Pollyanna, Polytheist, or What?

January 12, 1997

Summary

Pollyanna, Polytheist, or What?

The biggest single problem for those who believe in God has always been the problem of evil. Not the evil we can explain — the kinds that grow out of human greed or hatred — but the kind we can’t explain: the convulsions of nature, the senseless accident, the deformed child, the cancer cell. We feel some of this even when we are young, but as we get older and experience what the poet Keats called “the giant agony of the world” we feel more and more deeply what seems to be a clear contradiction between Christian faith and the amount of tragic evil all around us.
There is a dark side to this universe which seems utterly inconsistent with faith in a benevolent God. I saw a striking picture last week of a white hand stretched out, strong and healthy, with a tiny, skeletal black hand laid in it — the hand of a child almost dead from starvation, an unforgettable symbol of the distance between the lucky and the unlucky. Our thin little cover of fertile soil is turned into desert by climate change or by our own selfish ignorance, and famine follows with its terrible parade of innocent starving children, their bellies swollen, their puzzled eyes huge and staring.
When the volcano inside Mount Saint Helens erupted a few years ago it killed relatively few people because our warning systems are better, but it was a reminder of how many innocent thousands have died around the world when the earth explodes. Vesuvius and all the Roman dead; Krakatoa and 36,000 killed; Mont Pelee in Martinique and 30,000 more; Mauna Loa — a rollcall of places so frightful that men and women once thought a wrathful god must surely live in all that trembling smoke and fire, so that they worshipped that god in the hope of being spared.
In modern times, earthquakes have plagued us even more. One of the worst in history was in Lisbon, Portugal, on the very Sunday when Christians were gathered in the stone cathedrals that caved in and crushed them. Why, the theologians wondered in anguish, would a loving God allow the earth to shake so violently just at the hour when thousands had left their safer homes to pray and worship? Fifteen years ago, the same thing happened in Italy on the Lord’s Day — in a little town called Balvano, where a church is shaken to pieces during evening worship, and over a hundred people die, many of them innocent children — and in Avellino province, where 300 more die, including children and nuns, in the collapse of an orphanage………almost as if the huge grinding plates that cause earthquakes were mocking us in those very times and places where we try hardest to do good and be close to our God.
It may be possible to get some comfort from the logic of evil when it happens because of our ignorance or greed, but ten thousand years of glacial ice, volcanoes and earthquakes around the world, genetic deformities that cripple millions of children from the moment of birth — these have nothing to do with human wrong. They are Nature’s doing, and as the brilliant 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill put it, “In sober truth, nearly all the things which [we] are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are Nature’s everyday performances.”
And not just recently, but as far back as the mind can travel. I wandered once in the Museum of Natural History in New York City, overwhelmed by those enormous rooms filled with the fossil remains of giant mastodons and mammoths, of sabre-toothed tigers and tyrannosaurus rex, and a wicked-looking crocodile head so much bigger than the ones we see now that I could have sat down inside it, comfortably, and read a book! I have a fairly active imagination, so I kept hearing the bellowing and roaring of a hundred million years ago, in a world of frightful claws and teeth that existed only to rip flesh, in a world where the death screams of the hunted, and the terrifying howls of the hunter, were the nightmare music to which life danced.
Why, I ask myself, should there ever have been such a world? And then I think of human life, so much later on the scene, and how spina bifida, Downs Syndrome, MS, MD, AIDS, cholera and an army of other diseases can turn our civilized world into the same nightmare, and I think So what is different? The savage teeth of that sabre-tooth tiger seem no worse than the insidious cancer cell that attacks silently and destroys precious life as ruthlessly as those monsters ever did.
I stopped in my car one day last week and watched a blind boy guess at the traffic and then tap his way across the street at Hillside and 21st, defying cars that whizzed past a few feet away, and I thought: born that way — never saw a human face — never looked at a lilac bush on a soft spring evening — never watched a sunset. I felt enormous pity for him, and then a pinch of guilt about my own good fortune, and I almost said out loud: If I had the power, I would never allow him pay, through no fault of his own, such a terrible price for liv ing. But the universe does. What we may choose to call “God” does. Why?
Most people have not wanted to confront that question, at least not for long, and I have even heard people say, who were sitting in church, that “Yes, all these evil things exist, but ministers should not remind us of them. Ministers should dispense only sunshine from pulpits, and inject us with new hope, and never insist that we try to fit evil into our puzzle picture of the universe.” So speak those who are as blindly optimistic as Eleanor Porter’s fictional heroine, created a hundred years ago under the name of Pollyanna. But that is certainly not how the Bible itself sounds. Here is Moses, the great liberator, crying out: “O Lord, why have you done evil to this people?” And Gideon saying, “If the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us?” And Job, the classic rebel, defiantly crying out to God: “Does it seem good to you to despise the very things you created, and to favor the designs of the wicked?”
That’s pretty strong medicine, and it’s not just in the Old Testament. When Christ wonders, in the agony of his death, why God has forsaken him, don’t think for a moment that he is playing some kind of game, knowing all the time that everything will soon be all right. If that were so, I would lose all interest in Christ as a model for my life. The Bible may be a book of triumphant faith, but it is never blind faith. It faces, honestly, all the cruel and senseless evil that makes faith difficult for anyone who thinks.
And if those cries went up from the Jewish world, and then from the lips of Christ himself, don’t be surprised to find them also in the hearts of even the most devout believers who came after. I have never heard a popular television evangelist say anything like this, and I probably never will because they are in the business of selling comfort, but Martin Luther, whose mind was keener than all of theirs, faced the mystery of evil without flinching. “Who among [us],” he said, “can understand the full meaning of this word, ‘Our Father who art in heaven,’ when even as that faith is affirmed my Father suffers me to be thrown into prison, drowned, or beheaded. Then faith falters, and in weakness I cry, ‘Who knows whether it is true?’” [Whether God is in charge at all?] Isn’t it strange to you that those who founded great religions have been totally honest about their times of doubt, while so many of their disciples preach on Sundays a glib gospel that ignores the dark side of life?
