Monday, January 11, 2010

It's Not About Explanations

For the portion of my career when I was a graduate student, I spent a lot of time writing about what other people thought. I guess that's to be expected, since graduate school is supposed to develop expertise in a particular subject and what better way to do that than become familiar with what other experts have said. In what often seemed like an ocean of term papers, I learned to amass references and synthesize arguments.
In retrospect, it was like being a minor character in Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead. Without going into detail, Rand's hero, Howard Roark, is an architect who wished to design and build following his own ideas. The prevailing opinion, however, insists Greek and Roman architecture represents the pinnacle of architectural achievement and the best we can do is learn and imitate their principles.

My Howard Roark was a professor I met at Southern Methodist University
who said of my first seminar paper, "This is fine, now what's your argument?" I was at a loss because, frankly, not only did I not have one, I had no idea how to begin making one. I was good at cataloging but as far as having an original idea and using the reading material to support it, in the immortal words of my father, I was up the creek without a paddle.

It took several years, in fact, for Dr. Roark's wisdom to sink in. It's very easy to feel inadequate and fall back to the safe position of being "just a student." But throwing ideas onto the table is how we transition from being a gatherer of information to a participant in the argumentative process.

And that brings us back to my topic of the past two days. When it comes to explaining and resolving the presence of evil in the world, I don't have a definitive solution. Or let's put it this way, I don't have one that covers every point in a logically consistent manner. But neither does anyone else, as far as I can see, so I'm in good company.

What I've learned in some thirty years of pastoral ministry, psychotherapy, and dealing with people in daily life is, most of the time such solutions don't really matter. When an avalanche sweeps a husband against the side of a mountain, burying him in literally tons of snow and ice (see post of 11/12/09), no one cares how you solve the problem of evil. They ask why does this happen, how could God let it happen, what have we done to deserve this. Even if you or I were God-like enough to know, that's not what they want to hear.

What they want -- what we all want -- is for suffering to be meaningful. Where meaning is not readily apparent, we have to find it for ourselves by wrestling with suffering and draining every ounce of significance from the experience. Whether individually or collectively, it's really not about explanations, especially in those situations where there are none to be found. Instead, we want to feel our suffering is worthwhile and something good will come of it. There's nothing theoretical about that.

Rodrigo Paoletti via Flickr)
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