I Don’t Know Beans About God

March 18, 2001


“I Don’t Know Beans About God”

There are writers you feel close to, even if you have never met them, and one of my special favorites is a woman named Annie Dillard, whose books have titles like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Teaching a Stone to Talk , and who struggles with the mysteries of human existence in the same ways I do. I was a fan of hers long before I discovered that we had something else in common. When I go to see my daughter whose Washington home overlooks the San Juan Islands, we take a short ferry ride on Sunday mornings to a quaint little Congregational church on Lummi Island to worshp with a few residents and weekend tourists. I’m told that Annie Dillard lived and wrote for a while on that small sland and worshipped in that same rustic church. I liked sitting on the oldfashioned pews and thinking about a mind like hers in a place like that, where the sermons would have puzzled her at times.
Annie Dillard knows a great deal about history and religion, and she loves and studies the natural world with extraordinary passion. She sings the beauties and wonders of life on this planet as well as anyone, but she is also blazingly honest about the terrifying cruelty of natural disasters which maim and kill so many millions of us over the centuries. Lately I have read a book of hers called For The Time Being, in which she ponders the dark side of life, beginning with the monstrous genetic deformities that condemn innocent children to lives of unbelievable misery. She mentions a little girl named Marissa Webb, born with congenital heart disease and spina bifida…. 27 surgeries since birth, hospitalized 57 times before she is 4 years old! To hear that with all your heart you need to imagine Marissa as your child. But Dillard doesn’t stop there. She also cites grotesque birth defects from a medical book so disturbing in its text and graphic pictures that she warns you not to read more of it.
She has heard in church the comforting word that God is “in” everything, that his perfect love is part of everything, but she wonders how to explain this to people who bear such children, and to the millions more who suffer from such plagues of human life as tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and epidemic diseases. She knows the Genesis poet who says God looked at his creation and called it “good,” but she is clearly troubled by an age-old question: Assuming he had unlimited power to do whatever he wished, why would a loving God fashion a world in which so many suffer so hideously through no fault of their own?
No one has framed that question better than the brilliant 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who concluded that we can believe in a God who is all-loving, or in a God who is all-powerful, but we cannot look honestly at the world around us and believe in a God who is both. At least, not as we define and experience love. We know, for example, that loving our children means we would not allow them to be crushed to death in an earthquake or buried alive in the molten fury of a volcano if we had the power to prevent it. The Genesis poem of creation by a hands-on God is highly selective. It knows nothing, for example, of plate tectonics — of an earth with huge thick slabs of rock floating above a molten core — so its serene praise is not disturbed by the misery this feature of God’s creation will cause. But since we do know, let’s spend a moment on what it means.
These plates, some big enough to carry a continent, drift ever so slowly across the face of the globe without our noticing until two of them scrape against each other and grind to a temporary halt while enormous tension builds up between them. One day that tension is released in a sudden gigantic slippage, the surface land rolls and shudders, and as people die and buildings crumble we are faced with a theological problem: if Genesis is to be read literally, why did a loving God create such a dangerous place, knowing all the while what a staggering amount of human anguish and death this arrangement would cause?
How much misery? I have some samples. In recorded history alone, a 13th century earthquake near the east end of the Mediterranan is thought to have killed more than one million people. Who knows how many before that, around the world, but we have accurate figures from modern timesl: 830,000 dead in a 16th century quake in China, 60,000 in one Italian quake and 76,000 in a second one, 200,000 more in China again, 30,000 dead on the Caribbean island of Martinque, 100.000 in Japan in the year I was born, 50,000 more in Turkey when I was 16, 18,000 in Peru 30 years ago (1970), 35,000 more in Indian just a few weeks ago. Those staggering numbers are only part of the total, but even they are only numbers unless you feel them emotionally, so let’s try to feel them in this one sentence from our daily paper about the recent earthquake in just one town in India: “Corpses piled up,” it says, “on the verandah of [the hospital] while patients overflowing into the hallways wailed and screamed with broken limbs and bleeding wounds.” If you multiply this horror by all the times in all the places over the long span of human history, it becomes a disturbing part of the mystery of human existence. My newspaper story did not worry about mystery, of course, or try to explain that dreadful event in religious terms. It simply invoked the blind and brutal laws of nature. The quake, it said, was “rooted in the slow collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Asian land mass,” an ungoing event which “created the Himalaya[s]….and still causes residual tensions in the Indian tectonic plate that are periodically released in bursts of violent energy.” This cold language of fact makes sense for the scientist, but people to whom religion is important ask themselves, “If God is all-powerful he could have created a safer home for us, so why didn’t he?
The question becomes even harder when they must ask why a loving God, if he is truly responsible for everything, would include deadly bacteria as part of his creation when they think of the bubonic plagues that killed millions in Europe and Asia, ten million in Indian alone, not to mention the horrific mortalities from polio, typhoid, scarlet fever, ebola, tuberculosis — you know how long that list is. Could it be that we have over-simplified our concept of creation? In the words of a fine American poet named Edwin Arlington Robinson, are we “bewildered infants” in a “spiritual kindergarten… trying to spell GOD with the wrong blocks?” The sensitive author with whom I began this sermon, a woman of deep religious knowledge and feeling, obviously thinks so. At one point, she startled and delighted me when she dropped her usual elegant vocabulary to say bluntly, “I don’t know beans about God.”
