In Naming the Silences, Hauerwas confronts “the problem of evil,” especially as it manifests through the death of a child. Quoting Wolterstorff, Hauerwas sums up part of the issue by saying that “the Christian gospel tells us more of the meaning of sin than of suffering. . . . To the ‘why’ of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder is not told to us. It eludes us. Our net of meaning is too small. There’s more to our suffering than our guilt” (qtd. on 150). Suffering, then, is elusive, but Hauerwas refuses to allow it to diminish our reliance on both God and each other, never allowing the “why do bad things happen to good people?” question to grab a foothold. He begins with a story.
The story is that of the novel The Blood of the Lamb, in which a father watches his 11-year-old daughter, Carol, die of leukemia. The death of this fictionalized child, a no less true story, providing the overarching narrative for Hauerwas’s exploration of the problem of evil and the role of medicine in our lives.
And so, Hauerwas sets about showing how the usual question of theodicy, “why do bad things happen to good people?” is a “paracitic” question (40). For Hauerwas, the question betrays the Enlightenment tendency to elevate the human to the level of god and God to the level of humans, for the question assumes that God can be separated from the community that God formed. Instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the god of theodicy can have his character removed from his nature (i.e., that god’s love vs. power). Hauerwas suggests that contemporary Christians should be well equipped, as early Christians were, to see suffering as a participation in the life of God, or at least as not-a-hindrance to the life in the community God called together. That contemporary Christians fall prey to the questions of theodicy shows how deeply they have become acculturated, have become supporters of the status quo:
I think this habit of mind developed when Christianity became a civilizational religion oriented to provide the ethos necessary to sustain an empire. Rather than being a set of convictions about God’s work in Jesus Christ requiring conversion and membership in a community, Christians became that set of beliefs which explains why the way things are is the way things were meant to be for any right-thinking person, converted or not (55).
the “problem of evil” is—to put it crudely but I think accurately—the challenge to show why those with the right beliefs do not always win in worldly terms. Theodicy in the theoretical mode . . . is but the metaphysical expression of this deep-seated presumption that our belief in God is irrational if it does not put us on the winning side of history (56).
Still Hauerwas suspects that a properly construed Christian narrative focuses on the fact that “our lives are located in God’s narrative—the God who has not abandoned us even when we or someone we care deeply about is ill” (67).
So Hauerwas, following Brueggemann, suggests we learn to pray the Psalms of lament in response to our sufferings. God is not fragile; God can handle our pains, our angers, our rages. The Psalms give voice to those emotions and allow us to so vent to God in a way that deepens our engagement with God, locating our suffering in God’s narrative (79ff).
Hauerwas arrives at a preliminary response to the typical question of theodicy by quoting Jenny Giesbrecht:
Three questions I’d like to leave with you: First, is it possible the belief “that our trust in God will guarantee us health and prosperity” comes only because we are a comfortable, wealthy nation, with access to money and medicine which most of the rest of the world does not have?
Second, are we American Christians more deserving of a comfortable life than our Third World brothers and sisters?
Third, do we want a guarantee of personal protection, good health, and prosperity so badly that we would dare bend our theology to include promises God has never given us?
These questions came after the sufferings of Penny’s son, Jeremy, and Hauerwas notes that “[Jeremy’s] life has a place in Penny and Tim Giesbrecht’s lives and finally in God’s life. That is, finally, all we can say” (95).
And so Hauerwas moves on to a study of medicine and its limitlessness in modern life. It is limitless because we have lost, so says Hauerwas, the ability to construe of lives and deaths in a communally relevant narrative. There are simply no accepted stories about the good life and the good death in society today. Hauerwas suggests that we must seek to reclaim a way of thinking about death in a way that allows patients and their doctors to seek treatments that increase life, not simply put-off death. Death must be contextualized in a community. For example, Hauerwas, quoting MacIntyre, notes the following dichotomy:
the Catholic Christian who places a skull on his mantelpiece presupposes a quite different set of metaphysical beliefs; and the lady with the blue rinse in Florida who behaves as if she were twenty, but who knows all too well that she is seventy-five, is as frenetic as she is because she does not know what kind of experiences she is undergoing (121).
Again, we need a narrative through which to understand aging and death: “we are creatures of a gracious God who discover that precisely because we are such we do not have to ‘make up’ our lives” (126). Fictions need not be created; we can live into the story of God.
To examine such a claim, Hauerwas turns to Myra Bluebond-Langner’s The Private Worlds of Dying Children. In it, Bluebond-Langner reveals how, because of the expectations on the children, parents, and healthcare providers involved, terminally ill children withdraw and often die alone, without friends or family nearby. Bluebond-Langner calls this “mutual pretense,” which “means that each party understood that the patient was dying, but each agreed to act as if the patient was gong to live” so that roles could continue until the time which mutual pretense no longer was feasible. But whether mutual pretense is undertaken or “open awareness,” terminally ill children often end up dying alone, lonely. Thus Charlotte’s Web was the most read book that Bluebond-Langner observed in the hospital. And so, an extended quote from Hauerwas, who relates the story of Bluebond-Langner reading to a sick child:
“Charlotte died. The Fair Grounds were soon deserted. . . . Nobody, of the hundreds of people that had visited the Fair knew that a gray spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.” Shortly after Myra finishes the story, Jeffery dies too.
But a child’s death should not imitate a spider’s. It may be that spiders are meant to live a little while and die, but we who are created for friendship with one another and with God cannot believe that this is “all there is.” It may be that spiders are destined to die alone, but as those who believe that we are destined to enjoy one another and God, we cannot allow ourselves and our loved ones to so die. We have no theodicy that can soften the pain of our death and the death of our children, but we believe that we share a common story which makes it possible for us to be with one another especially as we die. There can be no way to remove the loneliness of the death of leukemic children unless they see witnessed in the lives of those who care for them a confidence rooted in friendship with God and with one another. That, finally, is the only response we have to “the problem” of the death of our children (148).
Hauerwas concludes with a discussion of Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, which expresses the inconsolable misery Wolterstorff experienced at the loss of his son. Wolterstorff says,
Suffering is down at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.
But mystery remains. Why isn’t Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning? Why does God endure his suffering? Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours? (qtd on 150).
But love is the key. Sitting with the pained person, entering their world, being present to them until the end, that is the story of the friendship of God. It is our story.