Let it be said at the outset that James Wood is a splendid literary critic, one of our best. One of the things that make him interesting is that he can’t get over the “God problem.” Wood is a product of what I have called the narrow escape syndrome. That is to say, he was reared in a conservative Christian home, has moved beyond that, and is palpably fearful of being drawn back into the faith from which he has narrowly escaped.
In the June 9 issue of the New Yorker, Wood reviews Bart D. Ehrman’s bestselling book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important QuestionWhy We Suffer. The question is theodicyhow to justify the ways of God to man. Ehrman’s book is “highly adolescent in its tone,” says Wood, but then he admits that his own thinking has never moved very far beyond the adolescent.
When Wood was a teenager, he took a legal pad and listed in one column all the reasons for believing in God and, in the other column, the reasons against. He decided he didn’t believe in God, and the clinching reason was theodicy. It’s the familiar conundrum: In view of all the evil in the world, if God is good, he is not omnipotent; and, if God is omnipotent, he is not good. QED. People have been going around this track since the ancient Greeks and the Book of Job. Wood allows that the arguments that God endowed man with free will and that, in Christ, he suffers with his creatures are impressive, but they are finally not persuasive.
Most thoughtful Christians have at one time or another found themselves entangled in the theodicy conundrum. Without going into great detail, the key problem with the conundrum as stated is that it assumes we know who or what is meant by “God.” It is as though we have a job description for the position of God and then decide that none of the applicants fills the bill. Were I to go into detail, I would suggest that the critical turn is in seeing the implications of the Christian name for GodFather, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is, Ultimate Reality is, Being is relational. Indeed, it is relationality, if I may be permitted the term, all the way down. Which is another way of saying what the First Letter of John says more succinctly: God is love. And love entails suffering.
I try to spell out the implications of that in my book Death on a Friday Afternoon. But that book is not chiefly about theodicy. On that subject, there is another recent book that I would warmly recommend to James Wood and, if he could stifle his flippancy long enough to read it with care, to Bart Ehrman. It is David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?
The Doors of the Sea was published in 2005 in the aftermath of the great Asian tsunami that killed an estimated 225,000 people. Throughout his reflection, Hart wrestles with the hauntingly brilliant statement of the theodicy question posed by Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov. Herewith a few of the things Hart says in this very impressive little book: “God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom.
“Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezekiel 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.
“Every free acteven the act of hating Godarises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things; even the desire of the suicide for the peace of oblivion is born of a love of selfhowever tragically distorted it has becomethat is itself born of a deeper love for the God from whom the self comes and to whom the self is called. . . .
“Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death, grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days. As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child, I do not see the face of God but the face of his enemy. Such faith might never seem credible to someone like Ivan Karamazov, or still the disquiet of his conscience, or give him peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that his arguments can defeat: for it is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead.
“Now we are able to rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that he will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, he will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes – and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away and he that sits upon the throne will say, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”
When one is ready to escape from adolescence’s narrow escape, one may be ready for David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea.
"Holiday in Hellmouth" by James Wood
The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart
Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus