"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?!”
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...