Pippin glanced in some wonder at the face now close beside his own, for the sound of that laugh had been gay and merry. Yet in the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth. (The Return of the King)
Category: Qohelet’s Musings
If, indeed, we all have a kind of appetite for eternity, we have allowed ourselves to be caught up in a society that frustrates our longing at every turn. Half our inventions are advertised to save time – the washing machine, the fast car, the jet flight – but for what? Never were people more harried by time: by watches, by buzzers, by time clocks, by precise schedules, by the beginning of the programme. There is, in fact, some truth in ‘the good old days': no other civilisation of the past was ever so harried by time.
And yet, why not? Time is our natural environment. We live in time as we live in the air we breathe. And we love the air – who has not taken deep breaths of pure, fresh country air, just for the pleasure of it? How strange that we cannot love time. It spoils our loveliest moments. Nothing quite comes up to expectations because of it. We alone: animals, so far as we can see, are unaware of time, untroubled. Time is their natural environment. Why do we sense that it is not ours? . . . If we complain of time and take such joy in the seemingly timeless moment, what does that suggest?
It suggests that we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures. It suggests that we were created for eternity. Not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, even to get used to it. We are always amazed at it – how fast it goes, how slowly it goes, how much of it is gone. Where, we cry, has the time gone? We aren’t adapted to it, not at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as a proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.
(Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy, pp. 202–203)
I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days – quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice. If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapour, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! And the products of it all will be mainly evil – historically considered. But the historical version is, of course, not the only one. All things and deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their ’causes’ and ‘effects’. No man can estimate what is really happening at the present sub specie aeternitatis. All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labours with vast power and perpetual success – in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in. So it is in general, and so it is in our own lives. (J. R. R. Tolkien, letter to Christopher Tolkien, 30 April 1944)
Great leaders carry great pain silently with them to the grave.
The line that divides humankind is not between those who are happy and those who are not. That’s the lie beneath all forms of discontent. Nor is it between those who have enough to be happy and those who don’t. That’s the great lie beneath the particular brand of discontent known as consumerism. The line dividing humankind is between those who have learned to be content and grateful amid the brokenness of the world, and those addicted to delusions and painkillers.
“How good You are. You might have killed us with happiness, but You let us be with You in pain.” (Graham Greene, The End of the Affair, diary of Sarah Miles, 6 February 1946)
The stuff that we throw over on our way to save the world is often the stuff that makes the world worth living in.
“The longer someone is a Christian, the greater their propensity to diminish the Jesus of the Bible until he becomes a predictable little God who ceases to surprise them.” (Mark Driscoll, Radical Reformission)
I wish to say from the start, I feel a sense of revulsion at what I’m doing. Human lives are being shattered in Japan in ways unimaginable to me in the comforts of my situation, and I’m about to take their anguish as an occasion for a blog post. Kyrie eleison.
That said, and at the risk of sounding petulant, I wouldn’t be doing this were it not that it never fails, when such tragedies score the earth, but someone points an accusing finger at the Christian church and thunders imperiously: “Which of these is true: either God is all-powerful but He doesn’t care about the people of Japan and therefore their suffering, or He does care about the people of Japan but He’s not all-powerful?” (We heard exactly this question when Martin Bashir channeled David Hume in a recent interview with Rob Bell – I should note that Bell’s “answer” was as fatuitous as anything I’ve ever heard.)
There’s no point in trying to answer such a question, because it’s knocking at the wrong door. Hard as it may be for an unbeliever to understand, we Christians aren’t sitting around trying to dream up a God who fits the clothes we make for Him, whose ways are readily found out, and who gives polite and tidy answers whenever we demand. We worship a God who has revealed Himself to us (His self-revelation is rather basic, actually, to our religion); we have no say in who or how He is. And He has told us unequivocally that He is absolutely sovereign (inclusive of omnipotence) and perfectly good. If Hume’s disciples wish to pound at the door of the Christian church, they need to revise their question: “Given your God is both sovereign and good, how do you respond to tragedies such as this one in Japan?” Now that’s a fair question.
It’s not a question, moreover, that the unbeliever has any business raising. If, as the atheist wants to believe, God doesn’t exist at all, then a powerful force in Japan (the tsunami) has encountered some weaker forces in the cosmos (human strength and ingenuity), and swept all before it. This stuff happens. It’s a harsh reality in the evolution of the cosmos, perhaps; it’s certainly not one to which any moral value can be assigned. So everyone needs to stop complaining and clean up. If, on the other hand, one wants to talk about some god other than the Christian God who is crying himself to sleep every night because of things that happen in his cosmos, well, too bad for him. We can hate him as we hate ourselves for our inability to stop tsunamis. Or we might think of a god who is strong enough to stop tsunamis but doesn’t want to: well, if this is “his” universe in any meaningful sense, then it’s not a good universe, and who are we to complain? On what basis are we going to make a case for “goodness” in what is most basically an “evil” universe? We need to catch up on our cosmology and get with the program. After all, do you really want to contend with a god who takes pleasure in tsunamis?
But these are childish questions, representing childish ideas. They have nothing whatever to do with the Christian religion. We Christians take our stand squarely within the bounds of our God’s revelation, and here two things comfort us. First, our God is sovereign. This means that tsunamis do not stalk the earth out of control (neither, thankfully, do rapists and thugs). We sleep at night knowing that nothing can happen that is not in the hands of our God; to live in any other cosmos would be a mind-warpingly terrifying experience. Evil, we know, is not simply “there” in some kind of dualistic competition with our God; He reigns over it, and will in time destroy it. Which brings us to the second thing: our God is good. He has told us what goodness and righteousness mean, and so we can look at the evils of the world and call them exactly that – evils. We can hate them because He does. How can it be that God sovereignly permits and ordains in His universe things that He declares He hates? That is a mystery of the Christian faith (it is not a mystery to which an atheist or deist has any access), but it is not an open-ended mystery. Our God has told us that one day He will judge the living and the dead. This hope of the final judgment assures us that evil will one day be vanquished, condemned, and eradicated from the earth. We do not know why God allows and ordains certain things, but we know He will judge them all in righteousness – and “shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just” (Gen 18:25)?
Put another way, the question of the “problem of evil” can be asked within the boundaries of the Christian faith, and we can give an answer of faith within those boundaries. The question really cannot be made intelligible outside the Christian faith in the gloomy marshes of atheism or deism. In these marshes there are only the imaginations of men; there is no one to whom such a question may be reverently addressed, nor anyone from whom an answer may be trustingly heard.
I say it again, Kyrie eleison.
“But do you know that the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things?” (Tolkien, “The Debate of Finrod and Andreth”)