That faith-doubt paradox, which has run through the Jewish and Christian faith, has run also through other great religions. Hinduism, for example, has its God with three faces. One of them, austere and aloof, is Brahma, the Ultimate Reality — no problem there. We can handle God if we keep him far enough away from earth and the cries of pain that rise up from it. Another in the Hindu panoply, gracious and gentle, is Vishnu, the Savior. No problem there, either. We love those who save us. But Hinduism knows all too well that the world is full of tragic evil and error, and so the third face of its god is cruel and frightening — Siva the Destroyer. Hinduism insists that faith take into account the dark realisms of human life.
In early Hebrew times, there was only one God, a true monotheism, so both good and evil had to come from a single source. But as one tragedy after another befell the Hebrew people that faith became so painful that they became practical polytheists, creating a dark god to blame for things that go horribly wrong in the world. Was Satan invented to excuse God of responsibility for evil we cannot explain? There are plenty of Christian students who think so. They say it’s like the tribe a missionary found in Africa who believed in a good god, but said he had a half-witted brother who kept messing things up. They had to account for evil some way! Is the devil our half-witted brother, our scapegoat, so we don’t have to include all the evil in the world when we frame our definition of God? But even that falls short of working. We can’t seriously blame the devil for that earthquake in Italy or the famine in Africa or the boy who has never seen anything in his life — so we limp along with the burden of mystery on our backs like that American doctor who said once that if he ever came face to face with God he would bring along a cancer cell, show it, and ask: Why?
Some people add all this up, and make the answer simple by rejecting all thought of religion. They say, there is no duality to worry about, no awful perplexity from trying to consider God and natural evil at the same time — that one should simply admit that the world is a place of blind accident without meaning or purpose. But then there arises another problem, as perplexing in its own way as the problem of evil. What is one to make of all those things so heartachingly beautiful and good in human life? What about bravery and courage and love that will not give up, no matter what the odds? Why does your heart reach out to your child despite a thousand rejections of the love you offer, and why does it never give up, no matter what happens? There are endless stories of the noble and generous things people do for each other, so how do we handle the problem of good? It may be more difficult to explain in a purely materialistic wsorld than the problem of evil.
And we never get very far from it, because the very name we chose for God is that Anglo-Saxon word that means “good.” What is God? God is the good. And we can’t turn loose of that part of the mystery, either. I’ve always liked Archibald MacLeish, but never more than when he sang late in his life: “Now at 60 what I see,/ Although the world is worse by far,/ Stops my heart in ecstasy./ God, the wonders that there are!” And he had lived long enough to know exactly what those wonders are: the laughter of children at play, great minds caught up in the delight of discovering truth, human beings who quite literally give their lives for one another out of this strange emotion known as love.
So that’s part of the mystery we live with, too, and ever since men and women learned to think they have puzzled over both of life’s faces: what it means to say “God” in a world where so much is wrong, and what it means to say “despair” in a world where there is so much faith and hope and goodness. But we can only play with the questions so long before we have to make decisions. How do we face the accident, the runaway cell, the volcano, earthquake, and famine? I have tried to comfort myself by remembering that Christ never said, “I have explained the world.” What he said was, “I have overcome it.”
Anyone watching what was happening to him would have thought he was crazy. He was on the edge of a horrible death even as he spoke those words, and before long, at night, in wretched little huts a handful of his friends would sob themselves to sleep because the greatest adventure of their lives was over. Life made no sense. The best man they had ever known had been killed int he worst way other men could do it. And then, suddenly, a fresh wind blew through them, and a fire burned inside, and they believed with wild faith that He was not dead but somehow alive and among them — that good does prevail, that God does exist a little more truly, in some strange way, each time we choose good over evil.
After a lifetime of reading books that try to explain the mystery of evil and innocent suffering in a world supposedly under the rule of God, I am left with no better hope than they had, fragile as it may seem. I am able to live, in the midst of evil I cannot explaink only by believing that a man like Paul chose the right strategy. He was certainly not a pollyanna, a shallow optimist. He said once, in a litany of his personal sorrows, that he had been beaten, put in jail, betrayed and deserted, shipwrecked, stoned, starved, almost frozen. He gave his life to churches, and even some of them turned away from him.
So what kept him going? It was not an intellectual answer to the problem of evil, because he didn’t have one. It was a conviction, born out of faith, a kind of central fire that warmed him when the cold and the dark came close, as they so often did. There is, of course, the possibility that what he believed was madness. Some have always thought so. But others have listened to one of his great lyrical outbursts and turned it into a marching song: “I am convinced,” he said, “that there is nothing in death or life…..in the world as it is, or the world as it shall be; in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths — nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
A wild, improbable faith that cannot be proved by science or logic, but for many in a world of tragic evil, the only sense they could make. And who knows? Perhaps it really is the logic beyond logic, the essential dream that makes it possible for us to shoot our arrows of bright hope into the surrounding darkness and follow their light wherever it leads us. Fellow travelers on the long and sometimes painful journey, I salute the courage and nobility of your lives, and the hope that brought you here this morning!
Lift up our hearts, Et God, & show us, when the darkness makes us fearful, where to find
light, through the courageous life of Christ our Lord. Amen.

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