Friday, September 2, 2011


Hurricane Irene did minimal damage to our monastery and school here in downtown Newark, but left many of our suburbs submerged for days and damaged for years. The loss of property is staggering. "The Newark Star Ledger" is still running pictures of people bailing, pumping and shoveling out what’s left of their homes. This is one of those times that make some folks wonder, “If there is an all-powerful and all-good God, how could he have let this happen?”

od on Trial

As I mentioned last week, I happen to be reading Richard Rolheiser’s The Shattered Lantern.”In one section he treats of this very problem in terms of the pragmatists’ worldview that does not allow for the existence of anything beyond the limits of our senses. This way of seeing the world, of course, rules out concepts such as “ultimate meaning” and confines us to the limits of the time-space box to which we are consigned by the limits of our senses. So, in preparation for teaching the same material to my new students next week, I want to share with you some of Father Rolheiser’s approach to the question of “How could a good God let this hurricane happen?” Most of the rest of this post is composed of direct quotations from "The Shattered Lantern."

From the start, Rolheiser warns us against “approaching God through the categories of human understanding rather than through the categories of faith, making God meet human expectations, metaphysical, psychological and moral” (100). [I love that part: we write up all these rules and then expect God to obey them!]

He continues with a brief account of a famous Canadian journalist, Gordon Sinclair, who died several years ago. Sinclair’s heart and mind had been unable to reconcile his many experiences of suffering and misery in India and elsewhere with the existence of God. As the journalist put it, “God is simply not imaginable in the face of that kind of suffering and meaninglessness. (103)”

[Slight paraphrase:] Rolheiser answers him, "You’re right! In the face of that kind of suffering, one cannot imagine that God exists! But belief in God and faith in God is not had on the basis of being able to imagine his existence. In fact, if you try to imagine God, and look very hard at certain issues, you will end up an atheist! Why? Because all attempts to picture God and to understand rationally how the existence of such a Being can be consistent with what we see in life is an enterprise that, by definition, undercuts out ability to believe in God (103).

“When one goes out at night and looks at the stars, the light of those closest to us, traveling at the unimaginable speed of 186,000 miles per second, has taken four years to reach our eyes. The light from those that are most distant from us has taken 800,000 years to reach us ... and scientists have seen stars through x-ray telescopes whose light has not yet reached the earth, stars that are six trillion light years from our earth. The enormity of our universe stuns the imagination. These distances cannot be conceived of. Given that there are perhaps hundreds of billions of galaxies with trillions of light years separating them, and given that on each of the planets within each of those galaxies there are hundreds of trillions of phenomena occurring every second over billions of years, can we really believe that somewhere there is a person, a heart so supreme that it created all this? And that, right now, it knows minutely and intimately every detail and that it is passionately concerned with every event?

"Our planet is one of many billions of planets. During each second of time on earth thousands of people are being born, thousands are being conceived, thousands of others are dying, are sinning, are doing virtuous acts, are suffering, celebrating, hoping, praying, despairing, and all of this has been happening for hundreds of thousands of years. Can we really believe that a God exists who is Lord over all of this so that 'no sparrow falls from the sky or no hair from a human head' without that Lord knowing and caring deeply?

"The answer is no! When one considers evil and the sheer immensity of phenomena, one cannot conceive of a God who could truly be lord and master of it all. Our minds and imaginations cannot stretch far enough. We cannot picture it. But that is precisely the point: the divine reality cannot be grasped through a finite imagination. The limits of human imagination and its frustrations vis-à-vis imagining the existence of God are not the same as the existence or non-existence of God. The fact that we cannot imagine God speaks more about the finitude of the mind than it does about the likelihood or unlikelihood of the existence of an infinite being.

"Many difficulties arise from our failure to recognize and appropriate this. Suppose one night I lie in bed and stare holes in the darkness, trying to imagine the existence of God. But I cannot and I begin to panic: "Dear God, I am an atheist! I can no longer imagine and feel that God exists! God doesn't exist!" On another night, I lie in bed and I feel very secure in my sense that God exists and I can imagine that existence. Does this mean that on the one night I have no faith in God and on the other I do have faith? It would be more accurate to say that one night I have a weak imagination and on the other night I have a strong one! The difference lies not in God's existence or non-existence, but in the capacity or incapacity of the imagination to crank up its own constructs which either give one the sense that God exists or leave one unable to feel it.

"Frustrations in attempting to conceive of and feel God's relationship to creation tend to lead, as they did in Gordon Sinclair’s case, to the unfounded conclusion that, because we cannot think, picture, or understand how it is possible, then God does not exist.

My Two Experiences

Since last weekend’s hurricane I’ve had two experiences that will be a good way to bring this post to a close.

On Monday I drove up to our house in the woods and stayed overnight. The electricity was out, of course, which meant no lights and no water. So it was an early bedtime. But before I retired I stood outside and looked up at the stars. With no lights nearby, thousands of stars were sparkling spectacularly and cheerfully against the inky blackness of space. I could see why our earliest ancestors looked to the night sky for ideas about a Supreme Being, the afterlife and the meaning of everything. Rolheiser is right, “The enormity of our universe stuns the imagination. These distances cannot be conceived of.” I had to admit that this was all too much for my poor brain to grasp.

Then on Thursday I happened to be in the lovely suburban town of Cranford, N.J., walking through Nomahegan Park, looking at the streams and the lake that had by then gone back to their normal depth. Across the street, facing the park, were these beautiful homes. Lining the curb in front of each house was an unbroken wall of soggy furniture and mud-stained toys, ruined appliances, dripping file cabinets and waterlogged carpeting. The grim scene was accompanied by the unbroken rhythmic coughing of gasoline-powered generators and pumps. The whole experience was a heartbreaking. I asked myself how God could let all these good people experience such heartbreak? I had to admit that this disaster, like the vastness of the night sky, was all too much for my poor brain to grasp.
.. ..The Andromeda Galaxy (only 2.5 million light years away)

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