On this Christmas Eve, "Where is God?" asks WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, whom Time magazine, a decade ago, cast among "the 25 most influential evangelicals in America." His answer compels me to wonder, Would his fellow evangelicals now cast him as a bit soft -- as slipping in influential stature? For in what seems an almost heretical distancing from leap-of-faith evangelicalism, Gerson remarks: "We cannot assume, of course, that [Christ's divinity] is real or true. But for countless millions who have accepted it, this story has divided B.C. and A.D. in their own lives. It has provided courage and comfort in the midst of the ordinary, the unjust and the unthinkable."
Gerson's negation of his prefatory verb, "assume," would seem (or so it seems to me) to fracture Christianity's or Christian evangelicalism's most fundamental foundation: that of faith, which, however elaborately defined throughout centuries of theological exposition, can be reduced to a willing assumption. Knowledge (in the scientific or epistemologically philosophical sense) of Christ's divinity is unavailing, hence to it, the believer must leap (or, through a Paulinelike epiphany, is led to leap). Religious faith in the utterly unknowable, then, stands at the zenith of all earthly assumptions. Nonetheless, Gerson posits that we cannot assume as "real or true" Christ's divinity. Against the inherent arbitrariness of Christian evangelical (or any other religious) doctrine, Gerson's dictum seems a radical promiscuity, if not an apostasy, bless his unorthodox heart.
Even more intriguing is how Gerson confronts his question, "Where is God?" For he does so in the wholesale absence of exegetic theology, engaging instead what German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, more than three centuries ago, labeled "theodicy," which itself confronts what is perhaps the most penetrating, inextinguishable and indeed burdensome question in all of theism: How can a good and caring God permit so much evil in this world?
Many of us, having seen the shining words at one point or another in our lives -- knowing in our bones that we once knew, beyond all the doubts of philosophy, that GOD IS -- ... see only futility and cruelty in the countless lives shortened by disease or disaster, or afflicted by poverty or conflict.... Where is God in the oppression of whole peoples by cruel and corrupt dictators who care nothing for the lives of the innocent? Or among more than 60 million refugees torn from their homes and forced to live as resented strangers?
Broadly, the theodicist answers that God has given us free will, so the world's evil is our own, not His or Hers or Its; or that overcoming evil is humanity's most consecrated mission; or -- within the metaphysically unfathomable, this is the logical response -- Who the hell knows? Underlying each, of course, is the beginning point of faith: the unflinching belief that there is, in fact, a God.
I possess no Hitchensesque hostility toward those who harbor such a belief -- I find philosophical abstractions of Prime Movement and supernatural cosmic dimensions among the most intellectually pleasurable to contemplate -- but I have never quite gotten there. Amid the reasons why are photos of five-year-old Syrian boys bloodied by ungodly madness, stacks of Holocaust corpses, Civil War battlefields' aftermaths, the unspeakable barbarities of slavery; in general, world history's recorded assemblage of incomprehensible human suffering -- which I, merely through privileged accident of heritage and existential happenstance, have dodged. Millions of my brothers and sisters on this earth have not been so fortunate, and their ghastly ill fates are as theistically inexplicable as my exemption from them. In my self-contented world isolated from so much chaos, cruelty and bloodshed, I find leaping to a prodigious faith in a caring God almost insulting to those in past and present want of mercy.
And so I dwell in agnosticism -- a philosophical compromise with the infinitely unknowable.