Saturday, October 30, 2010

God after Auschwitz

A survivor of the Holocaust lamented that “there was no God in Auschwitz. There were such horrible conditions that God decided not to go there…Many of us who survived are atheists.”  I certainly cannot blame her for feeling that way. God after Auschwitz. Why Did the Heavens not Darken? The Silence of God. The spirit behind these known phrases needs no explanation. During his visit to Auschwitz Pope John Paul II asked: "Why was he silent? How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?" We inevitably look for linkage between the mundane and the divine in history and in our life experience; yet history is a dark testament to humankind’s brutality and the absurdity of the human condition more broadly, and so the search is a difficult one, full of hazards and pitfalls.

Not a few among us have demons to exorcise. But imagine what it must be for a survivor of genocide to have experienced such unmitigated hatred and lack of compassion, to have witnessed or suffered the mass rapes and tortures at the hands of grim-faced death squads. Can blue skies ever be anything but gray for these people?

It’s autumn now. October is my favorite month. This time last year I fondly recall walking with my youngest daughter, Monika, to her soccer practice after school. I had the night off from work. I sat on a grassy embankment overlooking a beclouded opal sky, pre-peak trees of golden and green hues, a gleaming pond, and verdant soccer fields animated with 13-year-old girls in bright red socks and shorts. It was wonderful. Autumn always induces in me, and most people I’m sure, a wistful melancholy. In the movie “Amadeus,” Salieri refers to Mozart’s music filling him with “such longing, such unfulfillable longing.” This kind of indescribable yearning often overtakes me in this season. A shout from the coach in the distance aroused me from my reverie and focused me back on God and suffering in the world.

The Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—have had to wrestle with the problem of pain. If one affirms belief in an omniscient, providential and loving Creator, then ubiquitous evil and suffering in the world demands an explanation. Where is God? The classic theological answer is—drum roll please!—free will. God created humankind with an innate ability to choose for or against God. To a certain extent, this theological explanation works. When probed more deeply, though, one wonders why God would set up a moral universe by divine decree, knowing ultimately the pain and sorrow contained therein. Whether we choose the dogmatic paths of theism and atheism or the equally problematic path of agnosticism, we must live with the mystery, at least until we enter the “undiscovered country.”

Those who violated the Elie Wiesel Commandment and “stood idly by” during the Holocaust have to question not only their moral being—a problematic proposition since many will rationalize their way out of the regret and shame—but also more broadly the effectiveness of their respective religious traditions. Where was God in that dark hour? Where was the restraining hand of the church through which God is said to speak and act? I’ve spoken with pastors, theologians and historians in Germany. There have been attempts to revive interest in the church today, but the legacy of the Holocaust casts a long shadow. German Christendom failed. Catholics and Protestants still pride themselves on making ecumenical gestures and bridging the 500-year confessional chasm. What about the Jews? Even some of those brave German priests and pastors who stood up to Hitler when it came to killing the disabled were not so vociferous about the persecution of the Jews.

What of the sons and daughters of Jacob? What are they to make of this failure? Some victims believe that God was with them in their darkest hours, while even more abandoned God or felt abandoned by God. The Hebrew religion found cohesion in the traumatic exodus from Egypt and the tumultuous struggle for a homeland. The aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE helped forge Judaism. Likewise, the Shoah will always be a part of modern Jewish identity. Judaism, it would seem, is theodicy—an attempt to find or affirm God in a seemingly godless world. For what it’s worth, I’m walking that path.