Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Journey by matchlight

“What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”  
To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf was a very gifted woman who suffered from mental illness. In fact, she committed suicide because she couldn't bear the onset of another bout of mental illness. I suspect her depression was aggravated by the brittle atheism of the Bloomsbury Group. 

Christian philosophers and theologians struggle with the problem of evil. People are conflicted about the problem of evil. On the one hand they demand answers. They want to make sense of evil. They don't want their loved ones to suffer or die in vain. They don't want reality to be indifferent. On the other hand, they may be angered by theodicy. "Well, if you say you can make sense of evil, then you're telling me it's not so evil after all! How dare you make it sound so reasonable!"

A variety of theodicies have been devised to domesticate the problem of evil. I think some of these, in combination, have great explanatory power. Yet there's a residual of intractable evils that seem to be inscrutable. That, from our admittedly blinkered viewpoint, are hard to square, not with God's existence, but God's benevolence.

I think part of the problem is that we're approaching the issue with a false expectation. We presume too much.

Suppose, though, we view the problem of evil like matches struck in the dark. On the one hand, there's impenetrable darkness all around. On the other hand, the darkness is broken by intermittent flashes of light. Not bright enough, or enduring enough, to dispel the darkness. 

Yet they suffice to give us hope. To show us that we're not alone. To show us that darkness is not all there is. There is a contrasting reality. Less than we wish for. But enough to remind us not to despair. 

Now, I think that's actually a severe understatement. There's more goodness, more evidence of divine involvement, than matches struck in the dark. The darkness is not that pervasive to begin with.

My point, though, is from the lesser to the greater. Suppose things really were that bleak. An almost total blackout apart from intermittent flashes of light. Even if that's all we had, that should be enough to sustain hope. Something better exists! 

Suppose you're overtaken by night. You're lost in the dark. Pitch black. Ah, but you fumble around and find you have a box of matches in your backpack. You light a match, walk a few yards until it burns out. Light another match, walk another few yards. Matchlight may be just enough to keep you going in the right direction. Keep you moving ahead, towards the unseen destination. 

Moreover, there's something promising about light. Something especially encouraging about firelight at night. In the daytime we're apt to take light for granted because it's all around us. But outside, at night, the contrast makes a little light stand out. Sometimes people build a campfire for the psychological value.  

Even if some evils are inexplicable, matchlight is a harbinger. A beacon in miniature. A bridge of flaming match heads in-between stretches of darkness. 

We live by matchlight. We journey by matchlight. And once the new day dawns, we can throw away the matchbox. 

It's striking to see how sunlight transforms the landscape. How the rising sun drives the shadows into retreat. How the rising sun floods the landscape with warmth and color. How sunlight exposes a world you'd never suspect if you were born in darkness. It was there all along, but hidden from view, when night prevailed. Is that how the problem of evil will appear from heaven, as we look back on this life? 

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