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Theologizing Tragedy

floodThis week has been a rough one.  After 10 years of ordination, I faced the need to conduct my first funeral service for a baby. The baby girl only lived a couple of minutes beyond birth. There was no time for her to open her eyes. No time to cry upon arrival. No time for anything.   No matter how many classes you take, books you read, or the research you do, nothing can prepare you for seeing that tiny coffin.

The task for me, as it has fallen on so many others, was to some how provide appropriate words of comment in the service.  As a priest, it was expected that I would offer some words of insight and knowledge that could make this tragedy somehow theologically make sense.  Yea right.

I fumbled my way through the service, but If that situation wasn’t bad enough, the family would have gone home after a very difficult afternoon only to have a police officer knock on their door and declare that they must evacuate their home.  I visited their home in preparation for the service: they were surely evacuated.  It seems almost divine insult to injury doesn’t it?  Frankly, I would not blame the family if that is what they felt.

That got me thinking about the words I offered in the service. How do we theologically sum personal or communal tragedy?  How do we speak to heartache and sorrow when one event seems to get piled on top of another?    In times of disaster, people look to the communities of faith in order to somehow ‘make sense’ of what is happening.  They long for a voice that will help them put things into perspective, or at least give them the necessary words to express their own anger, sadness or confusion.  In these times, what do we say?

Of course, there are answers available.   A cursory look on the internet will acquaint you with many ways that people have tried to make sense of tragedy.  Does anyone remember the YouTube video posted after the Hong Kong quake? In this video, a red faced uber-christian ranted about God’s ‘judgment’ on a godless nation?  Or what about the act of theologizing acts of domestic terrorist attacks, such as 911 and the Boston Marathon, into a twisted prophetic gesture against the spiritual apathy of the west.  In preparation for the service, I found many sights that told stories oftransforming butterflies, or dragonflies that escape the tedium of their world.  Some suggest I teach how God sometimes picks un-bloomed flowers and takes back too-perfect angels.

Such responses don’t seem to help.  They lack any sort of weight, authenticity, or truth.  I find them the theological equivalent to cotton candy – all puffed up and colorful but wanting of any real substance or health.  Still, as faith leaders, when our lives brush up against a family enduring one of the saddest moments imaginable, or when you happen to reside only a couple kilometers from the ground zeros, evacuations zones, and epicenters of communal disasters, it’s hard not to feel the communal need to speak theologically regarding the current happenings.

Like me, I am sure you have faced this dynamic as of late.  People long for a way in which they can think about flooding in Alberta.  There is a need to give voice to sadness, confusion, even anger.  After all, if God is in control of all things, surely it was God’s will that High River was covered in water . . . right?  And all those people who lost their homes, cars, jobs, and maybe even their lives, well that was all part of God’s infinite and good plan . . . wasn’t it?

Well that’s doesn’t’ seem right.  Surely that’s not what we want to say.  Yet if the flood was not God’s will, then aren’t we left with the uncomfortable state of claiming that God was either:

  • a)      powerless to stop the disaster,
  • b)      Unaware that it was about to happen
  • c)       Chose not stop the disaster.

Well none of those things are entirely comfortable either!   Those answers don’t seem consistent with biblical truth either.  After all, no matter how good or loving they may be, is a powerless and ignorant God really worth devotion and worship?

So it seems that  neither extreme provides the answers necessary to bring any sort of meaning to the tragedies of human life.   Neither seems to express that deep juxtaposition of a God who is in control but not controlling.  There are no nice theolgoical little bows waiting to be found. At least, I haven’t found one.

So, this just brings us back to the start.  The question is the same. How do we speak of God’s ‘answer’ to tragedy, when no answer will ever cut it?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith.

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5 Responses to Theologizing Tragedy

  1. Kyle, my heart aches to read about what this family has gone through. And I can’t provide any black and white answers for you–simply because I don’t think there are any.

    I’ve found myself in (rather eerily) similar situations, and what God and those who have supported me have taught me is this: sometimes things don’t make sense. But when we find ourselves slipping into traps of causality (i.e. God did *this*, because you did *that*, or “everything happens for a reason”,) we aren’t helping anyone. That kind of thinking not only undermines the gift of free will and the created natural order, but it opens the situation up to all sorts of abuses.

    One of the most helpful things I’ve heard said at the funeral of a child is this: “This doesn’t make sense to me. I’m confused, and I’m angry, and all I can do is weep. And I believe that Jesus weeps, too–because this is a tragedy. But I also believe that in the midst of this tragedy, Jesus has welcomed this child with open arms. And he is with us in the midst of our pain. And he has given us one another to help us though this.”

