Musical Theodicy

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From time immemorial humans have attempted to make sense of the seemingly mindless events of our world and our lives. Whether in the acts of nature which leave nothing but destruction in their wake or in the senseless wars that have a more sinister intent, this spinning rock appears forever teetered upon a precipice, with only an absurdly thin atmosphere to shield us from the gaping maw of a cold and desolate universe.

Is the darkened night in eons to come- when all the stars burn out in their final and brilliant protest against entropy- to be the fate which awaits this bleak reality? Our burdened lives perhaps can find no better expression than this:

Remember Lord our mortal state
How frail our lives, how short the day
Where is the man that draws his breath
Safe from disease, secure from death?

For as long as men have been able to ask at all, one question has been raised to heaven: why? In the face of so much suffering and pain, in the midst of so much destruction in death, why must our days be marked by blood and tears?

The problem of pain has been the perennial trump card against God. After all, if God is so good and if God is so powerful, how could any sort of evil exist? Even if we grant that free will might provide a middle proposition to secure the non sequitur, would not such a God be a monster, who would allow so much cruelty for apparently so little gain?

But neither is retreating into the waiting arms of chaos preferable, for what consolation is meaninglessness if it undercuts its own propositions? Such reasoning could only be effective if it smuggled in meaning under another name, for random collisions of particles do not wonder at the misfortunes of life or even attach such significances to them.

Theodicy- reconciling God’s benevolence with the existence of evil- has thus been the purview of the theologian as much as the philosopher, but no less estranged from the soldier in the trenches or the patient in the emergency room.

Like Job we have all shaken our fists at the sky or cursed the day of our birth for one reason or another. Suffering compels an explanation, as if seeing a deeper meaning behind it could somehow roll the existential into the mystical.

I have always wondered at the question of ‘why?,’ not only for the perplexity of asking it but also for its hubris. Suffering tends to shrink the universe into a space about the size of the pain, creating by an upside-down ex nihilo a cosmology in which I am the very center. ‘Why?’ thus becomes a way of reducing everything into myself and about myself, as if the complexity of the universe could be distilled to account for the incident.

What is even more sup rising is that in the asking we tend to presume not only that we would understand, but that understanding would make a difference. We tend to this with everything, from the strange look we get on the bus to the rocket attacks at midnight somewhere a world away. We weave together conceptual threads and pull them apart again to find a connection, a reason- this event led to that, this remark compelled this response, this thing that happened here led to this that created such and formed the context and milieu for this other thing.

And despite the way in which reality overwhelms us from without and from within we strive after reasons as if we could actually find them. That the connections that underlie each event are too complex to hold together in the mind generally leaves us undaunted- much better to keep asking why.

Theodicy has been no stranger to theology, and many of the finest minds have offered intellectually compelling arguments by which the problem of evil is shown to not only not be a problem at all, but itself a reason to believe in the goodness of God. But intellectual rationales can only take one so far, and the existential nature of pain can often overshadow the most profound insights.

One of the most powerful theodicy songs is one written by Sufjan Stevens entitled Casimir Pulaski Day, in which he weaves a narrative of a friend who suffers through cancer and eventually succumbs to it. I do not know if the story is real or imagined, but it is hard to imagine that such meaning could be achieved by someone who has not experienced it. The song is kind of a series of vignettes (not necessarily in chronological order) that describe various reactions and responses to the diagnosis and subsequent experience of cancer. A few of the lines are positively memorable:

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

The opening phrase (all the glory…) will sere as a context of sorts to frame the entire song. The underlying assumption is that God has made everything and it is glorious and good. The difficulty immediately presented is that in spite of this goodness there is a lot of pain to deal with- how do we reconcile that?

Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

This is probably one of the most chilling and honest lines that I have ever heard in a song. For people of faith the truth and the tragedy hit home with a lot of force, for we have all experienced praying for someone who does not get better, whose healing does not come as we pray and hope. Nothing ever happens seems to be the refrain that accompanies so many of our prayers, and in the midst of terrible suffering and anticipating the final act of a life it can lead to despair. This seems a fairly vivid echo of some lines from Psalm 88:

My eyes are worn out from crying. Lord, I cry out to You all day long; I spread out my hands to You.
Do You work wonders for the dead? Do departed spirits rise up to praise You?

Further on in the song the worst has finally come to pass:

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

The struggle is ultimately in vain, and the narrator watches his friend pass away. The image of the cardinal hitting the window is multifaceted: cardinals are often symbols of beauty and the vibrancy of life; here that life is cut short and lost in the yawning maw of meaninglessness, much like a beautiful bird in all its splendor finding its end in a random collision. But we are also meant to sense an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we should not worry, the Father sees the birds fall to the ground and knows our troubles. One can sense the profound disillusionment in knowing that God is watching the entire thing transpire, yet seems powerless or unwilling to do anything about it.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window

Here is another multi-leveled allusion: “The glory of God is a man fully alive” are words attributed to St. Irenaues, and how shallow that can seem when all we are presented with is death. Even in the midst of the hope of the resurrection we still feel the pangs of loss and the sting of death. But the face of God seen in the window is the narrator’s own, with the realization that God does not only perceive the frailties of this life from the aloofness of eternity, aseity and impassability but has been intimately united to the human experience in the Incarnation. No doubt there are complications here as well, for if God has experienced the pain of death in the person of Jesus, there is both the comfort of compassion and the questions of why nothing was done about it.

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face

This is probably the most powerful and profound insight in the entire song, for it conveys two seemingly opposite expressions in the same lyric. The glory of the Incarnation is that God has become united with our suffering and thus in Christ suffers alongside us. In the midst of our pain and loss the devotion of love to God in every circumstance can feel like our suffering is God punishing us- taking our shoulders and shaking our faces. Job held on to his integrity despite all his pain, but the silence of God felt like arrows and spear hurled against him in the midst of terrible suffering. But in the resolution when God responds there is a different shaking- it is shaking him out of his pretensions and assurances. Like a splash of cold water in the face, Job is set face to face with the vastness of reality itself. He realizes the immensity of what he does not understand and in the face of it can say nothing. His pain is not here resolved nor are his questions answered; the response of God and the breadth of what he discovers is overwhelming.

The amazing thing is that both of these experiences are concomitant to the same encounter, and in this lyric that same sort of thing is taking place.

And He takes and He takes and He takes

The final line rings with a terrible truth in a similar manner. On the one hand the loss of his friend/lover carries with it the experience of God taking and taking and taking, as if everything is being stripped away without mercy. Deep suffering tends to compound our feelings of loss, and every event get colored through this dreary lens.

But buried within this is another taking related to the beginning- the glory of when he took our place. Although the slings and arrows of this life hurl themselves against us- even more so (so it seems) in times of tragedy- beneath that pain can be a purification as we are bereft of our illusions of grandeur and presumptions of self-sufficiency. The paradox of faith in suffering is that the more united we are with Christ, the more we suffer the more we are transformed into his image and likeness. There is nothing particularly pleasant about this experience, but it is really the only way we grow into union with God. The encrustation of our sin and pride and self-sufficiency must be peeled away before we can open ourselves to the light of God’s gory.

The only way in which theodicy finally makes sense is in light of the Incarnation, for we discover in Christ that suffering is the road to transformation, death the conduit into life. The very enemy and curse of our race is turned against itself to be the means of our salvation.

All the glory that the Lord has made is made perfect in our weakness. He takes our nature upon himself and unites us to himself. He takes our sin upon himself and suffers in our place. He takes our suffering and transforms it into grace.

And he takes and he takes and he takes.

 

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By deviantmonk

Jason Watson

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