In the wake of the Gulf Coast devastation, the website Beliefnet.com asked its constituents this question: "Has Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath weakened or strengthened your faith in God?" The choices were: greatly strengthened, slightly strengthened, greatly weakened, slightly weakened and "it had no effect." How would you answer the question?
Whether natural or man-made, disasters that destroy innocent lives invariably raise questions about the kind of universe we live in. For religious people, the questioning often takes shape as, "Why did God do this?" or "How could God let this happen?" Sometimes, the question takes the form of a lament addressed directly to the source: "Why, God, why?" It's a cry that echoes through the canyons of time, from the ravaged villages of biblical days to the watery graves of New Orleans; from the organized violence of ancient battlefields to the random mayhem of modern streets.
Religious people often suppress that cry of the heart because they are afraid to be punished for their impertinence. Rational people shove it aside because it feels stupid: they either feel that there’s no entity out there listening to them or that the eternal mystery that some call God is so beyond human knowing that the question is a waste of time. Both attitudes miss the point. "Why, God why?" might not be a rational question. It might not be an appropriate question. But it is a real question, a necessary question, and when it rises in the throat at times of unbearable pain, adorned with wings of rage, it has to be unleashed. For one thing, venting the anger is good for your health. If you're holding it in because you're afraid of offending God, or you’re worried that God will punish you, it might be time to rethink your conception of God.
In fact, reframing what "God" means is one of the benefits of confronting the issue head-on. The Beliefnet survey assumes a definition of God as an all-powerful being who keeps an eye on earth and is able to intervene like a vigilant parent when his children get into trouble. Why he (for it’s almost always “he”) allows innocents to suffer is an age-old puzzle, one that makes some people atheists and others take refuge in the assurances of religious doctrine (which often come down to, "God has his reasons, just keep believing what we tell you.") Given that conception of God, here's the dilemma: either God can't stop bad things from happening, in which case he or she is not really all powerful, or God doesn't care about human misery, in which case he or she is not all good. Theologians and philosophers have pondered the conundrum for millennia, and their fancy reasoning has brought them no closer to a definitive answer than the shrieks of mothers who couldn’t find their children in the chaos of New Orleans.
As an intellectual exercise, therefore, it's a futile enterprise. But when the question rises up from the gut, attention must be paid. Not just because it's healthy to vent, but because it drags you naked before the great mysteries, and a lot of good can come from that—a new way of understanding "God," perhaps, or profound transformation. That's the deeper message in The Book of Job, the biblical story of a righteous man who plays by all the rules but is nevertheless ravaged by unbearable pain and loss. Job is often depicted as a pillar of faith. But he's more than that. He does not blindly acquiesce to dogma, and he does not suffer in silence. He rises up in righteous indignation. His pious friends stick to conventional wisdom: Job must have violated religious law, or else God wouldn't have punished him. Job refuses to settle for such platitudes; he’s been treated unfairly, and he demands an explanation.
Then God famously appears from out of a whirlwind. Job is not rebuked for daring to question the Almighty; in fact, it's his legal-minded buddies who are told, essentially, "You don't get it." In fact, Job is rewarded, not just with material abundance and a long life (which I take to be the storyteller's symbols of God’s favor), but with an intimate encounter with the Holy One and a magnificent, life-altering revelation. The response to "Why, God, why?" is not an answer as such but a direct vision of the majestic splendor of Creation, in all its immensity, its intricate minutiae and its fury. The message is, "Don't try to understand the Creator with your feeble intellect; just bow humbly before the Ineffable and receive its grace." In the end, Job is a changed man who knows God in a deeper and more profound way.
The lesson I take from Job is that it's OK to be honest and bold in your relationship with the Sacred, however you may conceive of it. We may not be privy to the Divine Plan. We may never even know if there is one, or if there is a cosmic purpose for human suffering. But there is value in asking anyway, and there is virtue in unleashing some holy rage at the seeming injustice of the universe. But then what? Once we're humbled and unburdened, what do we do? It seems that we have no choice but to roll up our sleeves and try to make the imperfect world a little more perfect. If there is a higher purpose in tragedies like Katrina, perhaps that's it.