First reactions are emotions, not thoughts. Shock overwhelms articulation. How is it possible that a gunman blasts his way into a school and murders innocent children and unarmed teachers, as happened in Newtown, Connecticut? How is this allowed in a sane world? Why isn’t this world more sane? Where was God? IS there God, if such things are in the world?
These questions are the ones that were central to my own crisis of faith when I was in my twenties, in the midst of years of infertility (the death of my biological children) and my mother’s terminal illness. I began a search for meaning that included my stripping away all belief in order to start at my father’s and grandfather’s atheistic worldview, which was – there isn’t any sanity because there is no God. It was hopeless but I needed to start there, at rock bottom, and see what I believed.
My search included different religions, from Eastern traditions to my mother’s Mormonism and my grandmother’s Unitarianism, but also philosophy and cultural anthropology classes. I was a graduate student at the time and found myself gravitating to any elective that might help me answer difficult questions. And in these college classes, I found myself confronted with this fact: every world culture includes a belief in something larger and more meaningful than what we can measure and quantify. Every single one. My science-oriented father always implied that people are stupid and just want to invent meaning. I found this a reduction that flew in the face of science itself.
Not all people in all cultures who believe in something larger than can be seen are stupid. That can’t be it. The sample is too big and too random to reduce it to everyone just “inventing” meaning. It seemed far more likely that something was there. Cultures may be interpreting things differently, but deity of some sort existed at least enough to be felt by every culture. For me, the evidence seemed too big to dismiss. And beyond evidence: my heart told me that there is God. It’s the thing that people of faith cannot make other people know, even if they know it. Like love, it’s real but cannot be proven. Yet, even if I felt God exists, whose God? What kind of God?
Philosophy talks about the theodicy problem, or the problem of evil in the world. The nature of God, especially in Judeo-Christian tradition, is three-fold:
God is omniscient, or all knowing.
God is omnipotent, or all-powerful.
God is beneficent, benevolent , or all-good.
The problem is stated that, if God is all of these, how can there exist evil in the world? How can a couple, married and ready for children, find that all of their biological children will never be – especially when the husband sees daily in his medical training cases where mere children are pregnant, sometimes even by a relative? How can a mother, such as mine, be taken from her family when one of her children were still living at home? How could such a good woman be allowed to die a horrible, prolonged death? And this week, how can innocent people – most of them little children – be slaughtered, as happened on Friday in Newtown? The magnitude of this horror takes the breath away, never mind any words to handle it.
For me, in my long searching those years ago when I was in my twenties, no religious tradition could answer how a God could allow these horrors and still be all knowing, all-powerful, and all good – except my mother’s. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or “LDS” for short) has a complex doctrine. Most of us of my faith avoid trying to explain it because it is too complex for a sound bite or a few sentences. But I am talking about complex questions of evil, so I am grateful that I long ago struggled to explore what kind of doctrine could handle such complexities.
At the risk of oversimplifying both complexities (God and evil), I will outline some ways my faith comforts me. And, let me add that I am speaking very personally and not at all officially on behalf of my church. First, says my religion: before this world was organized and created, all of us were born in spirit. We call the father of our spirits our “Heavenly Father.” This time, this place is referred to as the “Preexistence” – that is, before the earth existed, before our physical bodies existed. Second, this earth was organized and created. Third, our spirits were born into this earth of a physical father and mother, our parents for this life but also for the next. We can be sealed to those we love for time (here in this life) and for eternity (beyond this life). “Families can be forever,” quite literally. The little children who died can literally be reunited with their families, as families. Love is at the heart of all of this – our Heavenly Father’s love for us and Christ’s love for us (his Atonement makes this entire plan possible) and our love for each other. A family loses a beloved child, a light in their lives, an innocent who deserved only protection. It is a loss of the most profound enormity. In the face of such temporal loss, the hope of a real (not metaphoric) reunion is so enormously comforting to me that I cannot find words big enough for it.
With love, moral agency is also at the heart of the matter. If human beings are allowed moral agency, some human beings may abuse that agency, whether willfully or not. What will each of us do given our particular circumstances and limitations? How will we react and overcome or adjust? We come to earth for experience. God may be omniscient; God may be omnipotent; God may be all good. So God may know about an atrocity, may be able to stop it, and may desire to stop it but does not intervene because one of the reasons our pre-existing spirits come to earth is to gain experience. This experience, this growth, is the point. It is what we are doing here, along with learning to love and serve one another.
Now, one may ask at this point, if experience is the point, what about these little children who die before having time to gain much experience? Due to the abuse of the killer’s moral agency (or twisted thinking) these innocents were taken from their earthly homes too soon, in a horrific way that none of us can grasp, really. The loss is immense. What I do not know humbles me. But Mormon doctrine is clear on this point: all little children are alive in Christ. These little ones were spirits in the Pre-existence who did not need to be on the earth for long. They needed less time and testing, less learning and experience – perhaps because they are ahead of the rest of us? We don’t know why, exactly. But my faith says that, in the end, nothing will undo the love the family has for their child or, in the case of 6 victims, for a beloved adult member. The promise of being reunited after this life offers an explanation of the unexplainable – and comfort from unimaginable pain.
One of the children killed at Sandy Hook was Mormon: 6-year-old Emilie Parker. Her father, Robbie Parker, spoke to media soon after the tragedy. Despite his visible grief and shock, you will see his love and feel his hope.
May God bless and comfort the grieving families of Newtown.