Abuse and Theodicy

This year I’m doing full-time clinical work for my internship at a community mental health clinic. Internship year for psychologists is roughly equivalent to residency for medical doctors. As I begin working with patients and conducting interviews for the clinic, I’m struck by just how many patients have experienced early childhood abuse (particularly childhood sexual abuse). Recently my mind’s been on theodicy and childhood sexual abuse. Before I go further into a theological analysis, I want to describe how childhood sexual abuse creates problems for these individuals later in life.

First, we have to consider why childhood sexual abuse is so devastating and worse than non-sexual physical abuse. Both forms of abuse are harmful psychologically and emotionally. Adults who inflict physical and sexual abuse are attempting to deal with some internal conflict or discomforting emotional experience, which can then be discharged by acting out these desires on the child. However, I think children who have suffered sexual abuse often suffer more because they have to come to terms with the fact that the adult is getting off (jouissance) on the sexual abuse. In other words, the child has to confront the sadism of the adult and the child recognizes that the utter horror and pain they are enduring brings pleasure to the adult. Physical abuse is not quite as disturbing (and I don’t mean to downplay the horror of non-sexual physical abuse) because the sadism of the adult is not as manifest.

Moreover, the child who is a victim of sexual abuse has to try to reconcile the pain and horror with the unavoidable physical pleasure that in inherent in sexual contact. The child’s minor enjoyment of the sexual abuse creates all sorts of confusion, particularly feelings of extraordinary guilt. The child comes to believe that s/he is a monster for enjoying such mistreatment. Consequently, the child might imagine that this guilt makes them responsible or culpable for their abuse.

Another problem with childhood abuse is that the child believes that s/he is deserving of such punishment because of the internalization of the bad object. In Kleinian language, we would say that the child internalizes the bad breast to protect the good breast (external world) from contamination. Fairbairn, the famous object relations analyst, once said “it is far better to live as a devil in a world of angels, than an angel in a world of devils”. The child would rather imagine that s/he is a terrible person who is so bad and evil that the parent is forced to punish them rather than recognize the terrifying reality of their situation. The child’s assumption of responsibility is also an attempt to hold onto the illusion of control in the face of a world that is utterly terrifying. This is why victims of random acts of violence (rape, assault, etc) often cling to the fantasy that they could have prevented the violence in an attempt to comfort themselves about the dangerous unpredictability of the world.

The long-term ramifications of childhood abuse can be quite severe psychologically. Individuals who have suffered childhood sexual abuse are at risk for developing psychosis, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, depression, sexual conflicts (e.g. pseudo-homosexual anxiety) and personality disorders. One of the most upsetting possibilities is that the child who was sexually abused might perpetuate this abuse as an adult (through identification with the aggressor) and become a sadist. We also are aware of the masochism and repetition compulsion commonly seen in these individuals wherein the old situation of abuse is re-created with a sadistic partner in their adult life.

The psychological damage of childhood sexual abuse has been garnering some attention based on the case of Terry Williams, a convict currently on Pennsylvania’s death row. After years of silence, he finally admitted that the two individuals he murdered were his sexual abusers. He was honestly contemplating being executed rather than acknowledging the fact of his sexual abuse to avoid all of the pain it would produce.

I write all this above to outline the horrors of childhood sexual abuse. I’ve begun to think about how Christian theologians can possibly respond to such disgusting and depressing injustice. Obviously they had the opportunity to consider how to theologically respond when the secret of the abuses in the Catholic Church came out in the media. What resources do Christian theologians have to respond to such a frightening and all too common reality? Most Christian theologians will turn to the cross as some sort of comfort to offer the survivors of childhood sexual abuse, believing that Christ’s suffering and godforsakenness can be a source of peace to these individuals. If Christ suffered on the cross and was redeemed on Easter then certainly you too can take solace in your own suffering that God will never forsake you! But let’s be honest; God did forsake them. Jesus only suffered for a day. That’s rough and being crucified would surely be painful. However, that doesn’t even begin to approach the suffering caused by years of childhood abuse (particularly sexual abuse). Working with and meeting folks who have experienced such unmerited suffering that has devastating effects is making me lose my last ounce of faith. There really is no justice or God on this earth and heaven seems like a fantasy. Maybe process theology is right that God is just an impotent bystander who does not control the earth because that is not the nature of God. However, that seems convenient. In fact, process theology seems like a really cheap way to avoid the question of theodicy by claiming that God preventing abuse and injustice would violate the non-coercive nature or God. On the other hand, some theologians are psychotic and pretend that God determines all events on this earth, effectively making God Satan. It’s pretty clear that religion will never be able to answer this question so maybe it’s time for theologians to stop talking about things they can’t explain. Referencing the cross of Christ is a nice symbol but it’s cheap and quite frankly a waste of time. Perhaps, theologians could do something more useful like encouraging people to get involved in activism that attacks the societal structures that are responsible for such injustice. Either way, I’m losing my faith as I attempt to live out a Christian life.

104 thoughts on “Abuse and Theodicy

  1. Thanks Jeremy.

    As I survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I want to thank you for this post. Your comment “There really is no justice or God on this earth and heaven seems like a fantasy” really stood out to me. I have told people before, that at age 5 I had to experience the fact that there was no God to protect me. Most people I say this to just give me blank looks, like the bare power of this fact does not register.

    I have called Barth a theologian of rape to my friends. My friends think I am being silly or provocative, but I am, of course, very serious. I will never forget the visceral experience I had of reading his explication of faith as trust in his Dogmatics in Outline. The language almost made me sick. Barth’s implicit sexual language when he says that faith is conceived in accepting God’s “grace.” How faith is only consummated by God, how God’s will determines the entire event. God’s word is the only voice. It brought me straight back to being abused and the feelings of helplessness, fear, disgust and guilt I felt. I will never experience any event like the one Barth describes as grace. It will always be experienced as violent and the annihilation of my will and person.

    I wish I had more to say, but as you can imagine, this is a project that I struggle to think through.

  2. There’s a lot to say here, I guess, and I appreciate the struggle here, and I say this as someone who has worked in prison ministries with child abusers and abuse victims, and dealt with this issue on the groud with people in my community. One of the problems with rejecting process theology, following the “lure” of what seems to be an attractive theodicy, is that it just doesn’t have much to say to those whose lives are completely destroyed as victims. I do think a process theology explains and accomodates for abuse, but the answer doesn’t seem satisfying to me. But I would make a move toward something more Altizeran: namely, we’re all victimizers so long as we aren’t working toward correcting this problem, and that we fail as a society and as individuals when we don’t take up the cross ourselves. (I know, I used the word “cross.”) Sorry this might not contribute much to the discussion though.

  3. “On the other hand, some theologians are psychotic and pretend that God determines all events on this earth, effectively making God Satan.”

    Does the fact that this is terrifying mean it’s also incorrect?

  4. I don’t doubt that Altizer and liberation theologians push us in the direction of action but nobody can say anything intelligible about God. It’s just troubling.

    Does the fact that this is terrifying mean it’s also incorrect?

    I would think that the only response to this would be Alosyha’s in The Brothers Karamazov. Basically, maybe this God exists, but I want nothing to do with that sort of God.

  5. Ben B.,

    I’m glad you liked the post. Your idea about Barth is interesting and one that never occurred to me. Barth is deeply problematic on many levels and his unilateral distrust of human agency and participation has always struck me as needlessly one-sided.

  6. Jeremy-

    Yes, that’s the proper response. And speaking of this situation as analogous to the cross would be a gross mistake. This distinction has actually been raised by a few theologians. So, e.g., Oswald Bayer interprets this aspect of Martin Luther’s theology thus: “more specifically, this [the cross] is also to be distinguished from God’s all-consuming, terrifying hiddenness, in which his incomprehensible wrath works, in which I cannot hear him any longer, or at least cannon “understand” him any longer, but can “hear” only in terror and experience him as oppressive, fearsome, sinister. This aspect of hiddenness cannot even be conceptualized and described in an orderly way at all.” What Bayer is responding to is Luther’s remark that of this hidden God, “we have nothing to do with him,” so not preached, not revealed, not worshiped by us. Theology is simply grotesque when it attempts to treat with that God.

  7. As I was reading your post, the Brothers Karamazov instantly came to mind for me too. But I’m pretty sure that the words you’re thinking of are spoken by Ivan to Alyosha re: the question of children suffering. Something to the effect of “it’s not God I don’t accept, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

    Thanks for posting this.

  8. It seems to me that the answer of theology is almost literally “try not to think about it.” The notion of some kind of providential pay-off for child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is impossible to conceive — and so the theologian can only fall back on “mystery” and “faith/trust.”

    It also seems to me that Chris’s position on process theology sounds right — it really does remove a lot of the ugly problems of traditional theology, but at the cost of removing the aspects of traditional theology that provided some kind of existential satisfaction, and of which the ugly problems were arguably the “fallout.” (For instance, the terrifying doctrine of predestination is in large part the “fallout” of drawing the logical consequences of Augustine’s religious experience of being chosen despite his lack of merit, an experience that was obviously very meaningful and affirming for him but that implies some really fucked up shit once you start thinking it out…)

  9. Kotsko-

    “It seems to me that the answer of theology is almost literally “try not to think about it.”” Yes and no. Some, e.g. Rudolf Otto, try to make it the starting point for theology, but they have to de-fang it first. Barth’s reworking of revelation/election simply removes it. The whole contemporary “trinitarian” revival thing was one big attempt to do the same–for some, e.g., Jüngel, quite explicitly so. These fellows think you make it go away by thinking harder about it. Then of course traditional Calvinism says, “Yes, but isn’t it glorious?” There are, it seems to me, very few who recognize the problem and that it is actually a problem, as one couldn’t possibly have faith in what is so described.

  10. I don’t have it in front of me, but I think Daly’s critique of Barth is in Pure Lust, that’s the last book where she seems to feel the need to respond to anyone from the “old” ways, with perhaps the exception of Tillich.

    Perhaps, too, is a problem with the drive toward having a satisfying theodicy. The problem with typical theologies of suffering or of the cross is when they become too satisfying–satisfying for whom? For what purpose: intellectual or pastoral?

  11. I am just curious how witness and experience of specific instances leads to a hierarchy of suffering of sorts as if were child abuse not as bad as it is there would be a greater possibility of a just God.

    It seems (to overuse a word) a backwards way of commodifying suffering to become a tool of enlightenment (id est, knowledge of the truth of the world and the absence of God or gods) as well as a way to challenge those who have suffered but don’t concur, thus to say that their suffering does not fit as high on the hierarchy since they haven’t come to the same conclusions.

    I’m probably reading too much into the language of “worse”, but there should be other ways to describe the absolutely dreadful than to say it is worse than other forms of suffering and, in that way, truly un-relatable.

  12. Barth’s work, it seems to me, is precisely to address a world, the particular world that happens concretely as a world of demons in the midst of which I am also a demon, but a demon to whom God speaks from a whirlwind with an inappropriable “Come!” in the shape of a “No!” that is/becomes a “Yes!” opening an unheard of future no longer simply determined by the past. It is the command of forgiveness that does not have to wait for healing. And it is a forgiveness that evokes thanksgiving. Thus it is the yea-saying of Alyosha face to face not only with his brothers and father, but also before Zosima and the women of the tale, and above all the children, the cruel and angry and variously abused children. It is, by the way, both Alyosha’s and later Dmitri’s interaction with children (the latter in a kind of vision) that make the lived (not theoretical) response to Ivan’s theoretical treatment of the problem of “innocent suffering.” The “ticket” that Ivan would return turns out to be the ticket into solidarity with the people, especially the children, who suffer.

  13. I think there is a long list of possible responses to your question, Adam, but unless they come down to the movement in solidarity with sufferers, the sufferer, as an act not in itself grippingly compelled, but as the way the pursuit of the coming of God in Jesus, as a kind of Spirited following of Christ who works where God works, then it is not theological solidarity, it seems to me. And it is not so much my “No!” and “Yes!” that is variously spoken there, but a kind of echo or ricochet (to use Nate’s wonderful word) of God’s. That is, I am there, because the Spirit of Jesus is sent there by the Father and I have been commanded to join her there.

  14. Craig–
    Are we to take it as given that “theological solidarity” is awesomely better than regular solidarity? Does this principle apply to other words to which we prefix “theological”? E.g., sex or bacon?

  15. Adam, I have no idea how I could even begin to determine which mode of solidarity is the most awesome, let alone the best. And I would never call for summary dismissal of non-theological acts of solidarity. I would in fact be pretty happy about at least some of those. But I would be happy about them for theological reasons. It seems to me that a theological move of the kind I’m speaking of here never has the standing to label itself as “better” or “best,” even if it is from time to time to decry certain kinds of solidarity and even to work against them.

  16. Kotsko’s “The notion of some kind of providential pay-off for child abuse, particularly sexual abuse, is impossible to conceive” This seems like an enthymeme with an implied premise, that any theology is possible to conceive.

    But conceive in what way? Not at all (equivocally), simply (univocally), or indirectly (analogically)?

    The Protestant nominalist mind, rooted in Ockham and Luther, would agree with your premise but disagree with you, by saying that God’s goodness comes of His power, and in our depravity our Reason is so enfeebled that we cannot see clearly what that goodness entails. (The equivocal view of ‘goodness.’) The atheist, leaning towards an exhaustive rationalism as is always the wont of atheists, would agree with the Protestant that they are unable to simply conceive of how God’s goodness and power could be reconciled, and so there cannot be any such God. (The univocal view of ‘goodness.’) But the Catholic mind, rooted in the Analogies of Aquinas, would hold that God’s goodness is indirectly like, and unlike, any goodness we can conceive of. The good motives with which a painter inflicts revision on his paintings, or a hunter sends his dogs into the wild, to be caught in bear traps, are conceivably similar, and dissimilar, to God’s goodness. When we hear of Satanic or clerical child abuse and we say “God is still good” we mean that his goodness is so unlike ours that we cannot understand, and yet we can understand dimly, indirectly, through our human conceptions, because the terms of heaven and earth are one woven fabric.

  17. Craig, I mildly regret some of the snark of my last question, but not the question itself. The thrust of the original post seems to me, “Why theology at all?”, and your responses to Adam K. and then to me seem to say, “Because theology! *Barthian jazzhands*” So, (and I say this as one who generally identifies with orthodox Christianity), how is it that theology avoids being a dangerous waste of time?

  18. Also, the trauma of wondering why God would allow such a thing may lead to irrational denial, i.e., atheism.

    “It must always be borne in mind that the fear of spirits is sometimes so great that people will actually deny that there are any spirits to fear. I have come across this myself among the dwellers on Mount Elgon.” -Jung, Two Essays

    Much scarier than a chaotic natural world is a chaotic interpersonal world. (PTSD is always more severe from repeated rape than it is from natural disasters.)

