Last week, I introduced my students to the theological concept theodicy. Theodicy is a theological explanation of why suffering and evil occur that usually includes some kind of defense of divine attributes. For example, if G-d is all-knowing (omniscient), ever-present (omnipresent), all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-loving then how do we explain hurricanes, illness, mass murder, airplane crashes and other forms of evil and suffering? This is quite difficult because, as my students point out after a few minutes of discussion, most explanations are often unfulfilling or inadequate. The discussion turns quite quickly to two reactions. Either, G-d isn’t what we thought G-d was or science does a better job explaining these examples of evil and suffering. Science explains that hurricanes happen because of various environmental factors or a plane crashes because of mechanical problems. Even the concept of humanity’s freewill as the cause of evil often circles back to G-d’s creation of humanity and leaves students unsettled. If G-d created within humanity the possibility of evil, how, then G-d can be all-loving?
The love/evil dichotomy is often the real conundrum of theodicies in monotheism. This has been pointed out by numerous theologians throughout the ages. How do we account for evil when there is only one divine Being? How can an all-good, all-loving Being create or even be responsible for evil? Which leads to the next question, is evil the absence of love? These are extremely difficult philosophical and theological questions.
To explore then, we should start where it is often suggested that we learn most about love: family, close friends and intimate relationships. Take this for example. A friend recently fell in love again! She is a different person – happy and effervescent! Her joy is contagious! She can’t stop talking about him. He even writes her love poems. And, believe me, I’ve heard every one! The love, excitement and genuine concern she embodies makes me believe in the power of love to affect us in profound and unimaginable ways! She shows me the force and goodness of love. And, why shouldn’t we all get to experience love in that way?
But families, close friends, communities and intimate relationships let us down too. That giddiness of new love only lasts for so long. Families, where love is supposed to be present, can be the sight of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Women often suffer the most from these kinds of abuse. One in five women is a victim of sexual assault by her intimate partner. One in four women experiences domestic abuse in the United States, and three women die from this abuse every day. Children in these households are 50% more likely to be abused than children in household where male partners are not abusive. Somewhere between 3.3 and 10 million children witness abuse every year. For more information, click on this link. In addition to abuse, some people cheat on their partners. Others lie to or steal from them, friends and family. Communities break apart or in-fight. These are just some examples of situations that are supposed to be loving when in reality they hurt us. This list could go on and on.
With these examples in mind, I do not hold up intimate relationships, families or communities as perfect because they aren’t. In fact, there are familial situations completely void of love. Human experiences illustrate a sad situation when it comes to love: loved ones leave; people who supposedly love us abuse us; unforeseen events change lives and love dwindles. Despite it all, we as human beings continue to hope – that love never hurts and that love returns to conquer all. We wait for that day to come.
While we wait, we learn what love really is. To me, love is support, encouragement and belief in another. Love, coming through the advice of a friend, will sometimes tell you to stop and think before you act. Love embodied in community will support each member through the hard times and rejoice in the good times. Love, in furry form and coming through a purr-filled nudge or excited wag of the tail, shows you how valued and cherished you are. Love found in human friendships, healthy family relationships, intimate connection, and in its ultimate form (the Holy One) is lasting, stable and supportive. It is the kind of love that can hold out and hold on through rough waters and rejoice amid the calmness of the sea as well. It is this kind of love to which most humans aspire, and we try to foster within intimate relationships of family, friends, communities and partner(s).
To return to the questions of theodicy once again, this definition of love means that G-d’s love doesn’t fix things or prevent atrocities, but rather is there, accompanying us through them all. At the same time, we, as b’tzelem Elohim (made in the image of the Holy One), are also called to be G-d-like for others. Much of human suffering and evil in this world is preventable. There is medicine to treat and prevent disease. There is earthquake-proof housing that won’t collapse on inhabitants in the event of an earthquake. There are methods of dialogue that lead to peace instead of war. There are legislative bodies to protect women’s rights as well as the rights of LGBT individuals and other minority groups.
As Martin Buber once said, “Pray as if everything depended on G-d, act as if everything depended on you.” If we loved more, we wouldn’t be always looking to G-d as the only source of love. We would know that love exists among us because we would experience it more fully than we do now. We would support each other during hard times, care for each other in times of sickness, work together to end domestic abuse, visit each other in lonely time, fight for civil rights when they are threatened, feed each other when we are hungry, cry with each other when we are sad and rejoice together in the happy times. If we did these things, G-d would be closer to us too. We would truly know the love of G-d rather than trying to account endlessly for its seeming absence.
G-d is there. Love is there. It is up to us to make that love truly present within the world. We are the answer to the questions we have been asking all along. We are sparks of G-d’s love in the world, the holy attributes we would rather not shoulder. Yet, we must.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).