God for Grown Ups

hqdefaultWhat 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.

Comments

  1. This is a perfect note to end a stressful, busy, sorrow and joy filled week/weekend. Thanks

  2. Ethek Louise says:

    This is a profoundly challenging and compelling post. Thank you for it.

  3. Hawkgrrl is always using the phrase “Adult with God.” This expounds that perfectly.

  4. “And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
    And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
    Matthew 18:2-3

    Strong emotions are understandable at times like this, but disagreeing with God Himself, or making demands of Him, or believing yourself to be a creditor to Him, will not get you the result you seek.

  5. Disagreeing with God, or with His representatives on earth, may well be a sign of adulthood, but it does not mean that it is the right thing to do. You seem to subtly imply that childlike faith, or childlike obedience, are inferior (even wrong) when compared to grown-up faith or obedience (or lack of it…). The Scriptures does not seem to support your view. At least, we should define what ‘grown-up’ faith/obedience means. In a sense, we are to become grown-ups in terms of Gospel understanding, faith, Christlike attributes and so on if we wish to reach our divine destiny. At the same time, many childlike attributes are absolutely essential to reach it. Preeminent among them: faithful, informed, loving obedience to God, our perfectly loving, all-wise Heavenly Father, to His Son, our Savior and Redeemer, and to those They call to be Their authorized servants and representatives on the Earth.

    Willfull disobedience to God and Christ (or their proxy representatives on Earth) has never been, is not and never will be a virtue or the right way to go. Not for children. Not for so-called grown-ups (those who think they know/understand better than the Father or the Prophet? Those who have outgrown childish obedience to God’s word?)

  6. As much as I love Levinas and Jewish thought/philosophy — I studied and wrote my thesis on Martin Buber and dialogical philosophy — I’d have to definitely choose what the Gospel teaches and what Christ teaches about these issues.

    Communing with God, having questions, speaking to Him, asking Him for understanding, a D&C 121 kind of conversation with Him is different than questioning Him, openly disagreeing with Him and openly demanding that His priesthood authority bends to whatever our grown-up list deems expedient. It is not Him who must do better. It’s the man (or woman) in the mirror.

  7. Mike, you may have just saved my ability to continue to attend church without my soul crumbling to ashes. I have never been able to blindly obey, and have felt the need to question and ask as vital as breathing. I have also deeply felt God’s love in that process, and often felt closer to both God and the spirit in that process. I have understood this doesn’t mesh in lock step with some (many? most?) of my fellow congregants, but I’ve chalked it up to individual relationships with God, and moved ahead anyway.

    I really needed this today, when, like you, my soul was tormented by the the obvious catastrophe, but also by the micro-aggressions that lay the groundwork for such catastrophes to happen in the first place.

  8. Strong emotions are understandable at times like this, but disagreeing with God Himself, or making demands of Him, or believing yourself to be a creditor to Him, will not get you the result you seek.

    Assuming one has a clear and complete understanding of God and what he wants at all times is tremendously foolish. History is littered with the catastrophes of human beings believing they were acting in God’s name. At the very least, we owe God our questioning and asking.

  9. A confess to feeling highly ambivalent about this question. On the one hand, I am a born debater and arguer, a cynic and a doubter, someone who has always asked questions, not only of the institutional church but also of God. On the other hand, I have also always assumed that Jesus wasn’t just feeding us a line when He reportedly insisted that we have to become as (in actuality, mostly mythological) “little children,” trusting and obedient and loving. Negotiating these two tendencies–or, at least, one tendency and one belief–in my head has been a long-standing project of mine. ! Corinthians 14:20 is a good guide, I’ve found: “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” That is, I take it, in our emotions and our relationships with others–particularly the difficult and negative ones, the ones that tempt us to anger and hate–be as those hypothetical children: forgiving and forgetting, easily leaving the bad and going on to the good. But in our ability to make decisions about the real world around us, maturity (and, I assume, disagreement) is both needed and expected.

  10. “Because God said so” was enough for Christ, and His perfection allowed Him to complete the Atonement (without which, we would be lost). Yes, Job questioned but when he experienced his encounter with God, God informed him that his questioning was foolish and he lacked even the capacity to understand sufficient to ask.

    As I read through you article, my mind called back to the great essay from C. S. Lewis “God in the Dock.” From that essay:

    ““The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”

    Lewis concludes that this attitude arises from a separation of sin from consequences. Without an acute awareness of our sins, we cannot understand the necessity of the infinite Atonement. Without awareness of the need for that Atonement, we believe we can invert the relationship between God and man. In other words, if we are sinners then the Atonement saves us from a fate worse than death and if we live our entire lives its service to God we would still be in His debt (see King Benjamin). On the other hand, if we aren’t sinners (but rather are good people deserving of good things), then we will look to God and wonder why we aren’t getting the good things we deserve – putting God on trial.

