in the smoke and flames
“Where were you?” people sometimes ask me. “What were you doing when the towers fell?”
My story is pretty ordinary, I guess.
I was in the kitchen watching television with my parents and waiting for breakfast to appear on my plate when I looked up to see my mom and dad standing quietly aside with their hands over their mouths.
I hadn’t really been paying attention to the television, but I turned to it now, wondering what was going on.
I saw only what millions of other Americans saw that day.
Billowing, black smoke.
It obscured the entire screen.
Through the haze, I caught glimpses of the towers. The newscasters were saying that a plane had hit the world trade center.
“Mom,” I said, yanking her arm, “what’s the big deal? Planes crash all the time.”
She pulled me away from the television.
“Ryan,” she said, placing her hands on my shoulders and easing down to look me straight in the eyes. “You are going to remember this moment for the rest of your life.”
I blinked my eyes away, not really believing her. On the television, I saw flames licking at the walls and thick, black smoke swallowing up the air.
My mom walked over to the television and clicked it off.
The screen flickered to black.
* * * * * * * * *
In his memoirs, Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel writes about another set of flames, a fire which he says totally consumed his faith:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Belief in God changed after Shoah.
The Jews – and indeed all theists – have been profoundly theologically affected by the eternal horror of the Holocaust. Western consciousness can hardly dwell on the idea of God in the same way as it could before Shoah.
Because as the flames raged and as the smoke continued to rise, a naked challenge shouted in the face of every sincere believer – the implicit accusation that God was somehow implicated in all of this, that the heavens either didn’t care about genocide or maybe don’t even exist in the first place.
We get a sense of this betrayal in Weisel’s words, in the hollow desperation that comes from witnessing God’s own people going up in smoke.
There’s that line from the song Breakeven by The Script – “they say bad things happen for a reason. But no wise words are gonna stop the bleeding.”
Even the most well-intentioned attempts to rationally explain away our pain cannot offer us any lasting comfort.
Nonetheless, we continue to ask questions like Why is there so much evil in the world if God exists? Why do such bad things happen to good people?
The philosophical attempts to solve these apparent paradoxes is called theodicy.
The project of theodicy is meant to explain why evil exists in light of God, and it’s a concept religious thinkers have been studying and debating for literally thousands of years.
And maybe this should help us get the hint: we will never be able to answer theodicy in any ultimately satisfying way.
Why do tragedies like Shoah happen?
I don’t have an adequate answer.
And that’s because there is no answer to theodicy.
The greatest minds in human history have been about it for centuries, and we’re still no closer to the answer than we were at the start.
It’s nailed shut. And I’m not going to pout, twist my theology, or try to malign the character of God in order to solve the unsolvable problem.
* * * * * * * *
Weisel says that “to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
We will never forget those flames.
We will never forget that smoke.
And though we cannot erase the past, we can try to prevent the same evil from happening again.
We can remember the victims.
So we will never forget Shoah.
And we will never forget 9/11.
I connect the two in this way only because I saw the same sense of despair and immediacy with which Weisel choked at the smoke flowing from the crematorium painted on my own parents’ faces just twelve years ago.
In light of such awful pain, I wonder if we can ever take evil and mold it into something healing.
Is this what God expects us to do in response to terrible suffering? Think of it as an illusion, as a part of God’s greater plan? Or are we to mourn and seethe and grit our teeth and then just take our awful circumstances and channel them into something good?
I was able to explore this idea last week over breakfast with three religious studies students and the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal.
Halbertal explained to us that his late father, a Holocaust survivor, was always brimming with an unimaginable joy and zeal for life.
“How was your father so happy, after everything he went through? How did he survive Shoah so emotionally and spiritually…intact?” we asked him.
Quoting his father, Halbertal told us the man’s secret: “wherever I went, I found that there was someone worse off than me. I always tried to help that person.”
The answer to the problem of evil, it turns out, isn’t much of an answer at all.
It’s more of a response.
And that response doesn’t just rest on shaking our fists at God. Neither does it mean denying evil’s existence by saying it’s all just a part of some bigger, mysterious plan.
No, Halbertal’s story reminds us that a proper response to human suffering means breaking through the trap of theodicy by acting decisively to minimize the evil in your own small corner of the world. It means challenging your own pain and isolation by serving someone else in vulnerable, self-sacrificing love.
I mentioned earlier that I don’t believe there is any decent verbal answer to the problem of evil.
But what I’m beginning to understand now is that human language itself simply isn’t an appropriate arena for any proper conversation about theodicy. Our vocal chords cannot rescue us here because there is no possible set of produceable physical sounds that will ever properly intellectually satisfy, theologically justify, or otherwise adequately explain why the bad things in this world happen the way they do.
Like I said, it’s locked.
As one early Christian says, “now we see in a mirror, dimly…now I know only in part.”
The best we can do is redirect this conversation from abstract epistemology to loving service, to physical communion with others. We can draw us out of ourselves by participating in and trying to alleviate the suffering of the “worse off.” We cannot mentally justify God’s absence, but we can follow Christ to the wounded other, still seeking to eradicate the evil from our own private hearts.
This seems to me to be the unique contribution of Christianity to the greater religious conversation on suffering and theodicy. The cross, after all, is precisely what takes away our ability to say that God has no idea how it feels to be abandoned and broken.
For God has also experienced the absence of God.
God stands in scorned, burned solidarity with us, with His forsaken humanity.
* * * * * * * *
If the flames have taken your faith, I grieve with you.
If you have lost loved ones to the evil in this world, my heart goes out to you this morning.
To the survivors and victims of Shoah, 9/11, and the rest of the long history of human violence, we remember you. Your lives meant something, both to us and to the God who went up in smoke with you. You are not forgotten. By God’s name, we swear it.