Theodicy: The Question that Should Not be Answered.

By J.C. Mitchell

We love going to the zoo with our son.  The best part is seeing animals that we do not usually see, as well as open space to run.  We bring his iPad with his communication program on it and we practice saying things like:  “I see elephant”  “I see bird”  “I see lizard” and even more complex sentences such as “I like elephant.”  Our son engages better sometimes than other times, and there is of course always an “I want peanut butter & jelly” thrown in, as that is his favorite sentence to create.  So when we are in front of an animal I encourage him to press the appropriate buttons and/or I do it to model conversation.  Inevitably, the children that are nearby watching the animal move their gaze from the animal to us. 

None of them say, “Hello” or engage in a conversation, and worse, their parents do not stop them from gawking.  I bet if their children were staring at a wheelchair or a prosthetic they would at least be embarrassed and try to discreetly change their child’s gaze, and the great parents would engage in a conversation with the one that has a different ability.  Yes, they may wait to do it privately, but I am the one there and I would put money on that not being true.  I also hope you notice that it is quite ironic we are looking to teach our son to converse and the response is to stare and say nothing. 

I do have to admit that in some circumstances people are awesome, like when we went to ”Build-a-Bear” after the zoo (we had a gift certificate) and when we pulled out his iPad to respond what he saw at the zoo earlier, the sales person was wonderful.  She asked what he saw at the zoo, and he navigated off the zoo page and said, “I want peanut butter and jelly.”  She laughed appropriately, as I did as well.  Eventually he choose a black cat.  He loved watching the stuffing being mixed and he picked out a hat for his cat.  We named the cat and added a tutu.  However, most people are not as patient and kind as the sales person, and I noticed parents and other children staring at him as he enjoyed and squealed making his stuffed cat.

Honestly, the stares and the ignoring don’t bother me personally.  Well I lie, but I am so used to it and I know it is more about them seeing something new, than having anything to do with my son or myself.  The staring children are just curious and interested, which I totally understand, and I wait for the bold one that asks about why we use the iPad. I will probably tear up when I show that bold child, and perhaps my son will make a friend even just for that moment in front of the elephants.  The ignoring parents are probably pushing something down they do not want to deal with.  It reminds me of the fear some have seeing a body of a deceased loved one.  They do not want to deal with the image of mortality, or reality.

By ignoring my son, the parents are ignoring questions about their abilities, their children’s, and also why they are “blessed” and others are not.  It is the question of theodicy.  It is honestly the most important part of one’s theology: if you believe that God is good and is Love and is omnipotent, why do bad things happen to good people, and vice versa?  

So how do you answer this essential question?  Do you ignore it despite your children’s curiosity (or congregants)?  Do you make up excuses and exceptions?  The excuses include things like but not limited to: God gave us free-will or God never gives us more than we can handle.  Exceptions include but are not limited to: everything happens for a reason, we learn from our suffering, suffering creates character. 

None of these answer the question, which should not be ignored--but it should never be answered.  It must be lived and engaged.  If you start to answer the question, you will find that theology falls short and you end up with yourself or God as judge. 

When we gather with other families that have a child with special needs (or others with different abilities) the question why is never ignored, but answers are never provided.  The answer is lived by bucking normal.  This is exactly what we need to do as church: stop hiding from the hard question and stop trying to answer it; rather, let us live the answer: Love. 

just too cute not to share.  We named the cat Huckle.  

just too cute not to share.  We named the cat Huckle.  

Reflections on Tragedy

This article will be the first in our "Sunday Stories." This blog post is writtten by Dr. Gregory J. Davis, a Forensic Pathologist, who worked the scene of the Carrolton bus crash in 1988, as well as the plane crash of Comair Flight 191 in Lexington, Kentucky on August 27, 2006.  Greg is a member of Temple Adath Israel in Lexington.

As a forensic pathologist who daily sees the fallout of human frailty manifested as violence against others and the self, I struggle with what my Christian friends might call “faith.” Such a word carries myriad meanings to a Jewish person who grew up in the mid-south in the 1960s and ‘70s, as it was often a charged term because of the well-meaning but ultimately ignorant persons who tirelessly tried to “score” yet another soul on the evangelical scorecard—their attempts at conversion quaint at best, infuriating at worst (we Jews being complete human beings already, thank you very much).  I’ll write more on that later, but in the meantime: “faith.”

What is faith?  I love Jewish texts, Jewish traditions, Jewish ritual, but “faith”? Ask me what is my theology, and it might depend on the day. Not that I’m theologically fickle; rather, I acknowledge that the ebb and flow of experience cannot help but color the way I see my peoplehood, my Jewish civilization, my “faith stream,” as some are wont to call it.  As the years have gone by, I have run the gamut from a vision of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent deity intimately involved in humankind’s daily affairs to proclaiming atheism (also a religion or “faith” in itself), but even in the latter milieu remembering the adage that “even atheistic Jews know what God expects of them.”

My forensic pathology mentor, Dr L.C. McCloud, pointedly warned me two decades ago that my work would become technically easier but emotionally more difficult over the years.  I had no idea at the time how true such an aphorism would be, and boy, is it ever.  The question of theodicy has long been with us, a defense of God’s omnipotence and benevolence in the light of evil in the world.  It is a question with which I struggle every day.  Etymologically, one can say that “theodicy” comes from “the judgment of God,” but—blasphemous as it may at first blush appear to many—I wonder if it also may carry the connotation of “we who sometimes stand in judgment of a God who allows too many children to be ill or abused, too many lives cut short, whole peoples to be murdered.”  It is not considered outside of the realm of my peoplehood to argue with God, with the notion of God, with the courses that Creation has taken in the last few millennia. To be so engaged is, in its own way, a form of “worship,” another charged word in this largely Protestant Christian Kentucky, this Bluegrass State that I love. It certainly is not dismissive, this engagement. To argue and debate is what people who truly care do.

Years ago at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where I was taking a ten-day course, a friend told me that she “admired my faith.” I still don’t know what that means. I certainly know there are forces beyond our understanding, that humans are not the be-all end-all of Creation, but beyond that, I question, I ponder, and—as Wesley says to Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride when Inigo asks Wesley to remove his mask and reveal himself—I have had to “get used to disappointment” in the theological realm.

I was at Carrollton in 1988, the site of the worst drunk-driving collision in US history (27 dead), doing autopsies. I was at Bluegrass Airport in 2006 after flight 5191 went down, doing much the same thing.  I have been involved in death investigations for 25 years this year. Each of us must ultimately find our way in attempting to reconcile (or not reconcile) the daily tragedies of our lives on this earth with the daily miracles, as well as our visions of what God is or what we think God should be. I leave that to the individual, as no authority should ever purport to tell me what to believe or in what to have faith. To “nail down” a vision of what God is smacks of idolatry: certain things we cannot and will never know.

What I can say with absolute certainty is that my work gives me a profound appreciation for life and, to paraphrase Heschel, a “radical amazement” that any of us are alive to begin with. If, as the siddur (Jewish prayer book) says, mortality is a price we pay for love, perhaps instead of pushing mortality to the back of our minds, a daily acknowledgment of it would spur us to be less emotionally, verbally, or physically violent, and more loving of ourselves and others. With mortality on our minds, wasting time on senseless violence . . . makes no sense.