Thursday, September 28, 2006

Looking for God in the Shadow of Auschwitz

I don't have much time or energy to write right now, but after my afternoon reading I simply had to post something. There have been two basic themes in my reading and writing for the last month or so: the problem of pain, and Judaism. While I am not Jewish I must say that I have from time to time thought about converting to Judaism. Their strict monotheism appeals to the part of me that, while still affirming that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed of God who reveals the nature of God, rejects the Trinity, and as such the divinity of Christ.

I have also long been fascinated with Jewish culture, with the sense of identity that transcends even faith and race. I admire the most observant Jews, even if I find them often too strict or too literal, for seeking to integrate their faith into their lives to the point where the two form a seamless garment. And, as a vegetarian for moral and even theological reasons, I admire kosher households, whose faith dictates diet.

But what impresses me most about the Jewish people as a people is their ability to survive the kinds of dehumanizing systematic oppression which would have robbed me long ago of both my faith and my will to live. Both of those - faith and the will to breath in and out each moment - are too often fleeting for me. I have long struggled with a disease (in the most literal sense of the word) which I have not overtly written about here. I have no intention of wallowing in the filth and pity of that disease now, spinning some story for sympathy. Suffice it to say, as someone too easily discouraged in my own life, I have only respect for those who truly suffer and yet retain their faith, their hope, and yes, their love.

When I read I usually read at least two books at the same time: one a rigorous, challenging academic work, the other (at least in terms of literary style, if not always in terms of content) a "lighter" work. I'm still slowly picking my way through Heschel's philosophy of Judaism, God in Search of Man, which I may still be reading whenever I finally start taking classes again. The other book I'm reading at the moment is Elie Wiesel's famous memoir Night, the story of his experiences in a concentration camp. Put simply, this book is slowly ripping my soul out.

When I was 14 or 15 my family went to Washington, D.C. for Spring Break. While we were there I insisted on visiting the then brand new United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There, for the first time, I stared at images of pure evil, unable to deny their place in history. I saw pictures of children my age, emaciated and disfigured. I read stories of unspeakable brutality, and stories of despicable complicity. I learned of the silence of a world that did not want to admit that this could happen, that a whole people could be exterminated, that children could be fed to the fires.

Now, 13 or so years later, I am reading the words, the memories, of one who survived. Once again, the problem of pain, the problem of evil, the problem of suffering is made too concrete. Yes it is an interesting philosophic and theological problem. But, as I've said before, the problem is not really one of reconciling our concepts of God to a world which includes suffering. The problem, ultimately, is that we experience suffering at all. And such suffering that the very fiber of our being protests, rages against it.

Francois Mauriac's foreword to the book ends with a meditation on the relationship between faith and such suffering. After relaying the story of how he met Wiesel and heard his story, the story that he would eventually help publish, he writes:

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him> Did I perhaps speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in the faith of his childhood was lost? And yet, Zion has risen up again out of the crematoria and slaughterhouses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is they who have given it new life. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him. That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.

"All I could do was embrace him and weep." That is the only truly human response to such overwhelming suffering. Words of encouragement, whether the come from our theologies or our psychologies or our philosophies of life, no matter how deep they may appear on paper or in the ears of those who have not just lost everything they've ever had, even their very selves, seem in the face of such suffering empty, hollow and weak. There is a reason why Rachel, while weeping for her children, refused to be comforted.

The cross tells us that sometimes the only way through pain is to embrace pain, to share pain, to take on pain. And the only way to comfort this wounded Jewish child, whose soul and whose God died on the same day, at the same moment, might be to enter into that moment, to share that moment, and to risk the death of one's own soul, one's own God.

But the foreword, however gripping, however devastating, should be read as a warning. It, after all, comes from the other side of the pain, a product of time, of space, of physical, psychological and especially spiritual difference. The book itself is raw emotion, a challenge to the God who allowed such pain. There are many passages which confront the reader with the death of faith, the death of the soul, and the death of God. There are many passages which, if you open yourself up to them, will force you to redefine your faith in light of them, to account for this story of unrestrained evil and a complicit, silent world.

