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When God is Silent

I was thinking about Cathy's Post below when I came across these passages in Barbara Brown Taylor's When God is Silent:

In the silence surrounding his death, Jesus became the best possible companion for those whose prayers are not answered, who would give anything just to hear God call them by name.  Him too.  He wanted that too, and he did not get it.  What he got, instead, was a fathomless silence in which to cry out.  Forever after, everyone who has heard him bellow into it has had to wonder: Is that the voice of God?...

Only an idol always answers.  The God who keeps silence, even when God's own flesh and blood is begging for a word, is the God beyond anyone's control.  An answer will come, but not until the silence is complete.  And even then, the answer will be given in silence.  With the cross and the empty tomb, God has provided us with two events that defy all our efforts to domesticate them.  Before them, and before our God who is present in them, our most eloquent words turn to dust.



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It may or may not be relevant here, but it's interesting to note that Barbara Brown Taylor has become something of a religious relativist and has abandoned (apparently) many central Christian truth claims. It's a sad story.At least, this is according to a Christian Century editor who wrote this review of her recent book:

Thank you for the wonderful quote, Peter!It's sad to see mlj's ad hominem attack of Rev. Taylor immediately after such a beautiful passage. Perhaps mlj was trying to illustrate the ways in which our words turn to dust?I don't know mlj, and I don't want to repeat the very mistake I'm critiquing. So I'm focusing on the comment, not the person. In response to mlj's opening thought, I would respond: No, it's not relevant here.I'm troubled by the tactic of responding to a person's ideas by attacking their orthodoxy in other areas. I haven't read the First Things article mlj linked to yet, because it doesn't matter. Rev. Taylor's words here stand on their own. They trigger a deep resonance in me, as I struggle with the inadequacy of words, and the silences of God in my own life.There are times when a person's broader beliefs and positions matter: for instance when I'm trying to determine how much weight to give to a shakily supported assertion. But that's a far cry from assuming a person can be dismissed because part of his or her life doesn't match up to my understanding of orthodoxy.

I thought the reading was neat too. The easy labeling (instead of specificity )of "religious relativist:" (sounds like a category out of a 1850's apologetics book where we easily defeat our "enemies") lacks relevance to the quote.Nice to hav ea personal attack on someone who has something good to say.

If God's silence can also be construed as God's perceived inaction in the face of catastrophes large and small, then I offer the following thoughts from Commonweal contributor John Garvey's article in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004:"God has revealed himself in Christ, and here we begin to see how far we are from Gods idea of what Gods power means. Our idea of power is represented by enormity and by force: we think of kings, armies-and tidal waves. If we were God we would have placed our almighty hand on the floor of the ocean and prevented that shift of tectonic plates; we would have sent armies of angels to fly people to safe ground. This assumes an unwounded universe, one in which death and sin are not the main powers, a place that is good in precisely the way God wanted it to be good, and in which Gods inaction is therefore seen as perversity or coldness. It also assumes a universe in which we presume to know what God should do, which means a universe in which God is imaginable, someone of whom we can conceive. This is not the universe about which the Bible speaks, or the one where the God of the Bible reveals what can be revealed to our very limited understanding. When God approaches us, he comes as a baby who needs to be taken care of, who grows into a man who thirsts, is frustrated with the ignorance of his followers and friends, upsets kings, is capable of knowing fear and sorrow, and finally feels utterly abandoned-but because of his obedience to the Fathers will he destroys the power of death, the power that rules this world, and this leads us to resurrection. This is not power as we understand it, not at all, but we have been given no other sign that death can be overcome, and that the God we have is a God who weeps and can weep until the end of time with the mother holding her dead child."Garvey, who is Eastern Orthodox, emphasizes his religion's focus on God, and God's ways, as ultimately, and utterly, unknowable. The article is at

As I was reading John Garvey, somethng struck me. Scripture seems to teach that sin and death came through us from a time shortly after we first appeared, perhaps 50,000 years ago. But natural disasters seem to have always been part of nature for million of years before we were here. How then could the universe have been "wounded" before we arrived? Perhaps we ought to think of the angels, good and bad, as part of nature and of the universe insofar as creation is one because the Creator is one? Does that make sense? Was the effect of the defection of the "evil one" allpervasive in that way?

