Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston's Bombings and a Theodicy Contagion

"Stay calm, and carry on."

Did the apparent introduction to terrorism for one of Britain's first colonies freak you out?

Call me a jaded New Yorker, but I lived through worse in 1993, when jihad arrived at the World Trade Center.

Bombings Make History in Historic Boston

Still, I'm not marginalizing the significance of the dual bombings at the Boston Marathon's finish line yesterday.  Three people dead, over 100 injured, and many of the injured needing to have a limb amputated.  How awful - especially considering this happened at an athletic event.  Those bombings were a life-changing crisis for many people in many significant ways, and for those people, I'm truly saddened.  And praying.

Oddly enough, no clear motive has been announced, either by investigators, or by any terrorist organization that might have orchestrated the attack.  It didn't help matters, either, when a fire broke out at the Kennedy Library, also in Boston, at about the same time as the bombings.  Even though authorities now believe the Kennedy Library fire was a random accident, and not sabotage of any kind, it's been enough to light some conspiracy fires.  After all, how often does a fire strike at a presidential museum during a presumably terroristic attack elsewhere in the same city?

It's all been unnerving and disconcerting for many people, especially since sporting venues create well-populated targets that are practically impossible to comprehensively defend.

Not that any of us will be drastically changing our behavior anytime soon.  I think we've all learned our lesson after 9/11, when then-President Bush created the unwieldy Department of Homeland Security and the infamous Transportation Security Administration to combat - and indeed, exploit - fear among the general public.  About the only good thing you can say about either of these big-government boondoggles is that they teach us good lessons about what government looks like when it's running amok.

Still, people across the world are now operating with a heightened sense of alertness.  From London, England, to any of the more than 300 other marathon sites across the world this coming weekend alone, officials are double-checking contingency plans and reassuring participants, even as events continue to  proceed as scheduled.

Meanwhile, we pray for the bereaved in Boston, as well as the injured, the first responders, the investigators, and even the perpetrators.  Well, at least it's popular to say we're praying for all of these folks, with the likely exception of the perpetrators.  Even people who don't particularly consider themselves religious sputter the "pray" word during times like this.  Those of us who follow Christ, however, actually believe that God hears our prayers and answers them, both in the mundane things of life, and in the tragic.  When we don't know what or how to pray, we still voice our concerns to Him, trusting that He'll answer in ways that are for our good and His glory.


The Study of Theodicy

Did you know that the scenario of prayer that I've just described has a scientific name?  It's called "theodicy," which means defending God's goodness and omnipotence despite our witness of evil.  I discovered the term while reading an article entitled "When God Is Your Therapist" by Tanya Luhrmann, a psychological anthropologist at Stanford specializing in religions spanning charismatic Christianity to wicca.

Luhrmann professes to be fascinated with us evangelicals and our captivation of God.  And I use "captivation" in every sense of the word.  She sees our faith as a sort of ownership over the whole "God" idea, to the exclusion of other forms of Christianity - and indeed, other religions - that also claim an affiliation of some sort with the deity conventionally named "God."  Why do we so aggressively assert a proprietary relationship over God, and what gives us the right to deny other faith walks their own claim on Him?

It's as if we have some exclusive relationship with God that gives us familial rights to His attention.

You think she's on to something? 

Unfortunately, she can't see it clearly.  In "When God Is Your Therapist," a quasi-scientific piece she wrote for the New York Times' Sunday Review, Luhrmann frames evangelical Christianity as a cheap form of self-help.

"You can see this therapeutic dimension most clearly when evangelicals respond to the body blows of life," she observes.  "The churches I studied resisted turning to God for an explanation of tragedy. They asked only that people turn to God for help in dealing with the pain."

As a scientist, it's likely Luhrmann intended this as some sort of slam against evangelicals who may like to have reasons for why things happen, but are mostly concerned with having God comfort them.  Which, of course, is a shallow view of faith, both by Luhrmann, and, admittedly, for those believers who use their faith as some sort of cosmic security blanket.  Those of us who've been saved by the blood of Christ have the Holy Spirit living inside of us, teaching and guiding us in God's truths, both despite of and because our circumstances.  We know we live in a fallen world, and that sin corrupts everything and everyone who is mortal.  Success, ease, comfort, and contentment all become esoteric concepts to people walking by faith and not sight.

"It can seem puzzling that evangelical Christians sidestep the apparent contradiction of why bad things happen to good people," Luhrmann writes.  "But for them, God is a relationship, not an explanation."

This Contagion Would Be Nothing Like a Disaster

By George, I think she's got it!  Except, since she refuses to profess faith in Christ, she really doesn't, does she?  When most of us evangelicals got word yesterday of the bombings in Boston, we didn't freeze in confusion, collapse in despair, or lash out in fearful anger.  We may have gawked longer than is healthy for us at the photos of the bloodied victims, or voraciously surfed news sites for the absolutely latest rumors and hypotheses, but for the most part, we know in Whom we have believed.  Amen?  Unless we personally knew somebody running in the marathon, we didn't expend too much emotional energy over the situation, aside for mourning with those who were mourning, and weeping with those who were weeping.

For people like Luhrmann, reactions like these make us some sort of freaks.  Human oddities.  Actually reading her essay helps explain why evangelicals are becoming increasingly ostracized by the humanistic culture in which we're living, since Luhrmann and other non-evangelicals consider God's ways to be foolishness.

Foolishness worthy of scientific analysis, of course.  But foolishness nevertheless.

Say it with me:  "thee-odyssey"  That's how you pronounce "theodicy," or our defense of God's goodness and omnipotence despite our witness of evil. 

May our testimony remain strong and sure during these days of strife, wars and rumors of wars, disasters, disease, and affliction.  And if there is to be any contagion, may it only be one comprised of God's grace.

How do you think psychological anthropology would react to a contagion of theodicy?

Stay calm and carry on, indeed!

PS - also yesterday, 55 civilians were killed in a series of bombings across Iraq...

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