A Problem in Theodical Theory and Praxis

Roots of Resistance or, Why God Must Always Be Good

Conclusion: Mature God / Mature Servant



Theodicy is grounded in cognitive dissonance. Reason and common sense tell us that a loving God does not kill innocent children, or exterminate loyal followers, or punish the righteous. And yet, such things do happen in the world created and governed by the good God. Theodicy is the art of resolving that dissonance.

The logical options are not many. One option is to repudiate all, or part, of God: Thus, one can deny that there is a God at all, removing God completely from the issue. Or, one can reject God's full power, asserting that God has no way of stopping evil, for since human beings have the freedom to choose evil or good, evil must be the work of human beings and not God. Or, one can disavow God's total goodness, claiming that God can indeed do evil on God's own initiative. Another option is to repudiate evil, asserting that whatever happens is really good: Thus, one can affirm that evil is a punishment for sin. Or, one can assert that it is a warning against greater sin. Or, one can claim that evil is a test of virtue, a purification. Or, one can maintain that it is a stumbling block whose overcoming is a merit and protection against other personal or national evil. Yet another option is to argue that, since God is qualitatively other, one cannot know why God does what God does, nor can one really hold God accountable for God's acts. Therefore, one should have faith, or trust, in God's goodness and leave ultimate moral judgements to God's inscrutable wisdom. In the image of Scripture, "God hides God's Face," to which the proper response is faith and loyalty. The history of theodicy is the history of the presentation and rehearsal of such arguments, with appropriate supporting texts, and not much is new under the theodical sun.

A new start might be made by asking, what makes any theodical argument a "good" argument? Put more precisely, what resolution to cognitive dissonance is a "good" resolution? A good resolution, it seems to me, should meet three criteria as fully as possible. First, it should leave one with one's sense of reality intact. It should affirm what one knows to be the facts, no matter how unpleasant they may be. Second, it should leave one empowered within the intellectual-moral system in which one lives. It should allow one to live the basic truths by which one orders one's life, no matter how counter-intuitive these truths may seem. And, third, it should be as intellectually coherent as possible. In the matter of theodicy, this means that a good argument does not deny reality as it can be -- evil; nor does it deny the basic structure of the religious world -- a good God; and, it does not leave one unduly torn by contradiction and incoherence.

A Problem in Theodical Theory and Praxis

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The best theodical argument, to my mind, is to limit God's goodness; that is, to assert that God is usually, but not always, good. I argue that the evidence from the reality of the holocaust does not allow common sense or reason to assert that evil is somehow good. One cannot, in good conscience, say that the holocaust is somehow a punishment, or a warning, or a test, or a hidden merit against a worse evil. I also argue that the continuing felt spiritual presence of God in the lives of believers and in the collective life of the Jewish people does not allow reason or common sense to deny God's existence. God is an accepted part of who religious humanity is. I further maintain that common sense and reason do not allow one to deny or limit God's power. Rather, the very assertion of God's ongoing presence in creation implies that God is, at all times, active in nature and in human history. Finally, I contend that God's ongoing presence and power implies God's ongoing, direct and indirect, moral co-responsibility in human affairs. The following image conveys the sense of God's ongoing responsibility in human affairs, even for the evil that humanity does: If I give the keys to the car to my son and he injures someone, who is responsible? Surely, he is factually, morally, and legally responsible. Yet, even if I have done all in my power to educate him properly in the skills and responsibilities of driving, I too, in some way, am very much responsible if my son has an accident. I have an encompassing moral co-responsibility for what happens in his life. So, too, God and humanity. God has an encompassing moral co-responsibility in the action of humans by virtue of being Creator.[1]

Considering these four arguments, together with others, and drawing on the zoharic tradition of Jewish mysticism as well as on an intact sense of the reality of the holocaust, I am willing to say that God, from time to time, acts in evil ways; that God, at unpredictable moments in the ongoing divine-human relationship, does evil. Moreover I argue, together with the sources, that this propensity for evil is inherent in God, that any such evil act is not always a function of prior human sin. I set forth all this carefully in Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest [2] where, drawing on data from the field of child abuse, I named this dimension of God "abuse" and proposed "worship of God through protest" as a legitimate response.[3]

"Ethical, spiritual, and theological nihilism," she said.[4] "Reductio ad absurdum, unsustainable theology," he said.[5] Others have joined the chorus, even as all have commended my courage and expressed high praise for other aspects of the book. Why? What is the force behind such vehement rejection of what seems to be a rather reasonable, and even traditional, solution to the theodical problem? The first criterion for resolution of cognitive dissonance has been met: One's sense of reality has been left in tact. The holocaust remains unadulterated evil in every sense of the word.