I think a problem that most of us have (yours truly included) is that we tend to (usually instantly) judge the veracity of what has been said by our opinion of who has said it. In other words, the truth is totally relative, based upon who speaks it.If that is the case, how can the truth ever make us free?

Jimmy,I don't think it is quite that simple. We look for evidence, We look for consistency and coherence. We look for gaps in the argument. We look for widespread agreement. We ask whether a witness is in a position to know, We look for indications that a witness is biased. And then for practical purposes we consider statements of fact as more or less plausible, more or less probable. As for general statements we consider how widely they have been tested, how well confirmed. It is not simply question of trusting some people and not others. I am inclined to accept my physician's views in certain matters, where he has some sort of expertise and I have found him reliable enough. I am not interested in his opinions on the French Revolution, say, or the Risorgimento--not that he would offer any. I think we apply a variety of criteria and methods of rating. And finally, no one is always right or wrong.

We don't know why there is evil, either moral or physical evil. If I've said this before, please forgive me for repeating myself. But, given that there is evil of both sorts, it's worth noting, I believe, that without evil therre would be no point to the great human virtues of compassion, generosity, justice, etc. In other words, were there no evil, what would we then strive to be? None of this is an "excuse" for evil. It's just to say that our only way to make sese of what human beings are or ought to be up to presupposes that they have some evil to wrestle with.

My only point was that her words here--which I superficially agree with--most likely mean something very, very different to her than they do to a Catholic. This is not an ad hominem attack. It is squaring her statements with other statements.

Bernard--Augustine would agree with your analysis. God is incapable of creating anything that is not good. God created everything. Evil therefore was not created by God and is not a thing. For Augustine, evil is inextricably linked with free will. Evil is a perversion of the will, and is the act of turning away from the good.Augustine also believed, if I remember correctly, that because all that God made is good, even something that is evil can ultimately contribute to the greater good. How? As you said, many virtues couldn't exist without evil. For example, to list a few, courage, mercy, forgiveness, the offering of consolation. Just as evil is the result of acts of will, so are virtues. Free acts of moral choice generate both. I think Augustine would say that a world that had never been affected by evil would be a good place, but that it would not be the best place. The best place would be a world where evil flourishes only long enough to facilitate the development of virtues. Evil can be overcome with good, but good cannot be fully refined in the absence of evil. What good can possibly come out of the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia or the killing of the Amish school girls? I hope it's not trite or callous to say that each of those evil situations may not generate good that is commensurate with the evil done, but hopefully a greater good is recorded on the balance sheet of eternity from having the moral freedom to develop virtues and to take actions in opposition to the evil that results when we turn away from the good that has been created by God. Free will makes evil possible, but it makes virtue and a greater good possible, too.

Jesus is the answer to the problem of evil. What is worse than to have goodness crucified? Only to have God abandon us which Jesus felt for that one time.Everything becomes possible therin, all becomes possible, night becomes day, the Amish girls are in God's embrace and the holocaust victims are made new.It is so difficult to understand. Yet our faith turns sorrow into joy and death into victory.

Bill C and Bill M:My reason tells me that there should be no moral evil, probably no physical evil either. But obviously there is evil of both sorts. Furthermore, weak though I am, I should do all that I can to eliminate evil. Why shouldn't God also do so? Faith tells me that God is a loving redeeming God. Augustine notwithstanding, I have to take on faith that God is not complicit in evil. I can't see that we get anywhere trying to give a rational account of why there is evil or how it is compatible with a God that is both all powerful and all good. In the end, as St. Paul said, our "wisdom" is folly to the Greeks. To our nonbelieving friends, I think that we just have to admit that they are right. We have no "philosophical" sound ground on which to support this belief of ours.

"My only point was that her words here--which I superficially agree with--most likely mean something very, very different to her than they do to a Catholic.'I do not understand what "superficial agreement" could mean. You might agree with all or with some of what was said. In the latter case you might have done well to say where you agreed, or disagreed. To speak of agreeing superficialiy with a set of propositions seems to me to reflect a state of semantic confusion. What she has said here, she has said here. If you claim it has an esoteric force which the rest of us do not comprehend, you ought to give us the key. "This is not an ad hominem attack. It is squaring her statements with other statements."Denying that one has made an ad hominem attack makes it no less just that, for those understand the term, viz., an ad homninem attack. What the woman might have said elsewhere does not change the sense of what she has plainly said here.

