ON NORMAN RUSH’S “MORTALS”
See the full New Yorker article at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/06/09/holiday-in-hellmouth
“Nietzsche said that if a human being put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the roar of existence, the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” he would surely break into pieces. But a newspaper, pumping its inky current of despair, might serve as well. On a single day, Thursday, May 15th, the Times contained the following. The lead article was about the earthquake in China, now estimated to have killed more than fifty thousand people. It was titled “Tiny Bodies in a Morgue, and Unspeakable Grief in China,” and was accompanied by a photograph of two parents sitting next to their dead child. A story about the recent cyclone in Myanmar estimated the number of deaths at anywhere between 68,833 and 127,990. The journalist mentioned a man named Zaw Ayea, twenty-seven, who found his sister’s body; his mother and two younger brothers are missing. He cannot speak: “He stares straight ahead with a strangely placid expression on his face. His friends say he has been in shock since the cyclone.”
And the minor stories, on this day? At least ten people killed in a bomb attack west of Baghdad, in Abu Ghraib; a policeman killed in a bomb attack in northern Spain (probably etaterrorists); a possible missile strike on a Pakistani border village that killed about a dozen people (this may well have been the work of an American drone); and a piece about a radical Islamic cleric, resident in Italy but “transferred,” perhaps thanks to American help, by the process of “extraordinary rendition,” to a jail in Egypt, where he was allegedly tortured. His wife told an Italian court, “He was tied up like he was being crucified. He was beat up, especially around his ears. He was subjected to electroshocks to many body parts.” A large proportion of life involves our refusing to put our ear to the mundane heart chamber, lest we die from hearing “the roar which lies on the other side of silence.” It is considered almost gauche to wave the flag of general suffering in other people’s faces, as Dostoyevsky does repeatedly in his novels, most famously in “The Brothers Karamazov,” when the rebellious Ivan confronts his pious brother Alyosha with a list of degradations, some of which Dostoyevsky had got from real accounts—Turkish soldiers tossing babies on their bayonets in front of the mothers, parents punishing their five-year-old girl for wetting her bed by locking her all night in a freezing outhouse and smearing her face with excrement.
For the lucky few, there is reason to hope that life will be a business of evenly rationed suffering: stern parents perhaps, a few humiliations at school, then a love affair or two gone wrong, maybe a marriage broken. Our parents will die, and farther off, ideally deferred, will come our own steady demise. Plenty of suffering for a life, certainly, but most of us subsist on the plausible expectation that fortune will draw a circle around that personal portion, and that the truly unbearable—murder, rape, dead children, torture, war—will remain outside the cordon. Norman Rush, in his novel “Mortals,” calls this “hellmouth”: “the opening up of the mouth of hell right in front of you, without warning, through no fault of your own.” Without warning, and yet always feared. Job, whom God places into hellmouth to test him, knew that paradox: “For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me, and that which I was afraid of is come unto me.” Theologians and philosophers talk about “the problem of evil,” and the hygienic phrase itself bespeaks a certain distance from extreme suffering, the view from a life inside the charmed circle. They mean the classic difficulty of how we justify the existence of suffering and iniquity with belief in a God who created us, who loves us, and who providentially manages the world. The term for this justification is “theodicy,” which nowadays seems a very old-fashioned exercise in turning around and around the stripped screw of theological scholastics. Still, if polls are correct, about eighty per cent of Americans ought to be engaged in such antiquarianism. Union University, in Jackson, Tennessee, might profit from intense classes in theodicy. “God protected this campus,” one of the students there said, because no one was killed in the tornadoes that devastated parts of Tennessee on February 5th. Since ordinary Tennesseans were killed elsewhere that night, the logic of such shamanism is that God either did not or could not protect those unfortunates from something that the state’s governor once likened to “the wrath of God.”
Antique and abstract it may be, but thinking about theodicy still has the power to change lives. I know this, because it was how I began to separate myself from the somewhat austere Christian environment I grew up in. I remember the day, in my late teens, when I drew a line down the middle of a piece of paper, on one side of which I wrote my reasons for belief in God, on the other my reasons against. I can’t remember the order of my negatives now, but the inefficacy of prayer was likely at the top. Here was a demonstrable case of promises made (if you have faith, you can move a mountain) but not kept (the mountain not only stays put but suddenly erupts and consumes a few villages). During my teens, two members of my parents’ congregation died of cancer, despite all the prayers offered up on their behalf. When I looked at the congregants kneeling on cushions, their heads bent to touch the wooden pews, it seemed to me as if they were literally butting their heads against a palpable impossibility. And this was years before I discovered Samuel Butler’s image for the inutility of prayer in his novel “The Way of All Flesh”—the bee that has strayed into a drawing room and is buzzing against the wallpaper, trying to extract nectar from one of the painted roses.
