Dec 19, 2012

Beyond theodicy, in the days after Sandy Hook

There are reasons to highlight the horrible theodicies offered by the likes of Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer, when a tragedy happens like the one that happened in Connecticut last week. These men lead, and aspire to lead, and hold positions of privilege. Publicizing their comments serves to marginalize them. Everyone, even those who might otherwise find these men reasonable and believable, gets a chance to be horrified, and side with those who are suffering rather than the ideologues' ghastly ideologies. Which is what happened.

Their comments, though, shouldn't be taken for a fair representation of the bulk of those Christians, or even evangelicals, or even conservative evangelicals who listen to the likes of Huckabee and Fischer. These theodicies aren't widely embraced. Even where they are, in theory, accepted, most recoil from that kind of talk when it would actually be applicable, when they're actually a tragedy to be explained.

The more common response, the one you would have heard in most evangelical churches in America last Sunday, was more likely of the character of Ross Douthat's recent column. Evangelicals, like the Catholic columnist for the New York Times, for the most part understand God to be on the side of the suffering, and not the ultimate cause of violence. While that may, in terms of theology, leave violence unexplained, and leave unanswered the very real question of there could be such violence and also exist a totally good and totally powerful God, it nevertheless allows the believers to respond with empathy, and to understand God to respond that way too.

As Douthat wrote:
the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains. 
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild. 
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
Others echoed this. James K.A. Smith, himself a Calvinist, responded to the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary by arguing against a Christian theodicy:

Eric Metaxas, the author of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography that's been so wildly popular among evangelicals, and a radio commentator on the late Chuck Colson's radio show, Breakpoint, responded similarly, if more hamhandedly:

There are plenty of reasons to talk about and criticize the kind of "Christian answer" being offered by Huckabee, Fischer, and those like them, but an actual consideration of how conservative Christians theologize a response to evil in 21st century America would do better to look at these other sorts of statements. If theodicy's going to be criticized, it should be this theodicy.

And it can be criticized.

I, for one, wonder about where such statements of God's "understanding" leave you. Empathy can also mean paralysis. These sorts of statements, while not attributing the violence to a divine cause and asking people to simply submit, don't seem to clearly offer anyone the resources to respond to such a situation. They're compatible, at least, with a kind of nihilism, surrendering to and accepting of such irrationality and violence as being just the way things are. It's possible to view the idea that "God understands" as saying, in some sense, that hope for something different, something better, is futile.

Despair, God knows, has been common enough response this last week. Maybe aestheticized and spiritualized despair, despair with God, is the best we can hope for, given everything.

I know, though, that Christian theology does have resources within it to suggest that something can be done, beyond just mourning. The gospel reading assigned for the third Sunday in Advent -- last Sunday -- begins, for example, with the question, "What should we do?"

There is an answer given.

It seems to me to be different than talk about "our true home."

Still, the only place to start, the only acceptably human place to start, with any theological response dead children, has to be in mourning. Has to be in solidarity with the suffering. Unlike those who rush to God's defense, and in doing make claims for the divine rationality of such irrationality, the Godly sense of such violence, most of the ministers wrestling with how to respond to the sort of overwhelming despair that comes with such tragedies did try to start with empathy, whether that was enough or not.


  1. Well put. Beyond mourning there's also conflict with those who would upset that mourning. See what Anonymous has been doing to Westboro, as well as what hacker Cosmo did to their Twitter feed:

  2. This sort of discussion I have always found intensely problematic. Something very bad happens, i.e. some natural disaster or some morally reprehensible action, and the only response people seem to be able to muster take the form of questions about God's failure to intervene on the side of good. This is, I think, to equate God with a genie in a bottle, who may be at your beck and call, but certainly cannot fill out the requirements for being Creator.

    Very reasonable people seem to loose all grasp of reality. I mean: How much sense does it make to hold God accountable for what was very clearly a reprehensible human action? The only reason I can see to shrink God down to a more manageable size is to obscure the real source of the problem.

    1. That's a pretty uncharitable interpretation of why the problem of evil seems like a problem to people.

  3. Thanks for your very thoughtful post, but I do have to differ with you as with most right-thinking liberals in regard to Huckabee, at least in part.

    I do believe that his response to Sandy Hook fully deserves to be criticized, and to be treated with suspicion, but, if what an individual means to say, and what he specifically says doesn't matter at all, if Huckabee is for all intents and purposes Fischer, then every person who turns to theodicy or faith of any type can also be turned into Huckabee, and therefore Fischer, and therefore an enemy, a mere object of our presumptions rather than fellow human being.

    Fischer's and Huckabee's responses were self-aggrandizing and political in the bad sense, but what Huckabee at least actually said, if heard without politically conditioned paranoia, was largely unobjectionable, and might even provides an avenue for engaging the community he more or less represents on less divisive terms. I'm not trying to suggest that Huckabee or Fischer should be presumed reachable, but maybe part of both authentically as well as effectively responding to them requires us to speak as though they must be. Maybe, instead of responding with manipulative and aggressively unsympathetic readings, in the mode of that Salon writer and many others, we could work into and through Huckabee's discourse, perhaps if with greater effort even through Fischer's, to points of contact between a traditional-faithful and a secular, liberal political or ethical response. If we can't, then what are we doing at all, other than pursuing our own self-aggrandizement in our own way?

    1. My suspicion is your real argument is with Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams, and not with me in particular. Perhaps you want to disabuse me of that notion. Are you saying that I am writing out of "politically conditioned paranoia," "manipulative and aggressively unsympathetic readings" treating people as "object[s] or presumption," etc? If you believe I am doing that, perhaps you could point out how.

      I'm not, anyway, in principle, opposed to the kind of project you suggest. In many other cases, I have and do follow that strategy, explaining the reasonableness of ideas and positions that seem unreasonable and totally foreign, explicating "points of contact," etc. Here, I decided not to.

      In part, I decided not to because I felt that responses to Huckabee were misrepresenting the vast majority of what you're calling the traditional-faithful, who took a very different tact in the days after Sandy Hook. Second, I'm not entirely convinced that Huckabee's statement really should be taken as a "theodicy," rather just than a badly performed rhetorical move to make a (poorly timed) political point. Treating his statement as representative of evangelicals seemed wrong, and I wasn't totally comfortably taking it even as representative of Huckabee's theology.

      Thus I pursue my own self-aggrandizement in my own, I suppose.

    2. Just happened to check back here after reading your tweet to that Wehner article.

      Sorry that you took my comment as aimed at you. Maybe I laid it all on too thick, but I thought I made it clear from the top that I appreciated what you've attempted and mostly accomplished in this post, which I excerpted I think with clear approval at my own blog ( ), where I did indeed focus my criticism on Williams.

      Still, you did start by attributing "horrible theodicies" to Huckabee along with Fischer, and the Salon article is your evidence. I agree with you, as you now say, that in fact it's difficult to turn Huckabee's actual remarks into theodicy: That was my point or a good part of it. There might be strong grounds for criticizing the Huckster, but "blames Newtown on gays" isn't in my view justified.



  4. That's fair. Point well taken.