“Why did God let my puppy die?”

“The first thing to understand is that we are all practical atheists,” Stanley Hauerwas once declared in a phone conversation. “So when we ask, ‘Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?’ what we really mean is, ‘Why doesn’t modern medicine cure cancer?'” Hauerwas has written a refreshingly original exercise in theodicy toward explaining what he means by this typically provocative statement.

One really ought to call the book an “anti-theodicy.” The central and recurring theme is that typical attempts at trying to account for suffering and pain are doomed from the start by the very way the questions are asked and the world view they seem to presuppose. “For a number of reasons,” Hauerwas explains at the outset, “I am profoundly suspicious of all attempts . . . to explain why God allows us to experience pain and suffering; put even more strongly, I hope to show why this way of putting the question is a theological mistake.” With his usual skill and lucidity, Hauerwas presents a compelling case that prevailing theodicies are seriously flawed attempts to answer seriously illformed questions.

Hauerwas begins with a succinct account of Peter DeVries’s novel The Blood of the Lamb. Beginning with a story is not incidental to the purpose of the book: “We shall see that such stories are much more than illustrations of the problem of evil. Indeed, without such stories we would have no means to frame the challenge of suffering, and even more important, no way to respond to that challenge.” It is precisely the problem of “story” (or rather the lack thereof), which has produced so many questionable attempts at theodicy, thinks Hauerwas.

The Blood of the Lamb is the story of a man, Don Wanderhope, who sees a rather unusual amount of suffering and death in his young life. Before he reaches middle age, Wanderhope witnesses the insanity and death of his father, and the untimely deaths of his brother (a young graduate of the University of Chicago Medical School), his first love (whom he meets as a patient in a tuberculosis sanitarium to which he was wrongly sent), and his wife Greta who, like Don’s father, commits suicide. Most importantly, though, he suffers the agony of watching his young daughter Carol experience the false hope of cure and remission for, and ultimately her death from, leukemia.

The point of the story (at least for Hauerwas’s purpose) is that Don Wanderhope is never really shaken by death until his daughter—a child—dies from a painful disease. Of course he mourned the earlier deaths, but only the illness of his daughter Carol drove this backslidden Dutch Reformed Christian to the alter of St. Jude, at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church. Only when he watched his child suffer and die for no apparent reason did he feel compelled to return to that church and hurl the birthday cake intended for Carol at the crucifix outside St. Catherine’s; only then did he take a small cross from a bureau drawer, walk to the woods, and hurl the cross as far as he could into the trees. When Carol died, Wanderhope could not be consoled by the free-will defense he knew so well. “What is it about the death and suffering of a child,” asks Hauerwas, “that seems to challenge not only our belief in God but also our very hold on existence?”

Of course some recent Christian attempts to account for evil have not depended on the high metaphysics of the free-will defense, but Hauerwas finds these lacking as well. First, it won’t do to say that, no matter how bad the suffering, something good can come from or be learned by it. Nothing good came of Carol Wanderhope’s death, and nothing was learned from it. It was pointless. Nor will it do to say, as many recent theodicies do, that we can be comforted in our suffering by knowing that we have a God who is capable of suffering with us. This might be on the right track, thinks Hauerwas, but it still falls short of the mark.

The essential problem is twofold: first, modern man, even modern Christian man, puts more faith in science and medicine than in the God in whom he professes to believe. Second, modern liberal man is uprooted from any coherent story of his existence, cut off from any narrative history that could help him to see that it makes no sense to try to make sense of senseless suffering.

“Our questions about suffering are asked from a world determined by a hope schooled by medicine,” says Hauerwas, “a world that promises to ‘solve’ suffering by eliminating its causes.” Rather than offering comfort in the context of a world view formed by Christian faith, modern medicine offers healing in a world without context. Control over the causes of suffering, not comfort in light of suffering, is the promise of modern science. Modern man has a new god, one born in the Enlightenment, killed a short time later, and resurrected as modern science—a god whose purpose is not to offer explanations to the community of faith, or to search for knowledge in some defined context—but to offer solutions to everyone. When those “solutions” fail, we ask why God has failed.

Hauerwas thinks it is no accident that the very notion of theodicy arose at the same time as modern medicine. Modern science is not interested in knowledge of the world, but in control over it. It is not really “science” which knows, but “technique” which controls. When it cannot control the world—and illness is the starkest reminder that it cannot—modern science needs an explanation, it needs to be justified in its failure. Before this modern idea of control over nature and nature’s embarrassing anomalies, no one expected a life without suffering, and thus no one asked for explanations of suffering. “It never occurred to the early Christians to question their belief in God or even God’s goodness because they were unjustly suffering for their beliefs,” Hauerwas explains. “Rather, their faith gave them direction in the face, of persecution and general misfortune. Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution, but a practical challenge requiring a response.” Suffering was expected as part of the human condition; it was born in a particular context; and it was dealt with pastorally, not apologetically.

