Where is God in all the messiness of the world we live in? Whatever our understanding of God might be, I think this is a fair question. It's certainly a question that occurs to me quite often, and I'm a life-long follower of Jesus.
As someone who sees stories as a primary way in which many of us naturally wrestle with tough questions like this, it is noteworthy to me that in this past year saw the release of two films that wrestle with this question of where God is in the midst of life's suffering and darkest challenges. It's even more fascinating to me that both movies were directed by catholic filmmakers, both films star Andrew Garfield, and mostly take place in Japan. The films are Silence and Hacksaw Ridge. Garfield is rightfully nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his work in Hacksaw Ridge, though I feel he could just as easily have been nominated for Silence.
I've been waiting to see the film version of Silence for at least 13 years. I read the novel while taking World Literature in college. I learned then that Martin Scorsese was trying to get the film made. He'd been at it for a while already at that point. In all, it took 28 years for the film to finally enter production and get released. It was worth the wait. I'm not alone, it seems, in thinking this as the film has enjoyed good critical reception, though it didn't get nominated for directing or best picture.
Hacksaw Ridge sort of snuck up on me. I haven't been following what Mel Gibson is up to and I must admit that after some of the events in his personal life a few years ago, I've been pretty saddened. It did bring some context for me to learn about Gibson's potential bipolar disorder. As a director, he's made some films I profoundly admire (Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ).
Driven by Devotion
What connects Hacksaw Ridge and Silence? Both are films about characters driven by a passionate devotion to Christ. I'd love to have a conversation with Garfield about how playing both of those characters has affected him.
Hacksaw Ridge is based on the real-life story of WWII medic Desmond T. Doss who refused to carry a weapon and kill anyone. He ran into battle unarmed and saved 75 men. His faith drove his worldview. The film shows Doss as a man with great conviction who still faces the very human struggle of at times wondering where God is in the chaos and senseless violence of war.
Silence is the fictional story of Jesuit priests who clandestinely enter Japan in the 17th century to locate their missing mentor and continue his ministry. Garfield plays Father Rodrigues. Novelist Shūsaku Endō based Rodrigues on the real 17th-century priest in Japan, Giuseppe Chiara.
What stands out to me is the earnestness of both characters portrayed by Garfield. Both are guided by a profound faith that is challenged repeatedly. Within both stories, the question of what God's will might be in all of the horrible killing and sufferings that surrounds these two characters is dealt with in thoughtful ways. These two characters are living in very different worlds and coming from distinctly different faith traditions--one comes from easily the most innovative branch of the Catholic Church and the other is a Seventh Day Adventist. While I may differ doctrinally from both of these traditions, it is with great admiration that I approach these two stories. Both characters are pushed into corners where denial of their convictions are demanded of them again and again.
Where is God?
The experience of these two movies brought to mind a book I read recently, Is God to Blame?: Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory A. Boyd. In it, Boyd wrestles the long-standing question of how God's will and the abundance of suffering in our world can both coexist. For many, suffering is just thought of as part of God's will. Boyd passionately disagrees and I'm right there with him. He begins to chip away at what he calls a "blueprint" view of God's interaction with the world where both good and bad things that happen are somehow part of a God's design. In the extreme, think of the "blueprint" view as if God were a novelist who carefully outlined her plot well in advance and every high and low point is part of a pre-ordained and deterministic reality that must be so.
Boyd points out that, "in classical Western philosophical tradition, emotional vulnerability is a weakness, so we have projected onto God the attribute of 'impassability' (above suffering). All variability is thought to be an imperfection, so God must be 'immutable' (above any sort of change). Lack of control is also an imperfection, so God meticulously controls everything." (Is God to Blame? by Boyd, location 318 in Kindle version)
In other words, many of us have had the wrong idea about God for a long time. What I see in Silence is a character being forced to rethink these very ideas about the impassability and immutability of God. Because of this, it remains one of the most powerful novels I've ever read and has been deftly adapted into one of the most haunting movies I've ever seen.
But how do we counter an erroneous picture of God as a being who wills all things, even evil and suffering? I can't do justice to Boyd's book in a short blog post, but I'll offer up a few sections that stood out to me. He writes, "When our picture of God is centered on Christ, we are able to avoid the conclusion that God is mysteriously behind all the suffering and evil in the world." (Boyd Loc 375) In Silence, Rodrigues constantly prays, asking God why the Japanese converts must endure such suffering. Why is God seemingly silence while they are tortured and killed? But Rodrigues constantly comes back to the center of his faith, the person of Jesus.
[Mild Spoiler Alert] Rodrigues ultimately reflects that “Our Lord was not silent. Even if he had been silent, my life until this day would have spoken of him.” One of my former philosophy professors, Dr. James Stump, offer up this reflection about that very statement. "Two things in that statement (the last line of the book) are worth thinking about: God wasn’t silent; Rodrigues just hadn’t heard him in the midst of the trials. And secondly, God speaks through other means than just directly with a big booming voice." Click here to read Dr. Stump's article on Silence.
Back to Boyd:
"If Jesus is our picture of God, if we accept his teaching that to see him is to see the Father (Jn 14:9), if we accept that he is the Word, image, form and exact imprint of God (Jn 1:1; Phil 2:6; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3), then we must conclude that much of what transpires in this world is against God's will. Rather than accepting it as coming from the Father, we ought to resist it in the power of the Father." (Boyd Loc 523)
Both Doss in real life and Rodrigues in the novel and movie ran toward suffering, seeing in Christ someone who also did not run from suffering. It cost them quite a bit to do so. But these actions speak volumes about their understanding and perspective of God. Again, Boyd:
"When people believe that everything is already part of God's 'secret plan,' they won't work with passion and urgency to establish God's will on earth as it is in heaven. Rather, as much popular Christian piety reveals, they resign themselves to all that happens as coming 'from a Father's hand.' They pray for the ability to accept things more than the ability to change things. They seek the power to comfort more than the power to deliver. This quasi-peaceful resignation expresses the kind of piety sought throughout history by pagans-ancient Stoics, practitioners of most Eastern religions and adherents of all forms of religious fatalism. But it definitely is not the kind of piety Jesus encouraged us to seek." (Boyd Loc 762)
Christ is with the suffering, concludes Rodrigues in Silence. In fact, Christ suffers with them, he comes to believe. In Hacksaw Ridge, Doss repeatedly prays for help in finding one more wounded soldier. There's an acceptance in these two characters that God's will is not the only will at work in a world filled with beings who also have free will. The two men chose to partner in what ways they can with God rather than sit back and just blame God for allowing any amount of suffering to happen or assume that God actually wanted such suffering to happen in the first place.
A Different View of God
"In a creation populated with free agents, God doesn't always get what he wants. Augustine and the church tradition that followed him were simply mistaken when they insisted that 'the will of the omnipotent is always undefeated.'" (Boyd Loc 673)
Films like these remind me that faith lived out in this complex and broken world means that sometimes our long-standing theological ideas don't match up with reality. As I continue my own journey of faith and search for meaning, I find this to be a recurring and important conversation. I've long lost count how many times such questions come up in conversations with friends.
Even in my own recent battles with depression and anxiety I have wondered what God's will might be. I have found great freedom for myself and God in recognizing that the world is more complicated than what the misguided theology of a blueprint-adhering God might have us believe. What's more, letting go of such thinking has allowed me to see God in a different light where everything from my own failed creative career (thus far) or events like 9-11, mass shootings, and ISIS attacks are somehow just willed by God to be so regardless of the suffering such things cause to people. That's not the God I see in Jesus.
I find myself desiring faith like Doss and Rodrigues. It's not neat and clean faith or without doubt and trepidation. But it is a constantly evolving faith that returns its focus to a compassionate and suffering Christ.