Martin Henry: Approaching the unanswerable, 'knockdown', questions of faith
Is it possible, or even desirable, asks Fr Martin Henry, to be able to answer every question about God and faith?
THE story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, recounted at the end of chapter four of Mark's Gospel, is among the more dramatic incidents narrated in the Gospels.
It forms, perhaps not surprisingly, the subject of Rembrandt's only seascape, unfortunately stolen in 1990 in a sensational art theft from a Boston museum and never since recovered.
But dramatic also are the questions the scriptural description of the incident can still throw up today.
In the middle of a dangerous storm at sea, Jesus' disciples panic, while Jesus sleeps, blissfully unaware – as the detail of the cushion hints – of their plight.
The disciples put a question to Jesus that can serve as a symbolic question for so many people in so many of life's different circumstances. And that question is: "Master, do you not care?"
How often does that question force itself upon our minds, when we look at the many harrowing situations that occur throughout the world, and more especially if we are personally afflicted by some seemingly incurable source of suffering?
At such times, some – maybe all, at some point – inevitably ask: Does God not care? Does he not see the difficulties and pain that people are frequently struggling with?
Why doesn't he at least intervene to save the innocent from the clutches of their tormentors? Why doesn't he do away with wars and evil and suffering and replace them with a kingdom of harmony and peace?
These were the kinds of question – and in fact they are not so much questions as reproaches – that Job put to God in the Old Testament: Why do the innocent, like himself, suffer so appallingly?
And if their suffering cannot be helped, does that mean that God is powerless to help them, or indifferent to their plight, or could it even mean that God himself is evil and actually enjoys seeing his creatures writhing in agony?
The answer Job got in his time is much the same as the answer that is also implicitly given in Mark's Gospel.
It is, however, not really an answer as such – indeed the 'answer' Jesus gives takes the form of further questions – but rather a call to faith and trust, based on the belief that God made and rules the world and hence is superior to it, and so can be trusted ultimately to deal triumphantly with any difficulties that arise within the world.
I say 'ultimately', and there of course is the rub. It would be so easy to trust God if he dealt immediately with the world's problems, as and when they emerged; that's to say, if the ways of justice and goodness and truth, and the ways of the world were to coincide. But, as we know, they don't.
If they did, the world itself would be God's kingdom, we would have heaven on earth, and faith would be unnecessary, for we would see God everywhere.
But in our world the signs of God's presence are ambiguous and unclear. That's why we need to trust God: there is no other way of relating to him.
Maybe, however, it's a mercy that this is so. The Australian poet, Les Murray (1938-2019), wrote in a very short poem, entitled The Knockdown Question:
Why does God not spare the innocent?
The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.
In other words, perhaps it's better that we don't get an answer to our deepest questions. We might not be able to endure the answer, any more than we could endure being in a furnace or could continue to see if we were subjected to literally blinding light.
The Old Testament mentions the idea that no man can see God and live: in short, God's reality would be too much for us to endure here and now, if we were exposed to it directly. So God shields us from such harm by remaining partly hidden.
But perhaps it's just as important to realise that, if we did have the answer to our deepest questions, that would surely make God redundant and we would be God, which we know we're not.
So in a sense the price we have to pay for believing in God is to accept that, where God is concerned, we will always to some extent have to remain in the dark.
But Christianity believes that God has not left himself entirely without witnesses to the reality of his goodness and truth. Jesus is our supreme witness to that reality, because he lived a life of goodness and truth even to the point of death on the cross, and showed by so doing that there is a power stronger than evil and death, a power that can certainly feel the force of evil, but without finally being overawed or overcome by it.
It was the Holy Spirit that guided Jesus and can still guide and inspire his followers on their often tortuous and painful path to heaven, because the Holy Spirit, the Church teaches, can generate the joy and hope and peace beyond all understanding that finally guided Jesus back to heaven, beyond all the trials and tragedies and impasses of this world.
Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor.