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Among the Ashes: On death, grief and hope by William J. Abraham

by
16 March 2018

Richard Greatrex looks at books that face the question of suffering — The Divine Heart of Darkness by Catherine Bird and Ocean of Love or Sea of Troubles? by Geoffrey Harris

THE refrain “this is the night” running through the Exultet reminds us that resurrection is born out of darkness. For the analytic philosopher William J. Abraham, who describes himself as a “radically sceptical Christian theist”, darkness is not so clearly a redemptive phenomenon.

In Among the Ashes, he presents an honest account of how he “fell into a black hole” after the sudden death of his 42-year-old beloved son, Timothy, and the need to make sense of his intense grief in the light of his faith. When you are floundering in the deepest recesses of that dark hole, little can bring comfort or clarity, least of all traditional theodicies — though he affirms their value in testing our perceptions of God’s part in the violence of life.

The combination of deeply personal reflection with trenchantly critical systematic reasoning makes for a challenging but moving read. Abraham’s analysis of Job reinforces his view that the incomprehensibility of much pain is not an excuse to abandon attempts to explore the ways of God as they relate to suffering, and he backs this up with incisive scrutiny of the theologians Marilyn McCord Adams and David Bentley Hart.

While concluding that “there is no persuasive theological rationale for much of the sufferings we have to endure,” he derives hope in advocating suffering as the mirror of love, in understanding death through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, in continuing the discipline of asking perplexing questions, and in accepting that “in the Christian life of suffering we walk by faith and not by sight.”

Theodicy is also the concern of Geoffrey Harris’s Ocean of Love or Sea of Troubles? He begins by unpacking the paradox that life is both an ocean of love, underpinned by God’s love, and a dark place filled with danger, opposition, anger, and hatred — a boiling sea of troubles which can irrupt at any moment to strike us down. From there, he takes an extended canter through apologetics to set up his main focus: biblical and theological responses to a world of suffering. Once again, Job and Bentley Hart are brought into play, with contrasting early- versus mature-writings of C. S. Lewis and Philip Yancey, together with a selection of interviews with hospice patients.

Following on from the influence that the Suffering Servant narratives may have had on the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus’s death, Harris offers some interesting thoughts on the importance of suffering as an aspect of a truly faithful life. Frustratingly, however, Harris retreats into somewhat unsatisfactory reflections on a God who identifies with us throughout every aspect of experience, whose ability to heal is borne through knowing directly what pain is, and who will eventually, after death, bring us to a place of renewal and restoration.

For Catherine Bird, darkness is not to be feared: it is not the nadir, the abyss of grief. The Divine Heart of Darkness seeks to reclaim the dark as a vital aspect of life — a region of rest, recuperation, reflection, and regeneration. With lyricism and passion, she urges us to embrace the riches of darkness, to remember with the Psalmist that “darkness and light are both alike to thee.”

Interspersed among considerations of the positive aspects of darkness are extracts from journals recalling time spent deep within the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard during the “Polar Night” when the sun never rises above the horizon from February to October; life acquires its own rhythm, spaciousness, and potentiality.

Bird demonstrates how deeply embedded in Western culture the light/dark dichotomy has been: while most of our images for all that is honest, true, and wholesome are derived from light, darkness is ever equated with sadness, blindness, danger, and deception. Yet we sleep in the dark; for the great mystics, it is the place of enlightenment, of the absence that is also a presence.

The concluding “Dark Creed”, which powerfully inverts our customary imagery surrounding light and dark, comes with a “health warning” — so averse are we to associating darkness with the divine. It takes time and intellectual effort to recalibrate our natural inclinations towards the status quo: titles such as “Prince of Darkness”, which is re-appropriated for Christ, feel uncomfortable.

Yet projects such as this serve to challenge the complacency of cultural thinking and lazy theology that stigmatises an essential ingredient of God’s purposes for creation. As the buried grain aestivates before germination, so the resurrection requires the cool cavity of the tomb for its genesis. In the words of the Exultet, “this is the night that gave us back what we had lost”: out of darkness emerge the first hopeful signs of sorrow’s healing.
 

The Revd Richard Greatrex is Associate Priest of Barrow Gurney, in North Somerset.

Among the Ashes: On death, grief and hope
William J. Abraham
Eerdmans £12.99
(978-0-8028-7528-0)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

The Divine Heart of Darkness: Finding God in the shadows
Catherine Bird
Sacristy Press £11.99
(978-1-910519-58-5)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80

Ocean of Love or Sea of Troubles? Can we find God in a suffering world?
Geoffrey Harris
Wipf & Stock £19
(978-1-4982-3804-5)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

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