It is usually painful to read the experts religious responses to the weekly Ottawa Citizen “Ask the Religious Experts” question. This week, however, I find myself agreeing with at least one of the religious panelists. Rabbi Reuven Bulka‘s response to “How can we explain a tragedy like the Newtown shootings?” is similar to my reaction to the question.
In truth, trying to [make sense out of these shootings] is futile, and possibly even insulting. . . . We are unfair to everyone by offering lame-brain excuses. We cannot explain the inexplicable. And we are not obligated to have explanations for everything. Some things make no sense, and this is one of them. . . . The plaintiff cry of “why” is not an intellectual question to which we need respond with often convoluted philosophy.
It is unfair and arrogant for the Ottawa Citizen to ask its religious experts to pontificate on this question. Pontificate is the perfect word because Geoffrey Kerslake, a Catholic priest, usually looks to the pope or the Catechism of the Catholic Church for support. However, this week, Kerslake uses what Rabbi Bulka calls “convoluted philosophy” to explain the Newtown tragedy:
Sometimes people ask me “why did God cause this or that particular tragedy to happen?” There is really no good answer for human-caused tragedies like what happened in Newtown. We know that God does not cause these tragedies to occur, nor can He prevent them from happening without destroying what makes us a human being — our free will.
The certainty that humans have and can exercise free will is an inflexible doctrine of the Catholic Church and the contradiction in the corollary, the Church’s certainty of “the absolute rule of God over men’s wills by His omnipotence and omniscience,” is explained as a mystery. The idea that free will does not exist, and every human and physical action is a reaction to or an effect of the sum of all physical and human actions that came before goes against Kerslake’s blind faith.
Ray Innen Parchelo, a novice Tendai priest, tries to make a case for religion’s role in analyzing and explaining tragedy:
Religion has importance in such an analysis in that religious life participates in the broader project of social relations and value formation.
John Counsell, a discipleship pastor at Bethel Pentecostal Church in Ottawa, is new to the panel and is still working on his panel-voice. His observation, “If this life is all there is, then the Newtown killings are stark evidence that the world is too often horribly cruel and brutal,” is cliched but accurate: the world is often horribly cruel and brutal. Counsell wants us to have faith in Christ:
Christ said: “In this world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome this world” (John 16:33). Those words can seem like empty platitudes if the power of the risen Christ is nothing more than a distant theological concept or vague assumption. He also said He stands at our heart’s door desiring to come in, to take up residence, literally living in us (Revelation 3:20), so that “good cheer” in the midst of tragedy would be a reality.
Kevin Smith, a humanist, skeptic and freethinker, is more diplomatic than I am. He resists the temptation to tell the religious experts to “cut the crap.” Smith uses his final paragraphs to answer Kerslake and other experts who use religion and God to explain the unexplainable:
They say He’s been banished from schools — He being the creator of the universe, the loving, omnipotent father possessed with a tendency toward occasional vengeance if he’s not worshipped every day. That is the sole reason for the murders, they repeat, as much to convince themselves as for others who must rationalize the irrational.
How cruel to the grieving families that these self-serving defenders of their faith dare make excuses for a God who doesn’t care, or who is not there. He is never anywhere.