Want to know a secret? After 60 years of constant study and reflection, I read that stark confession and thought, “Well, Annie, I don’t either.” If you are appalled to hear that confession, you really shouldn’t be. The Bible itself is responsible for some of my confusion. “The Lord God is a merciful God,” it says in one place (Deut. 4) — one merciful, another verse says, unless you have the misfortune to be born illegitimate, in which case neither you nor your innocent descendants for the next 200 years can enter God’s sacred assembly. Merciful, too, this author tells us, unless something or someone has made you a eunuch, in which case you, too, are left outside the charmed circle. But that last was too much for a later prophet named Isaiah who explained that God had changed his mind (56:3-5). Am I to see God as fickle, or is it simply that people trying to define the nature of God have come up with different ideas?
I read in 1 John 4 the flat statement that “No one has ever seen God” — no one — but Exodus 33 assures me that God “used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” Unless words are hopelessly slippery, one of those writers was wrong about the nature of God. In one part of the Bible a writer claims that God encourages his people to dash enemy babies to the ground and rape their mothers (Isa. 13), but still another writer assures me that God is pure and perfect love.If you put such differing pictures of God over against the questions raised by a world where the perfectly innocent often suffer horribly, it becomes a little easier to understand why author Annie Dillard says, not in crude jest but in anguished confession, “I don’t know beans about God.”
I’m sure she was comforted to think how many have been puzzled in the same way. One of the masterpieces in that collection we call the Bible, was written by a superb poet who had seen the terrible injustices of this world and wondered how they could be squared with faith in a God who is at once all-loving and all-powerful. To make his point he presents a hero named Job who, despite being the most devout man on earth, is hit with one tragedy after another until home, health, reputation, wife and children are lost. Job begs to know why God allows such things, but in the poet has God evade the question and tell Job that he has no business asking. I have read every book, article and commentary I could get my hands on, hoping to make sense of this ending, and have concluded the poet simply had no answer to questions about why the innocent suffer.
Once, when I told a friend that the nature of God remains an enigma for me, he wanted to know what, in that case, I found to preach about on Sundays. My response was that since I do know beans about Jesus, there is a great deal I can say with confidence about the beauty, purity and power of his life. I find convincing insights and feel myself on solid ground when people like Schweitzer and Borg and Crossan and a host of others write about Jesus, whether they are trying to define what he meant for first century Palestine or what he means for us. But efforts to define God, whether from Augustine and Aquinas or modern theologians, often make me feel I am trying to squeeze a fistful of holy smoke. I am more comfortable with a great theologian named Karl Rahner when he speaks of a God who exists eternally beyond the horizon of our reach, beyond the grasp of our minds and our language — which is only a more elegant way of saying that “we don’t know beans about God.”
Some feel quite differently, of course, and speak of God with great familiarity, but for others this confession of ignorance is actually a comfort.. They have read the Bible and found contradictory images of God. They have read C. S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain and Rabbi Kushner’s Bad Things Happen to Good People , hoping to solve the puzzle of innocent suffering, only to find that questions still remain. When someone defends the way the world goes by telling them that God uses the horrors of life to see if we love him enough, they agree with a great Catholic theologian who calls such an idea “hateful.” When someone else explains that this world of our is a “vale of soul-making” where suffering is God’s way of making us humble and compassionate, they respond that if God is truly all-powerful he could have created us humble and compassionate in the first place and saved us all the misery of such painful instruction.
The great debate has gone on for as long as we have wondered about the mysteries of our existence, and all each one of us can do is try to reach some deeply personal understanding. Even then, life will sometimes confuse us — as I feel it did for Jesus when his confidence faltered during the awful agonies of crucifixion and he cried out to know why the God he trusted had forsaken him. Most of us, I think, will face times like that, when terror and tragedy seem so senselessly to strike someone we dearly love — and we are not sure what to make of the way life treats us.
I wonder sometimes at the inconsistencies in my own life, when, for example, even as I wonder how to explain the deadly volcanoes, earthquakes and diseases, I find myself wanting to thank something beyond myself for [all the good things in life] or [this morning’s bright warm sun and for the tender promise of new life all around]. So do I have a prayer life? Yes, both with and without words, as my thoughts turn so often to whatever mystery lies beyond our little lives. What I do this morning is confess that this mystery only deepens the more I read and experience, and that it remains forever an instrument of tension in my life as I whirl along through a world in which things incredibly tender and beautiful exist side by side with events so ugly and awful and so achingly tragic that it rips the heart asunder to know how to harmonize them.
I suppose all I hope for this morning is that those of you who have felt this way, too, will be comforted to know that you are not alone. Sometimes, even that can be enough.

There are puzzles we cannot solve, and questions we cannot answer,
but one thing is certain: life is meaningless unless we love each other,
and each one of us has the power to bestow that gift. May we do so
with ever-increasing wisdom and generosity. Amen.