    Demanding that God do better is like reading the parable of the Prodigal Son and identifying with the brother would stayed (demanding to know why Father killed the fatted calf) and not recognizing that we each are the Prodigal in the parable.

  11. Disagreeing with God is a sign of becoming a teenager. You become more of a spiritual adult as you come to understand God’s ways and agree with them.

    But, as with all teenagers, we don’t want to hear that.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    Silver Rain, I greatly appreciate your insights and participation here. Thanks for sharing; in two sentences you encapsulate a lot of wisdom.

  13. Ignacio M. Garcia says:

    It is okay to question God and to ask hard questions, but it is not alright to put God on trial. Adulthood requires patience, reflection and a willingness to obey even when we don’t fully understand. To put God or church on trial is to become greater than both and if we believe in the gospel we know we are not. I have no problem questioning and even challenging institutional norms that I think might be hurtful but I do not challenge doctrine, the role of leaders nor do I forget my place in the kingdom. If we want to debate God in private, we can, He allows that, but to challenge Him publicly is to doubt the faith and his goodness.

  14. Levinas says: Here is a way to find your relationship with God in the face of oblivion, when His love, His tenderness and His benevolence are inaccessible. Fight, struggle, interrogate, demand more from Him, but do not walk away.

    This is not the petulant reaction of an adolescent. It is faith, manifest as immense courage.

  15. Interesting ideas, Michael. I would disagree, however, with the idea that to disagree with the prophet is to disagree with God. I think sometimes the will of God is very difficult to decipher, and it is obvious that our prophets, from Joseph Smith on, have not been infallible. We often pay lip service to the notion that the prophets and apostles are not infallible, but in so many ways we treat them, and the Church demands that we treat them, as if they were. We spend a lot of time trying to defend Joseph Smith, and we tend to resort to his sayings to resolve any troubles over doctrine or policy. But let’s face it, Joseph made mistakes, including a few big ones (dare I say it, polygamy, for example).

    All we have to do is look at some of Joseph’s doctrines or ideas or failed prophecies that we have quietly swept under the rug to understand that he was not perfect—and that we have never, in practice, acted like he was. Take, for instance, the adoption theology that we simply couldn’t make sense of or make work. Wilford Woodruff finally pulled us off that dead-end street. Of course, there were early doctrinal declarations by Joseph that he himself contradicted later, such as the whole mess involving what happens to those who don’t hear the restored gospel in this life. Joseph went through at least four different (and unsatisfactory) answers to that question before finally settling on ordinances for the dead and preaching in the spirit world, and even that still has some rather large holes in it.

    So, yes, we do need to demand more of both God and the Church. God could certainly do a lot better in making his will clear and unambiguous, and the Church could step back from its lofty perch as infallible arbiter of truth and admit that in many ways, we’re groping around in the dark.

  16. That’s a very valuable insight, Loursat. This kind of fight with God is a response to the seeming inaccessibility of God’s love/benevolence, and it’s a more difficult alternative to simply turning one’s back on Him/Her/Them in those moments.

  17. Lady Didymus says:

    My therapist (from LDS Family Services) gave me similar advice recently when I was struggling to hear or feel Heavenly Father in my life. I had prayed and prayed for years to know what path to take or what His plan was for me and my family to no avail. I was frustrated and angry. My therapist said, “Then let him know! Ask Him, “What the hell is your plan for me?!” (My therapist is awesome.) His passionate response made my LDS sensibilities uncomfortable. “You mean yell at Heavenly Father?” I asked. “Yes! Tell him everything! Be vulnerable and share your experience with Him.” I did as my therapist advised and I felt a downpour of love and comfort rain upon me like I have never felt. I felt embraced by my Heavenly Father and got confirmations from Him on what to do. I think Mormons tend to take emotion and personality out of prayer. Formality and “reverence” (more like repression) were actually blocking the Spirit and Heavenly Father from reaching me. Heavenly Father knows and loves us. We’ve got to trust Him and be vulnerable. We have to be real and bare, stripped of pride and pretense. Like many have said before, it’s okay to be angry at God. He can take it. Honestly, I think it’s less about challenging God and more about challenging ourselves and our ideas. And that’s scary. But it’s necessary. We can’t gain any knowledge if we’re not willing to challenge our current understanding. This isn’t new; Alma “wrestled” with God in prayer.

  18. Eric Russell says:

    Evils for which Michael Austin has cried:

    1. Mass murder
    2. Mass murder
    3. Mass murder
    4. BYU Honor Code enforcement
    5. Mass murder

    Stay classy, man.

  19. Thank you, Lady Didymus, for sharing that.