"Where was God?!" It seems we hear this question every time tragedy strikes. We’ve heard it over and over again regarding the atrocious events that occurred during the Holocaust. We heard it not too long ago in regard to the mass murder of little children at Sandy Hook. Just last week we heard it again, as another plane vanished into the waters of our great oceans. Indeed, the apparent lack of God’s presence during horrific human moments seems to permeate human history. “Where was God?!” is the never ending refrain, from the foxholes filled with mustard gas during World War I to the 2004 tsunami that killed over a quarter million people in a matter of moments.
Intuitively it seems fair to ask, if God is benevolent and just, “Where was God when tragedy struck?!” This is a deeply religious question that resists simple answers. It is difficult to answer for God’s apparent lack of presence when natural disaster strikes. Can God's hand stay a tsunami? If so, why didn’t God prevent the 2004 tsunami? Why evil shows up unopposed in natural disasters will always remain an open question. The best we can do in such instances is fall back on faith. We must have faith that there is a greater purpose at work that extends beyond the finite interests of our individual lives. This, however, is another blog post for another time…
But what shall we say of those other disastrous occurrences, like Sandy Hook, or the more recent atrocities humans are enacting upon other humans in the Middle East? Here the answer hardly remains open… Here we can turn to the great wisdom of our contemplatives. In Hasidic Judaism, for instance, it is said that God created the world through a cosmic act of humility whereby he hid himself within his creation. In another instance, in the Upanishads, it is said that God hides himself in his creatures “like a spider in its web.” In short, God is omnipresent but unseen.
It is the principle work of contemplatives, and ought to be the work of all religious people, to make the unseen seen; to bring forth the divine element in each of us so that God can be made manifest in the world. In other words, if God remains unseen in the world it is because we have not sought God in his creation. More specifically, if God remains unseen in the world it is because we have failed to find God within ourselves.
Where is God when the horrific events of Sandy Hook occurred? Where is God when humans enact atrocities upon one another in the Middle East? God remains hidden in the perpetrator, whose personal challenges and lack of familial and social support prevented his finding the God within… God remains hidden in the perpetrator’s mother, whose fear, inattention, or denial prevented her finding the God within… God remains hidden in little children who are wrought with fear in circumstances beyond their innocent, wildest imaginings… God remains hidden in the politicians who, in the name of reelection, turn their heads when the pressure of lobbyists confront them… God remains hidden in the manufacturers of semi automatic weapons who turn profit under the guise of constitutional rights, grossly abused… God remains hidden in every citizen of this land who has tolerated a culture of violence, from video games and movies that portray horrific acts of aggression to unjust wars in faraway lands… God remains hidden…
God is not obligated to step in where humanity fails. God creates life and sets the conditions for life to flourish: love, social bonds, and the human capacity for reason and self-reflection, among other capacities humanity shares. Rather, humanity must learn to create the conditions for God to be present in the world. This begins with honest observation and the capacity to see where we prevent the Divine element in us from working through us. It ends with us as a society, creating the conditions that make such honest observation and subsequent action in the world not only possible, but rewarding. We should not take God’s presence in the world for granted, holding God accountable for his absence in our times of need. Quite the contrary… making God present in the world is our task, both an individual and collective task, each requiring the other in turn.
“Where was God?!”
…the ‘unconditional’ part or the ‘love’ part?” This is a silent mental quip I sometimes find myself making when I encounter people who profess Jesus yet behave for all the world like the world. Some of Jesus’ most fierce zealots, whom, logic would dictate, ought to understand his message best, that of agape (unconditional love), are the very ones we find most conditional in their love of others. It is stunning to me when I encounter the Savior’s most fierce advocates denouncing people for their sexual orientation or wanting to deny the poor universal healthcare because “they are lazy” or beat the war drum in the name of a “Christian” nation… Is their Jesus the same as mine? Is their Jesus the same one who forgave the harlot that the “righteous” intended to stone, saying to her, “I do not accuse you.” Is their Jesus the same one who hung with the poor and downtrodden in the ghettos of Jerusalem? Is their Jesus the same one who said “Love one another even as I have loved you.” Supposedly so… Thus my silent mental quip, “What part of agape do you not understand, the “unconditional” part or the “love” part?
However, I am at least savvy enough to realize the hypocrisy of my mind and hence have never articulated this silent accusation. Indeed, in my better moments I even turn it around upon myself, gazing into the mirror of self-reflection, whereby I challenge myself with the same question. Certainly, just like Jesus’ most fierce zealots I, too, sometimes fail to live the life that exemplifies the revolution agape demands. In my own way I, too, love far too conditionally and like others, I use those conditions to justify my own perspective and actions in the world. It is in this way that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
When Jesus came into the world he entered a world in which morality was determined by acquiescence to rules given by an external authority, i.e., the 10 Commandments. He turned this type of morality on its head (and died for this sin) by teaching us that the way to God was through love and love alone and that God’s singular command for us was to live from this place of love - unconditional love - agape. In other words, he surpassed traditional ethical standards and called us not only to realize a higher consciousness within us but to act from it as well. If Jesus’ life meant anything, even more than being a signpost to the next life, it was as an example of how to live life in this world, letting the hereafter take care of itself.
A life of agape, a life lived as a condition of the heart, a new way of being in the world is what Jesus sought to bequeath to the world; not a set of beliefs. Let us recall this lesson when we find ourselves loving conditionally. Let the heart guide us. Let the mind be its servant. Let us realize the higher consciousness deep within us all…
“Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrongdoing is a field.
I will meet you there.”
I am Dr. Riegel, minister at Grosse Pointe Unitarian Church. Enjoy my occasional blog posts here, which may cover subjects ranging from spirituality to psychology to ethics to social justice to church life and beyond...