The Burden of Suffering, the Weightiness of Love: Kate Bowler and Theodicy

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Theodicy is a fancy theological term. It is the name of the branch of philosophy and theology that puzzles over—agonizes over—the relationship between God and evil. The problem is this: Most Christians believe in a God that is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, yet concrete, massive global suffering exists. How do we reconcile these two realities—one a principle of belief, the other a fact of personal and communal human experience—with one another? Or can we?

It is a question that has haunted me—a Catholic, a believer—all of my life. There are quick fixes to the problem. We can adjust the divine attributes: God is not all-knowing or God is not all-powerful. Or, the most insidious of the adjustments: God is not all-good. Were we to adjust one of these attributes, we would diminish God—the only source of life and power and being in the world. If we conjure up an evil reality that wars with God, implying that God must fight something, we allow for a pagan-myth type of idea of the Christian God, who would be subject to injury or somehow affected by a power outside of God’s own self. This would make God only temporarily atop a pyramid of powerful beings engaged in a battle analogous to the Cold War.

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Everything Happens for a Reasonby Kate Bowler

Random House, 208p $26

Then, there are types of evil—natural and moral. Natural evil manifests itself in the destruction of earthquakes and tsunamis, floods and the vast array of illnesses to which human beings and other living creatures are subject. Moral evil is suffering we inflict on one another, whether through malice or indifference. Even if moral evil can be accounted for by human sin, much of natural evil is inexplicable—especially if we, as believers in Jesus and the principles of Christianity, insist that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good. We are stuck, and we are haunted. We yearn for an explanation.

Most Christians believe in a God that is all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful, yet concrete, massive global suffering exists. How do we reconcile these two realities?

Kate Bowler’s memoir, our newest selection for the Catholic Book Club, is an elegant theodicy exactly because it is not an explanation. Everything Happens for a Reason is a story of human suffering. It is the account of a human person who believes and struggles in her belief as she tries to appropriate the depths of suffering in the midst of an illness that may end her life.

There is great irony in this account because Kate Bowler, a professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, has dedicated her scholarly work to examining the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel announces that the believer is in control of his or her destiny. All the believer must do to gain health or money or safety in a storm is to pray and strive and demand and claim such things from God. After all, as Bowler writes, alluding to Matthew 7, what father, when his child asks for bread, would give him a stone (7)? The prosperity gospel represents an adjustment in the all-powerful department of God’s makeup. It shifts power to the one praying, the man or woman who invests in and strives for God’s favor. As Kate Bowler recognizes in herself while praying for a successful pregnancy test, God becomes a “candy dispenser” (47).

Describing an illness that precedes her cancer diagnosis, Bowler admits that her own presence became a puzzle within the prosperity gospel churches that she studied:

In a spiritual world in which healing is a divine right, illness is a symptom of unconfessed sin—a symptom of a lack of forgiveness, unfaithfulness, unexamined attitudes, or careless words. A suffering believer is a puzzle to be solved. What had caused this to happen? As I [Kate] walked around with slings or braces on my arms, I heard whispers and caught looks, some sympathetic, some disappointed, some gravely concerned. In the small church where I did most of my research, I knew I was loved. I was prayed for. I was ministered to. But, when, week after week, I returned with the same droop in my arms and weakness in my hands, I thought I saw their lips close and their arms cross, and I felt like faithlessness personified. (16-17)

As Bowler writes a few pages later, some bodies just cannot bear up under such a rigid view of God and God’s providence. In the world of the prosperity gospel, one’s disease is caused by one’s unconfessed sin coupled with a lackadaisical prayer to free oneself from suffering. One’s incurable disease is proof of God’s disfavor. Such an explanation for suffering solves the puzzle about God and evil because this view makes God both a candy dispenser and a suffering dispenser. The power that determines whether God dispenses candy or suffering is the individual who puts in the quarter. The human being determines his or her lot in life. If a person suffers, it is his or her fault.

As Bowler writes, “These people who, crushed by the weight of solution-focused theology, have been unable to grieve” (119). Furthermore, as Bowler came to experience, people who subscribe to the prosperity gospel cannot countenance the mystery of Good Friday. At least we Catholics do not have that difficulty. The prosperity gospel, then, adds a further burden to suffering for one who remains stuck in illness or poverty: the burden of guilt and the prohibition of grief.

Kate Bowler goes on to describe other burdens laid atop the immediate suffering and pain of a young mother negotiating a terminal cancer diagnosis—burdens that come packaged in best wishes: religious and non-religious well-wishers who minimize the experience of suffering and death as either a gateway to heaven or an inconsequential cessation of life that marks a blink in the vast, cold reality of the universe (116-17). Then, there are the burdens extended by the “teachers”—those who view suffering as a teaching moment when one can experience the insights into God’s character that Job gains at the end of his almost indescribable plight.

The great antidote, the great balm for Bowler in her suffering is the weight of the presence of others as they accompany her in her suffering.

