Nevada Bishop Dan Edwards says he wrote God of Our Silent Tears for three groups of people: those in the pew struggling with questions of suffering and evil; for pastors attempting to respond to those who struggle and for those in both local and seminary formation for ministry.
A decade long in the writing, the book was inspired after the Sept. 11 attacks and was recently published by the Cathedral Center Press, an imprint of the Diocese of Los Angeles. It takes intelligent aim at such age-old questions as: What kind of God permits innocent suffering? Where suffering comes from? What good is God when we suffer?
With a foreword by theologian John Westerhoff, Edwards hoped to position the book somewhere between the “dumbed-down” platitudes and the “academic jargon” that he says all too often fail to respond effectively to a basic existential question — why does God allow us to suffer?
“My hope for you is that, when you have finished God of Our Silent Tears, you will have a deeper sense of who God is and how God is with us in our hardest hours,” Edwards writes in chapter one.
Organized with reflection questions for use by parish study groups, it is not a book “for the fainthearted or those who want simple answers to complex questions,” Westerhoff writes in his foreword.
“Neither is it a book for those in search of certainty or those who reject the notion that doubt is a necessary dimension of faith.”
Rather, Edwards attempts “to reclaim the traditional doctrine of the Holy Trinity” as a basis for hope.
The title is from “God of Our Weary Years,” by the great Black poet James Weldon Johnson. Edwards’ search to understand his own encounters with evil and suffering led him to discover such a God, he told the Episcopal News recently.
Edwards, an attorney with 23 years in pastoral ministry, said he really “had the sense that pastors are not prepared by their seminary educations to answer the theological question ‘why?’ very effectively.
“In fact, we are generally given good psychological advice not to try to answer that question when someone is in the throes of crisis. But my experience was that after people were past the crisis, they had continuing lingering questions about where is God in my experience, and clergy were often not well prepared to have good conversations with folks about that. I wanted to provide a resource to help people think more clearly and more helpfully about pain and suffering and evil over the years.”
His hope is that the book will also help those “who are in formation for the ministry; this would include people who are in local formation processes in their dioceses and for students going to seminary.”
Too often, seminary education and even theology itself, suffer disconnects between the doctrines of God and of evil, he said.
Often very good doctrines of God “regress” when considering the problem of evil and suffering “into this patriarchal dominator-God image and their answers to the problem of evil are distorted by that unfortunate understanding of God,” he said.
Edwards makes note of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, which happened as the book was about to go to press.
“Again the question, ‘Where was God?’ Again many interpretations are drawn. Absurd things are said, like, ‘this is God’s punishment for the absence of prayer in schools.’
“The tragedy at Sandy Hook demonstrates that evil will not be reduced to any neat formula,” Edwards says, but he offers “a glimpse into how a Trinitarian God responds and calls us to respond to such horrific evils.”
“We need in that moment of tragedy to have faith in a serene God who knows that even in eternity this horror can be redeemed,” Edwards said. “We need the compassion to have our hearts wounded with the families of those children and we also need a spiritual transformation to really do something profound to change the world in response to this tragedy.
“The various ideas that were being floated struck me as so small in contrast to the depth of the tragedy. They were all about background checks and changing the size of ammo clips — all of which are good ideas and I support them all.
“But they are small steps to reduce the likelihood of this happening in the future,” he said. “Making meaning out of that kind of tragedy would be a wholesale cultural conversion away from glamorizing violence as a way to accomplish good. That strikes me as being the revolutionary message of Jesus,” he said.
He invoked instead Jesus’ vision of a world where transformation happens in paradoxical ways, through love and truth and mercy, instead of the violence of guns or economic pressure or the violence of bullying or coercion or political brinksmanship — all of the different power plays people use in order to enforce their particular version of good on the world that are self-defeating, he said.
“Power plays poison any good that might be accomplished through them,” Edwards said. “That is what Jesus was giving us — a different way of challenging the unjust structures of the world. A way of truth and mercy and paradox and holy mischief. And that’s what Gandhi did and what Martin Luther King did and it’s what Archbishop Desmond Tutu did. And, if we can step outside the Christian context, it’s what we see the Dalai Lama doing … that there is a spiritual alternative to power and coercion and manipulation.”
God of Our Silent Tears is available at the Cathedral Bookstore, 213.482.2040 or here.