Review of The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart

Even in a world where disasters seem to grab headlines every week, the 2004 tsunami stood out for its staggering horror. What thinking person did not instinctively ask, God, how could you let this happen? Do you even exist?

David Bentley Hart writes, “Considering the scope of the catastrophe, and of the agonies and sorrows it had visited on so many, we should probably have all remained silent for a while. The claim to discern some greater meaning—or, for that matter, meaninglessness—behind the contingencies of history and nature is both cruel and presumptuous at such times. Pious platitudes and words of comfort seem not only futile and banal, but almost blasphemous; metaphysical disputes come perilously close to mocking the dead. There are moments, simply said, when we probably ought not to speak. But, of course, we must speak.”

In The Doors of the Sea, Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, takes on the difficult task of trying to answer the question, “Where was God in the tsunami?” Initially, Hart wrote a short article for the Wall Street Journal. He was then invited to expand the article into a column in First Things, and the responses it generated led him to publish an even longer version as a book.

Hart is to be commended for putting so much effort into this book. Too often, believers take the easy way out; unless a disaster happens to affect them personally, they simply ignore the difficult theological questions that it provokes, and do not ask themselves if their beliefs about God need to be revised. Hart refuses to take the easy way out, and tackles the tough questions head-on.

Hart begins by reviewing some arguments, both by unbelievers and by believers, that he regards as inadequate. I will not list all these arguments here; in my opinion, this is one of the weakest parts of the book, because Hart comes across as condescending. He makes it abundantly clear that his knowledge of theology and history (not to mention his vocabulary, which overflows with arcane terms such as apotropaic and genius loci) far exceeds that of most other commentators. I find it annoying when he uses his erudition, rather than detailed argumentation, to beat down those he disagrees with.

There is one argument, however, that Hart regards as very powerful, namely that of Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan relates, in excruciating detail, a long list of true stories of children who have been tortured and sometimes killed for trivial reasons or no reason at all. In a rather surprising move, Ivan then freely grants that one day in heaven, when all tears are wiped away and all sins forgiven, we will learn what enormously greater good will have been achieved by all that seemingly pointless suffering. For Ivan, however, such an explanation of the necessity of the children’s suffering does not solve the problem of evil; on the contrary, it deepens it. As Hart puts it, “And so, not denying that there is a God or a divine design in all things, he simply chooses (respectfully) to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom. After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?”

An important point in Hart’s answer to Ivan Karamazov is the emphasis on the Augustinian view that evil is nothing in itself; it is simply the privation of the good. “Christian thought, from the outset, denies that (in themselves) suffering, death, and evil have any ultimate value or spiritual meaning at all.” That is, although in some isolated cases, suffering might be “explainable” as being necessary or even good, we should not expect this to always be the case. Suffering and evil, in general, do not make sense.

In that case, we might ask, why do suffering and evil exist at all? Hart’s answer, not surprisingly, is a version of the free-will defense. Creation as we see it is not how God intended it. “[I]n the fall of man, all of material existence was made subject to the dominion of death.” Hart insists that God’s will “can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance,” and that “there is a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism within the New Testament: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles; but certainly a conflict between a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God on the one hand and the saving love of God in time on the other.”

Hart, therefore, rejects both the “best of all possible worlds” view under which every single good and evil event is perfectly accounted for in a gigantic mathematical equation, and the Reformed view that everything that happens—including sin—is perfectly in accordance with God’s divine will. So he is able to agree wholeheartedly with everyone, believer or unbeliever, who feels instinctively that the horror of the tsunami is totally discordant with what God wills for us.

Many Christians, of course, will be unable to agree with Hart’s position on free will and divine sovereignty. What I personally find more frustrating about Hart, however, is that he never fully addresses the question of the mechanism by which the fall of man caused the physical universe to “languish in bondage to the powers and principalities of this age.” Does he accept, in broad outline at least, the current scientific understanding of the history of the physical universe? If so, then presumably the fall of man happened very late in this history. Did the fall of man change Maxwell’s equations? Or did it affect the laws of physics from the beginning of time, by backwards causality of some kind? Or is there something fundamentally flawed with the very concept of “laws of physics”? There are various options here, none of which is easy to defend. Hart does not seem to sense the difficulty, perhaps because he is untrained in science. Evil that arises from human volition can be accounted for at least partially by the free-will defense, but the whole point of a natural disaster like the tsunami is that it seems to have nothing to do with human will. If, despite appearances, it does have something to do with human will, then this surprising connection demands further explication. Unfortunately, Hart is of little help here.

Despite this criticism, my overall evaluation of the book is positive. Hart’s thoughtful analysis is an excellent starting point for formulating one’s own view on the theological implications of one of the most tragic physical calamities of our time.

Posted June 2009

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