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Another season of struggling to explain evil, suffering

The world is in the middle of what Christians call Holy Week as it's also moving toward the end of the Muslim calendar's month of Ramadan and approaching (sundown, April 22) Passover for Judaism.

Abrahamic-religionsBecause all three Abrahamic faith traditions have a connection to the Hebrew Bible, today I want to point you to Marilynne Robinson's latest book, Reading Genesis, and -- to me -- the surprising way she begins it.

The first sentence in her book says this: "The Bible is a theodicy, a meditation on the problem of evil."

Let me first state the obvious: Robinson is a Christian (influenced considerably by John Calvin), so her long-range perspective inevitably includes some Calvinist thinking. That said, I suspect many Jewish scholars would at the very least think her notion that the Bible is a theodicy holds enough substance to be worth exploring.

As for Muslims, they are obligated to read and understand what they can about the Bible (both Jewish and Christian versions) because so much of what is found in the Qur'an is rooted in what is found in the Bible. So reading Robinson might be a good idea for them, too.

A primary concern of any theology must have to do with how to explain suffering and evil in the world if God is both good and powerful. The reality is that there simply is no exhaustive answer to that, at least not one that satisfies everyone. It's common for people of the three Abrahamic faiths today simply to say that most of the evil in the world is a result of the reality that human beings have free will and often make choices that produce terrible results -- suffering, slavery, poverty, ignorance, war, crime and on and on.

But many theologians say that that answer doesn't let God off the hook. They still want to know why God permits it. (And the joke answer doesn't tell us much: The world was God's science fair project -- on which he got a D.)

For Christians, Holy Week always raises the complex question of why Jesus lived. Was it simply to die for sinful humanity? I recently reviewed a new book here that doesn't buy that idea.

For Muslims, Ramadan includes prayers that acknowledge the evil in the world and that ask Allah's help in reducing it.

For Jews, Passover includes remembering the brutal story of a ruler who murdered small children.

Reading-genesisIn each case, then, the central question has to do with suffering and evil in the very world that, at the creation, according to Genesis, God declared to be "good" and "very good."

So, as I indicated earlier, I think Robinson is on to something. The question is how we are to respond to the reality that this good world is full of broken people struggling (ideally) to live in harmony with other broken people. Soon after Hamas attacked Israel last Oct. 7, my friend Rabbi Mark Levin spoke briefly at a prayer vigil in Johnson County, and his suggestion for how to respond to that evil is cogent and applicable in this case: Look for the peacemakers. And support them.

If you have a better answer, I'd love to hear it.

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This Easter/Ramadan/just-past-Purim weekend will find Americans acting in a way that a new Gallup poll suggests is unusual for them -- large numbers of them will attend a worship service. The percentage of Americans who regularly attend worship, the poll indicates, has slipped below half. As the story to which I've linked you says, "Gallup Senior Editor Jeffrey Jones said the decline in attendance is driven mostly by generational shifts. Not only are younger Americans less likely to identify with any religion, they are also less likely to have been raised with a religion." What we don't yet know: What changes this might lead to in the way Americans act (charity, voting, interpersonal relationships) and what changes this might bring about in what Americans value.

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A Faith of Many Rooms: Inhabiting a More Spacious Christianity, by Debie Thomas. The author of this helpful new book is an Episcopal priest who grew up in Boston, but her family's roots are in Kerala in southern India, and she spent a fair amount of time there as a child.

She was introduced there and in the U.S. to what she came to think of as a narrow version of Christianity -- a version she eventually rejected: ". . .I couldn't fit myself inside the house of evangelical Christian faith at all. The walls crumbled, and all I could see around me were its ruins." But with what could she replace it?

First, she had to discover that, as she writes, "the realm of God is by nature wide, abundant and capacious." But that didn't mean an immediate new faith home for her: "It's okay to take our time. It's okay to probe, prod and insist on more." But, of course, the whole process caused sadness: "My grief sits right alongside the fear that I'm a traitor. . ."

So this was no easy journey, perhaps partly because the Christianity she was leaving is known for producing intense feelings of guilt. But, she writes, "When I left evangelicalism, I felt like I was entering a wilderness in the darkest hours of the night. The right way had disappeared, and I'd stumbled into a dense forest, full of unknown dangers. The terror was ominous and total; all I felt was dread. . .If we dare to leave home and stick it out on the journey of faith, we must lean into the possibility of lostness, and trust the God of lost things to find us. We have to slow down long enough to take in the austere beauty of the dark road in the woods."

In some ways, her path toward a wider, more inclusive, more encouraging faith may help point the way for others. Including you?


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