But not now. Now we think that

sickness should not exist because we think of it as something in which we can intervene and which we can ultimately eliminate. Sickness challenges our most cherished presumption that we are or at least can be in control of our existence. Sickness creates the problem of “anthropodicy” because it challenges our most precious and profound belief that humanity has in fact become god. Against the backdrop of such belief, we conclude that sickness should not exist.

And when it does exist, we must ask ourselves why “god” allows it.

Hauerwas contends that Christians are bothered by the modern question of theodicy because we have accepted Enlightenment liberalism’s rules of the game. In accepting its notions of science and individualism, modern Christians adhere to the presuppositions of a world view consistently at odds with the Christian one. An abstract need to “explain” suffering in universal terms “is to underwrite the Enlightenment assumption that we are most fully ourselves when we are free of all traditions and communities other than those we have chosen from the position of complete autonomy. In such a context, suffering cannot help but appear absurd, since it always stands as a threat to autonomy.”

This autonomy applies not just to people, but to medicine as well. Medicine is part of modern science, which is about control, not knowledge; about means-end rationality, not about explanation. Modern medicine has no narrative context which supply guidelines for its purpose and value. It is “value-neutral,” unencumbered by questions of what “ought” to be done or—more importantly—what “ought not” to be done. The Enlightenment mind-set asserts autonomy and individual control. It tells us that we have a right not to be sick, and a right to be cured if the first right is violated. As a result, says Hauerwas, “we have come to believe that what can be done medically ought to be done. Medicine has become our means of overcoming our ‘fragility.'” When medicine fails, it causes a crisis of faith—faith in what we often call “god.”

So why do good people especially children—suffer? “I have no answer to the question of why children suffer,” says Hauerwas, “because I do not want to grant the presuppositions that often give rise to such questions.” He does suggest, though, why the suffering of children bothers us especially, and in so doing Hauerwas suggests the recovery of a Christian understanding of illness and pain.

Put simply, the suffering of children is especially perplexing because we recognize that children have not had the chance to live a life, and thus to have a story. When a child dies, we really do not know who has died, because “who” the child is has not yet been determined. “As adults we may respond more or less well to our illness, but at least the illness seems to have a context—we can make it part of our ongoing story.” Not so with children. To the extent that they have a context to begin with, we usually think that they are not able to understand it, or to incorporate it into an account of their suffering. For a child, it just hurts.

But it is not only children who do not have a story out of which to make sense of their suffering. Hauerwas contends that none of us do—or that if we do, we set it aside when we think about things as illness and suffering. Illness is an effrontery to us, not because it shakes our belief in God, but because our belief in God has not been sufficiently grounded in the story of who God is: the Christian God who presented Himself initially in the story of the Cross, and thence in the story of the Church.

In the least well-developed but most intuitively compelling part of the book, Hauerwas contends that the ancient Hebrews and Christians were never concerned with abstract questions about why God “allowed” suffering. If they recognized sin in the camp, they tried to root it out; if they did not have such an explanation, their purpose was to comfort one another, not to explain suffering away. These early believers never recognized a promise that they ought not suffer, nor made an abstract claim against God when they did. Rather, they saw their lives as rooted in a community formed by a story of a God who acts in history to comfort his afflicted. This is not merely a God who is able to suffer with us, or understands our suffering, but a God who calls people to himself in a community of sharers of suffering. (This did not preclude medicine, of course, but it saw medicine as comforting, not curing. The predisposition of pre-modern medicine was not to act, and when action was indicated the purpose was care, not cure.)

We need not feel compelled to defend God when we suffer, because we have never been promised by Him that we shall not. The god who needs defending is the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent postulant of the Enlightenment, who is not allowed to be God if “meaningless” suffering takes place, and who must be replaced by technology when this god fails. But the God of the Bible is much more than this; the God of the Bible is the God who calls us into a community of believers that asks not why we suffer, but that forms our ability to respond to pain, suffering, and pointless death. This church is a community that, rather than rail at suffering, is actually formed by suffering and the expectation of redemption and resurrection.

Hauerwas uses the example of the imprecatory psalms to bring home the crucial point of this provocative and informative book:

The psalms of lament do not simply reflect our experience; they are meant to form our experience of despair. They are meant to name the silences that our suffering has created. They bring us into communion with God and one another, communion that makes it possible to acknowledge our pain and suffering, to rage that we see no point to it, and yet our very acknowledgment of that fact makes us a people capable of living faithfully. We are able to do so because we know that the God who has made our life possible is not a God merely of goodness and power, but the life, cross, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The God who calls us to service through worship is not a God who insures that our lives will not be disturbed; indeed, if we are faithful, we had better expect to experience a great deal of unrest. This may not be the God we want, but at least it is a God whose very complexity is so fascinating that our attention is captivated by the wonder of the life that God has given us—a life that includes pain and suffering that seem to have no point. 


[Naming the Silences, by Stanley Hauerwas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) 154 pp., $9.95]