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“Why, God?” Asked the American People, and Would Not Stay for an Answer

The number one column on the New York Times website right now is Maureen Dowd’s “Why, God?” It features counsel on the problem of evil, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, from a priest friend of hers, Rev. Kevin O’Neil.

Amid his admirably kind, gentle, and humble remarks on the evils of our time, and every time, is this key admission: “I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them.”

Nor do I believe that people are really looking for them.

I don’t think most people are really looking for them, either. A few straws in the wind:

Has Prof. Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame, arguably the most important thinker about the problem of evil in our lifetime, been prominent in the news media, on all the talk shows, in all the bien-pensant columns? I haven’t seen a trace of him.

My cousin Kent Annan, who helps to run the worthy Haiti Partners organization (which my wife and I support), has spoken to sold-out rooms at the Urbana Missionary Conference on this question the last couple of days, so clearly people are interested in the issue in some respect or another. But, as Kent himself would be the first to say, he is not a theologian or a philosopher, and his wonderful book, After Shock, is much more a cri de coeur than anything approaching a theodicy. That’s what IVCF/IFES decided to put before their searching university students.

When a Christian church in Newtown did bring in a resource person to speak to the issue, they brought in…not an answer-giver, but another reassurer, popular author Philip Yancey–another good man who trades in fellow-feeling much more than he offers substantial constructive reflection.

And, yes, I’ve written a book on the question that has sold fairly well over a decade, and my phone has been completely silent. No one–no one locally, no one regionally, no one nationally–wanted to discuss the issue with one of the few Canadians who has written a reputable volume on the issue of God and evil.

I wonder if our lack of substantive engagement with the problem of evil is due to our tacit realization, which perhaps Brother O’Neil recognizes, that if we did ask God a serious question about why the shooting happened—or why, now, two separate innocents have been pushed in front of NYC subway trains—God might return to us a serious answer:

Don’t look at me.

I didn’t replace a horrible system of dungeon-like mental health hospitals with the opposite disaster of ‘mainstreaming’ clearly deranged people into the general population. I didn’t release people in obvious need of high-quality treatment into the care of incompetent or even abusive relatives or friends, nor did I grossly underfund the attempts of decent caregivers to cope with the vast problems they heroically undertook.

I didn’t spread 300 million guns—yes, just think about that number for a moment, if you dare—throughout American society, with such lax laws that all sorts of people (and I do mean ALL sorts of people) could get their hands on them.

I didn’t decide not to pay for adequate policing, security screening, emergency training and equipment, and other means by which such nightmares could be reduced.

I had literally nothing to do with Newtown, or those poor victims in the New York subway. So why ask me?

No wonder we don’t ask God, not seriously, not extensively: not pulling up a chair, not reading a good book (or the Good Book), not listening to a qualified speaker, and not giving The Question of Questions the attention it deserves.

Even when violence erupts unavoidably in front of us, we refuse to think hard about what is actually happening, in an appropriately broad frame of reference, and what it all tells us—about ourselves, about how we have run things, about God, and about how God runs things.

We certainly don’t want to look any harder than easy, quick, simple solutions, whether more rigorous gun registration (Jeffrey Goldberg mounts a brave, scary attack on that idea from the left) or putting an armed security guard in every school (the NRA’s “answer”).

We don’t want to look at our own stinginess, our systemic disregard for the mentally ill and their caregivers, or our reflexive (and therefore too easy) recourse or resistance to the state.

We certainly don’t want to look at what it might mean theologically for God to allow us to do so much harm to ourselves and others: What possible agenda could God have that is so huge and so important that it could warrant such a program of dangerous freedom? What would it mean for us to live our lives in the light of that agenda?

Nah. Let’s just be there for each other. Let’s just do that One Thing That Will Solve the Problem. And then we can just get back to business as usual. Like Pilate so badly wanted to do.


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