Matthew Lickona, the 30-something Catholic traditionalist and author, wrote in his 2006 book, Swimming with Scapulars, that looking at the stars and imagining the vast sweep of dark universe beyond sometimes depressed him. Did God’s law, so tailored for human existence, really apply out there?

Reading Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel, The Road, gives the believing reader a similar chill. The main characters, a man and his young son, exist in a terrifying world: Some sort of catastrophe (nuclear? worse than nuclear?) has befallen the world, leaving a barren, burned landscape where the few humans remaining live by scavenging and even eating one another. McCarthy conjures up a world so thoroughly dead and evil that the reader must ask: Does God still exist here?

This theological question is at the heart of the novel. The man, unnamed throughout, remembers the choice his wife made: to kill herself rather than face yet more years of horror, eating from trash and hiding from marauding bands of cannibals. “We’re not survivors. We are the walking dead in a horror film,” she tells him.  “My only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.” [McCarthy writes with no apostrophes or commas.]

Yet even as she makes her final choice, the wife and mother sees that her husband may yet soldier on with her son. “The one thing I can tell you is that you wont survive for yourself. … A person who has no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost.” The man does live for his son, watching over him as he sleeps, wresting nourishment from a famished landscape, and even killing another man to save them both. But the man does more than sustain physical life: he  manages to instill a sense of hope, morality and faith in his son, who has known only a world where parents can eat their own children.

The novel demands this question of the reader: What would you do? Is your faith in God, your love for those closest to you, strong enough to survive an endless night? The question echoes those found in the Holocaust writings of Elie Weisel and others. Does God even exist if the world as we know it has ended?

The bright light of hope that shines at the end of the novel comes as a profound relief to the reader, but the disquieting questions of faith reverberate long after the book has been passed along to a friend.

A special thanks to Kristi Bachir for passing this title along to ReligionWriter.

» » » » » »

Jennifer Geddes, associate professor of religious studies and director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, has written extensively on the subject of evil. ReligionWriter spoke with her this morning about using the term “evil” to describe the Virginia Tech shooter.

ReligionWriter: What does the word “evil” mean?

Jennifer Geddes: I use it to describe the worst sorts of things people do to one another. There’s a reason why I define it that way. The word has often been used to justify or legitimate some of the most horrendous events in our human history. If you can call someone evil, then you feel justified in torturing or murdering them. There’s a real danger in using it to definitively define a person or a group. But if you don’t have the word at all, then you don’t have a way to describe the full spectrum of human behavior.

RW: If you hear the Virginia Tech shooter described today as an “evil” person, how would that use of the word strike you?

Geddes: He certainly committed horrendous evil. But to my mind, to call a person “evil” almost seems to take away their moral responsibility. It’s as if you’ve put them outside the human community, and then it’s harder to judge them or even put them on trial. It’s a distancing move. We want to be able to judge and convict people legally, but also morally, who do these sorts of things.

RW: This morning articles in The Washington Post — and probably every other paper — paint a portrait of the shooter as someone who seems to have had severe mental illness. Can we still talk about evil if we see him in that light? Does mental illness muddy the waters?

Geddes: That’s why we can talk about behavior as evil. That doesn’t muddy the water at all. To murder people is an evil thing to do. Now, what brings someone to do evil can be a whole range of factors: psychological problems, biochemical problems, past abuse that that person has suffered. When something this tragic and horrifying happens, we need that word to name it. So many people, when they are interviewed about this event or other events we could compare it to, there’s this sense, “We just don’t understand how this could happen.” There’s a real desire to make sense of it. The word gives us at least a way to name what happened. But if we stop there, we’re not doing the thinking this event calls for us to do.

RW: You’ve spoken before about how the word “evil” has made a come-back since Sept. 11. Could you explain?

Geddes: In our culture now, and in the media, we are thinking about ideas connected with evil. The word is being used more in public discourse and by politicians. A while ago, it was almost a passé word; it sounded a little old fashioned, or, some people would say, too theologically weighted for us to talk about in modern times, even though the 20th century had so many events that were evil. In the 1990s, you just didn’t hear it as much. The events of 9/11 pushed people to grapple more with the worst things humans can do.

RW: A last, theological question: Is evil a power, or is it just nothingness?

Geddes: Some people do see it as a force. Some people see evil as the absence of good, or the perversion of good. Some people see it as a descriptive of what humans can choose to do. I tend to see it more along that last line. One of the key things I’ve been thinking about recently is how important it is for any discussion of evil to include the suffering that is caused by it. If you just talk about evil without listening to the testimony of those who have suffered it or survived it or are close to it, then you have a skewed picture of it.

