Late-Night Reflections on the Problem of Evil

It’s late tonight. I wonder who is awake. I look out the window from my fourth-floor room, and inside the dormitories of this frozen campus, some people are sleeping, and others are haggardly trying to finish papers, or reading. Still others, I’m sure, are up late talking. I’m sure some of them will regret it tomorrow, but sometimes those conversations are worth the tiredness.

I haven’t written for fun in awhile. Instead, I’ve been publishing articles in my school newspaper, listening to piano music, trying to craft literary analyses. Things are different after being abroad. For one, I feel old. It’s so strange. I inhabit the same spaces that I’ve inhabited since the fall of 2012, but now I feel so old. It’s very hard to describe. I suppose through traveling, I’ve seen a little bit more clearly the vast scope of the world’s narrative; I’ve seen how egocentric my understanding of reality is. This world is enormous, and full of languages and cultures and people of all different shapes, sizes, smells, looks. I’m one kind. There are so many kinds. So in recognizing my insignificance, my smallness in the scope of things, somehow I feel older.

In my Philosophy and Literature class, we just finished a contemporary novel, The Sparrow. It’s a super strange science-fiction-meets-philosophy kind of book, where a group of Jesuit priests go on a space mission to visit a new planet. The mission goes horribly wrong, people die and are abused in the most horrific ways. It’s a graphic and difficult read, a head-on confrontation of the problem of evil. In an interview, the Jewish author says, “When you convert to Judaism in a post-Holocaust world, you know two things for sure: one is that being Jewish can get you killed; the other is that God won’t rescue you.” And essentially, that’s the premise of the book: you might fall in love with God; you might find yourself completely vulnerable before God, and God will break your heart.

It seems to be the same kind of feeling that Gerard Manley Hopkins struggles with in the sonnets of his final days: this difficult and strangling despair. “No, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee; / Not untwist – slack they may be – these last strands of man / in me or, most weary, cry I can no more. I can; / Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.” Frantic to avoid the abuser, God, Hopkins wrestles with darkness, wrestles with despair, wrestles with death. He struggles not to yield to despair, he struggles not to wish nonexistence. I can… something. I can hope, wish day come, at the very least, I can not choose not to be. I can choose to be. But the pain of it all, the difficulty, the suffering.

The problem of evil is not a solvable problem. And I expect that it will be one that I’ll always grapple with.

But at the end of the poem, Hopkins realizes something. “That night, that year / Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” As my friend Sarah writes so elegantly,

His body…broken. I thought of Jacob’s lamed thigh. And my sore heart. And then, of Christ’s shattered and broken body on the Cross. We humans wrestle with God, but God wrestles to death the darkness of the world, takes every evil and sorrow and scream of pain into the great strength of his heart, and instead of crushing them all, allows his own priceless self to be crushed. He wrestles, and writhes, and dies, and in his death, we finally overcome.

We wrestle with evil. But really, we wrestle with God, and God wrestles with evil, and God throws himself into the swirling center of evil, and dies.

Because I can’t say it near so well myself, Frederick Buechner:

God is absent also from all Job’s words about God, and from the words of his comforters, because they are words without knowledge that obscure the issue of God by trying to define him as present in ways and places where he is not present, to define him as moral order, as the best answer man can give to the problem of his life. God is not an answer man can give, God says. God himself does not give answers. He gives himself, and into the midst of the whirlwind of his absence gives himself.

Into the midst of the whirlwind of evil, he gives himself. “God will break your heart,” a character says in The Sparrow. Maybe that’s true.

But God also gives himself, and he lets us sinners break his heart and his body both. And he suffers for us, and he suffers with us. And I wonder if that’s the heart of it all, really. A God who suffers and dies. A God who loves us enough to throw himself into the swirling chaos of evil and wrestle it down for us.

God will break your heart.

Who is it that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

He wrestles, and writhes, and dies.

I can…can something.

God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.

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