MY FRIEND WAS A POEM: A PHILOSOPHICAL MEMOIR Timothy Chambers The ‘Problem of Evil’ has been the focus of a number

of articles in Think. Here, Timothy Chambers offers an unusual perspective on this seemingly intractable difficulty facing theists.

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‘Did not I weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor? But when I looked for good, evil came; and when I waited for light, darkness came.’ Job 30:25 Matt and I were seventeen when we first discussed Job. We were streaming along Interstate 91, en route to a parentless New Year’s party in our suburban American hometown. Our girlfriends, who’d grown used to our philosophical flights, looked on in amusement. ‘We have to believe two things,’ Matt was saying, ticking off the reasons on his right hand. (This only left one hand for steering, but no one thought to protest.) ‘First: Job is a good person. Second: God wouldn’t let evil befall a good person, if He could prevent it.’ I nodded abruptly, as if hearing a new riddle, eager for the punch line. ‘So since evil befell Job,’ Matt proclaimed, ‘we’re left with only one conclusion: that God couldn’t prevent Job’s sufferings. Otherwise, He’d have done something.’ Matt glimmered when he pursued a new notion; his passion was the elixir of persuasion. But this time, I wouldn’t budge. After all, didn’t our traditions — Matt was Jewish; I was, at least nominally, a Christian — proclaim that God was nothing, if not all-powerful? Wasn’t God omnipotent...well, by definition? As a child, I’d always felt a twinge when I crayoned outside the lines of a coloring-book; the same feeling reared its foreboding head now. But only briefly. By the time we reached the party, our flirtation with theology had ebbed, and Matt’s brown fam-

ily-van flourished with The Kinks’ ‘Hollywood Boulevard’, and the patter of teenaged banter. It was this festive venue that baptized my acquaintance with (what philosophers call) the Problem of Evil. Shortly after JFK’s death, his brother Robert put the problem poignantly: The innocent suffer, he’d scrawled on a legal pad. How can this be possible and God be just? Now Matt had beckoned me to join the campaign: one way or another, we’d someday put the question to rest. Someday…a quaint luxury bought by youth. I had had no doubt that someday would always exist, that it would carry Matt and I into gray age. The alternative was unthinkable, hence unthought. Which shows how faith-steeped a notion someday is: even before we see it, we know it exists, and that it holds everything we hope for. Matt’s eager Siberian Husky always panted at the prospect of a nightly jaunt. So many evenings, while Cody deliberated over trees, Matt and I deliberated about everything else. One of Matt’s favorite topics was Zen Buddhism, and its perplexing koans (‘What’s the sound of one hand clapping?’). I no longer remember if we made much headway in understanding any of them. Matt and I always recognized their central moral, though: that words alone don’t bridge the way to wisdom. ‘You said that God allowed Job to suffer because He couldn’t prevent it,’ I remarked during one of these outings. ‘But how is that possible?’ Matt thought for awhile — which is quite a trick with 50 pounds of impatient Husky tugging the leash. ‘Well,’ he offered, ‘sometimes I wonder whether God is who we traditionally think H,e is. Maybe when we say ‘God,’ all we’re referring to is…our religious community, our congregation.’ My eyes betrayed my astonishment. The gambit intrigued; still, it struck me as cheating somehow. I mean, if you say ‘God’, mustn’t you mean God? Matt sensed my skepticism. ‘Think about it. We say God cares for us; well, it’s true: our religious community cares for us. We say God is like a father; again, it’s true: the religious

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community is as a father to us — it bestows wisdom, matures our spirit, et cetera’. I drew the conclusion. ‘It would also explain why God can’t prevent suffering. After all, if the religious community isn’t all-powerful, then, given your equation, it would no longer be surprising that God isn’t all-powerful, either.’ Matt beamed. ‘That’s the idea.’ That’s where our project stood when high-school graduation arrived. According to my friend’s ‘God-as-code-word’-theory (as I’d dubbed it), God couldn’t eliminate all evils, because the body ‘God’ referred to (the religious community) couldn’t prevent all evils. The solution had the virtue of consistency, not to mention the glitter of novelty. But I had misgivings. The most pressing was this: since the religious community didn’t create the world, then neither did God, if we presumed Matt’s theory. An odd consequence, to say the least. But as it turned out, I wouldn’t need to press Matt on such persnickety points. For, something soon happened which led him to renounce his nascent theory. Matt and I traipsed off to different colleges, but we kept in touch, and devoted many a summer evening to our ambulatory brainstorming sessions. I’d opted for a math and physics major; Matt chose Judaic Studies. He’d just returned from a semester-study in Israel, and I was eager to hear about Matt’s experiences there, and if he’d gathered any insights which would further our Job-project. ‘I’ve been thinking about your idea’, I said, ‘about whether ‘God’ surreptitiously means ‘the religious community’. You still believe that, right?’ ‘No,’ Matt said flatly. ‘God’s real.’ Matt’s matter-of-factness — the stony certainty — left me stunned. I’d heard that religious experiences can transform a life, a mind, a soul. But I’d never had such an experience myself, nor seen its effects up-close. Until now. Something, I knew, had happened in Israel — something ineffable, no doubt, but meaningful enough to drain away Matt’s fanciful views of the Deity, and replace them with the silent, conviction of robust faith.

