Theologian asks conferees ‘Why Ask Why’ when questions cannot be answered?
By Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Many people of faith have stopped asking big, unanswerable “why” questions. Questions like, “If God loves us and God is all powerful, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?”
During Tuesday’s keynote presentation of the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network (POAMN) annual conference, theologian and author the Rev. Dr. Cynthia L. Rigby, the W.C. Brown Professor of Theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, made a case for the importance of asking “why” and “telling it like it is in the form of lament” during times of crisis — not to get answers, but to deepen and shape our faith. Rigby is also co-chair of the Reformed Theology and History Unit of the American Academy of Religion and an associate editor for the Journal of Reformed Theology and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.
The suffering Job, she said, was “patiently impatient,” telling it like it is for 42 chapters. In John 11, when Lazarus died, his sister Martha, showed “foot-stomping, vulnerable, confessional, active faith,” telling Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Even Jesus asked why in Matthew 27:46 — quoting from Psalm 22:1 — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why do we have “why” questions about suffering and brokenness in the first place?
“The whole idea that suffering is a problematic issue is founded in the idea that we expect something different than to suffer,” said Rigby. After all, we know that the God who created everything out of nothing is a loving, powerful and good God (Jeremiah 29:11, Romans 8:28, Ephesians 6:3, Revelation 21:4).
The “why” questions come from “our beliefs about God and our trust in God’s promises and providential care,” Rigby said. “These promises lead us to cry out when we don’t see them coming to fruition.” However, she cautioned, insisting on or coming up with our own answers to the why often does more harm than good, particularly for suffering people, which we all are at one time or another.
“If you can fit it on a coffee mug or a bumper sticker, it probably isn’t good theology,” Rigby said. Saying or hearing from others comments like “Have you found the blessing in that?” or “You must trust that God has a secret plan” diminishes suffering experiences.
“Not ruling out the possibility that God is somehow, in ways we can’t possibly understand, using some suffering redemptively is very different from piously deciding that all suffering is somehow redemptive and you are going to help everyone figure that out,” said Rigby. “That’s the trick of the oppressor that is used to keep suffering people in their place.” On the other hand, she said, it also diminishes suffering if we tell the sufferer there is nothing redemptive about their experience when they say there is.
Yes, if someone asks us why suffering happens, it can be easy to recite a formula answer that we’ve heard before. Rigby reflected on a conversation with a dying friend in the hospital. The friend asked her, “Cindy, why is God letting this happen to me?” Rigby told her she didn’t know why. The friend said, “Now, Cindy, I know you don’t know, but I thought you’d be able to say something after all those years of studying theology.”
“Say something to process,” Rigby said. “Process with them.”
A couple of decades ago, Rigby taught a class in San Antonio on the subject of “doubt.” Two men came up to speak with her afterward. The first man said, “You stand up here, talking about doubt. I can’t believe you have any doubts. I can’t believe they gave you a job teaching theology when you have doubts. I don’t think any professor should teach theology if they have doubts. I’ve never had a doubt in my life, and I’ve been a Christian for 48 years.”
She told him that was probably his gift, but it wasn’t everyone’s gift, and he could use it to help others.
The other man said, “You’ve stood up here for an hour talking about doubt, and I can tell you’ve never really had a serious doubt in your life. I came here tonight looking for a soulmate, someone trying to feel God’s presence with me. Is there anything you can say to me to help me feel God’s presence in the midst of my doubt?”
“I said I would pray for him not to doubt,” Rigby said. Looking back, she wishes she would have said, “God can work even through the doubt.”
Rigby added, “Look at the ways God works in the abyss, on the cross, in the doubt, through the uncertainty — not just getting us through, but in the uncertainty. God can work through that, too. There is no place untouched by God’s presence.”
There’s no “one-size-fits-all approach” to the problem of suffering, Rigby said. “Some people become transformed, nicer people through suffering, and others just can’t bear it, they become shadows of their former selves. It’s frightening the different forms and effects suffering can have on people.”
We have to be more creative, present, attentive, certain about God and uncertain about ourselves, Rigby said, giving examples of fictional characters from literature like Don Quixote or Harry Potter’s timid classmate Neville Longbottom, who bumbles forward, hoping he is part of something bigger than himself.
“Christians have too much of a reputation for marching in with certainty and answers and faith,” Rigby said. “Maybe faith, in a time of crisis, needs to be more ‘bumbling.’”
Rigby is currently completing a book on Christian feminist theology for Baker Academic Press and a book for Westminster John Knox Press tentatively titled “Splashing in Grace: A Theology of Play.” The Dallas Morning News called Rigby “one of the great theologians of our time.”
The POAMN, which is a mission partnership of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is celebrating its 38th anniversary of providing conferences with the framework for recognizing the gifts and challenges of growing older in the life of the church. The 2020 POAMN annual conference, Shaping Faith in Crisis: Peace by Piece, held in collaboration with the Office of Christian Formation, will conclude Oct. 28. Funds collected in lieu of registration fees are being donated to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
The 2021 POAMN national conference is scheduled for Oct. 26–28 at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch Assembly, in Hunt, Texas. The theme will be “Vibrant and Faithful Aging: Legacies Across Generations.”
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Ministries: Theology, Formation & Evangelism, Age and Stage Formation Ministries, Office of Christian Formation