For Lent, we are reading Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus. In Chapter 1, Coming to our Senses, Neuhaus reflects on the first word from the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The reflection is vast and deep as it sweeps across reality, the problem of evil, the madness of the Cross. It seems impossible to summarize or hit highlights, as any real reflection takes one step at a time, a scavenger hunt for truth. What are the questions Richard John Neuhaus asks?
Why is Good Friday called good?
For whom does he pray forgiveness?
Who is at fault? Who is guilty?
I will share two concepts, but I highly recommend you read it yourself. Neuhaus’ prose is pure poetry.
The truths at the heart of atonement
These are truths we know instinctively, reflexively.
“First, something has gone terribly wrong. We find ourselves in a distant country far from home.
“Second, whatever the measure of our guilt, we are responsible.
“Then, third, something must be done about it.
“[Fourth], whatever it is that needs to be done, we cannot do it. Each of us, individually, the entirety of the human race collectively—what can we do to make up for one innocent child tortured and killed?
“Somebody else will have to do it.
“It must be someone who is in no way responsible for what has gone wrong. It must be done by an act that is perfectly gratuitous, that is not driven by necessity, by an act that is perfectly free.”
Theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God
From this nuanced understanding of atonement, at-one-ment, Neuhaus’ thoughts brings us to the concept of theodicy: how to justify to humankind the ways of God. I give you an excerpt.
All the Adams and all the Eves join with the brightest and the best of philosophers to declare that this is just the way the world is. And who is responsible for that?
…if God is good and God is almighty how did evil come about?
…In order to adjudicate these questions, we constituted ourselves the jury and the judge and we put God on the dock. And soon enough we would constitute ourselves as executioner as well
…The jury deliberated and reached its verdict. The decision was unanimous. With one voice, poor deluded humanity pointed to the prisoner in the dock and declared, “God is guilty!”
Why this awful, awe-filled Friday is called good.
“Only by submitting to our folly could he save us from our folly.”
“God must become what we are in order that we might become what God is.”
When I began to see the world imbued with God’s life and guidance, I saw every facet of the world being touched by him. That was before I knew suffering. As I shared in a previous post, The Madness of Miscarriage, when I encountered suffering for the first time, I struggled deeply not to see God as the arbitrator of this suffering. Consolations such as “it just wasn’t time” or “God wanted this little one in Heaven” deepened my suffering, because it is good that a child should be with his mother. No child should have a life without having been held and no mother should suffer to not be able hold her child. It just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
Neuhaus hits this point head on. From the suffering inflicted by one on another to the maddening suffering of the innocent to natural disasters or disease, we know something has gone wrong. “Spare me that sentimental love that says what I do or what I am does not matter.”
And so, as I engage with that first sin, the line which Neuhaus draws from the temptation to determine for myself what is good and what is evil, to the judgment of God, theodicy, I suffer with anger at my heart that God is guilty, the he caused the suffering. I experienced this anger at that dark time of grief in our lives, at the times of economic insecurity as I watched my husband suffer to provide for us, at times of illness and colds that seem not to let up. Why doesn’t God make it better? Implicit in that question is the judgement of God, trying to square God with the way I see the world and how I think it ought to be and how I think God ought to act.
But God is not guilty and how desperately we must realize that. As my husband or I remind the other at times of conflict, “we are on the same side,” God is that lover that longs to reconcile, who holds it out to us.