The second criterion for resolution of dissonance -- empowerment within one's general intellectual and moral worldview-- has also been met. Worship of God through protest, in thought and in prayer, is an empowering response to the theodical problem. Theological and liturgical protest, precisely as a form of worship and ongoing relatedness to God, fulfills the second criterion of a good resolution to cognitive dissonance. This response of protest also has the virtue of being a long and hallowed tradition with roots in the Bible (the Book of Job; Book of Lamentations, especially the first two chapters; the "lament psalms," especially Psalm 44; and so on) as well as in the rabbinic tradition.[6]

The resistance to the resolution of our post-holocaust and abuse-sensitive theodical situation which I have proposed stems from the third criterion: contradiction. But, of what? I have contradicted the idea of God's omni-benevolence; I have shattered the idea that God is always good. The weighty philosophical-theological apparatus of the tradition presupposes that God is omnibenevolent, that God always acts with justice and, hence, that any evil in creation cannot emanate from God. The logic of God's perfection precludes God's imperfection. Since God is perfect, God is always good; therefore, God cannot be, or contain, evil in Godself or even in God's actions. Indeed, most of the philosophic-theological part of the tradition denies any human form or feeling to God (with the occasional exception of intellect and/or love)[7] and, so, would certainly deny evil to God. When I argue, then, that God does encompass evil, even though I can call to arms many passages from Scripture[8] as well as zoharic and lurianic theology, I have broken a "logical" taboo. In asserting evil as a component of God Godself, I have crossed a line in theodical theory.

In the area of theodical praxis, too, I have crossed a line. Work with survivors of the holocaust and of child abuse shows that, for all survivors, healing is not a one-way process; healing is simply not linear. One does not work at healing and, then, "get over it," "get released," "forgive and go beyond it," or "convert [sic] away from it."[9] The opposite is true: one rages, one deals with one's rage by mourning the past and empowering oneself, but the past returns. Survivors who lose a parent or a child, or who become patients in a hospital, or who read about and identify with the abuse of others, or who are subject to the infirmities of aging -- all have recurrences of the helplessness of the abusive time in their own lives. They all re-experience the powerlessness of their earlier trauma. With that powerlessness comes the rage, again and again, and it must be dealt with, each time, by mourning, empowerment, and protest.

I argue, therefore, that healing itself is a seriatim process, a tacking into the wind, an alternation between empowerment and desire for revenge, between acceptance and protest, between love and rage.[10] How could it be otherwise? The past cannot be erased or ignored (at least not for any length of time). It must be coped with by mourning and empowerment, and by protest. Further, this must be done, not simultaneously, not linearly, but in an alternating rhythm. This healing-by-tacking is not unethical; it is not dis-integrative; it is not a miring down in a cyclic process. Rather, it is a moving forward by alternating directions. It is sewing with a backstitch, repeatedly. It is integrative -- more integrative than healing procedures that urge survivors to "forgive and go beyond," to "be healed once and for all."