  19. Thank you for your post. I don’t mean to set out a position to defend (my thoughts are too inchoate), but I hope that I can ask a couple questions:

    1. You focus, I think quite properly, on the motivations of the theologians – they emptily desire to offer some sort of “comfort,” they cheaply “avoid the question,” they may even end up “psychotic,” all because they can’t “stop talking.” I suspect that there is absolutely nothing so brutally disorienting as the horror of childhood sexual abuse, and, consequently, religious language here tends to inevitably – hopelessly – be about the need for control. Is that the main part of the problem?

    2. Theologically, I think that one must associate Christ with victims, and you speak of those who have “experienced such unmerited suffering.” In one of the only acceptable things said by a bishop about the sex abuse scandal, Schönborn of Vienna said in a liturgy, “When the victims now speak, then God speaks to us …” Thus, confronted with sexual abuse, shouldn’t theologians really be silent for theological reasons – to let “God speak” (if there is a God) in whatever disturbing, unpredictable, uncontrollable sort of way?

    3. Obviously, some do lose faith because of some injustice. But some seem to inexplicably maintain faith through that injustice. I don’t mean to place these in a competitive relationship. But one does hear persistent talk of the significance of prayers in Auschwitz, or “if Jesus rose anywhere for me, he rose in the survivors of abuse” – not only cheaply, but at times from those who have experienced abuse themselves. Does this raise a similarly unanswerable question?

    Thank you again. (I should add for context that I’m not a theologian.)

  20. Thanks for this post, and also I appreciate Ben’s comment. I feel as if I am at a point where I am either going to embrace something like process theology, or do away with faith, all because of the problem of evil. I’m not quite sure if belief in a non-coercive God gets one out of all the tangles of theodicy, but it does some work. However, I was listening to a Homebrewed podcast the other day where they interviewed John Cobb, and Cobb spoke about belief in miracles and healings in modern times. Seems to me that such beliefs bring up the theodicy question all over again (even if God is non-coercive, why can’t he heal more sick people?). But I don’t want to abandon my faith; I’m an Mdiv student at an evangelical seminary thus I have expectations to uphold!

  21. 1) The problem, as I see it, is that injustice is hopelessly depressing and pointless.

    2) Right, I get the whole notion of the suffering God and the Christ is with the victims, which is supposed to a source of comfort for folks who have suffered. There’s a similar notion that God somehow in Christ has already experienced that suffering and can thus empathize with the pain the individuals has suffered. This is my major complaint because I believe it is cheap and a bit ridiculous. Christ suffers for a day and rises again, whereas people get abused, suffer and then die. Of course, childhood sexual abuse is not a death sentence nor do I mean to convey that these people are beyond hope. But the structures we have in place (particularly the half-assed economic support mental health treatment is afforded by the government) along with some familial and socioeconomic structures that facilitate childhood abuse make it extraordinarily difficulty to receive treatment. Returning to the main point, I just find the motivation to find a parallel between the sufferings of Christ and the suffering of children is bullshit particularly because we can see a point in Christ’s suffering. Regardless of one’s atonement theory, Christ’s suffering is meaningful in securing humanity’s salvation. Alternatively, the suffering of children is fucking worthless and avoidable.

    3) People hold onto their faith in the midst of trauma which can be understood from various perspectives. I don’t really want to get into that, although I should note that some psychoanalysts who did research on the survivors of the shoah found that the quality of the internalized object relations predicted the individual’s capacity to endure and to maintain mental strength under trying circumstances.

    In response to Craig’s comments, I don’t know why you even bothered to distinguish between theological and non-theological solidarity, considering Christ’s teachings in Matt 25. Moreover, when all is said and done, the only true function of this religious language is to strengthen the person’s resolve to continue struggling and working. Although it does seem like we could avoid the headache if we all just admitted that we have no idea why things happen and that the life is hopelessly unfair.

  22. Adam, I’m okay with your snarkiness, both times. I mentioned Barth, because he had been mentioned already. I don’t know that my jazz hands were particularly Barthian, though that they may have had a Barthian flair makes sense to me. Nonetheless all I’ve got is jazz hands. I suspect that’s all anybody’s got.

    Jeremy, I’m not looking to set up a boundary line between the theological and the non-theological. However, when somebody asks “Why God at all? Why not our own ‘yes’ and ‘no’?” it feels like an invitation to gesture (palms exposed, fingers spread, hands shaking) in the direction of a discourse that gestures (however uncertainly) in a Godward direction.

  23. Jeremy, it’s all Jesus gives his disciples. And when he gives it what is called for in exchange is an abandonment of substance. And I’m not trying to be cryptic here or rude. This is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, according to the Gospel of Mark.

  24. All the action, at least in Mark, is a movement toward the coming of the redemption of this present evil age. Even healing is not for the sake of simple restoration of what is currently diseased, but a temporary act of mercy, hastily performed on the way to the coming of God’s reign, a coming in which healing is unnecessary. And so, Jesus only heals the paralytic lowered into his house through it’s earthen roof, after objections by Temple functionaries to Jesus’ simple and direct yea-saying to the paralytic as he is. When Jesus comes out of the tomb on Easter Sunday, he doesn’t ascend into heaven, but returns to Galilee. And so, when Jesus is named as Messiah at Caesarea Philippi, he replies that those who bear witness to him in this way are to follow him to Golgatha. When he confronts the Rich Young Ruler, he tells him to abandon his goods and follow him (to Golgatha). When his disciples ask for special status in the coming reign of God, he points them to what that status is, viz., crucifixion. None of that means that healing (e.g., teleological satisfaction) is a bad thing. In fact Mark seems to presume that it’s a good thing and Jesus does a lot of that in Mark. However, what Jesus is here to proclaim (and perform) is not healing (it is said explicitly in Mark), but the reign of God. And so, it is not surprising that two of the other Gospels, as they interpret Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, draw special attention to the fact that his resurrected body is still mutilated, even as it is glorified.

    (I don’t expect this to be a satisfying response, but it’s already too long, so I’ll stop there.)

  25. Wilson, you probably are reading too much into this. I wasn’t trying to create a hierarchy of suffering but speaking from a particular context, namely, as a soon-to-be psychologist. I don’t care to have a discussion about what’s the worse form of suffering.

  26. Thomas, your poetic response seems to fall under Adam’s idea that most theologians cling to ‘it’s just a a mystery’ and ‘keep the faith’. Thanks for playing but we’ve all heard that before.

  27. Craig, yes I know what you’re saying about the body of Christ and the Reign of God. But didn’t that promise of a new age sort of not come true? Isn’t that the major trauma that the first church has to reconcile?

  28. Jeremy, the command is to wait and work for that coming, i.e., without the presumption of having causal power. I’m not sure that the church went through a trauma with the prolonged ellipsis of the delay of the coming of God’s reign. At least it doesn’t look like a trauma in retrospect. Martyrs still pointed to it for centuries. Various odd characters have done so, too, since, from time to time.

  29. Over many years my wife and I have raised 8 native foster children, 7 girls and 1 boy, ages 7 to 13 and all of them had been sexually abused. We also worked with many young women living on the streets of Seattle and virtually all of them had been abused as well. All our foster kids went to psychiatrists or counselors, so professional therapy was not our responsibility as foster parents. How much good any of us did for these kids though is questionable. But if these kids can merely survive into adulthood that’s something. We still keep in contact with some of our kids and most of them are doing ok, all things considered, for now. Many even have children of their own. That in itself can be taken a sign of hope, I want to believe.

