Monday, December 15, 2008

Skewed Theodicy

On the CBS Sunday Morning Show, Ben Stein offered the following theodical vignette (“it’s intended to get you thinking”) to bolster his defense of ‘ecumenical religion’ in the face of the atheist threat/myth:

Billy Graham's daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her 'How could God let something like this (regarding Katrina) happen?' Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, 'I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we've been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?'

As a Jew, Stein’s attraction to this ever-moving (entering and retreating from the world/history) God may be consciously or unconsciously grounded in a Lurianic Kabalistic understanding of God’s self-exile (through the exile of the Shekhinah) and withdrawal into God’s self (the original cosmic contraction of God’s essence, known as the tsimtsum). According to this line of mystical thought, humans do exercise a level of agency in helping the divine out of exile through good works.

Yet, this explanation is mere speculation. Taken at its word, the aforementioned theological justification for natural disasters and human catastrophe proves dangerous. In blaming the secularization of public space for suffering and tragedy, Graham vindicates the explicitly documented human failure to live out the religious message that she so nostalgically misses in the town square. Rather than focusing on what is said (or not said) in the pluralistic setting of a school classroom, Graham should spend more time considering what is done (or not done) to help the victims of such crises. God may have taken leave, but God’s absence should be attributed to the lack of human compassion and justice that scars such events. On Graham’s view, reinstituting a mandated time for prayer (or, perhaps even, the teaching of creationist ‘science’) would allow for a restoration of peaceful cohabitation. In contradistinction, I believe that the redemptive healing should be a voluntary outpouring of empathy and action. People of faith, at least in the Abrahamic traditions, find empowering sustenance in the provocative question: “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” God will always dwell in the affirmative response to this ever-challenging call to love.

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