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Asking 'why' on Marathon Day


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"O gather up the brokenness/And bring it to me now/The fragrance of those promises/You never dared to vow. The splinters that you carry/The cross you left behind/Come healing of the body/Come healing of the mind. And let the heavens hear it/The penitential hymn/Come healing of the spirit/Come healing of the limb." (Leonard Cohen, "Come Healing")

Anyone living in Boston probably has a story to tell about Marathon Day 2013. How many degrees of separation exist between any one of us and this inexplicable evil?

Where is God in all this, the heart demands? As we overheard one man repeating to himself in a coffee shop along the race route (minutes before it was cleared by police): "Why? Why would someone do such a thing?" A "why" such as that seems to be spoken to no one in particular, but in fact there is an addressee: it is God. Even non-believers insist on answers from the God they say doesn't exist. Whether believer or not, the "why" addressed to God is the most painful. It is like a "why" addressed to a beloved friend who appears to have failed.

Suffering breaks our heart, interrupts the routines of living we have grown used to, leaves us raw, bleeding, exposed, sinks us in the depths of the world's crying brokenness. "Save me, God, for the waters have reached my neck. I have sunk into the mire of the deep, where there is no foothold" (Psalm 69:2-3).

We are shaken, we are sunk, and in front of our eyes is displayed the utter vulnerability and fragility of human existence before a malevolence that lurks in the darkness but occasionally reveals itself in all its horror. When a person demands to know "why," he acknowledges that he does not have all the answers.

The moment of the "why" can seem to a believer to be a dangerous occasion of sin, but it is in fact an opportunity for deeper faith, or for the beginning of faith where there is no faith. This is because contemporary unbelief is not really the result of asking too many questions; it is the result of asking too few questions about the really important matters in life. Whether a conscious atheist or an indifferent person who just lives as though God doesn't exist, most secularized people (indeed many nominal believers) have slipped into a way of life that avoids important questions in favor of noise and distraction. Blaise Pascal had figured us out: "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things." But not thinking about such things means turning off our minds and our innate drive to ask questions. So how do we turn off our minds? Pascal knew: distraction. We distract and divert ourselves so that the questions can remain buried. In our day, we have screens ever before us, our playlists going, drinking hard, frequenting the bars to play out the hook-up melodrama. Need a distraction from pressing questions? There's an app for that.

But when bloody suffering is enacted in the public square, the important questions intrude. Maybe they begin with "why this evil?" But the questions might continue unbidden: "Why am I living the way I am? Is the pattern of my life really adequate in the face of the reality of life and death, of vulnerability and futility? Is what I thought to be so important actually just dust in the wind?"

But what about that first, all-important question: "God, why is there this evil?" This question is so terrifying because one fears there is no answer. But the fact that the question lacks a pithy answer is not because God is mute in the face of evil. The problem is not with the nature of God, in other words, but with the nature of evil. Evil cannot be inserted into a chain of reasoning, like a variable injected into a simple calculation of cause and effect, in order to produce an answer to the equation at the end. Evil has nothing to do with reasoning, because it has nothing to do with what is reasonable. Evil is the contrary of something that makes sense; it is literally non-sense.

This reality of evil is expressed dramatically in Shakespeare's play "Othello." The villain Iago has often puzzled readers: why would he try to ruin a marriage and set up an innocent woman as an adulteress? But as with all evil, there is no good answer. Iago is simply malevolent, and that twisted spirit produces nothing that can be parsed with reason. His "motiveless malignity" should be seen as a symbol for the diabolical forces that prowl about the world seeking to torture us. In "Faust," Mephistopheles claims to be the spirit that negates: it rapes the drunk girl and ridicules her, it sexualizes and abuses children, it shoots them, it cuts babies' spinal cords, it blows up people in festival.

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