By Ken Trainor
What kind of God allows a slaughter of innocents like the one recently in Newtown, Conn.? That's one of the frequently asked questions in the wake of yet another shocking outbreak of evil in the world.
And it's a question that causes more crises of faith than any other.
For that matter, what kind of God tells Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, as a sacrificial offering? What kind of God makes a wager with Satan that involves putting Job through the ultimate test of faith and then gets surly when Job dares ask for answers? What kind of God sends his son into the world as an infant and then stands by as all the other children under two in Bethlehem are slaughtered (10-20, according to a modern estimate, based on Bethlehem's likely population at the time) — and remains passive as his son is put to death using a particularly painful torture called crucifixion? Or the Holocaust, which, horrendous as it was, is not even the worst case of mass murder on record (Stalin and Mao get the award for genocide).
For some, this is enough to prove there is no God. But if God exists, then he, she, it (or all of the above) is an odd God indeed. Judging purely by observation, we know that God:
- allows evil to exist and have its way with us
- is a supremely silent being
- is not in any particular hurry about history
- with the notable exception of the Big Bang, is creating this universe through the very deliberate, patient and incremental process of evolution.
- seems content to let us work things out, no matter how long that takes.
Is God distant and uncaring? "Life is pain," Dread Pirate Roberts tells Buttercup in The Princess Bride. "Anyone who tells you different is selling something."
But there is also great beauty in the world, and great goodness, and great creativity and great love. Is God responsible for good and evil, darkness as well as light?
Here's how one friend puts it: "For many of us, the evidence lies in the realms of the natural, the beautiful, the creative. Can science alone explain natural majesty and splendor? Can creativity and goodness be mere contrivance? The creation of life itself is a miracle of extraordinary convergence. For many, creation is all the evidence we need of God's existence. Whatever name one chooses for that power, it continues to regenerate. Even our most heinous crimes of mistreatment will not stop this power. It is truly divine."
Many believers, on the other hand, imagine a "puppet master," a God who controls all the strings, but what if the Supreme Being is a hands-off God? If you learned that he/she/it isn't what you expected, if your religious upbringing didn't in any way prepare you to meet your Maker, would you be disillusioned when the time comes? Can you only believe in a God of your own imagining or the God your religion defines for you?
What if God defies all our definitions? Which would be worse: finding out there is no God at all or finding that God is stranger than any of us can possibly imagine?
I am not God's puppet master. I don't expect an accounting if and when we finally meet. I won't be demanding of God an explanation of how evil could be allowed to flourish in the world, how innocents could be slaughtered. The God I believe in — or have reason to believe in — is a God with no strings attached, who loves more than, humanly, we can believe possible.
The answer, as Shakespeare says, lies not in the stars but in ourselves. We prefer to plead our case to the stars. No wonder evil flourishes. The only ones who can stop it keep waiting for God to pull the strings — or the trigger.
Based purely on observation, however, that is not how our Odd God operates. God not only gives us freedom but insists we come to terms with that freedom. God seems to believe in us much more than we believe in him/her/it.
In other words, God is leaving it up to us, which is in some ways an even scarier proposition than living in a universe without God.
We can't prevent all disasters. We are, for instance, at the mercy of the weather and the Earth's convulsions. But we are also responsible for changing the climate with our wasteful lifestyles, and we can still do something to change how we live.
We can also do something so our kids don't grow up terrified of madmen shooting them in school, church and movie theaters.
I looked up the aforementioned Shakespeare quote, by the way. It comes from Julius Caesar. The mutinous Cassius says, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." He's trying to convince Brutus to kill. But the same quote, the same empowerment, can be used to convince the rest of us to live — in a way that takes responsibility for making the world a safer place.
A place more worthy of the God we claim to believe in.