To put it differently: A sculpture must be seen from all sides and this cannot be done simultaneously but seriatim; one must walk around a sculpture to see it fully. Like sailing, viewing a sculpture is a better image of what life is, and ought to be. Healing and protest alternate in sculpting one's life, not once but repeatedly -- which makes this approach good art and, therefore, compatible with good theology. Or again: Alcoholics never say they are "cured"; they always refer to themselves as "recovering alcoholics." Similarly, survivors are not "healed"; they are "recovering survivors." (We all might do well to follow the modesty and realism of alcoholics and survivors and refer to ourselves as "recovering sinners.")[11]

Theodically, the same analysis holds. To respond to the dissonance of the theodical situation by demanding that one "get over" one's anger at God, or that one "forgive and go beyond" one's rage against God, is to undermine the healing process. It implies a rectilinear image of healing in the theodical situation that does not seem to me to be realistic or even morally proper. Demanding that a survivor of child abuse or the holocaust "get beyond" his or her theodical anger impugns the moral sense of the survivor and casts doubt on the ethical integrity of the divine-human relationship.[12] Protest, when one thinks God is wrong, is a better option, psychodynamically and theologically. It preserves the God of the texts and traditions, as well as the moral sense of humanity, God, and the tradition. Asserting God's presence in human history and then worshiping God through protest is a better path for those for whom God's ultimate sovereignty and responsibility are real, though it does require a willingness to face God without flinching. The images of tacking into the wind in order to advance, or backstitching, or walking around a sculpture, or recovering from addiction are better paradigms: One prays the liturgy of rage and protest vigorously and honestly. Then one tacks to a liturgy of joy and blessing. One turns yet again to a theology of courageous challenge. And then one tacks again to a theology of belonging and empowerment.[13]

Within Jewish tradition, the value-concept[14] of covenant requires the Jew to affirm God's action in history and to protest it when necessary even as one alternates protest with community-building. Covenant grounds one's right to protest and indeed makes protest obligatory. Covenant also obliges active and concrete commitment to community. However, each is obligatory in its own due time. In setting forth this interactive and realistic understanding of healing, especially in the theodical situation, I have crossed a line in the praxis of theodicy.

In sum: Theodical theory, especially in its philosophic-theological form, requires a perfect God Who cannot be, or contain, evil and Who cannot act in clearly evil ways. Only the affirmation of the omnibenevolence of God is admissible. Theodical praxis, especially in its philosophic-theological mode, requires the final setting-aside of all rage against God and the willing and complete submission to God's good will. The cognitive dissonance of the theodical situation is, thus, dealt with, especially in the philosophic-theological tradition, by denying the evil of the event and by affirming the absolute goodness of God.

By contrast, theodical theory, as I envision it, requires one to limit God's omnibenevolence and, hence, to assert that God is capable of evil. Further, it demands that one recognize that challenge and protest are theologically legitimate options. Theodical praxis, as I see it, requires, not pious rationalized acceptance of dissonance, but a serious fight against dissonance through protest as a form of thought and worship, used always in alternation with a theology and praxis of empowerment, joy, and blessing.

In spite of its roots in Scripture, in the mystical theological tradition, and in reason and common sense, the proposal I have made has encountered fierce resistance. Reading the book is difficult, emotionally more than intellectually. Critique has been vehement beyond the usual scholarly rigor. There have even been those who have argued that a theodicy that inculpates God cannot, by definition, be called a theodicy; that is, that a theodicy that does not justify God, is not a theodicy.[15] I, too, was emotionally and physically ill before I wrote the concluding section and I remain tense and ambivalent when I use the liturgy I myself proposed. The disproportionate character of this reaction suggests that more than a "logical" taboo has been broken, theoretically and practically, in this theodicy. The stormy response suggests a storm. What, then, is at stake in a theodicy that names God an Abuser and suggests a therapy that progresses seriatim ?

Roots of Resistance or, Why God Must Always Be Good

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The fierce resistance to a theodicy rooted in God's abusiveness stems from the set of commonsensical questions: Who wants a God Who is abusive?! Who wants to know that the Ground of all reality is evil?! If God is truly abusive, who wants to have a relationship with such a God?! If the Ground of all reality is really evil, who wants to worship such a Being?! Diane has put it very well:[16]

If God is an abuser, the adult non-sick response should be to turn away permanently from Him. Why stick around and be hurt more? ... I do not trust omnipotent God not to abuse His power. I do not trust omnipotent God to care for me. I much prefer omnipotent God to stay away than to be involved intimately in my life.