Theodicy, or, rather, its failure, was the other major entry on my debit side. I was trapped within the age-old conundrum: the world is full of pain and wickedness; God may be jealous but is also merciful and all-loving (how much more so, if one believes that Christ incarnated him). If he has the power to alleviate this suffering but does not, he is cruel; if he cannot, he is weak. I wasn’t consoled by the standard responses. Suffering is a mystery, I was told, as is God’s absence in the face of suffering. But this was what I was also told when prayers failed to make their mark: the old “incomprehensibility” routine. It seemed to me that the Gospels, central to my family life, made some fairly specific promises and laid on us some fairly specific obligations; yet that specificity could simply go on holiday whenever God himself seemed to have gone on holiday. (“God moves in mysterious ways.”)
God “suffers with us,” I was told; he feels our pain. If Christ was God incarnate, then God suffered on the Cross. He walks with us in our suffering. This has been the great twentieth-century addition to the familiar arguments, which is perhaps unsurprising, amid so much carnage. The Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues, in his book “On Belief,” that when God abandoned Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane he abandoned himself. Christianity, he asserts, returns at this moment to the story of Job, the man abandoned by God: “It is Christ (God) himself who has to occupy the place of Job. . . . Man’s existence is living proof of God’s self-limitation.” A God whose power has been so drastically limited, and who sounds so like us in our abjection, might be loved, but why should he be worshipped? Twenty-five years ago, as I hunched over my piece of paper with its vertical line, I decided that if God existed, which I strongly doubted, then this entity was neither describable nor cherishable but was a vaporous, quite possibly malign force at the horizon of the sayable.
Another attempted consolation is that God intended us to have free will, and free will requires the liberty to do bad as well as good. If we were unable to err, our relation to God would be robotic, meaningless in its hapless obedience. It is regrettable that Hitlers are allowed to exist; but universal freedom is a higher good than the release from local pain. This is still the best available response to the theodicy problem. But even at sixteen I could see an enormous, iridescent flaw in this colorless argument: it is that the Bible is full of divine intervention, full of infringements of free will. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, and brings plagues, and spares the firstborn of the Israelites (while conveniently murdering the Egyptians’), and, if you accept the New Testament, anoints his son as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. We pray to him precisely because we believe in the power of such intervention. But when we actually need his intervention—say, to put a stop to a few concentration camps—he has . . . gone on holiday again, leaving people to drone on about the paramount importance of unmolested “free will.”
They were at it again when the tsunami killed hundreds of thousands in 2004. The Archbishop of Canterbury, a distinguished theologian, wrote an article at the time, reminding his Anglican communion that such tragedies challenge faith. But then he circled around a kind of physicist’s version of the free-will argument when he cautioned that “the world has to have a regular order and pattern of its own. . . . So there is something odd about expecting that God will constantly step in if things are getting dangerous.” Well, there would be something odd if you had never read the Bible. But one of the repeated indices of God’s power, as invoked in many of the Psalms, is his ability to control the waves—after all, the Psalmist knew that a great flood had consumed the world, at God’s command, and that the Red Sea had been divinely parted. How dangerous would things have to get before divine intervention was justified? To this, the Gospels can reply succinctly: not very. For when the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee, and things took a stormy turn, Jesus appeared, walked on water, and calmed the storm. Perhaps the disciples just meant more to Jesus than a few hundred thousand Asians.
There is something adolescent about such complaint; I can hear it like a boy’s breaking voice in my own prose. For anti-theodicy is permanent rebellion. It is not quite atheism but wounded theism, condemned to argue ceaselessly against a God it is supposed not to believe in. Bart D. Ehrman’s new book, “God’s Problem” (HarperOne; $25.95), is highly adolescent in tone. Its jabbing subtitle, “How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question—Why We Suffer,” sounds as if it should be furiously triple-underlined on the dust jacket. Ehrman has been the favorite academic of the new wave of atheism since his book “Misquoting Jesus” (2005) became an unlikely best-seller. He is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, and is obviously a fine teacher, because his books are naturally pedagogic. “Misquoting Jesus” is a lucid, painstaking introduction to the unreliability of the Bible as a text, especially the New Testament. It summarizes the scholarly consensus on passages like Jesus’ defense of the adulteress, when Christ asked those without sin to cast the first stone at her. Ehrman argues, along with most recent scholars, that this story is almost certainly not original to John’s Gospel but “probably a well-known story circulating in the oral tradition about Jesus, which at some point was added in the margin of a manuscript.” It is not found in the oldest manuscripts of John, and is written in a different style from the rest of the Gospel.
