I had the privilege and responsibility of speaking to our faith community on the Sunday following the Sandy Hook shootings. It’s not a responsibility that I ever take lightly, but on this particular day, I found myself wrestling with what I could possibly share that would make any sense out of a senseless tragedy or what meaning I could bring that would give context to a meaningless act of violence and evil. Theodicy has long been a problem that has vexed the theologian, but when the question of innocent suffering is removed from the abstract and becomes real and personal with names and faces of grieving families, then I think that making excuses for God goes beyond unhelpful into the realm of callous and cruel. At the end of the day, there isn’t an abstract answer in the world that resolves the question of why innocents suffer while evil seems to flourish. And well-meaning theologians and teachers who try to resolve that question into something tame and palatable do, I think, a disservice, not only to the people who listen to them, but to the faith that they claim to respresent.
Different faiths tackle this problem in different ways. The Christian scriptures to which I adhere don’t gloss over the issue – they confront it, as various authors throughout the text cry out using words like those of the prophet Habakkuk, “How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?” The prophet instinctively senses that something is amiss, that a God who can help should help, and one that can’t isn’t a god at all. And letting God off the hook seems somehow fundamentally flawed, because punting to God’s mystery does nothing to stop the relentless march of injustice.
Indeed, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures don’t just ask the question – they welcome it. Over and over we read of people of faith who cry out for justice, who call out for the answer that God is surely able to give, if he desires. And yet, the questions are also never fully answered. It’s as though the act of questioning is itself an act of faith, or perhaps an act of hope, as the asking of the question presupposes the One who can provide an answer.
Inhabiting this tension is not a comfortable place. Many gatekeepers of faith discourage the asking of questions, fearing perhaps that lack of answers will drive people away from faith. I’m not convinced. I believe that providing canned, unsatisfying answers to significant questions is itself an act of fear – fear of the truth, fear of being honest, fear of being human. Doubt is not the enemy of faith and hope. Doubt is the soil in which faith and hope take root, because they represent a choice to accept that at times questions must be asked, even when answers are not always to be found. Doing so represents a life lived in coherence with a faith tradition, not against it.