By Vic Machiano
Margaret Mohrmann claims that theodicy is “the theological enterprise of justifying God in the face of evil.” But this traditional understanding is not useful in the practice of medicine and chaplaincy as played out in clinical encounters. The term can be viewed in three dimensions: intellectual, personal, and emotional.
The intellectual view addresses the reality of suffering by attempting to reason the nature of the God in whom we believe. The construct of such an investigation is a series of statements that, taken individually, offer nothing objectionable. These statements include: God is entirely good, God is all-powerful, and suffering exists in the world. This intellectual exercise is proper to the classroom, but not in the clinical encounter.
The personal view is where most encounters with theodicy take place on the part of the sufferers and those who care for them: “Why does God allow this suffering/situation to happen to me/my family/my friend?” It directly reflects the experience of the person who suffers or for whom we care. As a hospital chaplain who is present when bad news is delivered, I have seen the hope that they have placed in God and medicine suddenly taken away from them. In that moment before reasoning, very personal feelings are shouted out. The very first response is one of denial. What one hears most often are statements like “NO!” “This can’t be happening now. He was just about to get married,” and “This is not supposed to happen; she was just here to have her gall bladder taken out.” This is an initial, unthinking, striking out that can best be responded to by reverent silence. There will be a time for verbal response, and it must come as part of a best practices clinical setting, because “many physicians and, I suspect, many chaplains know that questions so difficult to formulate and so frightening to broach, similar to ones about the imminence of death, once deflected are in many cases never attempted again.” (Mohrmann 64)
Wendy Farley writes, “We all know we will die, but when we are faced with our own death or the death of a child or other loved one, that knowledge is transformed from general, abstract information into the unmaking of the world” (106). This transformation always moves from the universal to the particular. The reasons behind particular views are the beliefs or traditions of those who hold them. Given that, is there any wonder why such reasons are so varied? As a chaplain I can attest to the case(s) in which the justification is not about God as much as it is the seeking of the causation of the suffering. What brought this to me? Why is this happening now? Why did my son get this disease?
Rather than theorize about how God is both good and all-powerful at the same time, the sufferer seeks to find answers that validate and restore his image of God. He will attempt to craft a solution that can eliminate any role that God played in his current suffering. This is most often reflected in a narrative that describes previous acts as deserving of the current state of suffering. I have witnessed times when, upon learning that a loved one is dead and after the initial outburst of denial, a mourner will state over and over, “God is good.” It takes on the quality of a mantra. It is as if the mourner is somehow attempting to avoid the situation where “one is left with only two deeply destructive alternatives: to embrace a troubling image of God or reject God altogether.” (Farley 110)
At moments of bereavement, I have seen loved ones thank the doctors for all that they have done. This appreciation crystallizes, for the doctors and the sufferers, that “all that they have done” is all that they could do. The time of explanation is over. We know what caused the pain, suffering, and death, but we are still at a loss to understand why. This is not the role of the medical professional. It is here that the chaplain’s skills of listening and helping the sufferer to develop new coping mechanisms are most useful. The suffering has to be sensible. It provides a space for the loved one’s family to create and impart some meaning to the suffering. These relationships are created not so much through the bond of shared suffering (for the chaplain has not directly suffered), but through the bond created when people approach mystery together.
When this relationship is beginning to be expressed and the mystery of our finitude approached, it is always incorrect to provide dismissive answers to the question of why. Answers such as ‘why not’ or ‘that’s life’ or ‘it’s God’s will’ do absolutely nothing to build the relationship needed by the sufferer or the loved ones. Our compassionate response to the sufferer transcends any power that suffering and death have.
While the emotional view of theodicy can be viewed as an extension of the personal view, it also contains a request for understanding that is an important aspect for the sufferer. The emotional view is most often expressed in either silence or the single word, “Why?” The construct that is most compatible is to be found in the Book of Lamentations and the Psalms. Lamentations is a short book of the Bible that bemoans the captivity of Israel and loss of Jerusalem. Importantly, it only seeks solace in one verse of the entire book, “Lead us back to you, O Lord, that we may be restored: give us anew such days as we had of old.” (Lamentations 5:21 NAB)
The class of prayer known as a lament contains six elements: an address to God, the complaint detailing the suffering at hand, an expression of trust in God, a petition to God for intervention and deliverance, a statement of the petitioner’s confidence that the prayer will be heard, and the offering of a vow of praise to God before the community. The Psalms that can be categorized as laments are divided into laments of the community or the individual. They are numerous (some fifty-nine Psalms have some lament in them). The emotional response, along with the personal, covers the experience of suffering and pain in a way that the intellectual cannot.
Theodicy in the clinical setting ought not to attempt to explain suffering by logically trying to find a god who is both all good and all powerful. A god whose will is bent on the destruction of a person’s dignity is one in whose image we have not been created.
One night, I was sitting with a woman keeping vigil over her son who had entered the dying process. After a while, she turned to me and said, “Pastor, he’s on a cliff and he sees the light on a mountain far away. I hope that he has accepted Jesus because God is good.” I looked into her eyes – now moist with tears – and said to her, “God is good, and so I know that Jesus has accepted him. And when your son takes a step off that cliff towards the mountain, one of two things is going to happen: either he will find firm footing or he will learn how to fly.” She smiled.
Vic Machiano, BCC, is night chaplain at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, TX.
- Anderson, Bernhard W. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1983.
- Murphy, Roland E. The Psalms, Job (Proclamation Commentaries). Augsburg Fortress Press, 1985.
- Mohrmann, Margaret E., and Hanson, Mark J., eds. Pain Seeking Understanding: Suffering, Medicine, and Faith. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1999.
- Farley, Wendy. “The Practice of Theodicy.” Mohrmann and Hanson 103-114
- Mohrmann, Margaret E. “Someone is Always Playing Job.” Mohrmann and Hanson 62-79
- Sulmasy, Daniel P. “Finitude, Freedom, and Suffering.” Mohrmann and Hanson 83-102