Awash in negative belief, Ehrman unabashedly fights his God, and wants to discover what the Bible has to say about suffering. He is a lucid expositor, the weaknesses of his book being the aural clatter of the lecture room (“Still, most Jews didn’t buy it, and this was a major source of pain to Paul”) and its limited perspective. He seldom connects Biblical passages with the larger philosophical or literary traditions. You will find no Pierre Bayle or Rousseau or Schopenhauer here, and no Milton, or Hardy, or Camus. The early Church Fathers are hardly mentioned. There is almost a sense that Ehrman, fearing scholasticism, does not want to get sucked into the philosophical history of theodicy. It is also true that, as Ehrman says, theodicy as such does not exist in the Bible. Nowadays, theodicy always has a wary eye on the theological exit: this makes no sense, therefore I will have to reject the idea of God. But there was no such exit before about 1700, at the very earliest. “Ancient Jews and Christians never questioned whether God existed,” Ehrman notes. “What they wanted to know was how to understand God and how to relate to him, given the state of the world.”
So Ehrman concentrates on what you could call the first responders to hellmouth—the Prophets, the Psalmists, the Apocalypticists—and he is often illuminating. He separates three large strands in the Biblical writings: the idea that suffering is a punishment for sinful behavior; the idea that suffering is either ultimately redemptive or some kind of test of virtue; and the idea that God will finally vanquish evil and establish his kingdom of peace and harmony. We are probably most familiar with suffering as punishment, since it runs throughout the Hebrew Bible. Creation almost begins with a curse, God’s determination that women will give birth in pain as a result of Eve’s disobedience. The earth is then quickly condemned to the Flood, because God is unhappy with his sinful creation, and wants to start over again—what the English comedian Eddie Izzard calls the Etch A Sketch approach. (Izzard, whose standup routines often circle around religion, is very funny, also, about the unjust deaths of all those animals. What would constitute, say, a wicked giraffe? “I will eat all the leaves on this tree. I will eat more leaves than I should and then other giraffes may die.”) The Israelites, of course, are alternately rescued and abandoned by their jealous God, depending on the quality of their disobedience. And the Prophets majestically harp on punishment as a consequence of sinfulness—the oppression of the poor, sexual deviance (Amos), worship of false gods and idols (Hosea). Military defeat, captivity, and exile are the retributions for this alleged errancy.
This strain may be the least fashionable of all Biblical responses to suffering, except among evangelicals like Pat Robertson, who seemed perfectly happy to ascribe Ariel Sharon’s stroke to his surrender of Gaza to the Palestinians. But it widely persists in a slightly transferred form, as Ehrman points out. Judaism was a religion of sacrifice, in which the proffered gifts were seen as an atonement for sin. Punishment is bought off, effectively, by the garnishing of one’s wages. “Because sin brings horrible judgment in the manifestation of God’s wrath, this wrath needs to be averted,” Ehrman writes. “It is averted by the proper sacrifice of an animal.” It is not entirely clear how this atonement worked. “Whatever the answer to the question of mechanics, the Israelite temple cult was focused on sacrifice as a way of restoring a lost relationship with God, broken by disobedience.” Eventually, this religion of atonement would offer the very largest sacrificial lamb, God’s own son, as a scapegoat for the sins of the world. As Ehrman puts it, “a relatively simple formula” undergirds Paul’s salvationism: “sin leads to punishment; Christ took the punishment upon himself; therefore, Christ’s death can atone for the sins of others.” Ehrman might have added that Kierkegaard has it right when, in “The Sickness Unto Death,” he gloomily writes that Christianity “begins with the doctrine of sin.”
The second major Biblical response is the notion of suffering as a test or something otherwise improving. Ehrman mentions that when Joseph, after his travails in Egypt, finally is confronted by his traitorous brothers he rather piously tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Abraham was tested by God when he was commanded to kill his son Isaac, and Job, after a period of affliction and loss, was restored to health and prosperity as a reward for his righteousness. Isaiah speaks of “the servant of the Lord,” whose suffering will heal the nation of Israel. Once again, it is Christianity that greedily fattens itself on the scattered suggestions of the Hebrew Bible, reading Isaiah’s suffering servant as nothing less than the suffering Messiah, and turning Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac into a harbinger of God’s completed sacrifice of Jesus. (The libretto for Handel’s Messiah may represent the purest form of this Christian overreading.) For Paul, in Romans 5:3-4, “Tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope.”
