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President Bartlet has it out with God

Faith As Protest
The tradition of lively and volatile encounter with God over life’s injustices is weak in modern Christianity and our preference for abstract philosophical questions is not fostering personal faith

As face-offs go, it took some beating. The President of the United States alone with God in a cathedral. And angry. Many distressing and frustrating things have happened during his term of office, culminating in the senseless death in a road traffic accident of his political mentor. Comfortless in his loss, he delivers an extraordinary, eloquent, furious tirade against God for the allowing it all to happen. As much of this is in Latin (the President is unusually clever) the effect is lost on the less scholarly, like me. I have however seen the translation and it is blasphemous in its apparent repudiation of God. Or is it?
The truth may be that western Christianity has largely abandoned this kind of engagement with God, if it has ever specialised in it. At issue is that fundamental provocation of faith: if God is good, why isn’t the world? If he cares about this, why do so many people suffer? If he has power to intervene, why doesn’t he? These are uncomfortable questions, but ones few Christians choose to duck, as the new atheists blithely assert. Most of us wrestle anxiously with these questions, even though we know our answers are never complete.

The odd thing is how much of this soul-searching is pursued in private. Our communal worship and teaching can feel surprisingly light on questions of injustice and suffering. The focus on personal well-being coded into our corporate words of worship eschews engagement with broader, darker issues of pain and blends too easily into a satisfied, consumerist view of life. Most of us crave something earthier and more credible, yet it remains elusive.

As many of us can plot a course through life in the developed world which is stable, healthy and wealthy, we are preserved from the acute existential pains which others endure on a daily basis. Eventually life catches up with us all – if not through broken relationships or unemployment, then by illness or bereavement. The dearth of meaningful ways for the Church to lament injustice in the public world means that many people lack the spiritual resources to express their feelings of loss and abandonment by God at moments of crisis; deprived of space, words and permission to express their anguish, they may be tempted to turn away in silence, sometimes for years.

Part of the issue is the way we choose to frame the problem. When thinking about questions of tragedy and sadness, we tend to express ourselves in abstract philosophical terms. The questions I framed in the second paragraph are impersonal and detached. They are not addressed to God in person, but about him, as if we are talking about someone behind their back. The Jewish tradition of active, lively, volatile encounter with God is missing, as if we have matured from being stroppy teenagers to phlegmatic adults. This assumption is a serious misreading of scripture, history and human nature. To ponder impassively the injustices of the world suggests we are not sufficiently touched by them nor by desire for the name of God. Instead, passionate conversation with God is called for; a wrestling of the kind Jacob made with God the night before the big reunion with his brother Esau.

Some are afraid of this kind of encounter because of the risks involved. While it is fair to say God is not honoured by the shallow aggression of a believer eye-balling him like some aggrieved Premier League manager after a dodgy penalty decision, more sincerity and self-expression may begin to open up new channels in our relationships with God, down which his life-flowing Spirit may descend. We don’t have the answers to many of life’s problems, but to air them and protest them to God is as loyal an expression of faith as any other; a sacrifice of praise.

To protest to God is not to lack reverence. There is a spiritual process at work in the Book of Psalms which is instructive. The psalmist may begin by lamenting God’s apparent indifference in the face of suffering, but he often ends it by submitting to the inscrutable majesty and providence of God. It is rather like a tropical storm to end a sultry day which freshens the air, cools people and dissipates tension. God is God, and we must let him be God; by the same token we are human and should allow ourselves to behave as such.

The encounter between the President and God which I began with can be found at the end of series two of TV’s West Wing. After his furious explosion, the President returned to the White House to reflect on his sense of vocation and how much more there was left to do to make better the lives of poorer Americans. His spat with God had led him to a telling conclusion. He was mad at God because the world was bad, when he had more power than any living person to make it better. We may not sit behind the desk in the Oval Office, but everyone has a sphere of influence within which protest must eventually give way to practice.



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