This is Part One of a series.
Four tough questions: they are actually four versions of the same question.
In the Book of Job, we track the travails of a good, righteous man. Job loses his flocks, his health, even his family, through no fault of his own. His relentless efforts to make logical sense of the relationship between his righteous conduct and his deplorable circumstances drive him to the point of spiritual implosion. Finally, a stranger intrudes upon the scene, and asks a question of thunderous import: “If thou sinnest, what doest thou against [God]?” (Job 35:6). In other words, why should God care how we conduct our lives? What could make him want to punish me for what I do with my agency?
Now to the Book of Mormon. Alma has been struggling with a rebellious son. With fatherly insight, he goes straight to the crux of the problem. “My son, I perceive there is somewhat more which doth worry your mind, which ye cannot understand—which is concerning the justice of God in the punishment of the sinner, for ye do try to suppose that it is injustice that the sinner should be consigned to a state of misery” (Alma 42.1). It’s essentially the same question. Why can’t God just overlook our sins. Why his insistence on retribution for our wrongs?
Third, a young couple of differing religions were asking me about the LDS concept of temple marriage. Mormons believe that only a temple sealing, I explained, can establish a sealing bond that will survive death. “So you mean,” one of them asked, that if we die and are resurrected, but haven’t been sealed, God won’t let us live together eternally? Why would God do that to us?”
And the fourth question, which I will read at greater length. It comes from Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, the Brothers Karamazov. The nihilist Ivan has just related to his brother Alyosha, the tender-hearted young priest-in-training, the harrowing true story of a young child torn to pieces by hunting dogs in front of his mother, at the command of a sadistic landowner, and another about the torture of a little girl thrown into a cesspool.
When the mother embraces the fiend who threw her child to the dogs, and all three cry aloud with tears, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ then, of course, the crown of knowledge will be reached and all will be made clear. But what pulls me up here is that I can’t accept that harmony. And while I am on earth, I make haste to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, perhaps it really may happen that if I live to that moment, or rise again to see it, I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then. While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It’s not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to ‘dear, kind God’! It’s not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony. But how? How are you going to atone for them? Is it possible? By their being avenged? But what do I care for avenging them? What do I care for a hell for oppressors? What good can hell do, since those children have already been tortured? And what becomes of harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want more suffering. . . . And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket. i
These examples from scripture, from literature, and from personal experience, all suggest a failure of the religious understanding that has been catastrophic. Many of us may have been worshipping the wrong God.
Some weeks ago, a young man came to talk to me in a personal capacity. He had been profoundly moved by some religiously themed literature he had been reading. He had no previous religious affiliation, but felt something stirring deep within, and had come to see me with a most unusual request. Perhaps sensing my own faith commitment, he said this: “I am embarking on a quest to find God. What questions should I be asking along my way?” I said to him, “The first question you must ask is, ‘What kind of a God do you seek?’” He thought that was a most curious response. But it’s exactly the right question, I believe.
Not all Gods are worthy of our allegiance. Even the God imagined by many Christians is not one deserving of adoration. Listen to Augustine’s defense of a God who blithely consigns to hell untold numbers of unbaptized children: “if another soul, not merely before it sins but at the very outset of its life, is placed under a punishment . . . it has a great good for which to thank its Creator, for the merest beginning of a soul is better than the most perfect material object.”ii In fact, he considered any complaint on the subject “slanderous”: some ask, he wrote, “if it was Adam and Eve who sinned, what did we poor wretches do? How do we deserve to be born in blindness of ignorance and the torture of difficulty? . . . My response is brief: let them be silent and stop murmuring.”iii
Or listen to Luther, writing more than a thousand years later on the subject of election by grace. God “ordains whom, and such as He will, to be receivers and partakers of his preached and offered mercy.” And that will, he continues, we have no right to try and understand, because it is “the most profound secret of the divine majesty, which he reserves unto himself and keeps hidden from us.” Exactly why God does not save those it is clearly in his power to save, but rather blames man for what, in Luther’s words, we have no power to avoid, “it is not lawful to inquire.” This clearly perverse will, he concludes, is not to be understood. “It is only to be feared and adored!”iv
Let me give one more example from literature, of a boy who refused to worship one of the Christian gods of 19th c. Christendom. His name was Huck Finn, and he went through soul agony in his decision to help a slave, Jim, escape his bondage. “It would get all around,” he fretted, “that Huck Finn helped a [slave] to get his freedom….The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven.
. . . Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I wasn’t so much to blame.”