It is now widespread, this rather repellent idea that suffering is dimly watermarked by redemption; that behind our pain lies His plan. (Most monstrously, a televangelist named John C. Hagee has argued that the Holocaust was God’s way of achieving the greater good of allowing the Jews to reclaim Israel.) The believer talks about providence; the secularist about how clouds have silver linings. The dazed survivor of an accident tells the TV crews that he thinks God has something special in mind for him. Newspapers run pieces about how estranged relatives were at last brought together by tragedy. Simone Weil, in her essay on affliction, says that pain is like the moment when an apprentice hurts himself for the first time on the job; at such moments workers say, “It is the trade entering his body.” Affliction, she implies, similarly trains us. If so, it also kills us, as it killed her. And, theologically, one has to remember that all this apparently useful suffering is supposedly taking place under God’s watch. In the seventeenth century, Pierre Bayle likened this godlysurveillance to a father who lets his son break his leg just so that he can show off his skill by mending it. Ehrman is bluntly commonsensical: “The reality is that most suffering is not positive, does not have a silver lining, is not good for the body or soul, and leads to wretched and miserable, not positive, outcomes.”
In the Biblical world, God did not simply gaze—our modern diminishment of him—but also acted. Ehrman’s third category of response to suffering concerns the apocalyptic and messianic certainty that God was involved in an epic battle with evil which he would eventually win, allowing the final establishment of his Kingdom. Deftly summarizing the current scholarly conclusions, Ehrman sees the apocalyptic strain in Biblical Judaism (as in, say, the Book of Daniel) as a response to different foreign oppressions in the second century B.C.E., and again in the first century B.C.E. The greatest Jewish apocalyptic, Jesus, seems to have believed in the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom—not up in Heaven but here on earth. Ehrman remarks that the inversions of the beatitudes (the poor shall inherit the earth, and so on) make sense because it is the poor and the lowly who will be rewarded in this approaching utopia. Paul, too, believed in this fearful imminence, though one notes that already, less than a hundred years after Jesus’ death, this Kingdom is half-etherealized: for Paul, it is above, not here on earth. Eternal life is now in Heaven, secure for those who have faith in Christ.
Heaven, one of the tenderest verses in the Bible has it, is where God will wipe away all tears from our faces. In her novel “Gilead,” Marilynne Robinson adds, in a line just as tender, if a little sterner, “It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” Robinson, herself a devout Protestant, means that the immense surge of human suffering in the world will need, and deserves, a great deal of heavenly love and repair; it is as close as her novel comes to righteous complaint. But one could also say, more skeptically, that Christianity needs the concept of Heaven simply to make sense of all the world’s suffering—that, theologically speaking, Heaven is “exactly what will be required.” In the end, Heaven, it seems, is the only tenable response to the problem of evil. It is where God’s mysterious plan will be revealed; it is where the poor and the downtrodden, the sick and the tortured, will be healed; it is where everything that we went through on earth will suddenly seem “worth it.”
But Heaven is also a problem for theodicists who take the freedom to choose between good and evil as paramount. For Heaven must be a place where either our freedom to sin has been abolished or we have been so transfigured that we no longer want to sin: in Heaven, our will miraculously coincides with God’s will. And here the free-will defense unravels, and is unravelled by the very idea of Heaven. If Heaven obviates the great human freedom to sin, why was it ever such a momentous ideal on earth, “worth” all that pain and suffering?
The difficulty can be recast in terms of the continuity of the self. If we will be so differently constituted in Heaven as to be strangers to sin, then no meaningful connection will exist between the person who suffers here and the exalted soul who will enjoy the great system of rewards and promises and tears wiped from faces: our faces there will not be the faces we have here. And, if there were to be real continuity between our earthly selves and our heavenly ones, then Heaven might dangerously begin to resemble earth. This idea haunted Dostoyevsky, who wrote a chilling fable about it called “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” in which the protagonist, on the verge of suicide, has a dream in which he has died and ended up on a pristine Greek island, a heavenly utopia where there is no sin. Then this man tells his first lie, and eventually utopia is corrupted: Heaven is just Eden all over again, and man is busy wrecking it.
“Come quickly, Lord” is the great refrain of both the Old Testament and the New. But the problem for Jews is that the Messiah never came, and everything stayed the same (or got worse), while the problem for Christians is that the Messiah did come, and everything stayed the same (or got worse). Jews and Christians are dependent, in different ways, on an always deferred Second Coming. Heaven—because it comes next and is not now—is, as so often in religious thought, a solution that merely creates another problem. If God supposedly wipes away all tears from our faces in Heaven, why does he not do it now? Why does God not now establish paradise on earth, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses believe he will do? And what is the purpose of these eighty or so years we spend on earth not having the tears wiped from our faces? ♦