God is Becoming: Consolation in the Face of Tragedy

Several months ago, tragedy struck at the heart of the community of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University. Joel Shickman, a beloved student, husband, father, musician and friend was diagnosed with a serious illness. His struggle was valiant and the students, faculty, and staff rallied around him and his family, but he eventually succumbed to the relentlessness of the disease and died in the fall.

Even now, months later, several members of the community feel unable to comprehend how God could let this happen, some speak of feeling betrayed or unable to pray. I wrote these words to help my students regain their faith and to understand better the way the world unfolds:

Dear Ones:

I'm now back from Hawaii (a place that gives ma'aseh bereshit (the workings of Creation) a good name and avodah zara (idolatry) a bad one!). Sorry it's taken me so long to respond to your pressing words. I was moved and impressed (as I always am) by the seriousness and honesty with which you are confronting your feelings in the wake of tragedy. I'm going to offer you a somewhat different context than some of my colleagues and friends might offer. My perspective is deeply shaped by the process thought I've been wrestling with for the past year.

I start with the belief that we perceive the world as a collection of things - mostly static, isolated objects that interact but remain separate. Being is the core of that ontology. I believe that science joins faith to demonstrate that this perception is a distortion. The core of reality is not being (which is an intellectual abstraction) but becoming, which is the key characteristic of all, including God. The universe is a welter of endless change, as we and all around us reach the present as the result of the choices we have made, the "choices" creation has made, and the God infused lure toward innovation, creativity, righteousness that is always inviting us toward goodness. Process thinker Charles Hartshorne referred to that not as ontology by as Hyathology, from God's dynamic name revealed to Moshe - I am becoming what I am becoming.

I believe that God, in choosing to create, created us really. That means that our independence is not illusory or ephemeral. We, along with all creation, have real agency, and the choices we make are truly untrammeled, unprogrammed, and unforeseen by God. God is vulnerable to surprise, disappointment just as we are. The universe unfolds according to its own inner logic, the laws of physics operate and God cannot/does not suspend them based on some moral standards. As Rabbi Harold Kushner says, asking the universe to treat you better because you are moral is like expecting the bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian. I believe that God did irrevocable tzimtzum (withdrawal), creating the reality of our own autonomy and agency, along with all creation.

I believe that people misunderstand the nature of divine "power" as coercive, as omnipotence, which I regard as a philosophical mistake, a religious disaster, and a source of emotional and ethical torment. Thinking of God as having all the power leaves us rightly feeling betrayed and abandoned ("was I not good enough for God to intervene?"). It leaves theologians in the position of Job's friends - discounting our core ethical knowledge in an attempt to defend the indefensible. We do know good and evil; we are infused with that awareness by God. And Joel dying young is indefensible, especially if God is omnipotent. Hiding behind "it's a mystery" or "we can't understand" or “it’s all for the best” is IMHO worse than unsatisfying, because it requires either blaming the victim (in this case, Joel and us) or denying our ethical compass.
I don't think you have to abandon a conviction of a loving God. But I invite you to grow past an almighty one. If God has truly ceded to creation the ability to make choices, then God didn't kill Joel, and looking for God in special effects mistakes theater or science fiction for life. God is found not in the suspension of nature's laws, but in the intrusion of novelty and surprise in fixed law, in the abiding nature of hope and the transforming power of love (a power that is persuasive, not coercive). I saw God being very busy throughout Joel's struggle - in moments of laughter and song, in the strength of the relating that bound us all as a community and kept Joel feeling connected through his very last minutes, in the determination to be there with and for his family throughout and beyond the ordeal. I never expected God to guarantee an outcome or suspend the natural. I did expect to find God in the steady constant lure toward good choices and responsibility. And that God did not disappoint.

One last thought: if God is the ultimate exemplar of process, of the focus on becoming rather than being, than God absorbs and is affected by all that happens, by all our choices, by the ways that nature proceeds. Our sorrows are not lost, they permanently become part of the divine. Our joys and our lives are not forgotten, they are eternally and objectively real in the divine mind. In that way, I can affirm that Joel is not ended, although he is no longer visible to our eyes. He, too, is a process, and the process never ends.

What I do share completely with my friends and colleagues is the affirmation that our love and prayers and heart are with you, that feeling the beauty around you, smelling its scents, touching the earth and sky, connecting to others, working for justice, these are encounters with all and the All, and they offer the relationship and connection that is the true consolation.

(www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University, where he is Vice President. His latest book, Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations, will be released by McGraw Hill this fall.