Book review: “Lament for a Son” by Nicholas Wolterstorff

What does it mean, Eric dead, removed from our presence, covered with earth, inert? Or is such shattering of love beyond meaning for us, the breaking of meaning– mystery, mystery, terrible mystery?

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son doesn’t need explanation: it is his thoughts why grieving the loss of his son in a climbing accident. I believe Goodreads recommended it to me after it took note that I read Lewis’s A Grief Observed. I had never heard of Wolterstorff, but the book seems to be widely read, and I thought I would take a look into it.

This book is painful to read. To enter someone else’s pain. But while it also was a pain I could not share and entirely understand, many of the words he used to describe his thoughts and sense of loss seemed like words from my own mouth when I was in a time of grief.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and resurrecter of Jesus Christ. I also believe that my son’s life was cut off in its prime. I cannot fit these pieces together. I am at a loss.

These two irreconcilable elements– belief in God and the very real presence of suffering experience first hand– I find the most poignant and meaningful. It doesn’t seek to explain away pain. It doesn’t try to defend God or cover up the tragedy of death. We can’t do that, we can’t cover up the tragedy. He comments how Christians are prone to do this:

I find this pious attitude deaf to the message of the Christian gospel. Death is here understood as a normal instrument of God’s dealing with us [I think how in Mormon doctrine, we explain it as part of “the plan.” It never rings true to me at a funeral.] “You have lived out the years I’ve planned for you, so I’ll shake the mountain just a bit. All of you there, I’ll send some starlings into the engine of your plane. And as for you there, a stroke while running will do nicely.”

The Bible speaks instead of overcoming death. Paul calls it the last great enemy to be overcome. God is appalled by death. My pain over my son’s death is shared by his pain over my son’s death. And yes, I share in his pain over his son’s death.

I have only been able to accept my own experience of grief and loss by not trying to explain it away, as part of some cosmic plan, because it doesn’t make things more bearable. It becomes almost a farce when you try to do that. And if you try to explain someone else’s pain to them that way, it really is a farce. This is mystery. Wolterstorff quotes Pascal on this idea:

A religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true. Truly you are a hidden God.

Latter-Day Saints are very much in a rational camp. By virtue of revelation, we assert that God is known to man, and that at least to a large degree we can understand Him and His plan. I remember Gordon B. Hinckley in conference talking how he can’t make head nor tail of the Nicene creed, because it is too confusing. This idea of mystery seems unappealing to us. But this rationalized faith that does away with mystery can’t take us very far when we experience real grief, and I feel our inability to encounter mystery, to live with unknowns, that causes many to experience a crisis of faith.

Later in the book, Wolterstorff takes a more reconciled tone. The basic idea, that doesn’t do away with the mystery in any way, is that God suffers:

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity, they have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.

I think that we Latter-Day Saints are just becoming aware of how significant this element is in our own faith, as so beautifully expressed by Terryl Givens in The God Who Weeps. Givens does seem to make out that this idea of a suffering God, not just a suffering Christ, is unique to Latter-Day Saint theology. Wolterstorff makes clear we aren’t unique in that aspect, but it is true that the Book of Enoch on the Pearl of Great Price makes the picture of a suffering God more explicit.

I find this idea beautiful in its own right, but I feel to treat lightly as to not to try to develop a new and weak theodicy. I reflected on a few implicit critiques of Christian theodicies I have read, including one from a Jewish perspective in To Heal a Fractured World. He doesn’t explicitly mention Christianity, but in this passage on poverty (and I would expand it to suffering in general), you can easily see where Christianity has the potential to go wrong:

[The sages absolutely refuse] to romanticize poverty. It is not, for them, a blessed state. It is an unmitigated evil. ‘Poverty’ they said, ‘is a kind of death.’ ‘Poverty in a person’s house is worse than fifty plagues.’ Nothing is harder to bear than poverty, for one who is crushed by poverty is like one to whom all the troubles of the world cling and upon whom all the curses in Deuteronomy have descended. If all the troubles were placed on the one scale and poverty on the other, poverty would outweigh them all… statements in praise of poverty are indefensible defenses of the status quo by those with privilege and power.

Or take this exchange from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality where Harry confronts Dumbledore with the absurdity of the idea that he doesn’t fear death:

“Death is bad,” said Harry, discarding wisdom for the sake of clear communication. “Very bad. Extremely bad. Being scared of death is like being scared of a great big monster with poisonous fangs. It actually makes a great deal of sense, and does not, in fact, indicate that you have a psychological problem.”

The headmaster was staring at him as though he’d just turned into a cat.

Okay,” said Harry, “let me put it this way. Do you want to die? Because, if no, there’s this Muggle thing called a suicide prevention hotline–“

“When it is time,” the old wizard said quietly. “Not before. I would never seek to hasten the day, nor seek to refuse it when it comes.”

Harry was frowning sternly. “That doesn’t sound like you have a very strong will to live, Headmaster!”

“Harry, …” The old wizard’s voice was starting to sound a little helpless. “I think I have not made myself very clear. Dark Wizards are eager to live. They fear death. They do not reach up toward the sun’s light, but flee the coming of night into infintely darker caverns of their own making, without moon or stars. It’s not life they desire, but immortality; and they are so driven to grasp at it that they will sacrifice their very souls! Do you want to live forever, Harry?”

“Yes, and so do you,” said Harry. “I want to live one more day. Tomorrow I will still want to live one more day. Therefore I want to live forever, proof by induction on the positive integers. If you don’t want to die, it means you want to live forever. If you don’t want to live forever, it means you want to die. You’ve got to do one or the other… I’m not getting through here, am I…”

This exchange may almost seem absurd, and I thought unfair to Dumbledore. But you could put any Christian in his place trying to explain why we have to die, or how we can accept death or suffering as part of God’s plan. That is why when Wolterstorff says, Perhaps the treading down is itself a blessing, or can become a blessing, rich as any coming to those we call “the lucky ones, I cringed a little, as we entered the realm of theodicy.

But Wolterstorff does such a beautiful job at continuing this wrestle with the angel, of trying to come to grips with the mortal and divine, and gives voice to the shared griefs of humanity.

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