    Now I had already wrestled with these questions of theodicy for many painful years and I had fought my way to a draw with God about it and given up on any faith in my faith long before we took in these children (I came from a physically abusive home myself btw). Perhaps you, Jeremy, are ready to give up as well? I mean what are you really clinging to? Can we really judge our own “faith,” can it be parsed or measured out? Maybe the point of the parable of the mustard seed is that our faith is so infinitesimally small that it is meaningless and insignificant? Better to let it go, even curse god already and die for Christ’s sake! Anyway you don’t need faith to “live out a christian life.” Jesus had “faith” and where did that get him in the end? But then, without faith, what do we really have to offer BenB above? Truth is, probably not much, maybe just to ‘do no harm’ is the best any of us can offer on our own. The folks I still know in the psychology/psychiatric community that still work with abused street teens mostly just write prescriptions and manage their meds.

    So when I pray to saints like Mother Teresa, Simone Weil, and Maria Skobtsova it’s not because they teach me how to live a great life of faith, but because they show me how to live a Christ-like life without faith. People with faith don’t need god! Mother Teresa would go for years on end without ‘believing in God,’ and often suffered from great despair and depression, but that didn’t keep her from the work of God in the world and loving those who needed someone to be God for them. So bless you in your work Jeremy, and all the more so since your so vexed by many non-syllogistic theological problems.

    Now I really wish BenB would comment more. His comment is the only reason I am even writing this one, otherwise I would just leave y’all to plow over the same old theological ground. BenB’s presence (so to speak) should, and I think has, altered this whole conversation. Otherwise it could just remind me of some or the most questionable academic conferences I used to attend on things like “Sub-Alterity and Cultural Coding of Third World Women in Indian Cinema,” or “Homelessness and Poverty as a leif-motif in Samuel Becketts blah blah,” but if one real drunk and smelly homeless person had stumbled into the conference room not a person would have had a clue what the heck to do with them!. Much like me the first time 2 little broken and abused girls were dropped off at our house that needed help, healing, and a family. Fortunately my wife has a lot more common (and spiritual) sense than me and she knows Jesus pretty good so she knew what to do. You hold them in your arms, you weep with them, you even curse god with them, you choose to turn your face with theirs into the storm and chaos of so much suffering and pain and you wail into the darkness that against all reason there really are such things as love, goodness, and justice in the world. And when all that returns from that void is a horribly silent indifference, then it must be within that void, maybe it is only in that void, the we may encounter or create for ourselves a loving merciful god.

    Maybe that is part of why Jesus told us that the poor and suffering are holy? Only a god created by nothing from nothing can escape becoming our idol or our puppet. We are all nailed onto the same cross by the same flesh as Jesus and no angels are coming to take us down. A storm is on it’s way and death follows it and still no voice is heard from heaven. So we can choose to abandon the journey altogether and forsake each other’s despair, or else we make ourselves into priests of the shadowy void and we mediate the silence and the pain for one another any way we can. You don’t need any of your own faith to do that, like all our theology and intellectual kvetching, it often just gets in the way. For those of us who rightly pass as Roman Catholics or Orthodox, well, we figured out long ago how to become dramaturges of death and pain and to make great theater out of it; we perform plays about suffering, dying, and rising, over and over until sometimes even we can’t help but come to believe in it ourselves!

    Now I don’t reckon that I have refuted in any way the statement that, “nobody can say anything intelligible about God.” It’s just that I have learned not to put all my stock in “intelligibility.” Every explanation I’v heard about how bread and wine turns into flesh and blood only leaves me with soggy bread and a bad taste in my mouth. Better to just drink the wine and lots of it than try and sus the magic with our intellect, otherwise join the Jesuits and suffer the worst of both worlds. Now I’m not saying that any of this is any better than wishful thinking. In many ways atheism is preferable and it’s certainly much less problematic to build a kingdom on bread alone (although those that have tried always end up turning the wine into lots and lots of real blood). Still, I can’t blame them for giving up on god any more than I would blame BenB or y”all. But I’m still praying to Saints Teresa and Skobtsova and I will add BenB to my prayer list unless he tells me different. Blessings y’all and obliged.

  30. Right. Not much to say to that except I’m encouraged to see that many in the psychiatric and psychological community are turning away from the medicalization of all mental illness and recognizing the decisive role trauma plays in severe psychopathology.

    What do we have to offer someone who has been abused? Well, I have some training in clinical psychology and those folks who are activists certainly have some political realities to tackle that facilitate child abuse (like domestic violence, misogyny, poverty, substance abuse, health care, etc).

    Better to just drink the wine and lots of it than try and sus the magic with our intellect.

    Or you could just exit the church and politely refuse. Ultimately, if people need that and it empowers them, then by all means! But, it sometimes seems to be more of a problem than a solution. Especially when the church offers answers that are quite frankly horrifying to people who have suffered. For example, God works all things for the purpose of good. In fact when I used to work at a crisis line for domestic violence, one of my co-workers had printed out a list of 30 Bible verses so she could disabuse survivors of domestic violence of the notion that staying in a violent marriage was Christian (despite what their male pastors said).

  31. In my opinion probably the best study of the history of childhood abuse was done by Lloyd deMause. It seems to me that he provides a convincing argument that all of our individual and (particularly) collective histories are a dramatization of our repressed rage.
    Alice Miller addressed the same theme in her work, especially in her book For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-rearing.

  32. I hesitate to even say this because it sounds ridiculous and stupid, but I cant very well read all this and not say something even if I ought not to.

    It is obviously ludicrous to try to propose a reason for anyone to undergo the sort of suffering abused children have and continue to endure. But reading these posts has highlighted for me two incredibly pathetic silver linings. Firstly, suffering on any level creates an avenue for showing love to those that have or continue to face suffering (eg. daniel taking in foster kids and giving them a home). Secondly, those that suffer, may get to experience real love from those that reach out and cry with them and curse the heavens with them and try to help them work through their pain. Maybe in a sinless world we would not have such ways to show and receive love. Maybe we would. Would I take a loveless, sinless world if given the choice? Perhaps. But treating each other like shit is a reality and people treating each other with love is too. Is the latter the point of the former? Probably not. But it is almost a silver lining. No, maybe not even almost.

  33. There are ideas in the Roman Catholic encyclical ‘Salvifici Doloris’ that haven’t been mentioned here. Namely, that the suffering of an innocent child may be redemptive, e.g. may be united to Christ’s suffering and actually merit the salvation of souls, which would confer an eternal reward onto that child’s suffering. Kotsko has mentioned that Christ’s suffering was “only for a day” but that is not biblically accurate- Cf. St. Paul in Col 1:24 “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking regarding Christ’s sufferings”

    This is the real meaning behind the novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the name Karamazov being only Russian for ‘Black-spot’. The family represents original sin. Dostoevsky’s point was that the unfairness of redemptive suffering is only the flipside to the unfairness of the inheritance of original sin. In both cases, extraordinary curses, and graces, are shared.

  34. It certainly seems more irrational to deny outright the existence of a seemingly bad God, than it is to respond by thinking out and modifying what one means by a ‘good’ God. Especially if one had reasons for belief in God that went beyond the absence of child rape.