So has W. Farley:[17]

... ultimate power or reality [as you describe it] is not ineffable, "my thoughts are not your thoughts." This power is not mysterious at all; it is perfectly clear what sort of power this is. It is the power of the sadist and the traitor. The nightmare of the abused child is not a bad dream, not even an aberration caused by a sick or wicked parent; it is the proper and true expression of divine power and reality.... and more important, religiously, I can't imagine worshiping an abusive father. Psychologically, it is neurotic and ethically it is immoral.

These questions are not unreasonable, yet they are not strictly rational questions. They are rooted in the idea that God must be omnibenevolent. More accurately, they are grounded in the assumption that God must be good and cannot be evil, in the prior commitment to the total goodness of God. The fierce objection to the theodicy of abuse and seriatim healing flows from a very, very deep pre-judgement about the non-evil, omnibenevolent nature of the divine, the evidence from the common sense view of reality as well as from the tradition to the contrary notwithstanding. What is the source of this pre-judgement? Why is it so strongly held?

Making use of Freud's operational terms without necessarily subscribing to his mythological structures[18] can be helpful here. Briefly, "transference" is the psychological process in which one projects one's experience of one's parent onto a third person and then reacts to that person as if she or he were one's parent. When such a process takes place with a non-personal subject such as one's place of work, the state, or God, it is usually called "projection." People are very, very deeply attached to the qualities they "transfer" to others and to the values they "project" onto institutions and ideas.

As noted, the commonsensical questions mentioned above express a prior commitment to, and a pre-judgement of, God's total goodness. Of course, humans want God to be totally good and humans do not want God to be abusive. Humanity needs some comfort in the face of the pain one experiences when one confronts a universe that is at best indifferent and often cruel. Humans need to know that, in the end, one will be justified. What could be more human? So human beings project this total goodness onto God and put up with the cognitive dissonance that results when one juxtaposes reality and God.[19] Freud, in a famous essay, foresaw this.[20]

Invoking Freud is surely not enough to establish an hypothesis as true. Nonetheless, acknowledging the truth of projection as a human psychological process and admitting, further, that the total goodness of God is a projection are important steps toward psychological and theological truth. "Truth has legs"; yet, "the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is truth."[21] The fierce resistance to a theodicy which admits evil in God, then, stems, first, from the strength of the projection of omnibenevolence onto God.

An equally fierce resistance has been observed with respect to the proposal of seriatim therapy, as noted above. Again, the question arises, why? What motivates a resistance that goes beyond the usual critical reflection that any new proposal generates? Again, an answer is to be found in the projection of omnibenevolence. The same impulse that moves human beings to want to know that ultimate reality is good also moves one to want to know that hostility, enmity, and rage are not the permanent lot of human existence. Hate consumes. Jealousy devours. Revenge burns harshly. Better to wipe the slate clean, to repress, indeed to purify oneself of such powerful negative emotions.

The evidence shows and common sense experience confirms, however, that trauma is not so easily swept aside, pain is not so easily relieved, and the rage that trauma and pain produce is not so easily purified from one's being. It is, therefore, unrealistic to expect these powerful aspects of human experience to be permanently set aside. Yet, in spite of the unrealistic dimension of the task, human beings design systems of psychological and religious therapy that aim to accomplish exactly what cannot be accomplished. If one aims at the unrealistic goal of "going beyond" anger and rage, then that is a goal set more by desire than by reasoned analysis and reasonable expectation. It is a desire for, and projection of, human omnibenevolence -- quite contrary to what we know of human nature and behavior. Such projection is understandable, as is the projection of omnibenevolence onto God, but it is, nonetheless, projection. The second reason for the fierce resistance to the theodicy of abuse and seriatim therapy, then, stems from the strength of the projection of ultimate goodness onto humanity.

