In December of 2005, in the aftermath of the great Indonesian tsunami, I wrote a reflection entitled, “No, Not Now.” I’m thinking similar thoughts today, as we awaken to the mind-numbing carnage of Nice. I post it below in a condensed and edited form, prefaced by a bracing quote from an essay by theologian Rowan Williams that Jason Goroncy recently called attention to on his blog, jasongoroncy.com (July 13, 2016). Williams is speaking about the character of Christian moral discourse in the public arena, but I take his assertion as apt for Christian speech and practice in general.
Here is Williams:
‘The weightiest criticisms of Christian speech and practice amount to this: that Christian language actually fails to transform the world’s meaning because it neglects or trivializes or evades aspects of the human. It is notoriously awkward about sexuality; it risks being unserious about death when it speaks too glibly and confidently about eternal life; it can disguise the abiding reality of unhealed and meaningless suffering. So it is that some of those most serious about the renewal of a moral discourse reject formal Christian commitment as something that would weaken or corrupt their imagination. It may equally be that a Church failing to understand that the political realm is a place of spiritual decision, a place where souls are made and lost, forfeits the authority to use certain of its familiar concepts or images in the public arena’.
—Rowan Williams, ‘Postmodern Theology and the Judgment of the World’, in Postmodern Theology: Christian Faith in a Pluralist World, ed. Frederic B. Burnham, 106–07.
And here is the reflection from 2005:
Watching the news coverage of the tsunami, I saw a stunning piece in which a reporter is interviewing several survivors, some of whom lost their entire families. They tell their stories, some with unnerving stoicism, others wailing and striking their heads with flat hands. Suddenly, a muzzein starts calling the faithful to prayer, as if reminding the whole flooded world that no matter what, God lives, and that to pray is just what one does, what one must do, for everything to make sense.
The reporter asks the men if they’re going to the prayers. Some nod, yes. Some get up to go. But one man, who has just told us that twenty-four members of his extended family are dead, shakes his head. Through a translator he says, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray.’
When I heard the muzzein invite everyone to come to the good God and find salvation, my stomach lurched. My mind filled with age-old Big Questions. What is it that one could possibly pray for in the midst of such misery? And why would one ask anything of a God who stood by and did nothing while it unfolded?
My ‘good’ theology failed me. It didn’t work to affirm that God isn’t responsible when plates collide and the sea floor rises and displaced water needs somewhere to go. It wasn’t enough to assure myself, in C. S. Lewis’ words, that God is not a “cosmic sadist” or a “spiteful imbecile.” I needed to be able to say something more affirmative than that, to be able to say not only where God was not, but also where God was.
And I couldn’t. At least not honestly. In the face of all that carnage, everything that came to mind—God was close to the suffering, weeping with them, for example—was repulsive. Each pious thought left me emptier than the last. It was not until I heard that poor man say, ‘No, not now. Now I do not have it in me to pray,’ that my soul untensed. What he said rang true.
There are times when we are unable to bear the thought of God, unable to pray or give ourselves to God in trust, unable to accept that there is any moment but this awful moment, unable to feel that anything that exists outside our loss, unable to believe that anything that can be done but to endure it.
And I began to think that if we are not at least that honest, our piety will shield us from reality, our prayers will make nice, and our faith will separate us from our own humanity. Whether we contemplate the ravages of a tsunami, the cruelties of war, the carnage of a mass shooting, or the intimate catastrophe of a loved one’s betrayal, what matters is not so much our particular beliefs about God, but rather our capacity to be in our truth and allow every question to rise, even if for some of us that means that what used to pass for faith in us is lost, and what replaces it is a permanent open-ended question.
I have no quarrel with people who turned to God that day as one who saves. But I found greater relief and blessing in one grieving man’s refusal to worship God ‘now.’ I also found relief and blessing in his implicit refusal to rule it out for later. Above all, I found relief and blessing in his simple confession that it isn’t up to him to know how and when and whether the conversation between him and God may be renewed. All he knows is that it isn’t now. Not yet. Now he does not have it in him to pray.
We Christians often overwhelm the great human questions—those vast empty spaces and terrifying silences—with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and confident declarations about God’s abiding presence. We’re people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps, as Anthony Padovano once observed, this haste is why Easter is doubted by so many.
There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our hearts, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. And we need to allow this, to say so, to avoid facile accounts of the inexplicably tragic, to construct a Christian lexicon that’s more serious, less evasive, and harder to pronounce in the face of vast unrelieved pain, unrepentant cruelty, and truly senseless suffering. Sometimes, to be human, we have to say no. ‘No, not now.’