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I never again heard Matt speak of God as a sociological fiction, or, for that matter, as a Being bearing limited powers. Now it was my turn to offer an abortive solution to Job’s puzzle. How does an all-good God permit evil to exist? As my science-studies advanced, I’d started to wonder: does evil ‘exist’, in the first place? After all, it wasn’t something you could measure with a Geiger counter, like radioactivity. (The very thought of an ‘evil-detector’, click-clicking near Lex Luthor, but falling silent near Superman, inspired a moment’s mirth.) ‘Maybe it’s like what Hamlet said,’ I tried, as Matt and I sat in his night-silent living room. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ (II:ii) Now it was Matt’s turn to be skeptical. ‘You don’t believe in evil, Tim?’ He queried, both incredulously and sternly. ‘What I mean is, when we say something is ‘evil’, that just means we find it painful,’ I tried. ‘But what we find painful is subjective — thus, evil is subjective, too.’ Matt was unmoved. ‘You don’t believe in evil, Tim?’ ‘Well,’, I said, hesitantly, sensing I was atop a trap door, ‘not as an objective feature of the world; but—’ ‘I want you to read something.’ Matt disappeared upstairs, and returned with a tiny, well-thumbed paperback. ‘Read this, and then tell me if you don’t believe in evil.’ The book was Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. Back home, I perked coffee, and spent the evening in a gallery of horrors. Matt’s point was clear: If I was saying that evil wasn’t ‘real’, then I had to infer that Auschwitz and Buchenwald weren’t ‘really’ evil. But to say that — even to think it — was godlessly ghoulish. Thus ended my simplistic grope toward solving the puzzle of Job. So six years after our search had commenced, Matt and I had stalled at the starting-line. God exists. Evil exists. How is this possible? Matt had tried to deconstruct God, and then renounced that tack; I’d tried to soften evil’s reality, to no avail. After finishing my master’s, I paid a visit to our hometown, my mind still simmering over the problem.

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Matt wasn’t around, I was told. His graduate program at the Jewish Theological Seminary involved studies in Israel, and he wouldn’t be coming back for some time. I thought about sending a letter, but never got around to it. There’d be plenty of time to while away the philosophical hours when Matt returned, after all. On Monday, February 26, 1996, I woke up, bought a newspaper, and checked my email. One of the messages bore a simple subject line: Sad News. ‘Matt Eisenfeld was killed in a bus bombing in Israel,’ it read. Psychologists have a fetish for ‘stages’; even grief, they tell us, is as phase-laden as the moon. First there’s denial, and, at last, there’s acceptance. (Acceptance? Sometimes I think psychologists wouldn’t be so absurd if they read some Wiesel.) Years came and went — but the grief never went, and acceptance never came. I often wondered what my partnerin-philosophical-crime would have thought about some article I’d published, or a novel notion I’d hatched. At first, I pursued the elusive quarry of ‘closure’ — another shrinks’ fiction. Perhaps it would spring into sight, I thought, if only I could complete the pursuit Matt and I had launched. If I could solve the riddle of Job, if I could explain innocent suffering, then maybe the past’s ghosts would disperse. Not that I harbored any illusions about the task’s difficulty; ‘I sought the source of evil,’ the astute St. Augustine had written about his research, ‘and I got nowhere.’ (Confessions, VII.7.11) The goal I’d set, if nearly unattainable, was at least a concrete one. One day, I hit upon a novel theodicy — a way to explain why God permitted inscrutable evils to exist. (Most likely, my idea was vulnerable, somehow; but if so, at least the mistake was a new one.) I outlined it eagerly, and wrote it up. But the relief I’d expected — well, half-expected — remained a distant dream. Instead, I ruminated: Would Matt would have granted my premises? Would he have found my conclusion sound? In all my mental meanderings, I’d lost sight of an inflexible

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Chambers My friend was a poem • 36

fact: nothing I wrote could make my late friend into more than a memory. Only then did I remember something Matt had written, shortly before his death: ‘I could write a poem; or, instead of writing a poem, I could be a poem. Do I dare?’ I smiled. The spirit behind the thought was singularly his. To the end — even in the thick of an orthodox rabbinate — there remained a Zen-like tinge to Matt’s vision. And then, turning my friend’s koan over in my thoughts, I saw it. From the start of our project, Matt and I had made a crucial mistake. We’d treated the problem of evil like a riddle — a knot to be untied by twisting the right words. But that’s wrong. If the problem of evil is a riddle, then it’s a riddle without a punch line; because no pat set of words can relieve our vexation in the face of innocent suffering. Evil exists. God exists. The problem doesn’t demand our spotting some abstract connection between unbounded goodness and inflexible evil. The real problem is to face these incompatible facts, without losing hope. The ‘answer’ to the problem of evil consists simply in this: acknowledging the darkness of suffering, without losing our faith that, someday, a newer world might dawn. Then Matt’s spirit pressed me another step. Yes, I had written a (flawed) solution to Job’s perplexity. But could I be a solution to the problem of evil? Could I, no longer innocent of the dark, still project the light of hope? Do I dare? Timothy Chambers is a teaching fellow in philosophy at Brown University.