Amid the Clouds of Unknowing

By Todd Shy

Just as we all make judgments about our health without going through the rigors of medical school, most of us have a gut reaction to human suffering that either absolves God or accuses him or seals the deal of unbelief for good. We are Job, or else Job’s friends. We curse remoteness, bless the mystery, or steel ourselves for incomprehension. Is God good? Sooner or later, since we all witness misery and make the trek to funeral homes, life makes us theologians.

I doubt modern knowledge puts us in a better position to do the job. The tsunami in 2004 provoked understandable stammering about mystery and defenses of free will. Eighteenth-century preachers faced the same burden when an earthquake struck Lisbon, on a Sunday as it happened, as people gathered in churches. Jesus chose to weigh in on natural disaster, too, in his case “those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them” (Luke 13:4). If even the Son of God finessed the response (“unless you repent you too will perish”) how can theodicy be anything other than a tar baby, suckering those who punch?

A more fruitful, and interesting, angle to explore might be the way these events expose not the nature of God so much as the nature of belief. Religious believers who struggle for resolution show that their belief in the first place was not dependent upon clarity. The believer doesn’t love God because he feels suddenly immune to suffering, and so he isn’t likely to abandon God for tolerating suffering. And if our judgment of God’s goodness is not dependent upon possessing a kind of protective science-fiction shield, earthquakes and hurricanes become occasions of human crisis, but not theological ones. To the non-believer, tragedies look like declarations of God’s indifference. The believer, though, has cast himself into mystery long before. The view is always opaque. In the language of the King James Bible, he sees “darkly.” The believer is accustomed, in other words, to clouds of unknowing.

​The question suffering poses is less, Is God good? and more, Does God love us?

But this isn’t quite fair or remotely satisfying. An event like a tsunami does place stress on religious belief. The believer’s life is a pilgrimage to grow closer to God, and one path of this journey is understanding. But Christianity, suffused with paradox, is not a celebration of it, because paradox cannot be loved. Nor can mystery. We can-not love what we do not know. Awestruck, maybe. Curious, perhaps. But neither of these is what we mean by love. As a consequence, the question suffering poses is less, Is God good? (a metaphysical problem), and more, Does God love us? (a cri de coeur).

If the question is belief, the bridge will hold; if we want to love God, though, we’re in the moat. God’s nature is inaccessible to our experience, but love requires experience. This paradox helps explain why religious experience is peculiar and idiosyncratic as well as communal and traditional. To experience the inaccessible is to feel oneself inhabiting moments that cannot be rationalized or properly communicated. And so communities of religious zeal become places of joint eccentricity, sharing a vocabulary but withholding the equivalent secrets of the dream world. Who upon waking dares to say dreaming isn’t real? And yet to articulate the experience is beyond us. Wittgenstein said, if lions could talk we would not understand them. The same can be said of the ordinary dreamer—an artist in his sleep, as Nietzsche calls him.

When the tsunami strikes, then, or the plane crashes, or the killing fields are ex-posed, the challenge is most to our affection for an Almighty, who by all rights is inaccessible and mysterious but who cannot be loved without being lovable. And if a God who withholds moral clarity by tolerating tragedy does not become evil for his inaction, neither do we become un-grateful for withholding piety or love. Job’s famous response to his suffering (a coda to the original poem) is essentially this: I am not God, and so who am I to criticize God’s choices? And yet one wants him to add: If a human being can’t fashion a whale, neither can he love a rebuking whirlwind.

Tsunamis may not flush away most people’s faith, and that’s as it will be. But to adapt an old line from A. N. Whitehead, neither do we owe the indifference of suffering any metaphysical compliments.

Todd Shy studied at the University of Virginia, King’s College London, and Princeton Theological Seminary. His work has appeared in Ontario Review and Eclectica; he is currently at work on a novel.

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