So, autumn term is nearly over (we don’t really do terms in Chester; our courses run the length of the year, but the winter holiday still breaks things up a bit). I knew going into it that it would be busy, but then the unexpected happened, as it always does, and “busy” became an understatement. With still a week and a half of work to get through before I can firmly close the office door, I’m hesitant to celebrate prematurely, but thus far I think I’ve acquitted myself well in spite of everything: various things have been administered, classes have been taught, students tended to, papers written and delivered, articles reviewed, Jewish Though, Utopia, and Revolution should be with the publisher by January, and the proposal for my next monograph is currently in review. For the rest of it, let’s just say that both Mark and I are thoroughly relieved that our holiday plans already involved staying home and doing as little as possible.
So I’m a little bit tired, and a little bit confused about what I’m supposed to be doing with the bits and pieces of “spare time” that are slowly beginning to reappear. Should I try to amend my sleep deficit? Scrub the kitchen floor like I’ve been meaning to do since August? Pitch in with the cooking for a change? Should I be preparing readings for next term when I’m teaching a brand new MA course on the problem of evil? Yes, probably, since I need to have the course website set up by next week, and in fact that is what I have been doing.
My teaching–in general, not just in this module–is animated by, and suffers from, the same competition between synchrony and diachrony as my scholarship. On the one hand, historical context is very, very important to me, both the idea that concepts do develop and change over time, and that particular concepts change in particular ways at particular historical moments. On the other hand, I’m not interested in trivia, but in the way that historical context illuminates the way we treat phenomena now. So it’s important to me to spend enough time on the historical development of the problem of evil that it becomes clear that “evil” is a fairly broad term, often used as more of a rhetorical flourish than a stable philosophical concept, so that students can then understand modern scholarship’s sometimes ungainly efforts to account for a young boy’s impulsive theft of his neighbour’s pears, an earthquake that kills 100,000 people, and a systematic state-sponsored genocide as somehow equivalent.
But it is also important not to fall into the trap of presenting a single canonical text as representative of a single historical moment, as though that moment could have only produced one major text addressing the problem, and that text is the only text which could have been produced at that moment. And because I’m a 20th century scholar, and a Holocaust scholar, the body of work I know best as a counter to that dangerous historical survey tendency is Holocaust theology, which could be a complete module on its own: radical evil, the banality of evil, protest theodicy, theologia crucis and the suffering Shekinah–how do I give it the space it deserves, in a ten week module? What do I leave out?
Here, now, in this place and this time, we take for granted that a proper theological explanation of and response to the problem of evil must always be in solidarity with the victims. I am a product of my geographical and temporal locatedness; even as I am aware that this approach is a choice, that other people in other times and places have made other choices in their approach and interpretation, I still think that it is a good choice, likely the best possible choice, and certainly the choice I would make in my own research and teaching. But which victims? And what sort of solidarity?
Or, to put it another way: whose voice most deserves to be silenced?
And that is why I have not written an entire book, and will not teach an entire module, on just Holocaust theology. Because while theologies that argue for radical evil to be viewed in some sort of perspective (I am thinking here primarily of the work of Stephen T. Davis and Miroslav Volf) tend to be, at best, inadequate, and at worst horrifically insensible, their impulse is not entirely bad. The error they make is their choice of comparison: they tend to hold up the reality of horrendous suffering now against the promise of indescribable bliss (or at least some form of soothing amnesia) yet to come. That’s not comforting, that’s insulting.
If comparison is at all helpful to theology in the face of evil (whatever “evil” means), it is not comparison between what God has manifestly failed to do and what God may yet, at some future point yet to be named, decide to get around to doing. Rather, it is the comparison between different sorts of harm, between entirely incomparable disasters–not in order to somehow make them comparable, so that the victims of the earthquake might silence their complaints when faced with the victims of the genocide (or vice versa), but so that the baffling, numbing, inescapable totality of loss that constitutes the human condition might be fully appreciated. Because only when we grasp that violence, suffering, and disaster are not actually exceptional circumstances is it possible to begin to construct a reasonable response.
As I write this, I am sitting in my cozy study, with a kitten asleep on my lap, and a small pile of books on Holocaust theology stacked up next to me. And as I read them, I am very aware that on this day, when I was nine years old, in the city where I was born, one man walked into an institution of higher education and killed fourteen women for no reason other than that they were women, at an institution of higher education.
I have never been able to bring myself to like Arendt’s or Fackenheim’s emphasis on survival for the sake of survival; it feels to me a bit more like futility than redemption. But today of all days, I–a woman who lives her life in institutions of higher education–can understand that even if it is not redemption, survival is still a victory.
Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz