Have you ever had the experience of noticing a certain pattern in a wild variety of contexts, a pattern that occurs so consistently that you feel it simply has to mean something … but you have no idea what? I say “in a wild variety of contexts” to rule out cases of patterns that occur within the same context, even though, at the time, you may have no idea of the cause. I remember back in the early 1960s, when I was in junior-high school, I went on a “geology jag”. I spent several months reading books on geology, geophysics, and volcanology that noted with perplexity the mysterious – in the early '60s – pattern whereby volcanic activity tended to be concentrated around the circumference of, e.g., the Pacific Basin, what we today call the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” and similar places.
Over the years of studying and dealing with both the practitioners and the practice of theodicy, I have developed a pretty accurate set of antennae for detecting when even people of undisputed integrity and good will have gone “a bridge too far” in their zeal to “justify the ways of God to man” by defending conduct that, in other contexts, would be assessed as unambiguously criminal. In such cases, God is allowed to breeze by despite conduct that would earn a human a war-crimes trial at The Hague. No devout monotheist is exempt from this risk, not even the most temperate, rational, and tolerant. Fr. Ron Rolheiser is a quintessentially temperate, rational, and tolerant man par excellence, both professionally and personally, as I can attest from having met him, spoken with him one-to-on
As anyone knows who has read any of these “Skeptics” columns, I have very little patience, and even less respect, for that sub-discipline of theology known as theodicy: the systematic process whereby a theologian attempts to “justify the ways of God to man,” in John Milton’s immortal phrase. But there is one particular theodical tactic that puzzles me by virtue of its sheer persistence: the resort to mystery. The “mystery response” is typically elicited when, in a theological conversation or debate, one cites radically different outcomes that, despite their incompatibility, a believer, Christian or otherwise, seeks to place on an equal footing in terms of supporting the goodness of God. A plane crashes. A hundred people are killed. A hundred survive. If during the conversation one a