Christians have a third reason for fiercely objecting to the theodicy I have proposed.[22] Feminist scholars have been among the most outspoken in pointing out that God's insistence on crucifying his son is the essence of an abusive relationship.[23] Still, mainstream Christian reading of the Gospel story centers on Jesus' loving acceptance of God's decree. While this response is also very rabbinic,[24] most Christian understanding turns suffering into the chief means to salvation. Crucifixion-and-redemption becomes the central pillar of Christian doctrine and praxis. This, in turn and quite naturally, affects the attitude toward therapy among therapists who are also serious Christians, as well as among Christian clergy. For such helping persons, the proper resolution of rage and anger is submission and acceptance; that is, "getting beyond" rage, "converting away" from anger. Indeed, for therapists and clergy brought up in western (i.e., Christian) culture, the goal of healing is to be salvific; that is, to be a one-time, one-way healing process.

A theodicy that admits that God can indeed do evil and that centers around continuing confrontation and protest as part of a seriatim religious healing process is a theodicy that questions whether God was right in insisting on crucifying his son. More important, it raises the issue of whether the son should not have protested rather than have submitted and accepted that abusive act. (Jesus does question in Gethsemane but resolves it into acceptance.) Most importantly, a theodicy of abuse and protest suggests that Jesus' followers through the ages -- Christians -- should be rebelling against the theology of crucifixion-and-redemption and should be following instead a salvific path of challenge and protest integrated into a praxis of seriatim healing. A theology of divine evil and human objection, thus, questions some of the basic theological and salvational roots of Christianity, as well as the extension of those roots into psychotherapeutic attitudes and goals.

Conclusion: Mature God / Mature Servant

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I, too, wish that there were a peaceful, totally healing solution to the theodical problem. I, too, yearn for the wholeness and reconciliation that should come from the resolution of the emotional and cognitive dissonance. Part of the fascination with evil is, indeed, the lure of the harmonious resolution of the dissonance between theology and reality embodied in the theodical problem. But, it is not so and cannot, in my view, be so. Further, the attempt to make it so is itself the natural, but wrong, expression of the very deep human wish and yearning for full spiritual peace The alternative, while it is less sanguine is, however, more realistic and hence, in my mind, better.

Most persons reach the point of realizing that their parents are (or, were) not perfect; perhaps, that they are (or, were) not even really good, really loving. Some touch this realization and shy away from it as quickly as possible. Most come to it and go on to consider in what ways their parents are (or, were) also good. That is, most people eventually come to a more balanced view of, and appreciation for, the full range of qualities in their parents. This is called "maturity," "growing up." One need not throw out the parent with the bathwater. One need only be as clear and as fair as one can, and then one arranges one's patterns of relatedness.

The same is true of our relationship with God. Human beings do not need to have a perfect God. Rather, humans need to have a realistic view of, and appreciation for, God. Humanity needs to see all sides of God. Then, and only then, can human beings, as individuals and as groups and cultures, arrange their patterns of relatedness to God. In a theodicy of abuse and protest, one need not throw out God with the purifying waters. Nor need one hide one's head in the sand and deny God or some aspect of God's ever-present being. Rather, one can accept the good and the evil, praising where fitting and protesting where appropriate. One can alternate between love and challenge, between acceptance and protest. Just as having a mature understanding of one's parents enables one to become a more mature person, so having a mature understanding of God enables one to become a more mature servant. A theodicy of abuse and protest set in the context of seriatim healing, although it challenges the more usual views, seems to me to accomplish this and, hence, would appear to be a "better" theodicy, in theory as well as in praxis.[25]

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Appeared in Concilium, 1 (1998) 95-106.

[1] This analogy raises an interesting question about the difference between direct and indirect responsibility: Did I "cause" the accident? Or, did I "allow" it? I did neither factually and, hence, bear no legal responsibility on either ground. However, in a deeper moral sense, one can, nonetheless, affirm my encompassing moral co-responsibility. In that context, the question of direct or indirect causation as the ground for moral responsibility is not relevant. So, too, in theology: God has an encompassing moral co-responsibility for creation. Whether God "causes" or "allows" evil is not relevant. The question is: "Is God co-responsible? Can God be held morally accountable, together with us?" To this I, grounded in the tradition, propose an affirmative answer.

[2] Westminster / John Knox: 1993, where the concept of encompassing moral responsibility and the distinction between factual-legal and moral-theological responsibility are not sufficiently developed, though both of these ideas are very much within Jewish tradition.

