I had a meeting with some medical people the other day to talk over some issues of grief related to an untimely death. As our time together began to draw to a close, one person, who had already displayed a robust fundamentalist Christian faith, raised the dreaded question: Why?
We can talk about how and what: how did something happen; what happened. We can talk about the sequence of events, and all the interrelated chains of cause and effect. We can talk about our own feelings and what we were thinking, but Why?, the most common question of all, is another matter. Why is a moral question. Why demands to know what moral reasoning underlies what happened. Why is a good question to ask when moral reasoning is clearly the issue, but often it is not. That does not stop it from being asked, sometimes as an angry demand.
Most parents can recall a time when, with foot stamping and finger pointing, they demanded to know why their five year old shaved the cat, or filled the toilet bowl with an entire roll of toilet paper. What was the answer? “I dunno.” An honest answer if there ever was one because why demanded to know the moral reasoning behind an incident in which moral reasoning played a very small and ill formed part.
The cop demands to know why you ran the red light. The honest answer for many is “I don’t know, I guess I wasn’t thinking.” In other words, we can explained what happened and how it happened, but not why it happened because moral decision making was not a significant part of the event.
Why is a very difficult question to ask, and the full answer to why could take a very long time of deep introspection to discover. Demanding to know the why of an untimely death, especially if that question is aimed at God, is a question that can never be answered, unless one believes that absolutely everything happens for a reason, that the reason is God driven, and that it can be discovered by believers with true faith in one hand and a bible in the other.
I made two mistakes in the closing minutes of our time together. I sought to say something about why being a question we could not answer. I went on to assert that not everything happens for a moral reason. Many things, perhaps including this untimely death, happen by chance. It’s the way the universe works; chance plays a very large role in what happens for good or for ill.
Chance does not rule out interrelated chains of cause and effect. Chance does not rule out moral decisions made by human beings as they engage with the events of their lives. Chance does not rule out God’s presence in those events: it creates enormous room for God to act as God chooses. All kinds of probability analysis help us anticipate chance events, but they are very rough tools at their best, and frequently fail.
For instance, the high probability of violent thunderstorms last night was realized, as was the high probability that we might suffer at least one lightning strike caused fire in a standing wheat field. The field that got struck, got struck by chance. By chance, it was the only one.
Suggesting, in those few minutes, that the moral question of why was beyond our ability to answer, and that God does not control everything for reasons we can discover, poked a sharp stick into the eye of this person’s faith, abruptly terminating whatever value our time together had. If God didn’t have a reason for causing this untimely death, then what sense can be made of it? If this priest doesn’t believe that God had a reason for causing this untimely death, then he must be an unbelieving wolf in sheep’s clothing.
A gathering such as this was not a place to jam a theological lesson into the concluding five minutes. You would think that after so many years I would know better. I wonder why I don’t?