I Want to Believe…I Really Do


by Jay Fisher

            First, a joke.  Yes, it is strange but true – a joke may appear to be the most appropriate anecdote to start this piece.

An old man was alone in his house by the river during a torrential downpour.  A fireman came to his house and said, “Mister, you need to get out!  The waters are rising and you may get flooded!”  The old man said, “Thank you for the concern, son, but I am staying.  God will provide.”

Six hours later the old man was now on the roof of his house with flood waters swarming all around.  Another fireman passed by in a boat, pleading for the old man to get in.  Again, the old man said, “God will provide my son!  I will survive this!”  And the boat motored away.

A couple hours later the old man was now perched on his chimney, the flood waters swirling inches away from him.  The Army came by in a helicopter trying to winch the old man for a rescue.  And once more he refused, saying God will save him.  Away went the helicopter…

Predictably, the old man died in the flood.  He ascended to Heaven and took a place before God.  Once there, he pleaded with the Lord, saying, “God!  I had faith in You!  And you let me down!  Why didn’t you rescue me?!?” 

And God said, “Jeezus!  What more do you want?  First I send a fireman, then a boat, and finally a helicopter…”

Do you remember the name Angel Babcock?  In today’s hustle and bustle world, names in the media come and go in rapid fashion.  A refresher for you: she was the fifteen month old toddler who was found a critically injured in a field a long ways away from her Indiana residence where her parents and other siblings were killed by a mammoth tornado.  Angel died approximately 48 hours later in a pediatric hospital.

It is too easy to say a person’s faith in a Higher Power is shaken by an infant’s death.  Any reasonable person would be.  However, the story’s details make this tumult even worse.  News reports passed along this tidbit about the whole sordid event:

The tragic circumstances surrounding the Babcock family are still painfully fresh for their next-door neighbors, Marcia and Beverly Lanham, who said Joseph Babcock worked in a nearby sawmill owned by Marcia’s ex-husband and son.

Beverly Lanham said her boyfriend, Jason Miller, told her that he saw Angel’s parents and her siblings lying face down in a hallway in their mobile home, holding hands and praying as the tornado approached.

She said Miller rushed outside to offer them a place in his bigger double-wide mobile home. But the twister picked up Miller and threw him and the Babcock family near Old Pekin Road.

Miller, 31, survived, with several broken bones and was in stable condition Saturday at University Hospital in Louisville.[i]

However, the personal coup-de-gras which shook my faith came with this report:

Angel died at 4:10 p.m. Sunday afternoon after her grandmother, Kathy Babcock, made the decision with other family members to take her off life support.

“I had my arm around her when she took her last breath,” Babcock said in an exclusive interview with ABC News. “I sang to her itsy-bitsy spider.”[ii]

I remember vividly when I first heard this detail – driving my car back from a mid-day class, the radio news mentioned the “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” song and Angel’s death.  I have no clue how many readers are parents or how many hope to experience the joy that parenting can bring a person, but singing songs to infants like “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” are well-within the parental job description.  And I have no qualms admitting this – I cried when I heard that detail.  I cried and cried and cried all the way back to my office.  Even writing about this one month later, my eyes mist over and I still feel profound sadness.  No one, absolutely no one, should face singing children’s songs to a dying infant.

And, at that moment, I admitted to myself that I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.  I want to, but I do not know if I can.

Someone please explain to me a situation where a miracle from God was more appropriate?  Or a scenario where multiple places existed for a miracle to intercede?  A family holding onto their faith was praying to be spared the tornado’s wrath.  A neighbor was trying to reach the family to bring them to a safer place, only to be violently thrown from them and injured.  The infant survives grievously injured, her family wiped out, but showing signs that maybe she will pull through.  And finally, before departing this world, the child’s final aural stimulus is “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.”  And the actors in this saga – my Lord!  A family who believes so strongly in the saving aspects of God’s mercy that they pray for salvation in the face of a tornado?  A fifteen month old toddler who almost certainly did no wrong in this world?  A neighbor whose desire to help those in worse circumstances dared a rescue attempt in a violent storm, and was seriously injured in the process?  This thing reeks not only of tragedy, but of profound questions surrounding God and His/Her/Its interaction with this world.

After pondering this tragedy long and hard, I can only reach one of three hypotheses – and none of them are pretty: 1.) God does not care about humans and human suffering that much; 2.) God is too busy with other matters to pay attention to the details of human existence; and 3.) God has an evil aspect to His/Her/Its character.

The first hypothesis (God does not care that much) is problematic because Jews (and almost all other religious folk of any faith) are taught that God loves us.  If God loves us, then why did such a tragic scenario as what played out in Indiana happen?  Would it have been that hard for God to flick His/Her/Its finger to either the right or left, divert that tornado and change the course of the Babcock family’s destiny?

