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Our Lamentable Lacuna (Part Two) - Lamenting and Repenting in Lent 2019

Posted on March 15, 2019 at 2:40 PM


"Changes in attitudes toward suffering . . . are among the most important changes that take place in human society."3 Surely we are all aware of this. For example, there is a grievous philosophical and intellectual failure endemic in political and academic bioethics with which we should take issue. The vast majority of bioethicists, as well as bioethically minded persons of legal and legislative power, tell us that their goal is to elimi­nate suffering. They are utterly committed to their notion that this can be accomplished via death on demand, which is to say, the elimination of suffering by means of the elimination of those who suffer.4

Here is a more philosophically robust account of changes in cultural attitudes. Susan Neiman, Director of the Einstein Forum, Potsdam, explains our contemporary attitude toward suffering by way of a contrast between the Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755 (an earthquake and tsunami that struck Lis­bon, Portugal, killing as many as 50,000 people, according to. some estimates) and Auschwitz killing centers, Krakow, 1940-1945 (where over one million Jews and tens of thousands of other persons as well were tortured and murdered by the Nazis).

If there's a problem of evil engendered by Lisbon, it can occur only for the orthodox: how can God allow a natural order that causes innocent suffering? The problem of evil posed by Auschwitz looks like another entirely: how can human beings behave in ways that so thoroughly violate . both reasonable and rational norms? It is just this sense that the problems are utterly different which marks mod­ern consciousness.5

While Neiman matter-of-factly accepts this societal change of attitude toward suffering as the way "modern conscious­ness" happens to be, there is reason to "rage against the dying of the light" in regard to our contemporary societal attitude toward suffering, to coopt Dylan Thomas. The societal change in attitudes toward suffering that comes to light when we com­pare and contrast Lisbon and Auschwitz or Lisbon and 9/11 can be analyzed with more precision in at least three respects.

In the first place, Neiman's Lisbon-and comparisons are conflating two different types of suffering or evil. Traditionally, in philosophy we have spoken of moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is evil that people do to one another, whereas natu­ral evil (a term that used to be used for insurance purposes, as in an "act of God") is evil that strikes people but is not caused by other people, evil such as earthquakes. On the traditional understanding, the evil at Auschwitz and the evil of the terror­ist murders on 11 September 2001 would be moral evil, whereas the evil of Lisbon would be natural evil.

Since our concern is with lamenting to God, it would be a good idea to be sure that our understanding of evil and suf­fering is not determined by pop culture or high culture but by God's written revelation to us all. This leads us to the.Hebrew term normally translated "evil" in most English translations. The original term is l'!ii (ra'a').

The verb ra'a' is probably a loan word from Ar­amaic. It is equivalent to the Hebrew verb ras as, which means crush or break in pieces. But note that in Isaiah 45:7, the word ra', meaning evil, is used juxta­posed with shalom, meaning whole or unbroken­ness, suggesting that "evil" in essence is brokenness, or the existence of space between elements that designed [sic] to be firmly connected.

Our verb ra'a' is used about eight times, in the meaning of literal breaking something (Jeremiah 11:16), or figuratively in the sense of brokenness by God due to sin (Job 34:24).6

These passages (Isa 45:7, Jer 11:16, and Job 34:24) are funda­mental for overcoming our rejection of lament as a necessary first step in our repentance for that longtime rejection. While we are used to thinking of evil specifically in the sense of moral evil (the fracturing, sinful evils people do to one another), it is vital to recognize that in his word God tells us that he is the cause of natural evil (suffering that has no human or other creature as an agent, leaving God as the responsible one, or as the "moral agent"). When we lament as the Bible teaches us to do, when we call upon God in the day of trouble, we are praying to the Lord God who is the Giver of Suffering as surely as he is the Suffering Servant. More to come under "thirdly" just below.

Harris and others, although not informing us of the Ara­maic etymology of ra'a', catch the fundamental broken­ness at the root of the Hebrew concept of evil, particularly the brokenness or fissure between God and man, or between man and man expressed in the term.

The denominative verb, occurring seventy-five times with meanings ranging from "displeasing, injurious," to be bad or evil .. . inherits from its noun a dual meaning of being wrong in regard to God's original and ongoing intention and detrimental in terms of its effects on man. In some instances it may refer only to its injurious effects on man, either as physical or emotional harm to the person or as painfully unpleasant experiences. There are practically no philosophical or metaphysical connotations that bear upon theodicy or cosmology. The verbal forms of the root are basically descriptive of the interrelations between God and man and between man and man.

Ra'a' designates experiences which entail physical pain (Num 16:15; 1 Chr 16:22; Ps 105:15), or emotional pain (Gen 43:6; Num 11:10-11), in the case of Naomi the loss of family (Ruth 1:21; cf. 1 Kgs 17:20).7



3. Ibid., 256.

4. See my forthcoming Zoe-Ethics: The Word of Life for Our Century of Death on Demand, Chapter One, "Ethics of Balking."

5. Susan Neiman, Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 3.

6. See Abarim Publications at, r- ay-ay.

7. G. H. Livingston, "2191. Ra'a'" in Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. L. Harris, G. L. Archer Jr., and B. K. Waltke, New ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 2004), electronic edition 854.

For my complete essay, please see "Our Lamentable Lacuna: How Western Churches Have Undermined the Plausibility of Christian Faith," in LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, Epiphany 2019, pages 7-14.


Categories: Thinking Lutheran-ly, Thinking Apologetically

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