The terrible tragedy that struck southern Asia on Dec. 26 has brought to the fore once again the age-old question about why God permits evil to befall innocent human beings.
When spoken by people of faith, the word “evil” is often preceded by “the mystery of” because that is what evil is in their eyes.
The word “mystery” has different meanings, however. In its most familiar sense, it refers to something that eludes understanding. A crime has been committed, but law-enforcement personnel are initially at a loss to identify the perpetrator and a motive. A series of clues may or may not lead to an eventual solution.
To be sure, evil is a mystery in that conventional sense of the word. It is a reality that exceeds our intellectual grasp, even our imagination, and that confounds us.
Mystery also has a theological meaning. At the opening of the second session of the Second Vatican Council, the newly elected Pope Paul VI spoke of the church itself as a mystery, that is, “a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God.”
Our experience of this “hidden” God, however, is always mediated. We “see” God in the whole created order and especially in one another, which is to say that our experience of God is also sacramental in character.
The invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible God is available to us only in the visible, historical, tangible realities of our ordinary human existence. For Christians, the great sacrament of our encounter with God is Jesus Christ. Christians believe him to be the Son of God, of the same divine substance as that of the Creator (Council of Nicaea, 325).
In the Christian tradition, the sacraments themselves are called mysteries, that is to say, visible signs and instruments of the invisible presence and saving activity of God. In the case of the Eucharist, for example, what is visible to the physical eye are bread and wine; what is “visible” through the eyes of faith are the very body and blood of Christ.
But how does all of this apply to the unspeakable tragedy that befell so many thousands of people last month in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and the Maldives? What answer could it possibly yield to that age-old question about why God permits evil?
One might be tempted to think that the removal of God from the equation would somehow eliminate the problem. Thus, God does not permit evil, because there is no God.
The difficulty with such a facile solution is that the mystery of evil is also the underside of the mystery of goodness. Eliminate the mystery of evil and one is still left with the mystery of goodness.
For the Christian, the challenge is not how to explain evil, but how to respond to it.
There has been a natural disaster of unimaginable proportions in Asia, but there has also been an unprecedented outpouring of generosity, selflessness and courage on the part of thousands of individuals from all parts of the world and from many of their governments.
Does God merely “permit” this mysterious outpouring of goodness or does God actually inspire it? The “mystery” here is broader and deeper than first appears.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.