RELATED CONTENT: For other discussions of evil in the Virginia Tech tragedy, see:

“A Glimpse of Evil,” New York Sun editorial from April 17, 2007

“Comprehending the Incomprehensible,” a virtual symposium of writers and scholars at National Review Online, posted April 17, 2007

“Facing the Reality of Evil,” blog entry by R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the South Baptist Theological Seminary, at the Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive blog “On Faith,” posted April 18, 2007

» » » »

Reporting on a tragedy follows a set trajectory, and many reporters today are writing “what sense can we make of it?” stories, often using faith leaders as sources. Over the coming week, the otherwise arcane theological term “theodicy” will crop up in news stories across the country.

To take a deeper look at theodicy, ReligionWriter spoke with Wendy Farley, a professor of religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who has written on theodicy, suffering and religious ethics.

Below is an edited Q+A with her. (WARNING: Some Biblical literacy required.)

ReligionWriter: First of all, what is theodicy?

Wendy Farley: It’s a religious attempt to think about the idea that if God is all-powerful and all-good, then how can there be suffering and evil in the world?

RW: Is our modern American understanding of evil and suffering different from that found among people in the Bible?

Farley: There is a range of possible interpretations of theodicy, and almost all of these are found in the Bible. People continue to struggle within that range of possibility.

RW: What is that range?

Farley: The “Zeus” model is God is mad and punishing us, and that’s why we suffer — you can find that idea in the Bible. Then there’s Job, who is an example of innocent suffering. He testifies to God: “Why am I suffering when I am a good man?” God responds by being present to Job, not giving an explanation except the compassionate power of that presence itself.

RW: But God appears in a whirlwind and says, “Job, you weren’t there when I created the earth.” That doesn’t sound very comforting.

Farley: God lays out for Job the incredible beauty and complexity of creation and basically says, “This doesn’t work by small legal views of justice. But I love it all, and I love you.” God gets very angry at Job’s three comforters, who were saying to him, “Just admit that you were bad, and God will forgive you.” God says about them, “That’s not right.” God displays his care for Job in the midst of inevitable suffering.

RW: If you imagine yourself in Job’s situation, sitting on an ash-heap, scraping your sores with a pot shard — just like the Virginia Tech students today, looking around at this tragedy — how can you be a position to feel that loving presence?

Farley: It’s an existentially hard place to be in. It’s a place of terrible suffering. We want answers, that’s the way we’re made. The answer that, “God is in charge, bad things happen but still the world makes sense,” is an existentially powerful answer, and people find that comforting. That’s one of the options of the Bible, it’s one people have kept around for thousands of years, and you find versions of it in most of the religious traditions. It’s just not the only option.

RW: What are the other ways the Bible explain suffering?

Farley: From a Christian point of view, one way is to understand the coming of the Messiah as a continuation of the view of the Book of Job, namely, that God simply comes to us and is present to us. We have in the Passion the deepest possible intimacy of God with unjust suffering. There’s no suffering that we human being experience where God is not present to us. There is nothing, as Paul says, that can separate us from the love of God.

RW: God appeared to Job, but how do you feel the love of God if He doesn’t come to you in the whirlwind?

Farley: We feel it in prayer, we feel it in the care we give one another. Part of the Incarnation is God’s presence to us through each other, as Christ said, “When I was naked, you fed me.” There’s no theodicy that’s going to make it okay for people to suffer. But like most human beings, who have suffered very severely, I can say the presence of God isn’t taken away in suffering. It’s very empowering. Not that it makes you not suffer, but it makes you get through it with a grace and courage and beauty and dignity. We see people going through horrific things and responding with real moral beauty.

RW: Are you happy with the coverage theodicy gets in the press after disasters and tragedies?

Farley: The press doesn’t mediate a deep understanding of these issues. The press does what it’s supposed to do, which is not to be pastoral. I wouldn’t look to the press for a way to navigate tragedy. I do find the press tends to go to conservative ministers [as sources], which is not where I would go for comfort.

RW: You think the press tends to go to conservative sources in order to get a firm answer?

Farley: Probably. You are more likely to get a sound bite.

RW: Here we are on Tuesday, ages away from Sunday morning, and I wonder if people do look for spiritual answers in press reports.

Farley: I’m sure that’s true. That is a little frightening (laughs.) Reporters should be aware there are a variety of faithful ways of responding to suffering and catastrophe.

» » » »


FireStats icon Powered by FireStats
E-mail It