Ramblings: The Theology of Tragedy

I did not mean to write this as I have so much on my plate to do right now, however, I’m writing from a place of impulse. I will also type fast without the opportunity to proof-read and this will not be “well researched” either, as I do not have the time. I have written a lot about suffering, especially back when I was doing so much suffering myself. But this is a different twist. I will also be clear, this is not about me as my suffering is much less now than it was in the spring or fall of this year, but I will draw from some of my experiences.

I will not say much about the stories that prompted this writing but to say that Denise and I learned Monday that a friend of ours was brutally injured by a mindless drunk driver on Sunday afternoon. He was minding his own business and, due to no fault of his own, this maniac destroyed his life and that of his wife and four children. We lay awake throughout the night on Monday thinking of this friend’s family and work colleagues.

Then, with little sleep, we had a call on Tuesday morning, at about 5 AM to tell us about another tragedy, this one within the family and equally as terrible, if not worse.

In the wake of these stories, I once again must think about how we deal with tragedy. I will mostly speak from the Christian perspective, although I have had long conversations with Muslims about fate and suffering. I’ve had only one conversation, that I can remember, with a Hindu about the same.

I think we get this wrong most of the time and I wanted to explore why. I will say, for the sake of time, that I found the Muslim and the hard-core evangelical positions to be very similar, although in my Muslim friends concept of God, he is even more in control than the Christian concept (if that were possible) AND, my Muslim friend (I am thinking of just one right now) would say that personal tragedies must be traced back to sin, usually the sin of the person who has experienced the tragedy or sometimes it is the sin of the family. They reach this conclusion to maintain their view that God is all-powerful, just, and merciful. So, a tragedy must fit in with His justice, as a punishment for sin.

Having said that, I will focus on some of the problems in our Christian theology when it comes to suffering and tragedy.

If you look at the simple, original Christian theology, it would state that God is all-powerful, but the wonderful, material world, which He has created, is broken. Its not right. Therefore, within the world are injustices (victims of tragedy may have no fault in the disaster). Therefore, innocent little babies are born with malignant brain tumors and never know one hour of feeling well, the way we were intended to feel, in this world. My Muslim friend would try to point to someone in the baby’s family who had sinned against God. It is always easy to find sin in every family because we are all full of it. But, in my conversations, this is where the dealing with tragedy diverges. In my one conversation with a Hindu, he said that both what we call evil and good are part of the same universal god-force and in the end, they will merge back to what we see as nirvana.

But now I will be critical of much of Christian thinking. While I love the theology of Jesus of Galilee, I’m not a big fan of add-on theology that has accumulated down the ages, like barnacles on a ship’s hull.

I will speak of the American white evangelical community, because that was the community, I know the best. In their theology, they strive to hold the following doctrines:

  • God is all powerful (like the Muslim God)
  • God is omnipotent (and they translate this to God controls every event in the world like a puppeteer).
  • God is benevolent

Now the problem lies in the process of trying to weave these factors together into one cloth. When a tragedy occurs, and you want to hold all three of those dogmas, you reach only one conclusion. God caused the tragedy for some benevolent reason, which our frail minds can’t understand. So, the healing of our broken emotions come from accepting this is God’s loving will and trying to understand God’s perspective in it.

The most ridiculous account, in my life, with this spiritual and emotional contortion was when the head elder of our evangelical church, years ago, (where I was also an elder), told a man who had accidentally cut off his toddler’s head with a mower, that it was God’s loving plan for him and his wife. It was during the early stages of my leaving evangelicalism and one of a thousand points of dark, which caused me to eventually leave.

One of the ways the early Church (mistakenly) dealt with issues like suffering was by leaving the metaphysical (look that word up if you need to)  view of ancient Hebrew and Christian texts (aka known as the Bible) and replacing with a view from Plato. His view was that this material world was only a shadow of the real world, which the Church declared was the spiritual or heavenly. Therefore, life on this material world was like the waiting line to get on a ferry (for us Washingtonians) and the real world was on the other side. So, suffering didn’t matter.

I still hear plenty of echoes of this type of Greek thinking in my Christian circles, especially in my old evangelical world. Attitudes such as, “It doesn’t matter if this great tragedy happened, the pain is not real, its all going to burn.”

The pain is real! Profoundly real because we are human beings living in the wonderful material world God has made with real, horrible, consequences of general evil.

I’ve shared this story before but I heard a pastor from outside London, England share the greatest mistake he ever made was when a young lady with three small children, learned that her husband had been hit and killed by a drunk driver on the way to work. The first people from their church who arrived at her apartment found her in great (as you would expect) distress, screaming and shouting things like “God, where the hell where you!?”

When this young pastor, just starting his ministry, heard about the things this young widow was saying, he loaded up his briefcase with books on Christian apologetics and books with titles like, “Where is God when it Hurts?” His goal was to go to her apartment and to confront her with the errors of her theology… remember, her husband’s corpse was still warm at this point.