Moral evil is the absence of a good that ought to be present. It is always a negative element in the action of a rational creature and it renders the action defective. It is difficult to see how a world without any moral evil would not be better than one in which moral evil occurs. God could have created rational creatures, the only ones capable of moral evil, and still prevented moral evil from occurring. It is not part of the essence of freedom that we should be able to do evil. Still we are not in a position either to determine why God chose as he did or to stand in judgment on the wisdom of his choice.Physical evil is rather different. It is a question of some part or parts of the creation acting according to its/their nature and thereby inflicting harm or even destruction on some other part or parts of the creation. It seems that its occurrence is inevitable in the universe we have. We may suppose that God might have created otherwise, if only by making a series of supernatural interventions in the course of nature as we know it, but we are not in a position to judge that God ought to do otherwise than he does.

There has been a lot of norquisting on the Commonweal blog under the guise of "I participate here because I want to understand the liberal mindset."This is a load of baloney.. I know lots of conservative Catholics in my parish, and they are kindly people who seek common ground with "Catholics in progress" like me. They inspire by example. They reflect the love of Christ.The people norquisting on this blog aren't that kind of conservative. These are people bent on "cleansing" the church, possibly to make it smaller and more faithful, as William Donohue likes to say. Or pushing their political points by showing how they square with orthodox Catholicism.The norquisters, like political mastermind Grover Norquist, derail the point at hand to move it in a direction that allows them to instruct, shame and admonish other readers.Derailing the conversation often includes sweeping generalities ("most psychologists think") that can't be proved, and/or a scattershot barrage of tangential information that set people going in several different directions looking for cites that don't exist."mlj's" jumping in at the outset to call Ms. Taylor a "relativist' and then refering to mysterious "other statements" which might make the quote above objectionable in some way is a classic example of norquisting.I think Grant has given everyone excellent advice: "Don't rise to the bait." Which I just did, of course,, but I promise for the last time.

Thanks, Jean! I think you're 100% right.mlj allowed that the comment about Ms. Taylor may or may not be relevant to which the only response that makes any sense, it's not relevant. Moving on.My next question is what is all this talk about natural disasters and physical evil? What is thought to be evil about natural disasters?"Physical evil is rather different. It is a question of some part or parts of the creation acting according to its/their nature and thereby inflicting harm or even destruction on some other part or parts of the creation."I don't agree.Natural disasters aren't evil even when scores of people die in them. People dying under tragic circumstances does not automatically mean the event causing their death was evil. Some parts of creation suffering harm or destruction as the result of a naturally occurring incident isn't evil either. Is it evil for the lion to hunt the gazelle for food?If someone's death is caused by the conscious, willful act of another human, then yes, that would be evil.If death is caused by being swept away by tidal floods, or buried in an avalance, that's not evil. It may suck, it may be tragic, but it's not evil. It's not a conscious, willful act committed for the purpose of wiping out thousands at a time. We're mortal beings. We're all going to die. Our death taken on its own is not evil. It is simply the way we were created to be. Our whole faith is built around the premise that the death of the body is a transition into a greater life for the spirit. If that's true, then why would God ever step in and change the course of the natural world he created for the sake of preserving human life?

First, I want to thanl Jean for her comments ' I haven't appreciated the remarks by some about wanting to learn more about how liberal or commonweal catholics think. Not only is the viewpoint condescending, it also presumes that the spoeaker only listens to or reads those he likes to hear. Tha's a real dumdown and destructiveof the community process!As to evel, I'm unclear on physical evil. The recent prize wining Comonweal essay didn't due justice to Acquinas's notion of secondary causality to my mind. If evolutionary complexity involves pain, disasyers etc to make the beauty around us, we welcome it as part of our challenge in understanding the mystery of creation.Now that Christ diwd for us, don't we welcome suffering and death as part of the journey (though that's easy to say and hard to live?)Now that we've moved beyond literal Genesis reading, most are content that freedom and hence virtue are only pssible if there can also be moral evil. An interesting new book on the biography of Satan notes he's not the fallen angel who makes evil a possiblity but the tempter/tester who opens to us the choice of good or bad and it's we who are responsible.That hardly says it all, but the first point is that creation, like other great biblical truths, is still mysterious despite kenotic theology and more.