Here is the last story I read today before I simply had to stop, to process, to write:

Akiba Drumer has left us, a victim of the selection. Lately he had been wandering among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone how weak he was: "I can't go on... It's over..." We tried to raise his spirits, but he wouldn't listen to anything we said. He just kept repeating that it was all over for him, that he could no longer fight, he had no more strength, no more faith. His eyes would suddenly go blank, leaving two gaping wounds, two wells of terror.

He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland. He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day he said to me:

"It is over. God is no longer with us."

And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice, "I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God's mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I'm neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I'm a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?

Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered his suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death.

When the selection came, he was doomed from the start, offering his neck to the executioner, as it were. All he asked of us was:

"In three days, I'll be gone... Say Kaddish for me."

We promised: in three days, when we would see the smoke rising from the chimney, we would think of him. We would gather ten men and hold a special service. All his friends would say Kaddish.

Then he left, in the direction of the hospital. His step was almost steady, and he never looked back. An ambulance was waiting to take him to Birkenau.

There followed terrible days. We received more blows than food. The work was crushing. And three days after he left, we forgot to say Kaddish.

In the face of this story, and the thousands of other stories just like it, we must ask with the rabbi whose faith and God deserted him, "Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"

Where is God, in the shadow of Auschwitz? Such questions have no answers; at least no rational answers. They are existential questions every bit as powerful as the existential questions which lead us to God, to faith, to religion. They are questions which we must embrace, questions which we must take into our very selves, questions which we must make a part of us until they no longer terrify us. Faith can survive doubt only if faith embraces doubt rather than illusion.

But at the moment I am in a strange place. My son is next to me, exploring ever corner of my basement office, his joyous music filling the air as the childish voice of Brian Wilson asks us about our favorite vegetable. Elie Wiesel's Night is in front of me, with stories of parents and children with dreams similar to mine, whose hopes were shattered by pure evil. My son holds a toy horse and looks at it, meditating for a moment on just what he wants to do with as Brian Wilson serenades us with pieces of children's music mixed into his pop overtures from Smile. And I want to believe that the world is safe, that the world is good, and that God is looking out for me as I look out for my son. All the while I remember the shattered faiths of people more devout than I have ever been or ever will be, just before their bodies are tossed into the flames which have already consumed their children. And my son is blissfully unaware of the war in my soul as I try to reconcile my own faith to a world with such horrors in it.

Perhaps this is why even Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!?" But I am not Jesus, nor am I Elie Wiesel, and my God has nor forsaken me yet. My son grabs my leg as Brian Wilson moves into "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow," originally titled "Fire," saying "Uh oh!"


Liam said...

That's a beautiful and challenging post, Chris.

Troy said...

Once again, you hit the heart of the matter. Christians can be thinking people and still be Christians, but some things we have to face, and suffering is high on that list.

For me, non-human caused suffering, disease and accidental death of those who are in fact believers in Jesus, is even tougher than Nazis. Nazis need Jesus. Jesus offers himself to all men to change and heal (or if not, perhaps to judge). But what about cancer? Or birth defects?

And of course, as you note, it all mixes into the self-reflective phenomenological soup: my sense of appreciation for Beethoven's 7th symphony, the second movement (which is playing now) is a reality. So is my wonderful son in the next room, and my love for him which has brought enormous healing to my once blasted dark and windswept life. Yet a blood vessel could burst right now in my brain and leave him to watch me die. Some awful disease could be percolating in my organs, undetected, even now.

What do we make of all this? It is the great puzzle of existence.

I try to find comfort in Christ, who promised something lke mayhem, disrespect and torture in this life, something much more genuine in the Kingdom-life after death (if I'm reading him right). He broke into time-space, announced the kingdom of God, healed many bodies and minds, died horribly and said he would be back.

What am I to make of this? It is, quite probably, the second greatest puzzle of human existence.

I'm almost tired of trying to know. My own suffering lessens each year, almost each season, and seeking God has been a big part of that. Perhaps that makes me optimistic. I know it will not always be like this. There has been more than one time in my past when I cried out the Eloi from the fucking heart, and damned if I don't imagine I'll do it again. If I'm lucky enough not to drop dead as I'm typing this, natch.

Thanks, Chris, for taking me into that spot again, that friction place, that mean crossroads, the blend of beauty and horror humans know every day. For me, it's more faith and less horror each day, but not for all.