They are mysteries leading us to salvation. I realize there was ways for humans to be evil, to miss the mark entirely, but even then God is working out his purposes. Who was more evil in recent history: those who killed millions of people or those who knew what was happening and did nothing? I would not like to face that question on Judgement Day.

The professor, I later found out, had – early during my 4 months in Atlanta – lost his wife to cancer. The entire class was, really, a way for him to work through that. His pushing back made sense after a while. But – legit question – is losing your wife to cancer an evil or just an example of the world being broken? Like I said, maybe I’m cold. But Christians don’t believe that death breaks communion. “For your faithful, Lord,” we say at Mass. “Life is not ended but only changed.”

Is there evil? I think so – but I think when we say something is evil we mean only, “that thing was surprising and confusing.” So many things arise from Natural Consequences, are they evil? If I drink to excess, I will possibly pass out on the subway. Then my wallet could be stolen during my long, sleeping subway ride back to Brooklyn. Is that evil? There’s a sin there, yes (theft) but is that better or worse than the sins of drunkenness and wasting the resources God provided for me to care for my needs and the needs of others? But is it evil? Or just the way the world is always missing the mark?

I don’t know, Ducky. But all things work for our good. I’ll take that.

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