[3] Facing, especially chapters 15-16. The use of the term "abuse" is new in Jewish sources. The argument is not new, as I demonstrated there clearly. For a recent defense of personalist God language, see D. Blumenthal, "Three is Not Enough: Jewish Reflections on Trinitarian Thinking," available on my website.

[4] W. Farley in Facing, 213-224.

[5] N. Solomon, review of Facing, Journal of Jewish Studies 48:1 (Spring 1997) 195-197.

[6] All of this is carefully laid out in Facing, chapters 17-18.

[7] This is the disagreement between those philosophic theologians who advocate the via negativa and those who advocate "essential attributes." See Facing, 6-31, 246-248; "Croyance et attributs essentiels dans la théologie juive médiévale et moderne," Revue des études juives (1994) 152:415-23; and "Three is Not Enough" (cited above).

[8] See Facing, 240-246; "Who is Battering Whom," Conservative Judaism 45:3 (Spring 1993) 72-89; and "Confronting the Character of God: Text and Praxis," God in the Fray: Divine Ambivalence in the Hebrew Bible, ed. T. Beal and T. Linafelt, forthcoming (both also available on my website).

[9] The last phrase is taken from J. Rike, review of Facing, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65:1 (Spring 1997) 206-209, though the criticism she voices I have heard widely.

[10] See Facing, chapter 5, for the basic image and follow the Index for its application to religious healing.

[11] The analogy to sculptures and to alcoholics resulted from dialogue after publication and is not included in Facing.

[12] Denying God's existence or providence, or limiting God's power, is also rooted in a rectilinear image of healing.

[13] The liturgy of protest also includes a request, indeed a demand that, in consonance with the laws for a repentant offender, God must ask forgiveness of the Jewish people for God's part in the holocaust (Facing, 263-264 for the theology and 286-299 for the liturgical formulations. On page 297, note 21, where I even suggested a possible liturgical formulation in this mode to be inserted into the "Lord's Prayer," the text should read: "Our Father ... Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Ask forgiveness of us, as we ask forgiveness of those whom we have wronged...").

[14] On this term, see M. Kadushin, The Rabbinic Mind (New York, Jewish Theological Seminary: 1952; reprinted several times).

[15] This is the ultimate argument of the friends of Job.

[16] Facing, 198-199, italics original.

[17] Facing, 217, 221, italics original.

[18] See B. Wolstein, Theory of Psychoanalytic Therapy (New York, Grune & Stratton: 1967), discussed in Facing, 12, 188.

[19] What is interesting is that W. Farley admits that I project evil in formulating my idea of God but is not clear that she (and others) project goodness in her (their) formulation of the idea of God (Facing, 217).

[20] S. Freud, The Future of an Ilusion (available in many editions).

[21] Aleph-Bet of Rabbi Akiva, second version, Batei Midrashot, ed. A. J. Wertheimer, 2:404, and Talmud, Shabbat 55a; Maimonides, Mishne Torah, "Hilkhot Teshuva," 4:3; cited in Facing, 237.

[22] On my indebtedness to the Christian theological enterprise, see "From Wissenschaft to Theology: A Mid-Life Recalling," available on my website (see above).

[23] See, for example, J. C. Brown and C. R. Bohn, ed., Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse (Cleveland, OH, Pilgrim Press: 1989).

[24] See, for example, Talmud, Ta'anit 8a and the martyrology in the Yom Kippur penitential service. For an anthology of some of these texts, see C. G. Montefiore and H. Loewe, A Rabbinic Anthology (New York, Schocken Books: 1974) chapter 28. This, however, did not become the main rabbinic response to suffering.

[25] To be sure, there are those who would argue the contrary: The fascination with evil results from a desire to undermine the legitimacy of the good God. Not resolving the theodical problem but holding onto it is itself a desire to keep the problem alive and, hence, to avoid total submission to the omnibenevolent God. I hear the argument but am not persuaded. Contending with God requires very deep faith and, in the final analysis, is rooted in a (mature) loving relationship. See the articles cited above, to which add: "My Faith is Deeper Now," Jewish Spectator (Spring 1995) 40-43; also available on my website.

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