He said, looking back, he wishes with his whole heart that he would have gone over with only a briefcase full of Kleenexs, to spend the next few days holding her and crying with her… because the damn suffering is real!

I observed last spring when I was at my greatest suffering, how awkward my talking about suffering made some people feel. The more “religious” they were, the more uncomfortable they seemed to be. I’m not talking about where I wanted to sit for hours and whine about my 24-7 nightmare, but to just mention it. It was like attending a highbrow reception, wearing a tux, sipping champagne and me cocking up my leg and farting really loud. That’s how any “negativity” was handled. I could tell they expected and wanted me to smile and say, “Things are just dandy because Jesus in in control!” They were expecting to attend my funeral in a few weeks (remember, in that theology this world is only the ferry line) where they could say, “He was a great Christian. He never complained.”

There is a time for weeping! There is a time for sorrow! There is a time for raging against the injustice of this world, without hating this world. To acknowledge the pain is no dis-service to God, I think He understands the pain the most. Then we have to work to improve the injustices. I believe that God loves this world (He said so) and we are His workers to bring justice within brokenness. We must fight to end drunk driving. We must fight to make mental health services readily available and without stigma. We must find cancer cures. We must fight to end suffering and make tragedies rare.

 

 

Published by J. Michael Jones

J. Michael Jones is a writer and PA who lives in Anacortes, Washington. He is the father of five children, who are now grown and out discovering this wonderful world on their own. He has previously focused his writing on non-fiction including medical topics and issues of the philosophy of Christian thought. With the success of his last book, Butterflies in the Belfry, Michael is now moving into fiction with his first novel, The Waters of Bimini.

4 thoughts on “Ramblings: The Theology of Tragedy

  1. personal tragedies must be traced back to sin, usually the sin of the person who has experienced the tragedy or sometimes it is the sin of the family.

    How much of this is “IT WASN’T ME! IT WON’T HAPPEN TO ME! I KEPT MYSELF SQUEEKY-CLEAN!”? Waving your squeeky-clean virtue as a Magick Shield against personal tragedy?

    I know you’ve experienced this after your cancer diagnosis. I experienced it with my first prostate cancer scare four-five years ago. There the magick shield was Veganism — “You Eat Meat, don’t you? You gave yourself cancer because YOU ATE MEAT!”

    The most ridiculous account, in my life, with this spiritual and emotional contortion was when the head elder of our evangelical church, years ago, (where I was also an elder), told a man who had accidentally cut off his toddler’s head with a mower, that it was God’s loving plan for him and his wife.

    When even that Rabbi from Nazareth said “and sometimes, shit just happens” (Tower of Siloam, Luke 13:4). I think the formal term for this is “Surd Evil” (If you’re into Tolkien, Ungoliant instead of Morgoth).

    You once posted a story of someone you once knew who was so far into God’s Soverignity/Omnipotence/Will and Predestiantion that he would just lie in bed waiting for God to Will his limbs to move. That story ended in suicide, under the wheels of a train.

    One of the ways the early Church (mistakenly) dealt with issues like suffering was by leaving the metaphysical (look that word up if you need to) view of ancient Hebrew and Christian texts (aka known as the Bible) and replacing with a view from Plato. His view was that this material world was only a shadow of the real world, which the Church declared was the spiritual or heavenly. Therefore, life on this material world was like the waiting line to get on a ferry (for us Washingtonians) and the real world was on the other side. So, suffering didn’t matter.

    A continuing theme of both your blogs and your one nonfiction book.

    Take it to its conclusion and you have the Pneumatic Gnostics, so Spiritual they ceased to be human. (Like the Silicon Valley fantasy of uploading your consciousness to the Cloud at The Singularity, leaving the Meat behind in Meatspace and living forever as a digital string of ones and zeros.)

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  2. Such terrible, terrible tragedies ..I’m so very sorry Mike!! My prayers for your family and for your friend and family. This drunk driver will be punished minimally and released to cause more havoc before you know it because our judicial system is in serious need of reform. I agree with your religious perspectives and enjoy those readings even though I may not comment. I’m hoping your emotional and physical rollercoaster slows down as it is so much for you to bear and it is definitely unearned. Praying for peace & quiet in your surroundings. P.s. That was very brave of you to risk going over that physical edge to save your hat..we do crazy things sometimes. 😉 Dear Greta, be careful out there beautiful girl.

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  3. * God is all powerful (like the Muslim God)
    * God is omnipotent (and they translate this to God controls every event in the world like a puppeteer).
    * God is benevolent

    A paradox like the Paradox of Evil (God is all powerful, God is benevolent, and Evil exists) which Eagle over at Wondering Eagle has struggled with for years.

    Any two of the three axioms, No Problem.
    All three and you have a Big-Time PARADOX.

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