At last, Huck decides to do the ”Christian” thing, and turn the slave in. He writes a note betraying him, but then has one last pang of remorse. “It was a close place. I took [the note] up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowd it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”v
So where does all this leave us? I am trying to suggest that the thorniest dilemma in the history of the world is the problem of God’s justice, and it has led to theological atrocities on the one hand, and atheism on the other. Gods not worth believing in, or no God at all. In between, are legions of the confused like Job, the perplexed like Corianton, the conflicted like Huck, or the rebellious like Ivan. More commonly, and of more direct interest to me at the moment, are Latter-day Saints who sometimes veer one way and sometimes the other. Obviously, we cannot just create a God that makes us comfortable. I am reminded of the marquee outside a little country church I saw in rural Massachusetts. Come worship with us, the sign invited. “Soft Pews; No Hell.” So where do we go to find the True God, and having found him, how do we then make sense of the pain, the trauma, and the horror in the world? I want to make some suggestions as to how we might proceed, in order to make a beginning, in solving these questions.
The Weeping God of Enoch
One of the most massive transformations in theological understanding in recent centuries is the Christian world’s turn toward a passible God. Passibilism is the theological term for the notion that God suffers. That he experiences emotions. The official position of most of Christendom, according to the creeds, is that God is “without body, parts, or passions.” There are many reasons to believe God cannot experience emotion. Emotion and passion suggest a change of state, and the God of classical Christianity is changeless. Emotion and passion suggest a humanizing of the divine nature, and God is not anthropomorphic, or human-like. And finally, emotion suggests weakness and susceptibility. As Sigmund Freud wrote, we are never so vulnerable as when we love. C. S. Lewis added the concern that, if God grieved over the wicked, we could hold his happiness hostage. So God was defined as outside or above or beyond such feelings.vi One theologian writes that the idea was so uncontroversial, that no one rose to challenge it until the late nineteenth-century.vii
But that isn’t exactly true. In 1832, Joseph Smith published in the Times and Seasons a translation which I consider one of his two greatest contributions to religious understanding: “the prophecy of Enoch.”
And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept, and Enoch bore record of it, saying, How is it the heavens weep and shed forth her tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord, How is it that thou canst weep seeing thou art holy and from all eternity from all eternity? and were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, and millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; . . ., and naught but peace, justice and truth is the habitation of thy throne; and mercy shall go before thy face and have no end: how is it that thou canst weep?
The Lord said unto Enoch, Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the garden of Eden gave I unto man his agency; and unto thy brethren have I said, and also, gave commandment, That they should love one another; and that they should choose me their father, but behold they are without affection; and they hate their own blood; . . .Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands: Wherefore, should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?viii
Joseph Smith later taught that to exercise faith in God, the first requirement is a “correct idea of his character, perfections, and attributes.”ix And the most fundamental truth in this regard, is not the knowledge that God has a glorified body of flesh and bones. It is, as I have written elsewhere, the knowledge that God has a heart that beats in sympathy with his children. That he feels real sorrow, rejoices with real gladness, and weeps real tears. This, as Enoch learned, is an awful, terrible, yet infinitely comforting truth.
No other God ever has been, or ever will be, worthy of human worship. Only a God whose love is not metaphorical, whose fatherhood is literal, whose sacrifice of his son was emotionally costly beyond imagining, and whose concern for our lives is personal, intimate, and real, can be the basis of true religion. Among the theologians, Joseph Smith was virtually alone in saying that in 1830.
Now, that still leaves us with the greatest of dilemmas: how to reconcile the understanding of a God who weeps over pain but does not prevent the pain–how to reconcile that understanding with the reality of a world drenched in pain and suffering?
I believe what will provide greater clarity on this issue, as well as greater clarity about LDS conceptions of the war in heaven, the purpose of mortal life, and the nature of the atonement, is a more coherent account of the meaning and role of moral agency. So in what follows, I want to make some very tentative efforts in that regard. [To Be Continued]
i Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Rebellion,” Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett (New York: Macmillan, 1922), 258.
ii Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will iii.20, trans. Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 109.
iii Augustine, On Free Choice, 107.
iv Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, trans. Henry Cole (np: Feather Trail Press, 2009), 67-68.
v Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1918), 296-97.
vi See his Great Divorce.
vii Marcel Sarot, God, Passibility, and Corporeality (Kampen, Netherlands: Pharos, 1992), 1-2. Sarot gives more than a half dozen examples of defenses of impassibilism by contemporary theologians.
viii “Extract from the Prophecy of Enoch,” Evening and Morning Star 1.3 (August 1832): 18.
ix Lectures on Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 1985), no. 3, p. 38.