Monday, December 17, 2012

God and the Holocaust


I tried writing a new post to capture my thoughts on the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  It was, after two days' work, completely inadequate ... I wasn't saying anything new. This post, from August 17, 2010, comes closest to what I was trying to say.

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I just recently re-read Salvation is from the Jews: The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming, by Roy H. Schoeman (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003).  Schoeman, a convert to Catholicism, spends a good portion of the book analyzing the religious and philosophic roots of the German cultural anti-Semitism which Adolph Hitler and the Nazis manipulated and magnified with such malignant, satanic genius.  (This in turn led me to start re-reading William L. Shirer’s classic opus The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to see how that background mixed with the political and social semi-anarchy that characterized the Weimar Republic.)

It’s difficult to overstate the impact the Holocaust has had on both Jewish and Christian theology … but it can be done.  The philosophical influences responsible for the domination of secularism among the intellectual elite were making themselves felt among theologians even before Hitler rose to power, challenging the orthodox understanding of human suffering and the God who allows it to exist.  David Hume, the grandfather of modern secularism, made a stunning indictment of God’s mercy and benevolence in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion:

[God’s] power we allow [is] infinite: Whatever he wills is executed: But neither man nor any other animal are happy: Therefore he does not will their happiness.  His wisdom is infinite: He is never mistaken in choosing the means to any end: But the course of nature tends not to human or animal felicity: Therefore it is not established for that purpose.  Through the whole compass of human knowledge, there are no inferences more certain and infallible than these.  In what respect, then, do his benevolence and mercy resemble the benevolence and mercy of men?


It’s easy to nitpick here and grumble that Hume, like many modern atheists, paints with too broad a brush: if everybody without exception isn’t happy every minute of every single day, then nobody’s happy.  And, in fact, if nobody ever had experiences of goodness, health or happiness, we would never think something was wrong with suffering.

Nevertheless, Hume’s charge isn’t readily dismissed: How can we believe in a merciful, benevolent God when so much suffering exists?  One writer flippantly said he believes God to be “one hundred percent malicious but only thirty percent effective”; however, a malevolent God who isn’t intelligent or powerful enough to create unremitting universal misery is incompatible with the notion of a God powerful and intelligent enough to create a cosmos.  Far easier to believe that, if He exists at all, He is indifferent.

If anything, a secularist committed to a Darwinist naturalism could accuse Hume of typical British understatement. “Survival of the fittest” and “Nature red in tooth and claw” are such cliché expressions that we lose sight of a simple fact: Nature itself doesn’t teach us compassion or self-denying love.  Rather, it teaches us bloody competition for survival.  The closest approach it makes to such elevated attitudes is less a communitarian cooperation than a utilitarian huddling around the tribal campfire, the gathered survivors as fearful of the predator hiding among them as they are of the predators outside the circle of light.

The Holocaust attacks faith — particularly Judaism — right at the concept of God’s intervention.  Here, we’re not simply talking about miracles, such as the Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano, but about God acting within the context of human history.  Only within Judaism and Christianity is the concept of divine intervention fully developed; even Islam falls short.  But the secularist—especially the one posing as a Judeo-Christian liberal—asks us to juxtapose a more pedestrian event, such as a miraculous healing at Lourdes, with the death of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other unfortunates in the concentration camps and killing fields of the Third Reich.  How, the secularist demands, can you believe God would bother to cure your grandma’s breast cancer yet refuse to stop the Nazis from devastating European Jewry?  How can you believe God would cast fire and brimstone on Sodom because a few guys tried to rape an angel, yet wouldn’t do as much for Auschwitz or Dachau?  What Moses was sent to der Führer to demand, “Let my people go”?  And let’s not get into the Stalinist purges, or the Cambodian killing fields, or the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia!