Maybe God was busy, like the second idea posits.  Maybe a supernova was going on in another galaxy.  Maybe some form of genocide was happening on another planet that would make the Holocaust look like a petite neighborhood dispute.  If so, and God was busy, then God is not “all powerful” and “all knowing” as we have learned throughout our religious lives.  Another puzzling aspect to the “God overlooked” issue is if He/She/It overlooked purposefully, then God does not care (and see above for that discussion).  Conversely, if the Higher Power’s attention was accidentally diverted, then God made a mistake and is not perfect.  If God makes a mistake, does God owe us an apology?  What form does an apology take?  To whom is the apology directed – humankind in general, or just the family of the affected person/victim?

This leaves us the final hypothesis – that God has an evil aspect to God’s character.  There is some portion of His/Her/Its character which sees human suffering and feels glee at viewing the pain and sadness inflicted by disaster.  If we as Jews accept that we are made in God’s image, then the converse must be true: God is made in our image as well.  Evil exists in some humans (Jews included), so evil exists in God, too.  This is not as far-fetched as one may think.  The concept of an “evil God” has been posited by thinkers already, and will not go away anytime soon (see philosopher Steven Law’s paper on the “evil God theory” published at Cambridge University Press.

What becomes more worrisome for any person who considers these possibilities is another question which eventually arises.  Does a God who suffers from any of the disabilities listed above (and I do believe these characteristics in a Higher Power to be disabilities) warrant our love?  Respect is a no brainer, and God deserves that.  Any person who has stood before some of the wondrous things God has placed on this planet – the Grand Canyon, the Andes Mountains, the Great Barrier Reef – cannot help but admire a Deity who puts these things in the world and respect the power involved.  But can a God who either allows such painful scenarios to play out as what happened to Angel Babcock or who overlooks such events when they unfold deserve our love for permitting such pain in the first place?  I don’t know.

Inevitably, faith itself is brought into profound doubt.  Accepting any of these premises means challenging the teachings and theories of profound religious thinkers over many millennia, all of whom advocated for the all knowing/all loving aspects of God’s being.  Rambam, Rabbi Akiva, a whole class of Chassidic theorists – they would all be wrong on either small details or in their whole philosophies.  In other words, profound doubts arise about our understanding of God vis-a-vis learned thinkers, the true character and nature of God, and whether or not God exists.

In conclusion, the author owes the reader an apology.  Too often readers turn to written works to offer answers or possible solutions or explanations of phenomena.  I offer none of those…only questions.  I offer an alternative version of the Job story: why does suffering exist?  Maybe someone smarter than me can come up with an answer.  I have pondered this, and I have failed.

Maybe the author presents this piece to make a statement that the age-old explanations for understanding suffering which say “how dare you question God’s plan, you puny human!” or “you will only understand human suffering in hindsight when you have sloughed off this mortal coil called life” are no good.  After seeing so much tragedy in the world, we demand an explanation when the question “why” is posed.  Unless and until this phenomenon is explained, a profound weakness in religious theory exists.  It also creates an avenue whereby other faiths that try to explain this issue (e.g. – Buddhism and its default position that all life is suffering punctuated with transient moments of joy) appear so much stronger than Judaism.

We Jews recently celebrated the holiday of Pesach and the appurtenant miracles attached with it.  However, an academic review of these miracles can reveal the same problems with God’s character posed above.  Believe it or not, one of the best portrayals of seeing these miracles from a new and unflattering view came from a cartoon.  On April 4, 2012, the series “South Park” dared to question the entire Exodus story in its “Jewpacabra” episode.  The series creators dared to question God’s kindness when the plagues inflicted on Egypt lead to frogs free-falling to their violent deaths on the ground, young lambs being viciously slaughtered for the sole purpose of having their blood smeared on a door frame, and young Egyptian children who likely had no knowledge about the sin of Jewish slavery suffering horrible deaths on account of no wrongdoing they personally did.  However, the ultimate “in your face” move portrayed by the series creators was to explain how God hardened pharaoh’s heart to prevent the Jews from being freed, and then inflicted all these horrors on the Egyptians because of pharaoh’s stiffness (again, created by God Him-/Her-/Itself).  Talk about rigging the game!  The nature and character of God is an inevitable question when contemplating this alternative explanation of Pesach’s events.

The author is left in the same position as Fox Mulder in the classic sci-fi series “The X-Files.”  Among Mulder’s messy desk in the basement of the FBI building is a prominent poster on the wall with a photo of a UFO and the words underneath saying “I Want To Believe.”  It does not say “I Believe” but instead expresses the desire of the poster’s owner to want to believe in unexplained phenomenon.  And series aficionados will remember Mulder had every reason to believe – he saw the alien corpses on the Indian reservation, his partner was implanted with alien technology, etc., etc.  Yet the evidence was still not enough for him.  The author sees the wonder and beauty God has put in this world, and wants to believe in God’s greatness, kindness and existence.  However, until what befell Angel Babcock and her family can be explained, I will be constrained to saying I want to believe rather than believing without any doubts.

[i]    http://www.usatoday.com/weather/storms/tornadoes/story/2012-03-03/tornado-indiana-baby/53348202/1

[ii]   http://abcnews.go.com/US/baby-angel-babcocks-grandmother-mourns-loss-entire-family/story?id=15847037#.T35ap9WW6So

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