God or god? (part 2 of 2)

David Hume, 18th century Scottish philosopher, historian, economist, and essayist, staring unblinkingly into the face of evil, speculated about the nature of God (in my view, rearticulating the psalmist’s ardent plea: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”): “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence evil?”[1]

American poet and writer Archibald MacLeish breathed new life into this ancient and abiding protest, placing this tart riposte on the lips of a character in one of his plays, a modernist retelling of the Bible’s story of Job: “If God is God He is not good. If God is good He is not God.”[2]

I treasure these words of zealous uncertainty about the existence of God, and, if not that, then the benevolence of God. As a lifelong inveterate inquirer with a deep-seated streak of iconoclasm, I have faith in (I hasten to write, not disbelief or mistrust, but rather) doubt. Doubt is a companion of my faith, allowing, encouraging me to question and question again the validity of the truths of God I hold dear. And nothing, absolutely nothing stirs my impassioned, angst-ridden wonderment more or at all than evidences of incarnate evil; gazing steadily, like Hume, in the contorted face of which I join the sorrowing song of the psalmist: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?[3]

In this, I am comforted by the psalmist’s rediscovery of faith; in the shadows of the ills of evil, sounding, singing a righteous “Nevertheless!”:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.

In you, our ancestors trusted.

They trusted and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved.

In you they trusted and were not put to shame.[4]

For me and my faith, God’s deliverance is not, cannot be found in freedom from want and need, suffering and sorrow, no matter how earnestly, sometimes desperately we yearn for it; at least not in this life in this world where mortality is an ineluctable reality. Rather I see God’s salvation whenever I, in the words of the hymn, “survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died.”[5] For me and my faith, Jesus’ crucifixion and death is both God’s response to my and the psalmist’s cry – “I am with you always and, in life and in death, in all ways” – and God’s rejoinder to evil – “You can kill me, but you cannot defeat me, for nothing can conquer unconditional love.”

Deo gratias.

 

Footnotes:

[1] From Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) by David Hume (1711-1776)

[2] The character Nickles in J.B.: A Play in Verse (1959) by Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982)

[3] Psalm 22.1a

[4] Psalm 22.3-5

[5] Words (1707) by Isaac Watts (1674-1748)

God or god? (part 1 of 2)

My daily starting, mid, and ending point: I am a Christian believer. I ascribe to a faith, a conviction about, a confidence in the existence of a God as revealed in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. As I read and reflect on Jesus’ story as recorded in the Bible’s gospel accounts, as I believe in Jesus, I behold in him the incarnation, the embodiment in space and time, the enfleshment in human life of divine love and justice, unconditional generosity and equality.

On most days, my faith holds together, makes sense to me and holds me together, allowing, encouraging me to act with love and justice toward all around me. (As human, I confess that I am limited by my perceptions and perspectives, my preferences and prejudices; how I view, understand, and respond to others and things. In this, my love and justice, even at my best, are provisional, falling short of the perfect impartiality of my God.)

By “on most days,” I mean that I can hold, sometimes in anguished tension, this world’s lights and shadows, joys and sorrows (or perhaps, truth to tell, I maintain this equilibrium largely less by conscious attention to life’s dichotomies and rather by focusing on whatever is before me, momentarily mindless of the ongoing cosmic clash between good and evil), so to remain upright and moving forward in seeking to do love and justice, in striving to be loving and just.

Then comes a day that disrupts, destroys my balance, painfully reminding me anew of life’s fragility and the friability of my equipose.

Sunday, June 12, was such a day in Orlando, Florida, and swiftly around the world. A person, driven by animus toward the LGBTQIA community and, perhaps as now speculated by some, psych-social/psycho-sexual maladjustments, and, doubtless, motivations unnamed and unknown, even to himself, murdered 49 people, wounding another 53.

There have been other days like this. Many. Too many.[1] More, it seems to me, as I age. Or maybe in my aging I am more aware of our inescapable mortality, thus more alert to the stages, especially when accelerated by vicious acts of human hands, along our inexorable human pilgrimage from birth to death.

In my grief, my hurt, my anger, my helplessness, I cry out, borrowing the psalmist’s words of eloquent despair:[2]

My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?

Why are you so far from helping us, from the words of our groaning?

O my God, we cry by day, but you do not answer and by night, but find no rest.

My God, is it because you do not hear or care or because you are not there? Are you God (more or less), the creator and judger and reconciler of all – good and evil – things? Or are you god (more or less), a creature of human invention, a figment of human imagination?

 

Footnotes:

[1] I am especially mindful of the approaching June 17 one-year anniversary of the murders of nine people at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC, by a person acting out of a virulent, violent racism.