    To think analogically how God is still ‘good’ and allows child rape, is definitely not saying ‘just not think about it.’. C.S. Lewis’s arguments in The Problem of Pain were analogical, in the Catholic tradition: a) the term ‘all powerful’ does not entail logical contradictions, e.g., giving us free will and also preventing child rape, b) the term ‘goodness’ when applied to God, is both unlike anything we know, and like some things dimly.

    Finally, it is an ad hominem to assume that theists who defend God’s qualities in the face of child rape haven’t looked child rape squarely. (psychiatrist speaking)

  35. ” may be united to Christ’s suffering and actually merit the salvation of souls, which would confer an eternal reward onto that child’s suffering”

    Does that strike anyone as one of the most repulsive notions imaginable? That the suffering of innocent children gives others a get out jail free card. This is the ultimate abstraction of the “suffering so that greater good might come” explanation.

    This has been one of the most interesting discussions on AUFS, but also one where I am forced to think “why am I reading this, it induces such pure rage at theology and the explanations it gives”, which I suspect is the place where some of Jeremy’s initial post and his subsequent ones come from. I can’t find the quote now, but recently, summing up responses to the “problem of evil” a philosopher said that if the general public knew the explanations of philosophers they would be literally rioting in the streets. A pithy summary,

  36. Besides saying that Colossians 1:24, Dostoevsky, and the wisdom of millions of suffering Catholics everywhere (who say ‘offer it up’ when suffering injustices) is all repugnant and evokes rage in you, do you have any statements to make. Your emotions do not interest me. They are idiosyncratic and have entirely everything to do with you and not with the issue which is a universal one.

    There is no one less democratic, no one less sympathetic to the faces in the street, than the professional whose job it is to ‘feel’ deeply for child rape victims (and especially, more deeply than others). Yes, I mean the psychologist, the professional empathizer. (I am one.) Most of the individuals in the world that have suffered the most horrendous evils wouldn’t be surprised at any particular theodicy. But what they would be surprised at, is that while their faith is relatively intact, in some cases strengthened by their ordeal, the faith of a sorry looker-on has declined.

  37. Isn’t there something a little perverse and maybe even a little demonic in 1) not listening to Ben’s complaint against Barth (a kind of hedge of protection around a favored father, perhaps one you knew abused your siblings but loved you) and 2) using this as a spring board for making the usual lazy anti-intellectual complaints and bragging about your own down home country common sense? Instead of all the no and yes talk shouldn’t the raped child, like Job, have his complaint heard? Even against the son or his privileged emissary?

    I was raped as a child repeatedly over the course of a summer when I was 5. I had similar issue with God’s so called radical in-breaking and still see in the apocalyptic theology popular currently a kind of terrorism of god. I appreciate it for its hints of gnosis but it remains too Christian, too in favor of a kind of theodicy of the father to matter much to me. But perhaps more interesting for me, never once in my incredibly damaging experience in the Nazarene church did I feel like any part of the experience spoke to my brokenness there. Even when I tried to connect it up to issues surrounding my “critical spirit” it never quite touched on it.

    I’ve noticed in my studies of responses to the book of a job a real difference between the Jewish and Christian responses. For the Jews I’ve read the complaint stands. There is a real sense that God must account. That people are even angry with Job for acting a bit like a kapo in not continuing the persecution against God (more radical in Weisel, less so in Buber, and more so in Bloch). But the Christians, namely Gutiérrez and Girard, need to find a way of ridding God of any guilt. Their readings are very elegant and very complex, requiring some linguistic translation tricks. Whereas the Jewish reading seems far more plain: the suffering demand an answer. For Gutiérrez the answer is similar to Craig, though far more humanist since the message is that God’s freedom (with all the stuff about suffering and pain) is limited by respect for human freedom and for Girard the true point of Job is that the people persecute him. In both cases, again of really incredible readings, the point seems to be to make sure that God is as innocent in allowing suffering as Job is in receiving it. It’s interesting and not a little shocking for me.

  38. I don’t think they really are that idiosyncratic given this has been an issue for human thought for as long as humanity has existed. Is not anger a correct reaction to what you feel as poor reactions to the very real issue of suffering? Did I say that Catholic reactions are repugnant? No I said that the specific theological motif you were referring to was.

    I should point out your psychologising of my motivations swings close to breaching our comment policy.

  39. Thomas,

    You do realize that a number of Catholics were abused by their priests and that the fall out from this has been a real decline in catholic faith and, perhaps more troubling for the magisterium, power throughout formerly catholic countries and areas in the US? This is statistical information not idiosyncratic emotions. If you find your job so morally repugnant, though, perhaps you should quit?

  40. I’m very glad that Anthony brings up the book of Job, because these attempts to explain child suffering sound eerily like Job’s friends. God doesn’t need your elegant (or not so elegant) apologetics. The thing to do in response to Jeremy’s anger on behalf of defenseless victims is to demand justice on all sides — if you believe in God, then from God too. I understand this is traditionally a Jewish mode of interaction with God, but it’s all over the Hebrew Bible — and the New Testament, too. Why have you abandoned them?

  41. As far as I can see, Jeremy’s post blows theodicy out of the water. The problem with the appeal to analogy is and has always been that by making the ‘mode’ of God’s goodness wholly unlike ours, it evacuates the sematic content of what ‘goodness’ means. God ‘is’ good in a way utterly unlike us, so that God’s goodness is at best ‘mysterious’ – for which read: impossible to specify or hold to account. And this leads theologians into contorted justifications of God, which make God either vacuous (‘it will all be worth it in the end’) or monstrous (‘your suffering is part of one bigger, beautiful picture’).

    Those who have been abused may well find a source of strength in faith. Frankly, whatever gets them by is all I can wish for them. But you can’t use that as the basis for an intellectual argument if at the same time you arbitrarily deny or ignore the experience of many others, like Anthony, for whom the experience of abuse is connected to the loss of faith in some way (let alone Jeremy, whose post here is hardly that of a ‘sorry looker-on’). You just end up taking refuge in massive generalisations (‘millions of Catholics’) as if that settles anything.

    In the end, I think some of the comments here have underlined why I would no longer wish to be described as a theologian.

  42. Thomas Cook,

    Jeremy is the one talking about how Christ suffered for one day — I’ve never mentioned that. (Nor did I write the main post, if that’s the source of your confusion.)

    It also seems that you have no reason for asserting that faith is a crucial source of comfort for the majority of abuse victims than your sense that, damn it, it should be.

  43. This may be vanity – it seems like the conversation has moved on, but I feel that I should thank Jeremy for his response and clarify. My question 2 above was not meant to appeal to a “suffering God,” because, as Metz has pointed out, that tends to romanticize suffering and those who suffer are not looking for mere empathy. Also, I would not want to draw a “parallel” between the suffering of Christ and the suffering of children. This obviously doesn’t work because, as Jeremy points out, some abused children do seem to have suffered a great deal more. (Traditional theology would push back by maintaining that Christ’s innocence intensifies his suffering, but this seems already to be a very unprofitable path.)

    Furthermore, I think that it is relatively dangerous to speak of Christ’s suffering in itself as being meaningful without the novum of the resurrection, which obviously hasn’t appeared for all sufferers. (The cross cannot be said to have a “point,” as though the suffering itself, by its frightening enormity or impressive quantity, is meant to produce something. I suspect [or at least hope] that the Christian is told not to head to death, but to go through death with some degree of trust.)

