What is the meaning of the suffering of innocents? Does it not prove a world without God, an earth on which man is the only measure of good and evil? The simplest and most common reaction would be to decide for atheism. This would also be the reasonable reaction of all those whose idea of God until that point was of some kindergarten deity who distributed prizes, applied penalties, or forgave faults and in His goodness treated men as eternal children. —Emmanuel Levinas, on “Yosl Rakover Talks to God”
September 11, 2001 will always be my generation’s “where were you when. . . .” moment. For my parents it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and for their parents it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We never get over these historical moments; they come with such horror that they fix us in space and time. In my case, the unforgetability of the moment is mixed with a palpable irony: At the very moment that the Twin Towers were coming down, I was in a World Literature class teaching Voltaire’s Candide–a book that asks the question, “if there is a loving and all powerful God, why does bad stuff keep happening?”
The contours of the theodicy debate are too well-known, and the possible outcomes of the debate too well understood, to talk much about it here. My prepared notes on Candide went into this debate in some (mostly abstract and unhelpful) detail. They began with a discussion of the Book of Job, the most important theodicy in the history of ever, and they continued through Voltaire and up to Tennyson’s In Memorioum (also on the syllabus that year) and the majestic lines,
Oh, yet we trust that somehow good
Will be the final goal of ill,
To pangs of nature, sins of will,
Defects of doubt, and taints of blood;
That nothing walks with aimless feet;
That not one life shall be destroy’d,
Or cast as rubbish to the void,
When God hath made the pile complete;
That not a worm is cloven in vain;
That not a moth with vain desire
Is shrivell’d in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another’s gain.
Behold, we know not anything;
I can but trust that good shall fall
At last — far off — at last, to all,
And every winter change to spring.
So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
I have cried this cry many times since 2001. I cried it when 20 children were slaughtered in Newton, Connecticut. I cried it when six people were killed and 14 people injured at one of my alma maters in 2014. I have been crying it a lot this year as I have learned how many young women and men have been sexually assaulted at my other alma mater and revictimized by the academic and ecclesiastical structures designed to protect them. And I have been crying it all day today, since I first heard the news that 50 people were murdered in yet another mass shooting in Orlando. Crying like an infant in the night is my standard response to senseless tragedy.
In the process of writing a book on Job, though, I discovered another response, one worked out in great detail by the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust–specifically the great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who spent much of the war as a Jewish POW from a French army unit. To put it very simply, Levinas’s response to the existence of profound evil is to demand that God do better. In a 1963 review of the anonymous short story, “Yasl Rakover Talks to God,” Levinas argues forcefully that great evil is not an existential tragedy, but rather an invitation to spiritual adulthood.
As children, Levinas explains, we see our parents as infallible. As adults, we recognize that they are not, and we learn that we can still love and honor them while challenging them to do better. “God must reveal His face,” Levinas demands, “justice and power must be reconnected, there must be just institutions on this earth. Only he who has recognized the veiled face of God can demand that it be unveiled.” And recognizing God when He is in disguise, and demanding that He unveil his face, are things that only grown-ups can do.
And God needs grown-ups. A God worshipped only by children can never experience the absolute love of His creations—as a child’s love is always conditional. “His divine grandeur,” he writes, “is shown in his creation of a man capable of approaching God as a creditor and not always as a debtor. The creditor has faith in abundance, but also does not resign himself to the evasions of the debtor.” God’s majesty, then, requires that we worship him as spiritual adults rather than perpetual children—people who ask for reasons, who demand justice, and who refuse to accept “because God said so” as a final answer.
This is especially true for the topic that has captured the news today. Addressing the violence in our culture means confronting both the violence and the culture. Violent massacres take place in a context that is supported by other kinds of violence: rhetorical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual. Being against horrific violence is relatively easy. Confronting these other kinds of violence can be very difficult because it is so often perpetuated in the name of God. To address it, we must look hard at ourselves and our institutions–and even (and perhaps especially) at God. And we must demand that everybody do better.
Jewish tradition, of course, is full of people arguing with God: Abraham and the Cities of the Plain, Jacob and the Angel, Job and the Whirlwind. This is all part of the Mormon tradition too. And for those of us who believe that God manifests Himself through an ecclesiastical structure, a grown-up relationship with God requires a grown-up relationship with the Church–an institution that we can love, honor, and revere while, at the same time demanding that it do better to confront the kinds of rhetorical and spiritual violence that make physical violence inevitable.
This is a tall order for members of a church that values loyalty and obedience above almost everything else. It makes us uncomfortable. It is hard. But to those who would counter my argument by pointing out that the prophet is God’s representative on earth and that disagreeing with the prophet is exactly the same as disagreeing with God, I would simply say “exactly.” Disagreeing with God, or with His representatives on earth, is not a sign of disobedience or disloyalty; it is a sign of adulthood.