Sunday, October 21, 2012

Beautiful and tragic or dull and safe? (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 21, 2012)

The audience was in place. The red lights on the cameras were blinking. The moderator took her seat. And the candidates came on stage, shook hands, and went to their respective podiums.
The moderator said, “A coin toss determines that Gov. Thwackum will receive the first question. Governor, during your campaign you said that a tax increase would be the best way to control the national debt. Why did you say that?”
“I’m glad you asked me that question, Susan. And may I call you Susan? I’ve always admired you as a journalist. Your series on the problems of baby seals was the best I’ve ever seen. You know, my opponent has been a complete failure. If you stacked up all the dollars in the debts she has run up, the stack would reach to… well, it would reach a long way. And I look forward to reducing that stack when I’m elected. Thank you.”
In other words, Gov. Thwackum didn’t say a darn thing. He didn’t answer the question at all. But that’s the way it is in political debates, isn’t it? And presidential candidates are Olympic champions in the sport of avoiding the question.
Now, let’s imagine a different debate. The candidate on the spot is none other than God, the Holy One, the Almighty, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and All Things Visible and Invisible. The moderator asks, “Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper?” And the Candidate replies,
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
I can just imagine the New York Times’ editorial the next morning: “In last evening’s debate, the Incumbent (that is, God) showed incredible, one might say omnipotent, skill in avoiding the questions…”
But isn’t that exactly what God does when Job questions God’s justice? Doesn’t God just avoid the question? It seems as though God is trying to deflect Job’s attention by asking a series of questions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements? Did you hear the morning stars sing and the angels shout for joy when I created the heavens and the earth?”
Surely Job said, “That’s all very well and good, but can you explain something to me in one syllable words: Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper?”
The Book of Job is a long meditation on the problem of suffering. How can you reconcile the fact that God is all powerful and all good and yet allows terrible suffering to take place?
I don’t have too much of a problem with suffering caused by human agents. We have free will. We can choose between right and wrong. So the Holocaust, the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, plus millions of others, is not too much of a problem for me. Although that was an unimaginable evil, it was the result of actions by evil men.
But the suffering that seems to come from nowhere, the suffering that seems to be woven into the fabric of the universe, that is something else all together.
Why is there cancer? What is the point of earthquakes and hurricanes?
The German philosopher Leibniz said that religious people have to reconcile three seemingly irreconcilable facts: God is all powerful; God is perfectly good; and yet evil exists.
To solve that problem, we usually have to fudge one of those facts. Leibniz solved it by asserting that evil only seemed to exist - even apparently enormous evil produced good results in the end.
I imagine that at one time or another, maybe even this morning, all of us would like to confront God in a debate. We would like to make God answer our questions. Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper? OK, we might even let the wicked prosper, but we’d like to know why we aren’t prospering just a little.
Job is not alone in his questions. He has friends. A friend by the name of Elihu tells Job that he is wrong. He says that Job is not only wrong, but he doesn’t even know enough to ask the right question.
“Teach us what we shall say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of darkness.”
“We cannot draw up our case because of darkness…” In other words, not only do we not have all the facts, we don’t know what the facts are or where to find them. We stumble around in the dark.
Furthermore, who are we to confront God with these question? “Should he be told that I want to speak? Did anyone ever wish to be swallowed up?”
In effect, Elihu tells Job that if he were to speak to God, he would be swallowed up – the divine glory would overwhelm him, in a moment Job would be reduced to a few ashes.
I have a lot of sympathy for Job. I also want answers for those questions, and I’d like to be able to give you those answers.
But I think that Job’s friend Elihu was partly right and partly wrong. Elihu was right in telling Job that he “cannot draw up his case because of darkness.”
This is pretty much what God tells Job, too. “Who is that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”In other words, you don’t even know enough to ask the question, much less understand the answer.
But Elihu was partly wrong, too. He told Job that if he were to confront God with his angry questions, that God would swallow him up. God would just zap him like we would zap a bug on the front porch on a hot summer night.
But that’s not what happened. When Job has asked all his questions, when Job has worn himself out with his angry questions, and worn out his friends, and maybe even worn out God, then God comes to Job. God hears Job and replies to him.
God does not answer Job’s questions. God implies that Elihu was right, that Job was asking questions to which there are no answers, at least no answers that he could understand. But God does not avoid Job.
And God does not avoid us. Instead, God chooses to be in relationship to God and chooses to be in relationship to us.
But we still have questions. We still want to know why the good suffer and the wicked prosper. And maybe there’s a kind of answer in the questions that God asks Job.
Presbyterian pastor, Scott Johnston, compares God’s questions to the questions of someone who couldn’t believe that he had never visited Montreat, the beautiful Presbyterian retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina.[1]
"How can you not have been to Montreat before?… Have you been up to Lookout Rock? Isn' t the view from there marvelous? Do you like the way the air smells? Have you seen the swan? Do you know that his mate died this past spring? Isn't it wonderful how things cool down at night?"
In other words, God sounds a lot like a man who can’t believe that you have never seen a place as beautiful as this one, a world as beautiful as the world he has created. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of a world that I love so deeply that I am aware of every little thing that happens, from waves crashing on the shore to mountain goats giving birth?”
God doesn’t answer Job’s question. God doesn’t answer most of our questions. But these questions that God asks Job tell us something profound about God. They tell us that God cares deeply about every single creature that God has made. Even God seems to be a little impressed with the beauty and intricacy of the world that God has created.
Years ago I heard someone explain why there are so many earthquakes in California. The speaker pointed out that earthquakes are more likely in places where there are very sharp, high mountains, such as California’s Sierra Nevadas. In other words, the more interesting and beautiful the landscape, the more like there are to be earthquakes.
And maybe that’s at least a little bit of an answer to Job’s questions and our questions. God has created an incredibly beautiful and varied world. And maybe the suffering is just the price we pay for living in God’s beautiful world. Perhaps God could have created a world without suffering, but imagine how flat and dull that world would have been. But God created a world in which there is risk and adventure and beauty… but also pain and suffering and tragedy.
But in such a world as this we have the opportunity to work together with God. God invites us to work with him in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, helping those who suffer. We live in a world that forces us to ask question, but we also worship a God who listens to us and invites us to ask questions. And maybe that’s better… a lot better… than to be in a perfectly safe but dull world.

[1] Scott Johnston, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”, Journal for Preachers.