    My question 2 was meant to ask about the theologian’s inability to respond – his/her need to shut up despite the seemingly pressing need to keep talking, however cheaply. I wonder – again these are inchoate thoughts – if the silencing is itself theologically significant. It might be here that the theologian finally learns that God chose “the things that are not to nullify the things that are” – that wisdom does not come from apparent positions of power, but rather from a very different sort of place.

    That is, the theologian’s silencing is so that those who have experienced suffering and abuse can finally be heard, whatever it is that they might say. It strikes me that many who have such experiences want to be heard but have been cruelly silenced, not least through some theological concept of “silence” (see the work of Beth Crisp). It also strikes me that there is some sort of Biblical precedent for the silenced being able to speak (e.g., the man born blind in John 9 is able to say, “I am”).

    And if they are able to speak, we might be able to hear their claim on the rest of us to change societal structures.

    Sorry if this has moved on. I wanted to clarify that I had no wish to construct a theodicy.

  44. I want to be clear, my experience didn’t make me lose my faith. But when we left the Catholic Church after my mother’s conversion, it just was never an aspect that the Nazarenes dealt with outside of their generally damaging, and obsessive, views on sexuality. To be honest, my suffering, such as it is, never played a roll. It was the suffering of others that really bothered me, still does, and the poor response to it by theology that no longer moved me any direction but out. If you don’t like Craig’s Barthian jazz hands, imagine the RO variant. While I don’t agree with Craig, at least he speaks of suffering, directing attention, even if theological, that way even if I can’t believe in that God or if I did I would think war would have to be waged upon Him. RO’s belligerence in the face of suffering wouldn’t even rightly be called jazz hands. It’s more like drunk frat boys dick-coptering.

  45. I agree with APS’s comments on Job, and would add this “fun fact” (because this thread needs more fun facts) regarding translation: In chapter 42, v.7, when God speaks to Eliphaz, the usual reading you get is along the lines of “I’m really mad, because you have not spoken about me what is right, as my servant Job has.” That could just as easily be translated “…because you have not spoken to me…” My Hebrew is shit anymore, or I’d go into more detail, but I’d insist the latter reading makes a hell of a lot more sense, since Job’s friends relentlessly say good things about God. God apparently prefers the accusation and the shaking fist to the attempts of the theologians to justify him.

  46. I gave a paper a couple years ago at the AAR on a panel about “trauma and the cross,” in which I interpreted the turn toward viewing the Jews rather than the Romans as the culprit in Christ’s death as a symptom of the unassimilated trauma of the Cross. I was not up to date on the latest developments in trauma theory, which had posited that mourning was the best way to deal with it, and instead I figured that people might get angry about their trauma and actually staged a feminist defense of anger.

    I promise this comment is relevant, though now I’m losing a handle on exactly how…

  47. Thanks for the clarification, Anthony, and also for the picture, now seared on my brain, of John Milbank wildly rotating his penis. How can there be a God in a world where such things are even imaginable?

  48. Well, whenever I’ve taught about prayer, I’ve found that I spend the bulk of the time disabusing people of the idea that carefully worded flattery is the one acceptable route (or even that it’s acceptable at all). God makes more than a few promises in the Bible–so shouldn’t we be at least mildly upset that the goods aren’t in evidence? So, get angry, demand the things that have been promised, call on God against God. I’m far too blunt to be ok with simply gesturing “(palms exposed, fingers spread, hands shaking) in the direction of a discourse that gestures (however uncertainly) in a Godward direction.” Likely my gestures wouldn’t be that polite.

  49. I don’t think the question is something like, “How can you justify speaking of or trusting in God, if there is so much horrific suffering in the world?” The question is, it seems to me, “How do you not pray when you sit with and hold someone who was forever broken by horrific suffering?” I don’t have the answer to that question, though I’ve been giving myself to it and stutteringly praying and moaning and gesturing in the most awkward ways in that posture for most of my life.

  50. Let me stretch my luck with another comment and mention a couple of things. First no one has mentioned the devil. Should I reckon y’all have pretty much found ways of writing/thinking him out of your narratives? Lord knows I try. It may just be that I was raised in particularly superstitious and credulous form of Sicilian Catholicism where we had a practical affinity with Zoroasterical dualism. In our religious life (which is to say our life) we spent as much time pandering to, warding, appeasing, and fearing the devil as we did trying to suck up to God, via Jesus, via Mary, etc.. Sure throwing the devil into the mix doesn’t solve the “problem of evil,” rather, choosing to engage the devil is like a debt consolidation loan. You take a myriad of pesky smaller theological problems and exchange them for one giant soul-staggering leap of faith. Sometimes it works, sometimes it don’t. Anyway just asking.

    Second: here is a link to an article in our local paper here on the Island today.


    The article is about the death of Melissa, age 27. She committed suicide. Melissa was our neighbor and a friend to our own kids growing up. In short, her father not only routinely beat up her mother Mary (who we still know) but he sexually abused Melissa. The father was arrested for the wife abuse a bunch of times but the raping of Melissa could never be legally prosecuted for technical reasons (this happened a lot with our own foster kids). We befriended the family about 25 yrs ago and my wife especially spent a lot of time talking with Melissa. Because of these ongoing family problems, Melissa went to live with a family member in Seattle, then she ran away, foster homes etc.. Her subsequent life of drug use and self-abuse you can all imagine. We hadn’t heard anything about her in several years, then I just read this this morning. It is really heartbreaking. You see that the report says she left a note for her father–and may God damn him to the endless sufferings of eternal hell-fire (oh how I wish I hadn’t reasoned myself out of believing in hell, it used to fractionally solve a lot of my own psychological distresses).

    Anyway, my wife and I are pilgrimaging to Guadalupe Mexico this February, I am bringing one of my icons of the Virgin of Guadalupe to donate, and we are gathering prayers to offer and leave there at the cathedral. We have added Melissa to our list, and BenB, and if any of y’all want to get on our list just send me an email. I really love Mexico, it’s so close to the Sicily I love in many ways; and it’s also so good to get away from the hyper-materialistic/rationalistic protestant american religious culture for awhile and spend some time communing with Santa Muerte, Blessings and obliged.

  51. Since Thomas has run afoul of the comment policy he has now been deleted as have responses to him. We run a well organized gulag here.


    I don’t really see how that’s the question. So, I’m left wondering if once again one’s commitments come down to a kind of ineffable notion of where one stands.


    What’s your point? I am asking because if you just want to share, ok, but I don’t see what is going on here.

  52. I’m suggesting that “God” is not an entity about which one has a notion prior to prayer, but the “what is called for” of prayer. If God is the former, then I’m pretty sure I am an atheist plain and simple. So, the question I have is (and I’ll make it more personal), “How do I not pray, how do I not gesture toward God, when I hold Elesha?”

  53. Adam, I am suggesting that “God” is what one prays, in the modes of lament, petition, thanksgiving, doxology, and intersession. I am, of course, not the first person, of course, to say this. (Thanks, by the way, for not labeling me with one of their names.) Could you say more about what confuses you about what I’ve written?

  54. A clarification on my earlier post about David Bentley Hart on suffering: I shouldn’t have written that he categorically rejects theodicy in the video to which I linked, but rather that he rejects those theodicies that seek meaning in suffering.

  55. Anthony, you’re asking me about “I don’t see that question” thang, right? I guess I’d say something like, “Would you like to talk about it or are you okay?” And we’d see where that goes.

