29 May 2014

Followup Questions: God as Master Storyteller

[[Dear Sister, thank you very much for your post on God as master storyteller. [cf.,God as Master Storyteller:Picking up the pieces of a Broken World]   I have struggled with the idea of understanding how it is that bad things are the will of God. When people say it is all the will of God I just can't believe it. Children get cancer or starve to death. Genocide is something that happens all the time in our world. Recently there was a mass shooting in Santa Barbara and a couple of years ago in Newtown. How can anyone say that any of this is the will of God? As you have said yourself, what kind of God would this be? So here is my problem. My mother has a history of being misunderstood and sometimes even treated badly by others in her parish. She has begun to say it is all the will of God. I don't believe it but I don't know what to say to her about this either. She is a devout Catholic and I don't want to shake her faith in God. Your post and the quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer may help me find the words I need to explain what I believe to her but I wondered if you have any advice for me?]]

First, I will send you a copy of the post you referred to. Perhaps that will help a little. I think the example of the game the parish staff played and which I wrote about in that post can be very helpful in making clear how it is that God is constantly present and always working to bring good out of even the worst circumstances, but also that God is not responsible for the sometimes inadequate way we tell our own stories or the mess we make of these sometimes.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as you noted, is also a good choice in explaining things because he witnessed the holocaust first hand and was murdered by the Nazi's at Flossenburg concentration camp near the end of the war. As you mention and others will remember it was Bonhoeffer who said, "Not everything that happens is the will of God, but inevitably, nothing that happens happens outside the will of God." He knew full well that what the Nazi's were doing could not be considered the will of God --- not in the least stretch of the cleverest (or most distorted or pathological) imagination but he also believed profoundly in the Gospel --- namely, that with God this would not be the last word, nor the deaths of so many the final silence. In God nothing would be lost, nothing would remain ultimately senseless, etc for God is the creator God and makes all things new and eternal.

One thing I would remind you of is that sometimes people seize on the "it's all the will of God" explanation when they have nothing else to hold onto. They might be profoundly disappointed, emotionally worn out and see no purpose or meaning in anything. Some of these folks will have a very hard time admitting that the problems they have had are at least partly their fault and that they will have to change to really do the will of God in this. In these cases the persons seizing on the "It's all the will of God!" notion are fragile and desperate to affirm that their world makes sense. They also lack the resiliency necessary sometimes to change even when they are their own worst enemies. In situations where it is really not the person's fault, when they may be more amenable to a realistic perspective it may be enough to ask them "what part of the situation was really the will of God?" and then provide an analysis from your own perspective. For instance, you could ask then question and then point out, "What x said to you was certainly not the will of God as I understand it, but your courage in the face of it was." "The way that parishioner acted was unjust and certainly not something a God of love could will, but God's being with you to support you in this is!" You could do this occasionally, and gently. Subtly if possible. The point is to affirm  your own faith in God's will and power, but at the same time to allow your mom to see other "powers and principalities" as Paul puts the matter, are also still at work in our world (and sometimes within us!).

At some point it may be helpful to talk about the story of Jesus' trial, torture, and crucifixion. Ask the same question, "What part of this was clearly the will of God?" but also ask, "What part could NOT be the will of an infinitely merciful (just), and loving God?" (Though of course such a God can and will use these things and bring meaning out of them nonetheless!) When you share what you believe on this you could point out, lying witnesses was not the will of God, a cowardly Pontius Pilate was not the will of God, the rabid behavior of the crowd was not the will of God, etc etc, but look what God has brought out of all this anyway!!!" No wonder Paul says, "O happy fault!" Our own inhumanity, not to mention the chance or randomness that really does exist in the world causes things to happen which are not the will of God but God's providence encompasses these and will still bring good out of them. We often need to learn to look for that good and to be realistic without being either cynical or pollyannaish! Or, you could pick stories from the lives of those your mom loves in ways similar to the way God loves her. Do the same kind of question/analysis. Explore how she thinks (or begins to see) God might bring good out of the terrible things that happen and how, with God's grace she and you might help that to happen.

In the end you will be giving your mother a theologically sound alternative she might just adopt more and more. If she does it could also give her the courage to look at her own role in things and change to whatever degree this is needed, or simply to forgive others and not set herself up for continuing "victim" status and collusion with  the powers of sin and death at work in our world still --- which is precisely what claiming "It is all the will of God" in a naive sense actually does.