[2] Psalm 22.1-2

right & wrong place & time

Last night, Pontheolla and I joined friends at a local eatery and bar to listen to Coconut Grove, a Charlotte, NC, based (but-close-enough-to-consider-Spartanburg-SC-home) band. They were great. The song list, wide and varied. The musicianship, literally and figuratively electric. The vocal harmonies, rich. The place was packed. The mood, highly spirited and responsive; folk happily singing along with the band. The proverbial good time was had by all.

And then, I don’t know why, the thought occurred to me. What if one of us in that room had a gun? And what if that one (or more?) of us with a gun, driven by whatever motivation – conscious and unconscious, whether long-ago experienced hurt coupled with misplaced, misguided anger or focused, targeted rage at someone or multiple ones there and elsewhere or for some other cause, clear or inchoate – opened fire?

Again, I don’t know why I thought it, but I did think it, if only for an instant, and then, I let it go, allowing myself to be reabsorbed by the celebratory atmosphere. So, it was that I was in the right place at the right time.

The same sadly cannot be said for my sisters and brothers in our human family of Orlando, Florida. They did not have the freedom to be festive, verily, to remain free from fear. For a gunman, Omar Mateen, was that one in a crowd who opened fire. They, 49 murdered, 53 wounded, were the victims in the latest mass shooting; for now (for a sorrowful, even cursory review of our recent national past raises the specter that it will happen again) the worse incident, as we humans count carnage, in American history.

The investigation continues. It may be proved that Mateen, who openly espoused Islamic State sympathies, engaged in an act of domestic terrorism. Or that he, driven by animus toward the gay community, sought to strike at the heart of our American liberties to love and live with those of our calling and choosing (for the murders took place at the Pulse nightclub whose mission, in addition to human joyful, peaceful celebration, is the promotion of awareness of the LGBTQIA community). At the proverbial end (and at the beginning and at the middle) of the day, I believe unfettered, unfiltered hatred was the defining impulse.

As I grieve for the dead and the wounded, for their families and friends, and for all who love the law of liberty and who, in mutual respect, are lawful in the pursuit of the liberties they love, I believe that the hostilities that inspired Omar Mateen to open fire also beat, pulse in the hearts of many. Thus, who among us knows or can know where and when will be the next wrong place, wrong time? I don’t know. You don’t know. No one knows. Perhaps it will be where and when Pontheolla and I or those we love or you and those you love will be some anywhere at some anytime.

When I was growing up, my father frequently advised, “Son, you’re only as good as your last good deed.” By that he meant to encourage me to do good (although his counsel also had the unintended effect of teaching me that my value rested on what I did, not on who I was; that action, indeed, achievement as the world judges accomplishment was greater than character). Moments in space and time of mass murder, coupled with all other catastrophes nature made or at human hands, reaffirm my belief that my last good deed, indeed, might be my last deed. Hence, this day forward, I renew my pledge to pray the strength of God’s Spirit to live conscious of and committed to love with unconditional benevolence toward all.

violence – rotted seed and spoiled fruit

Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26.52).

A great crowd, doing the bidding of the chiefs priests and elders, the established authorities, came to arrest Jesus; a seizure that led to his crucifixion and death. One of his disciples, seeking to protect and to retaliate, drew a sword. Jesus believing, knowing the power of violence to reproduce, bearing like fruit, counseled the sheathing of the sword.

I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. (quoted in a variety of sources); another innocent assassinated:

“Hate begets hate…violence begets violence…”

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral…begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy; instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

“Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”

Rioting spiraled in the City of Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray, another black person who experienced the ferocity of law enforcement; arrested for an as yet unspecified crime (looking at a police officer and running?), in the course of which, he suffered a spinal injury, leading to his death. Some, seeking, if not to justify police action (or inaction in failing to provide on the spot medical care for Mr. Gray), to mollify community outrage, cite Mr. Gray’s criminal record; so to infer that he could not be numbered as an innocent. (Truth to tell, as all of us, I believe, in intention and action, word and deed, fall short of whatever standard of goodness we profess or practice; none of us is innocent or, to state it positively[?], we are innocent only by comparative degrees or gradations of our failures.)

My point, simply, profoundly is that the rotted seed of violence, indeed, begets the spoiled fruit of violence.

I lived in Washington, DC, for over a quarter century. Baltimore, less than an hour away by car, is a city I had the privilege and enjoyment of visiting many times. West Baltimore also was home to a number of my wife’s relatives. O’er the years, the stories I heard (and, blessedly, did not experience personally) of police brutality were legion; the agents of law enforcement, by many and almost necessarily, were viewed with circumspection and fear.

I do not condone the violence of rioting and looting, particularly as I believe that some of the instigators of these unlawful actions have come from outside Baltimore, taking advantage of the unrest for whatever personal gains. However, I can understand the root of the violence in a long-simmering community-wide sense of having been disregarded and disrespected by the institutions of government. To some degree, this may explain why the pleas for calm, though, I trust, well-intentioned, by the mayor and police officials, ring hallow and false to those who bear grievances.