The Oct.6 issue of Commonweal has a fine article that's relevant to the problem of evil. It's Peter james Causton', "Darwin's Ghost: Can Evolution and Christianity Be Reconciled?"

I intended no such thing. She is a relativist. She says so herself. No controversy there. Such statements naturally make me wonder who Jesus Christ is to her and in this piece of writing. I superficially argree with it because they are words I could speak myself with complete faith, as could we all. But I do not know for sure what those words mean to her. This is not ad hominem. This is critical thinking. When I Muslim says "Jesus, may peace be upon him," we are led to wonder what those words mean precisely, because we also know Muslims say other things that make it difficult for us to agree entirely with their statement. Grover is an acquaintance. Good guy. He carries around a briefcase with the attached bumper sticker "I'd rather be shooting Commies." Yikes. Never liked that at all. He is what he is.

Donna,When a lion kills an antelope, the lion is not evil in any sense. The lion is pursuing its own good as a lion should. But the the result is certainly bad for the antelope and that can be fairly called a physical evil. Likewise if a golfer is struck by lightening and killed, that is bad for the golfer, but it is a physical, not a moral evil. You seem to be denying that physical evil exists at all. The ancient Stoics took a position rather like this, viz., that only virtue is good and only vice is evil and all other things are, strictly speaking, indifferent. However some Stoics modified this by distinguishing among the things that are indifferent those that are to be chosen and those that are to be avoided.

mljReiteration is not argumentation. You have not convinced me that the woman is a relativist and I prefer to take what she says at face value. As for her saying she is a relativist, as you allege without citing a text, there are many kinds of relativism and many matters actually can be fairly called relative. I am tempted to day that relativism is the hobgoblin of...

Thanks, Joseph.I wasn't really thinking of things in terms of virtue=good, vice=bad, everything else=0, but I am having a great deal of difficulty with the concept of physical evil. Perhaps I am not understanding fully what constitutes "evil". For example: "But the the result is certainly bad for the antelope and that can be fairly called a physical evil."Why is it considered to be "bad" for the antelope? Because it's dead? And is that what constitutes evil - a poor outcome for one part of the equation?As far as I'm concerned, when the lion eats the antelope, it's all good even though you end up with a dead antelope. There's nothing wrong with the antelope being dead. Granted, the antelope may not agree on a personal level, but in the bigger picture it is a beautiful example of the natural world working in perfect order. And that is a physical good. I am not suggesting indifference. Quite the contrary, I am suggesting that we often mistakenly assign the value of evil to events that are, in fact, good.When it comes to natural disasters wiping out large numbers of people, of course the idea of such events being a physical good is a lot harder to argue. But if one had the power to stop such large natural events from happening, would that then be a physical good? I would expect not. Natural events, even really, really big ones, happen for a reason. The earth is designed to take care of itself and man's interference is not required. In fact, I think we've been shown many times that when mankind does interfere, the end result is ultimately worse than if we had left well enough alone.So I guess that's my question. If a naturally occuring event, even one of disasterous proportions, is a physical good (nature working in its designed order), but the outcome is poor, then is it that poor outcome that is considered a physical evil?Even so, I struggle with the term evil as it does not seem to be a true descriptor of either the event or the outcome although as I said earlier, I may just not be grasping how evil is defined.

Donna,In this context a physical evil is a natural event, i.e., one produced in the normal course of the workings of nature or natural forces, that has bad consequences, or harms, or causes damage to, or perhaps even kills, one or more living beings. The evil arises as an unintended byproduct of a perfectly innocent natural event. We might say that in the bigger picture good must result because it is all part of God's providential plan. But for those who have suffered, say the victims of a hurricane, it would be very odd to say that nothing bad had happened to them, and to speak of evil in this contetx is no different from speaking of "something bad" or "a bad thing". It just happens that in English usage we can speak of "a good" but we do not say "a bad" but rather an "evil".

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