I was talking with my niece about her mother’s death, and the profound spiritual and even metaphysical questions about suffering and ultimate meaning it raises. I remembered being moved by a short WSJ column the theologian David Bentley Hart wrote after the mass deaths from the 2004 tsunami, so I picked up a copy of the book he wrote expanding on that thesis: “The Doors of the Sea.” Finished it last night. It’s a thin book, but a deep one. I’m going to have to read it a second time to make sure I understand the fullness of Hart’s argument.
Two things from the book resonate in my heart this morning. The first is Hart’s contention that Christians have to see the world with double vision:
Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all tis beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as in the beginning of days.
This is a very deep mystery, and because a mystery, it defies logical explanation. We can “know” the mystery, though, by embracing it with faith — but this requires that we free ourselves from “the burden of the desire for total explanation.”
The prejudice we live with today is that everything can, in theory, be explained — that is to say, known intellectually. This is why some believe that anything that cannot be explained empirically and logically cannot be said to be true. That is a way of sorrow and self-deception. Hart does not minimize the objections to the idea that a God who would allow innocents to suffer is either not all good, or not all powerful — well, he does minimize some of them — nor does he go easy on Christians who offer glib rationalizations when faced with moral monstrosity. This passage from Hart’s 2005 First Things essay turns up in the book:
I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.
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. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can 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.”
The reason I post this here today is that it’s helpful to me to be reminded that “the desire for total explanation” is one that cannot be fulfilled. I can grasp this from a theological perspective. Let me ask you of a more mathematical and philosophical bent: Is this statement of Hart’s (which is entirely consistent with Eastern Orthodox theology) also consistent with Godel’s incompleteness theorems?
UPDATE: There’s more I want to say here. One thing I’m struggling to understand now, and that Hart’s book is helping me with, is the nature of the relationship I had with my sister. I keep going back on this blog to talking about how you will be doomed to frustration if you expect the South to make logical sense — but you will also miss some deep truths about human nature if you insist that the South can be dismissed as merely foolish, hypocritical, and so forth, because it doesn’t make sense. My sister and I loved each other, but we had a relationship that was at times difficult. I’m not going to say much about it here — hey, something’s got to be in the book! — but it would not be truthful to act as if all was always well between us. Nor, I must say, would it be truthful to write as if I were the only one with fault in this regard. Even though ours was, and is, a happy family, that doesn’t mean there weren’t complications.
For years I have puzzled over why I was, as far as I know, the only person on this earth to whom Ruthie didn’t extend boundless patience and understanding. I think I know why, and some things I’ve learned since she died have helped me to understand this better. Ultimately, though, this is a secret she took to her grave. She may not have known herself. The point is, I’ll never know. And yet, my parents yesterday, in conversation, casually made a revelation that hit me with a slow, gathering force, the fullness of which didn’t reach my shore, so to speak, until bedtime last night. It was not an explanation, strictly speaking, but it was a revelation that both startled me and resolved so much painful mystery about the way Ruthie and I were with each other. I’m not going to say what it was here, in part because this needs to be in the book, and in part because it needs to be in the book because it’s going to take me a while to work through the meaning of this. I can say, though, that it has a lot to do with love, loyalty, and the double vision that Hart writes of, one that is necessary if one is going to affirm life as it is, not as our rationalizations would have it be.
When I told Julie what my parents had told me about Ruthie, she said, “God, that is a benediction from beyond the grave.” Indeed it is. It’s hard for me to think about it without tears welling up. How awesomely strange is it that such beauty shines through such brokenness.