Yet what makes Kate Bowler’s account of her illness so compelling is her description of another weightiness. The great antidote, the great balm for Bowler in her suffering is the weight of the presence of others as they accompany her in her suffering: the weight of her two-year-old son as she holds him while they scream at the top of their lungs as the coffee grinder runs; the weight of her husband’s arm around her; the weight of bear hugs from friends who envelop her in love; the weight of her infant son when he was first placed into her hands after his birth; the weight of her father’s hand as he strokes her hair before she goes into surgery.

Quite simply, there is the weight of feeling accompanied and loved: “It seemed too odd and too simplistic to say what I knew to be true—that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved” (121).

Everything Happens for a Reason is an account of burdens and weightiness in the midst of a deadly illness. As comforters, as believers, it seems we can either become a burden for those who suffer or we can become a loving presence, a weight that ensconces, comforts and warms like a soft down comforter.

Some questions for discussion:

1. First, a background question: Does anyone have any experiences of a Mennonite community? Kate Bowler is Mennonite. She writes: “But the part I miss right now is how wonderful they are at suffering together” (62). I wonder if anyone could help describe why the Mennonite community is so good at being present to one another in suffering—how they are good at becoming what I have described as a weight of love, a loving presence rather than a burden in suffering.

2. Are Catholics also adept at sharing in suffering? Do parish communities surround those who suffer in the weight and presence of love? What are some examples?

3. Conversely, I wonder how much we as Catholics subscribe to the notions that underlie the prosperity gospel as described by Kate in her book and in the CSPAN Q&A interview. Do any elements of Catholicism reflect the notion that we deserve what we get and the prosperous are those who claim their gifts from God by hard work and powerful prayer?

4. Likewise, if we dismiss the prosperity gospel, how should we think about petitionary prayer? Is petitionary prayer actually efficacious? That is, are our prayers for ourselves and those we love actually beneficial?

5. If you have experienced cancer, how do you relate to Kate’s story? How have doctors and representatives of the church treated and cared for you in your illness? Perhaps there are stories that can encourage others—stories of support and care as well as stories of disappointment and burden.

6. For those of you who care for a loved one, a spouse, a child, a parent, a sibling with serious illness, does Kate’s account help you at all? Encourage you? Does it perhaps inspire you to be a weight of love, a presence, that your loved one can feel?

7. What elements of humor struck you in Kate’s account? I quite liked her description of family Christmas cards as the prosperity gospel in miniature as well as her season of swearing.

8. The liturgical year structures Kate’s account of her suffering. How do the seasons of the church calendar help us to mark suffering? Do the seasons of the liturgical year console those who suffer?

9. Are the guidelines that Kate offers at the end of the book helpful? Could they help us in avoiding becoming a burdensome weight to those who suffer?

10. How have you struggled in puzzling over a thoughtful theodicy? How do you as a believer think about the reality of God and evil in our human experience?

11. Kate Bowler has tremendous trust in us as readers. Having read her account, what would you like to say to Kate?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

I would start by defining evil. I have never seen a satisfactory definition. It usually ends up in admitting there is no good definition and it just means things we don't like, some of them very painful. Once you come to the conclusion that evil does not really exist then the theodicy problem disappears. I have been debating this issue for over 20 years and my position at first seems absurd but it is the only coherent way to look st the issue. So try to decide what is evil. I maintain only one thing is truly evil but it is not what most people initially think.

J Cosgrove
2 months 2 weeks ago

Separate- the prosperity gospel is nonsense. Hard work more often than not will lead to prosperity. Prospering is also relative. What is prosperous in Silicon Valley may be quite different than what is prosperous in Central Africa. There Is a book called "Luck" and an essential theme is we create luck by working hard and constantly searching for situations to use our abilities. Keeping your nose clean, praying, being a good person but working hard is a formula that generally leads to prosperity.

CHRIS HOVANITZ PH D MS
2 months 2 weeks ago

Regarding question #5, our cancer experience: a colleague in the department of psychology and I both experienced cancer at the same time. I am a believer - he was not. Many interesting discussions here - his decision that he did not "need" a god who would not help him survive, an idea foreign to me which I did not know how to respond to. Perhaps most like Kate Bowler, however, was our decision not to talk about our experience with our colleagues. We laughed about how we felt we had to comfort our colleagues with their distress because their attempts to help us were so upsetting to them! Gallows humor is great - and please please understand how much this helps us. Pity or sympathy not well expressed can be very burdensome. I would much rather compete with whether or not my deceased father or I were going to win the race in how young we are when we get to meet God face to face. By the way, I survived to experience cancer again years later; my colleague did not. I pray that he did face God face to face and was overjoyed regardless of his disbelief.

D. Jonathan Grieser
2 months 2 weeks ago

With regard to the Mennonite community: Among Mennonites, especially those with a strong connection to the Old Order Amish, there has been an emphasis on mutual aid and support. I suspect also that Bowler is making at least an implicit connection to the historical experience of martyrdom and suffering many Anabaptist and Mennonite communities experienced historically. I don’t know the extent to which either of those persist in most 21st Mennonite congregations in North America

Maria Alderson
2 months 1 week ago

I read it and I don't buy it, Father. Her subtitle is "And Other Lies I've Loved." And she disparages our meditation on the Cross and the wounds of Christ, which we need in addition to the love of friends and family.

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