This article originally appeared in the September 12, 2011 edition of The Providence Journal.
Brian J. Shanley: Where was God for the victims on the morning of 9/11?
By Brian J. Shanley
The writer Isak Dinesen is quoted: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.” Narratives are one way to try to find the meaning of sorrow. So as we remember the sad events of Sept. 11, 2001, one of the things that we will do at Providence College is consider some stories.
We asked all of our incoming students to read the novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is the compassionate story of a 9-year-old-boy (the age of many of our students 10 years ago) in New York City, Oskar Schell, who strives to find some healing from the heartbreak of losing his beloved father in 9/11. Oskar undertakes a city-wide quest to find the lock that corresponds to a mysterious key left by his father.
His task puts him into contact with all sorts of other survivors of different sorrows. Without spoiling the story (soon to come out as a movie), what Oskar discovers along the journey turns out to be more important for his healing than what he thought he was seeking.
After participating in a discussion of the book with our students, I know it helped them to make some sense of their own experience and, I hope, their own healing.
We are screening the movie “Of Gods and Men.” It tells the true story of a monastery of Cistercian monks in Algeria who struggle with the question of whether to remain in their monastery or return to France in the face of an increasing likelihood of an attack by Islamic extremists. Amid their fear, they find the grace as a community to stay faithful to their Benedictine vocation. What is most remarkable is how they come to understand the meaning of their vow of stability. They discern that stability is not merely a commitment to remain in a particular place, but it is also a commitment to remain in vulnerable solidarity with the local Muslim community that has become their extended family.
Their ultimate martyrdom proclaims not only their fidelity to Christ, but also their commitment to a world in which all the children of Abraham live in peace. In the abbot’s final testimony, he asks his friends and family to believe that “the one Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure.” He concludes: “Amen! Inchallah!”
Tomorrow, I will give a talk provocatively (and presumptuously) entitled: “Where was God?” I will not propose a dogmatic answer to the perennial question that vexes religious believers in the face of events like 9/11: Why does a good, loving and omnipotent God let horrendous evils occur? In the face of such evils, a non-believer finds evidence that such a God cannot exist. A believer struggles to reconcile the existence of a benevolent and provident God with the evils that befall good and innocent people.
One obvious answer to the question of “Where was God?” is in the heroism of the responders who sacrificed even their own lives to relieve the suffering of others. That remarkable goodness and generosity in the face of horrible evil testifies that there is something more at work in this world than darkness and evil. But while it may benefit us to contemplate the heroic goodness of others, what we really want to understand is what possible benefit could suffering be to those who must endure it. Where could God possibly be in the experience of those who are victims of evil?
One way to answer this tougher question is to examine the biblical stories of those who endure intense suffering. This is the strategy employed by the Catholic philosopher Eleonore Stump in her remarkable book, “Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering.” She argues that traditional theological or philosophical attempts to reconcile God’s justice with human suffering are incomplete unless they can show concretely, through stories, how God’s love could be compatible with the allowance of suffering.
She limns four famous biblical stories to flesh out her case. The Book of Job tells the story of an innocent and righteous man afflicted in every conceivable way. His “friends” try to convince him that God must be punishing him for his sins, while Job maintains his innocence and demands an explanation from God. When God finally answers Job, in the most beautiful poetry in the Bible, he vindicates Job’s position that suffering is not punishment for personal sin. But he never explains why Job suffered. What he does give to Job is a powerful experience of deeper intimacy with the Creator of the cosmos that heals Job’s deepest hurt: the feeling of having been abandoned by God. Job comes to a deeper faith and intimacy without answers.
The story of Samson explores a different kind of suffering: that which is brought on by someone whose own choices conspire to afflict him. Samson’s original fidelity to his divine vocation withers as his story unfolds, until his own foolish words leave him blind, captive and apparently abandoned by God. In the end, Samson’s humble prayer to God, more than his growing hair, lets him fulfill his vocation in a way he never expected and be more deeply united to God.
Abraham is put to the test when God asks him to sacrifice the child of the promise: Isaac, his only son by Sarah. In the face of a demand to sacrifice the deepest desire of his heart and his future, Abraham trusts that somehow the God who promised him would provide. That trust and obedience made Abraham the father of all in faith. God did provide, in a situation where Abraham could see only darkness.
Mary of Bethany endures the loss of her beloved brother Lazarus to illness in the face of the apparent indifference of Jesus, who does not come to prevent Lazarus from dying. Heartbroken and hurt, Mary moves Jesus to tears. When Jesus then raises Lazarus from the dead, Mary not only receives back her brother, she also comes to understand more deeply the power of Jesus’s love for both her and Lazarus.
These stories suggest the possibility that God can work in the midst of suffering to bring some good to the sufferer. This is not to say that God causes suffering to bring about good, but rather that God can redeem the suffering caused by other agents to bring about good for the sufferer. This does not mean that we will ever understand how that works in any particular life, especially our own, until perhaps one day we see it all as God does. For in this life, as the inscription by an anonymous inmate at Auschwitz reads: “There is grace, though, and wonder on the way. Only they are hard to see, hard to embrace, for those compelled to wander in darkness.”
Finally, there is one last story of sorrow for those who are Christian: Jesus’s own journey through the darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Jesus’s passion reveals that even for the Son of God, grace is hard to see and embrace in the midst of intense suffering. Yet the final act of that story teaches us that God is more powerful than any evil, even death itself. So God can say to the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich: “The worst has already happened and been redeemed.”
The Rev. Brian J. Shanley is president of Providence College.