    What do the scriptures say? They’re full of stories about people who, though they had hit rock bottom, realized that God was still with them. I don’t know what meaning you or the family you serve will pull out of this situation, but for me, the message has been “you’re not alone.” It’s one thing to look for someone to blame, and it’s another to look to the one who remains with us when horrible things happen.

    Sounds to me like you’ve been an instrument of peace and support (and shared humanity), despite your own doubts and struggles. And I trust that you are surrounded by others to support you in kind. Know that people all across the country are praying for you and all those dealing with flooding. And remember, I (and many others here) are just an email or a phone call away.


  2. Thanks for what you have written Kyle. Too often it seems to me that we try to ignore the open wound, the hurt and pain that has been inflicted, by sharing some nice sounding words that don’t mean much and do even less.
    I think the first step in all this is the step that you have taken – to ensure that those we minister with understand that we share their questions and that we are willing to journey with them into those questions, knowing that finding answers is not really the goal, because clear cut concise answers don’t exist, at least not in these times of deep, emotional hurt.
    Conversation with a pastor can be the first step toward a conversation with God, a conversation that can lead to a deeper understanding and deeper questions. If we give pat answers that have no meaning to those who are hurt, we risk turning them away from the One who can truly help them on the journey.
    As I was reading through your post, I was wondering what solutions you would propose. The fact that you left the question open, for each of us to continue the conversation, to me is the strength of what you have written.

  3. Kyle Norman

    Like so many things in theology, I find that the true reality lies not in deciding what side the ‘answer’ lies on, but somewhere in the midst of the struggle between the two poles. My comments for the grieving family was mostly an expression of the hollowness that would be felt. I said something like
    “All those beautiful little poems (because a family member did read a poem about flowers) are a little stale; and the scriptures no matter how appropriate seem lifeless to combot the grief that is felt. And prayers? we cry for answers only to find that none satisfy, if they even come at all.” I then moved to talking about how in Psalm 23, in the valley of the shadow of death God does not give us understanding nor answer but his presence.

    I think the family appreciated my comments – and it seems to me that those comments (hopefully) would carry them through the evacuation. But it posed for me the desire to look at the responses that we often give in tragedy and see we are perhaps missing something.

    Thank you Jesse, and Keith who voiced your own identification with my own feelings in this time. As many have sent me messages regarding this event, it is helpful to know that as a priest and preacher, I am not alone in these situations. Blessings

  4. Kyle,

    I’ve recently gone through a very similar crisis. My own attempt at theologizing this tragedy is here.

    Blessings to you in the struggle….


  5. Thank you Kyle (and all) for sharing your struggles with this perennial conundrum. Our failure to “make sense” when it seems to matter most, naturally tempts us to suspect our faith in Jesus may also be nonsense. Yet it seems the Bible was written by people experiencing exactly the same struggle.
    The reason I’m sticking with Jesus (in spite of popular arguments against Christian theism is not because our attempts to make sense of tragedy are so compelling, but because all the other options are even worse. As you have noted -the classic enigma involves our inability to reconcile 3 premisses: 1) God is loving 2) God is powerful 3) Evil and suffering are real. The tactic of rejecting one or more allows that we might at least keep the other. Thus: 1] God is NOT loving (some animistic religions and atheistic existentialism: God must be the devil to allow evil; Baudelaire and Camus ). 2] God is NOT powerful (Some polytheistic religions and surprisingly Rabbi Kushner in his popular “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”). 3] Evil and suffering are not real. (Hindu / Buddhist; suffering is caused by desire (love) but when I realize my personhood (my ability to love and be loved) is an illusion then suffering becomes irrelevant. In Stoicism, Atheism, and Nihilism either God is irrelevant, or living is painful by nature (life sucks) so get over it, or there is no meaning anywhere, so why fret over suffering or love when you could be going for power!
    In contrast to the steady state of monism, our hope that Jesus Kingdom is yet to fully come gives us more hope than anyone that just because we don’t understand now, doesn’t mean we never will. Theologizing Tragedy is one of the hardest things for Christians, but I think it is one of the most significant. As hard as it is to live out this kind of faith, Christian theism has more options for reconciling all 3 premisses and trying to make sense of suffering than any other worldview, not least of which is the +cross. Keep up the honest struggle!

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