Excursus: The senseless slaying of innocent children and faculty at a Connecticut elementary school challenges our faith in a god who cares for us.
Over the course of my conversations with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard and Tillich, our working definition of faith has shifted away from nouns and deeper into verbs. Faith is something much more fundamental to life than the orthodox doctrines we may subscribe to, or our willingness to suspend critical judgment and honest skepticism in their defense. Faith is about letting go – but not letting go of intuition, common sense, and reason for the sake of believing something passed down by religious tradition.
Instead, we release ourselves to the real presence of mystery.
But how does this translate into life – especially when a tragedy like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting upsets our confidence in the security and order of things? In such times, religious people struggle to connect the horror and loss somehow to god. God is (supposed to be) in control, everything (presumably) happens for a reason, and in a moral universe (like ours) people get what they deserve. If these things are true, how can we find our way through this calamity?
Here’s how it typically spins out. Those innocent children and school faculty are now with god in heaven, and Adam Lanza is in hell where he belongs. This doesn’t answer why the innocent had to suffer and be taken prematurely from life here, but at least it restores the moral balance – or better, our need for moral balance.
The explanation continues. This senseless tragedy lacks any meaning and purpose only because we have a very limited perspective on life events. In reality, everything happens for a reason. Religious people don’t take the same angle on the puzzle as science, however. Empirical science is based on the assumption that every event has a cause, or rather many lines of causality behind it. But theological orthodoxy looks ahead rather than behind, searching for a greater purpose working itself out through the (only) apparently random events of life. Just because you can’t discern the purpose from where you stand doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
One more step. This reason or purpose moving everything along is not mere fate, but the intelligent will of a personal god. Thankfully nothing happens outside of god’s control, and the reasons behind everything that happens to us are god’s reasons, god’s purpose. God wanted those first-graders with him in heaven and not with their families on earth – so that’s why it happened.
Appalling? Yes. But again, it’s only because you can’t fully know the mind of god. All of us want to hang on to this life, to keep what is ours. On this side of things loss can be insufferable. But just think what glory awaits the faithful. Just believe, and stop asking questions.
Let’s try a different approach.
People don’t get what they deserve – either in this life or in the next. The universe isn’t moral. Bad things happen to good people, and bad people get away with doing terrible things. What happened in Newtown was horrible, an unfathomable evil.
The mass murder of innocent children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School didn’t happen for a reason. While the various lines of causality leading up to it will be investigated and some of them made clear, there is no higher purpose that can justify the violence and blood-shed. Not everything that happens happens for a reason. Some events are simply absurd, without inherent meaning or greater purpose. A person of faith can believe this.
And what about that god who’s in control of everything – who either caused the events to unfold as they did (the hardline stance) or allowed them to happen (the softer version)? We must remember that this god is the invention of our mythological imagination. No matter how passionate and persuasive true believers may be, no one has ever encountered or been in communication with the mythological god – ever. He lives only in our myths. He didn’t cause or allow the school shooting. He doesn’t have a greater purpose that made it necessary to end the earthly lives of eighteen first-graders. He didn’t, and doesn’t, because he isn’t.
With all of that said, and after every theological explanation has been exhausted and thrown aside, there is a real presence that awaits to be found in the midst of all the grief and anguish. The comfort will not come when the question of why god caused/allowed this to happen has been answered, but when we start asking a far better and more relevant question: Where is God in all of this? (I’ve capitalized the word to signal my use of it as a reference to the real presence of mystery at the heart of our human experience.)
God is in the pain. God is in the absence. God is in the doubts. God is broken and given to the bereaved families as consolation, solidarity, compassion and support. God is in the community that gathers around the loss, remembers the victims, and renews its faith – one day at a time.