When life goes sideways, it is only natural for us to ask “Why?” Theodicy is a theological doctrine that focuses on those whys.
“Theodicy” is one of those 50-dollar words that seminarians are given to impress others. In general, a theodicy is a biblical teaching that seeks to “vindicate” God. If God is in charge, why is there so much evil in the world?
Our world has been turned upside down by the pandemic, the political rancor, the global markets and racial strife. It is during these chaotic times that our thoughts gravitate to the various doctrines of theodicy.
Howard Thurman spent his life exploring theodicy. Thurman was a Christian mystic. He was also the chapel dean at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel. His work deeply impacted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – who had a complete collection of Thurman’s books. Most were well-worn copies with dog-eared pages. I was able to survive seminary by spending hours in the Howard Thurman Listening Library.
Thurman turned the theodicy question upside down. He did not attempt to address God’s actions in the face of evil. Instead, he posited the notion that our world is filled with evil. The question for Thurman was “How will we deal with it?” How will we respond to the evil that is in the world?
One of Thurman’s concepts was the notion of the formative crisis. For Thurman, the “insult of life was not that it would slap you in the face, but that it would pass you by.” A life without challenge was a life not worth living. Many, not all, crises bring with them an opportunity for profound human development.
Thurman viewed the crisis as an opportunity to break from the past and to embrace an unknown future. Those with the courage to submit to the transformative forces within a crisis will experience profound person growth and spiritual formation.
Both the Bible and our newspapers are replete with ordinary people who survived life at its harshest and used that experience to obtain some level of growth.
There are two sinful temptations in the crisis. First, there is the temptation to hold on to a past that can never be replicated. The second temptation is to claim knowledge of an unknown future. Both will hamper the transformative energy of the crisis.
I believe these two temptations deserve special attention. We cannot go back to a pre-pandemic world. Zoom, telecommuting and home delivery are here to stay. Hugs, kisses, and human company have taken on new meaning. We have a new appreciation for human touch. Our knowledge of the world and our interdependence is here to stay. We realize that a virus originating in Wuhan, China, can impact every human life on the planet.
We are also headed for an unknown future. (I know the talking heads all seem certain in their predictions.) One of the key elements of the formative crisis is the process of walking in the mystery. Walking in the mystery keeps us open to new ideas and possibilities. When we realize that we do not know the future, there is a release of our creative juices. We increase our understanding of the possible. We open the door to grow.
The Rev. Dr. Jon R. Black is senior pastor at Campbell Chapel A.M.E. Church in Bluffton.