It’s just as easy to ask why God would allow one small child to die of starvation as to ask why He would allow thousands upon thousands to die of asphyxia in the “de-lousing showers”.  But it’s just as easy — and more pertinent — to ask why we allow such things to happen.  For much of the evil in this world is of Man’s creation: products of his cupidity, stupidity, malice, lust, greed, vengefulness, hatred and selfishness.  Strip both God and Satan from the universe, and Man is left with no one to blame for evil but himself.

Judaism, and by extension Christianity, have always existed in the face of suffering; the only difference between the atrocities of the twentieth century and of the thirty-nine centuries that preceded it is the dry numbers.  Classically, Judaism has explained suffering as temporal punishment for individual sins; by contrast, Christianity has explained it as a physical and moral consequence of original sin.  Christianity has never foreseen the end of suffering at any time prior to the Second Coming; indeed, for those who die outside of God’s grace by their own choice, suffering continues into eternity.[1]  Neither Judaism nor Christianity has ever seen a logical contradiction between the occurrence of evil and an interventionist God who performs miracles.

God desires us to be happy.  But, even more than that, God wants us to be holy … not under compulsion but from our own desire.  The late Harry Kemelman, speaking through his fictional Rabbi David Small, wrote that Judaism’s intent is to make man whole rather than holy.  Christianity teaches, in contrast, that man can’t become whole without becoming holy, that sanctity is a necessary precondition to wholeness. In human terms, that sanctity finds its natural expression in acts of love, mercy and compassion for others, especially those who suffer.  To be holy — and so to be whole — we must seek not only to avoid evil but to do good, even if doing so causes us suffering and loss.

Because we possess free will, it’s our responsibility — not God’s — to prevent ourselves from causing others to suffer, or to prevent others from causing suffering.  Human beings created the social contexts that allowed psychopaths like Hitler and Stalin to come to power; human beings developed and taught the inhuman philosophies which fed their murderous minds; human beings remorselessly translated their orders into atrocities with little resistance.  Ultimately, you can’t blame God for any act of human evil without implying that the humans who did the evil were little more than robots carrying out an inflexible programming, or mindless hive creatures like bees or Borgs.  Such an implication is incompatible with the existence of free will; without free will, reason and scientific knowledge are illusions.

“As we bless God for the good, so we must bless Him for the evil.” Those are the words of the Talmud. They’re words beyond understanding, but if we cannot say them, we cannot hope. Bitterness, yes … but hopelessness, no. The Jewish way is to bless and to hope, and to bless and to hope, until blessing and hope surmount the pain and even the bitterness, and the living learn how to go on. … God is righteous. God is good. It’s people who sometimes forget; who let evil rule them; who lose the sense of the image of God within them and become beasts of prey. … “Blessed is the God who will judge righteously.” He does not forget. Sometimes it seems as if He needs time to assimilate everything He has seen, and to react to it and give recompense. But you’ll see it …. He does not forget![2]

In a universe without a God, it’s impossible to hope for final justice against Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Slobodan Milosevic, although with the first and the last we can take some bitter comfort that they lived to see their efforts fail.  But more than that, in such a universe it’s impossible to assign any transcendent value to the suffering they caused without being mocked by the knowledge that such an assignment is illusory.  If their suffering serves no Final Purpose, even one beyond the murky edges of our vision, then their suffering was pointless.

The story of Job teaches us that the ways of a transcendent, eternal God are beyond our complete understanding.  But “beyond understanding” doesn’t mean “beyond belief”.  If, in the end, we can’t fully comprehend how suffering plays a part in God’s design, it doesn’t follow that the design is either hostile or indifferent to man.  We still know that God calls us to avoid evil and to do good.  This, by itself, is our best indication that God is indeed good.


[1] Although the Catholic Church still holds it as dogma that “there is no salvation outside the Church,” the line between “outside” and “inside” isn’t held to formal membership, and isn’t meant to impose a restraint on God’s mercy. This flexible modern understanding is a sore point with traditionalists, especially sedevacantists.
[2] Mel Mermelstein, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685, cit. in Schoeman, p. 147.