    The first question, about the “transcendental character” of God: I don’t think it’s a projection. It seems to happen as a kind of reversal of projection, but there is something transcendental about it, if that word may be used despite its history since Kant. It is transcendental in the sense that there is an otherness about it. It’s that that keeps it from being strictly illusory, at least in the ordinary or even psychoanalytic sense of that word.

  56. One of the easiest and most facile approaches to the problem of evil is taking instances or kinds of evil in isolation (always the things the author doesn’t do) and offering them as the type of evil that might just prove that there is no God.

    But we’re all the source of evil, because we’re all ignorant, flawed and self interested – qualities that are intrinsic to life. What? Your wrongdoings aren’t that bad? The child molesters think the same. They’re not intending to inflict harm but to gain pleasure, which they might often deceive themselves into believing they’re giving.

    When asking why such evil exists, rather than examining the evil of others, a more meaningful and potentially enlightening question would be, why am I evil? Why have I done things that could have, albeit unintentionally, caused all the psychological harm to a child or other person described in this post? Are my actions proof that there’s no God, or are they merely proof that I’m flawed and ignorant?

  57. Roman, I’ve only permitted your response so we could all see an example of Adam K’s idea that most theologians will respond by saying “try not to think about it.” Instead of asking the most natural question, ‘hey God, what the hell?’ your position is to tell that person not to ask that question because all of us are sinners! You can’t seriously think that’s intelligent or sensible. Also, for fuck’s sake, not all sins are equal.

  58. I’d maybe like to talk but not about this totally other God who I am rather disinterested in. The other can be a transcendental illusion and I’m not sure that this isn’t.

    There have been three murders in my neighborhood since I moved here on the 1st of September. I don’t feel any need to pray because of that. I don’t particularly feel an otherness there. If we need a dialectic of yes and no it seems purely human. I would like to feel safe in my neigborhood but I know the root causes of this are poverty and racism. And the only group doing much to change that is an Islamic organization. Who I respect very much. But, who I’ve seen lead prayers alongside baptists and the killing continues. If prayer is just about shattering my experience or those of others who live here, why is that not how it seems to function for the believers here? It would seem to me because experience is already shattered. I’d like to say no to that.

  59. I may be “a sinner,” but I’ve never raped a child. I’m going to go ahead and assert my right to negatively judge people who do and to assess the evil they cause as much, much greater than any evil I’ve ever caused or am ever likely to cause.

  60. Again, this being able to see differences between sin is a difference I have noticed in the Jewish readings vs the Christian readings of Job. The Jewish ones are always like “so Eliphaz argues we’re all sinners, but Job is like ‘sure sure, but come on!'”

  61. There’s a theological corollary to that inability to see difference between sin–divine wrath (sub whatever term you’re comfortable with, but this one will do) is almost always conceived by Christian theologians as rational, proportional, measured, so an instrument of justice. But even in the Bible it frequently isn’t pictured that way. So, Jeremy’s original remark about “effectively making God Satan.” Well, yes–from this angle of totally inexplicable divine wrath they would be indistinguishable, and so theodicy is a defense of the devil.

  62. ”What’s my point?” I seem to get that a lot. I’m beginning to think that my sophomoric imitations of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest aren’t working for me and I need to go back to imitating Pynchon or Salinger.

    Anyway it’s 3:47 in the morning and I can’t sleep because i’m thinking about the comments here but mostly about Melissa and how much responsibility I might bear for her death. When I said above that I had wrestled god into a draw over all these theodical questions, turns out the fight wasn’t over and god is still whacking me in the face now and again. When it comes to suffering and death I guess Job teaches us that god is always going to win that argument.

    Then i got to thinking about all of the other people I have personally known/know, friends, family, relatives and acquaintances (living and dead) who were/are suffering great tragedy, and it’s a hell of alot of people and the tally of pain and suffering is really quite staggering (and I am living a pretty cushy life, all things considered!). And since Catholics are privileged to talk to dead people I was laying there in bed having conversations with the ones who have died or been killed or killed themselves like Melissa (*note. I am picturing y’all with your fingers just hovering over your expunge buttons right about now, but let me just say that I was doing most of the talking…and the crying).
    And I was apologizing to Melissa because I didn’t help her more and I was even trying to stick up for god too which of course is ridiculous because Melissa is right there with god already and god for sure has apologized by now.

    So I was laying awake trying to remember the last thing I might have said to Melissa ten years ago and I just can’t recall, but I would guess it was some standard version of this. ‘I don’t know why this terrible thing has happened to you Melissa. I don’t know why the world is the way that it is. I want to believe there will be a perfect world someday, but also that we can make this world better now and that we can find some happiness in this life. I think that there is a god who loves us. I think this because of what I know about Jesus; the things that he said and did. I believe that god loves us and knows our pain but I don’t know why god so often doesn’t make it stop. I will try to love and help you as much as I can Melissa and if that’s not enough, if I fail, then please don’t stop trying to find peace and joy in this world wherever you can.‘

    That’s it. Not much more than take two aspirin. But to be fair, sometimes aspirin will save your life. It can ease the pain of a bad back, sore knees, a throbbing headache and can help to us get through some pretty hard days and nights. Sometimes it can even save our hearts from dying. Of course, it didn’t save Melissa. And were all dead in the end—and I reckon *that’s my point.*

    Well there must be a couple dozen PhD’s hanging around this blog, and if y’all got something better to say to Melissa then Melissa and me would love to hear it. And if it makes more sense, or hell, if it’s even a more convincing delusion, then I will give up on this whole god business in a heartbeat and sell my entire collection of “The best of Jesus” CD’s on ebay today and buy into whatever you got.

    God’s blessings on y’all and obliged (or whatever suits you).

  63. Anthony, there is a strong tone of compassion, when you speak of the murders in your neighborhood. There’s not in your response to Dan. I know that even in face to face conversation, a terse, ironic comment may be made in a friendly way to someone who has just grown quiet after a moment of intense and honest confession. That’s because there are other, subtle signals that kindness still prevails, even in this irony. We don’t have those subtle signals here, though. Everything is in black and white. I think, because of that, your three words and a period will be read as cruel and dismissive and aloof.

  64. Samuel, your assumption that one has to offer some divine solution is not necessary because it is certainly imaginable that the survivor has no desire for such an explanation. Also there’s no reason one is compelled to claim that sadism is somehow just part of human nature, rather than an aberration usually produced by abusive environments. The idea that it is more reasonable to assume the existence of hell is really nothing but an example of wish fulfillment. It’s understandable and comforting but mostly a defense against accepting the unfairness of Life on earth.

  65. Also you asked what we could offer while counseling, well how about the very fact of your assistance! There are many people who spend their life struggling for justice which is uplifting without an appeal to the divine.

  66. I think what’s at stake in an “explanation” of evil is the validity of people’s reactions, their suffering and feelings etc. If the explanation is made in such a way that it is like “this is how things are, so your feelings are misplaced”, then that’s disgusting. But if it’s simply a way to give structure to those feelings, and inso doing validating them and providing a way towards closure, then maybe that’s better. I don’t know if this makes any sense but it’s just an idea I had after Samuel’s post.

  67. And in response to Tom’s comment, nobody is attempting to take away religion from people. I simply wrote this to say that I have difficulty maintaining faith in the face of suffering.

  68. Right, psychologists never say anything. We just listen. We haven’t developed treatment nor empirical studies that attempt to provide the most sensitive and efficacious interventions for survivors of trauma.

