Friday, December 28, 2012

Reacting to Tragedy

It's become a commonplace, almost a cliché, that we have an incredibly short attention span for even the most important stories in our world. But, as hard as it may be to believe, we seem to have almost moved on, as a society, from the tragedy in Newtown, which took place just two weeks ago. The conversation about gun control, and to a lesser degree mental illnesses, rages on (thankfully), but it seems to me that the conversation about the tragedy itself has mostly waned. Maybe that's just because there isn't much left to say — how many times can we shake our heads and say, "there are no words"? Maybe it's because we have a need to protect ourselves, and dwelling on this tragedy is just too hard.

This morning, I read an article by Anthony Pinn, talking about the theological and humanist responses to Newtown. "Humanist" is a word that gets used very differently in different contexts, but here I think he's using it in the basic sense of "human centered." As in, let’s talk about this tragedy not in terms of God and "why God would let this happen," or, "what God can do for us now," but rather talk about the human side — what have we, as a society, done to enable this kind of tragedy? What should we, as human beings, be doing in response? How can we properly mourn, and how can we act to make a better world?

Why? Well, it's a pretty deep article, especially considering how short it is (so, you really should read it). But, in part it's because he believes that attempting to bring God into the conversation actually exposes weaknesses of theology: 
At best we might suggest that God “dropped the ball”—failed to do what a loving God is supposed to do. Instead, it seems to me, as we read the stories of the victims we are also reading God’s obituary. By this I mean that such extreme human tragedy makes it impossible to talk about God in any useful way.
 Don’t read this statement as a selfish demand for comfort, for an easy life. No, it’s recognition that nothing explains away the destruction of life’s integrity; but instead it highlights the fact that we labor in this world without cosmic aid that can protect us from us. Appeals to free will (as my comments are bound to generate) might not be a limitation God imposes on God’s self. It may simply be a weak way of saying we are in control, or what the late William R. Jones—philosopher of religion—called the “functional ultimacy” of human activity in the world. 
I like that phrase, "functional ultimacy of human activity in the world." Whatever you want to believe about God — God could prevent such tragedies, but chooses not to; God can't prevent such tragedies — the fact remains that God doesn't prevent such tragedies. At least within this limited scope, the world behaves as if there isn't a God. We, human beings, are the ultimate actors.

[Those of you who know my own theology know that this doesn’t drive me away from God, but it does drive me away from classical,dualist images of God]

He also believes that theological justifications do nothing to ease the pain of those who are suffering: 
I write this not to deny comfort for those who have been directly and indirectly touched by this unspeakable act of violence. Mine is an effort to acknowledge and respect grief without so quickly pushing to find some reason behind such tragedy. This loss of life is really beyond our limited human language. The loss experienced by those families, by those associated with the school, and by the collective American and human family is so intense, so absurd, so real that it calls for our full humanity beyond any talk of God. 
That actually matches up, incredible closely, with my own experience. I'm sure that there are people who react differently, but when I've encountered people who have suffered a tragedy, the question of, "Why did God let this happen?" usually comes up. And, they almost invariably find comfort when I use the message of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who said (in my hopelessly inadequate summary) that that's the wrong question to ask. But not because, in the popular phrasing, "we can't understand God's plans." No, Soloveitchik says, don't say that God has plans, and that this tragedy was a part of those plans. Because, what that really says is that this tragedy wasn't a tragedy at all — it was good.

Saying, "it was all part of God's plans," pretends that we are children suffering through, say, the pain of surgery. For us, there is only pain. But, our benevolent, omnipotent Parent knows that this temporary pain serves a greater good. And so it is, itself, good. We may think that the surgery is bad; they know better.

No, Soloveitchik says, this pain, and this tragedy, were not good. And, there's no good reason to pretend otherwise. Denying that awful things are awful, and evil things are evil, is not sophisticated, intellectually or morally. It is vapid. It is lost. Our ability to know the difference between good and bad, between good and evil, is the one thing which makes us fundamentally different from other animals (that's the real lesson of the Garden of Eden story). Quashing that knowledge isn't high-minded. It's a flight from reality, and from our own essence.

Pinn and Soloveitchik, a humanist and a devout theist, agree on what the proper question actually is: What do we do now? 
Those who struggled to protect, to safeguard, those young lives—and those who lost their lives to the insanity of murder are more important than any appeal to God. We humans alone must remember them, keep the beauty and value of their short lives ever present through our memorials, through our reflexive words, but also through our resolve to determine and then change the patterns of socio-political and economic life that contribute to collective misery. Think gun control as impulse control, and as a reasonable effort to preserve the integrity of life by making it a little more difficult to destroy it.
 I’m not taking anything away from those grieving, but rather I am calling for greater attention to the framing of life, to the regulations, and dangers embedded in our social relationships that undergird our loss. How many guns are necessary to prove we live in a democracy? How many must die before we recognize collective life requires constraint, a humility and discipline that our pleas to a special relationship with God often damage. 

I've gone in a bit of a circle, here. I started off by talking about how we stopped talking about the tragedy, itself, and only talk now about our longer-term reactions to it. And then, I shared overlapping humanistic and theological responses which, in essence, say that the proper thing to do is to focus on longer-term reactions. Maybe there's a deeper meaning to that, or maybe I'm just having trouble making sense of my thoughts this morning. Maybe, like I said, everyone's still thinking about Newtown, but has nothing left to say, so we are trying to do something productive with our pain. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, too. 
Sometimes it is in silence that we are best able to eulogize our collective loss, and to mourn our lack of power over the circumstances that lead to such destruction.

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