    Again, the hyperbole is unnecessary, bordering on hysterical. Did you even read my comment above yours where I explicitly said that I would not try to disabuse someone who survived trauma of their theology I might disagree with? Or were you too fucking busy over-reacting and getting on your high horse?

    Your accusation that I would tell abused children that life is unfair to disabuse them of their religious fantasies was not said in good faith.

  69. Would anything change, if the response to someone who is broken due to a severe childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, were first and last a function of moving in with her, of living with her, insofar as that is possible, and there suffering with her, with as little distance as possible between her and the words one might speak to and with her, so that there—again, with her—one might begin to learn to speak or not to speak of God?

  70. Jeremy, I’m sorry that I’m not being more understandable. I really mean that (there’s a lot of snarkiness in this conversation and I’m sure it’s hard to tell if I’m being snarky, too; I promise I’m not). In my comments in this conversation I’m working at addressing the question of speaking of God in the face of devastating injury. There’s so much more to say about the subject of child sexual abuse. It is one of the few most jarring subjects. In many ways it seems like a trivialization of that suffering even to begin to discuss where speaking of God might be situated in it. But we’ve asked the question and those of us who have found ourselves spending lots of time using the word “God” in extended discourse are put in the difficult but crucially important position of saying what it is that they do, e.g., as theologians, , i.e., what they are to say, in the face of something like child sexual abuse. What I am working at saying here is that the discourse, the God language, is not to be pressed on child sexual abuse or even on the one who inflicts or suffers from that abuse, as if somehow it would explain it all and help the world fall neatly back into place. That, though it is a move made by theologians in our time and in former times, is the denial of everything at least I understand the gospel, e.g., the Gospel of Mark, to be given to. And so, my question above is simply asking if discourse concerning God might arise precisely in solidarity with a sufferer—and that means moving in with her, perhaps in order to get her out of an abusive home, but I was thinking much more of an adult who is living years later in the cold shadow of abuse. And nobody can move in with everyone who has suffered from abuse and not everyone is able to move in even with one person, but it is, I think, only by drawing close to someone who carries abuse in her body that one may begin to voice the word “God” (either positively or negatively, in confession or rejection) without indifference to her and to all the abused.

    (If it helps I’ve been reading Kierkegaard’s *Judge For Yourself!* today. It likely has shaped my thoughts and words.)

  71. Yeah, I realize a lot of Christians wouldn’t be so insensitive, which was never my assumption. However, it has been my experience in my professional work that many Christians do respond in absolutely atrocious ways (‘this is part of God’s plan’ or ‘all things work together for good’, etc) in the face of suffering. This is obviously a theological problem and I realize some theological schools are more intelligent in the way they handle tragedy. Let’s also not pretend that people like John Piper and other right-wing Calvinists don’t exist. In the face of the tsunamis in Sri Lanka in 2005, he told the reporter on NPR that we should thank God for not killing more people because all of us are worthy of hell. And unfortunately his theology has much more influence on the American public than the majority of the stuff in academic theological journals.

    Your comment was egregious, regardless of what other people have said on this post.

  72. Samuel, in my experience of Christianity, it is precisely the opposite for the most part [respectful nod to Anthony’s neighborhood experience] . It has been more “comforting” for me – the word you’re employing – to notice how a bad world exists, which we struggle in, than to believe in a good god that exists hardly in a world that was fashioned poorly from the outset. It doesn’t really help that your caricature of Jeremy’s alleged “atheology” runs somewhat contemporaneously alongside the ludicrous protestant liberal penchant that the supernatural *must* be involved ( or exist) if we are to talk at all about sexual abuse. The transcendent remainder of God (otherness) does not guarantee me anything, nor has it in my experience. If anything, it might be beneficial to lend your theological ear to how Craig approaches this conversation. Seriously.

  73. Craig, now I get a better sense of what you’re saying. My previous comment was in good faith, as I truly didn’t understand what you were communicating. I appreciate what you say about theology’s first sin, namely the attempt to make intelligible trauma (which by definition shatters all categories and conceptualizations, an irruption in the Lacanian ‘real’, an event that cannot be properly assimilated in the symbolic order). What’s interesting about your language is that it genders the person suffering, making the victim a female. My one regret is that this conversation has not attracted females, but I have also been encouraged that many men have felt comfortable enough to discuss traumatic events, something society usually frowns upon.

    In terms of practical interventions, I suppose one could move in with someone who has been abused. I think one has to always be on guard for rescue fantasies and the various narcissistic temptations and motivations that drive folks who want to save others. Sometimes our unchecked altruism can be an unconscious assertion of power, possibly leading to infantilization of the other. One of the most fascinating things about psychoanalysis is that it realize just how the patient’s asking for help can be narcissistically injuring and make the patient resent the clinician. (I’m in the middle of a paper on “the desire to cure” so I’ll step off my psychoanalytic soapbox for now).

    I do think that folks need to be in solidarity with those who have suffered abuse and that can happen in multiple ways. However, moving in with someone is obviously an extreme situation and one has to be very aware of how trauma impacts someone’s interpersonal world. Many churches do a great job in assisting survivors of domestic violence and volunteering at local shelters (with both parents and children) can be one useful way to intervene.

  74. Obliged CK (apropos your comment way back when), but A.P. Smith made a fair point and I wasn’t offended. I thought I was being humorous but I probably should have left some things unsaid. When folks don’t get me I first figure it’s my problem not theirs. In any event I know how the game is played around here and any time I’m not expunged, anathematized, or banished I figure i’m doing ok! I queued up correctly, I kept quiet in line, I ordered my Mulligatawny soup, I took two sharp steps to the left, I had the exact change in hand, and if I didn’t get any bread then I should have just let it go. All in all I think the folks here at AUFS seemed to have been pretty gracious though. @Jeremy, I’m looking fwd to reading more about your work as you continue your internship. Our kids had some good councilors that offered help in many ways and these children need all the help they can get and blessings on anyone who has the wisdom, experience, knowledge, and desire to help them. Obliged y’all.

    (Oh, and satan, we’ll have to deal with you over at another blog, at another time I reckon, but were not finished by a long shot).

  75. We may not know precisely how to deal with the problem of relating theology and child abuse, but one thing I do know: when your comments are repeatedly deleted and you’re repeatedly asked to leave, the appropriate response is not to continue to leave comments.

  76. Nice post, Jeremy. I appreciate your cautions, especially. There is so much pain and suffering all around us. My thirty-three years of university teaching has placed me across the room over and over and over with students who had been treated very badly and knew of nowhere else to turn. Every one of them was gendered, as people are. To do theology in a fractured world of lonely individuals, it seems to me, is to do it face to face with a woman or a man or a boy or a girl whose voice is to speak in what the theologian falteringly says. If we still live in little villages where extended families sleep together in the same little room, a different response would be called for, perhaps. But where we live separately each in his own private, confined space, something like moving in is called for, even if that never entails actually setting up house together and even if that is never to be the condescending act of a would-be savior.

  77. I don’t know why I didn’t blame Allah when my brother tied me up when I was 5 and he was 12. Part of it was that my brother was and is a vocal atheist. There’s nothing in the Quran that says that it’s ok for a brother to tie up his sister, so understandably I wasn’t going to blame the Quran for that. I was too busy trying to fight the patriarchy in Bangladesh and later the secular materialist patriarchy of Vancouver society to blame God for the choices of his creations. I have plenty to rant about “restorative justice”, and I talk about the cycle of abuse and how the political affects the personal in my blog post “The Body Says”.

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