Slaugh­ter of chil­dren puts faith to stern test

Austin American-Statesman - - BALANCED VIEWS - Douthat writes forThe New York Times.

New­town,

Conn., is about 20 miles from the town where my wife grew up. It’s the kind of place that re­wards ram­bling New Eng­land drives: There are big old Vic­to­rian houses flank­ing the main street, a hill with a huge flag­pole ris­ing in the cen­ter of town and a large pas­ture just be­low, with shaded side roads ra­di­at­ing out­ward from the greensward, and then horse farms in the hills be­yond.

When you live in a hec­tic, self-im­por­tant city, it’s easy to ro­man­ti­cize a town like New­town, and maybe imag­ine es­cap­ing there some­day, chil­dren in tow. The last time we drove through was more than a year ago: It was a sum­mer dusk, and there were fam­i­lies out ev­ery­where — kids on bikes, crowds at the ice cream stand, im­ages of small town in­no­cence flick­er­ing past our car win­dows like slides on a carousel.

Any grown-up knows that such small-town in­no­cence is il­lu­sory, and that what looks pris­tine to out­siders can be as dark­ened by suf­fer­ing as any other place where hu­man be­ings live to­gether, and alone.

But even so, the il­lu­sion has real power, not least be­cause the dream of small-town life makes the whole uni­verse seem some­how kinder and homier. If only a Bed­ford Falls or Stars Hol­low or May­berry ex­isted some­where, we tend to feel — in New Eng­land or Ne­braska, the present or the past — then per­haps there’s some ul­ti­mate hope for the rest of us as well. Maybe the uni­verse really was meant to be a home to hu­man­ity, and not just a blindly cruel cos­mos in which a 6-yearold’s fate is sig­nif­i­cant to his par­ents but no more mean­ing­ful in ab­so­lute terms than the crack­ing of a seashell or an ex­tinc­tion of a star.

But if the ideal of the Good Place, the lost Eden or Ar­ca­dia, can stir up the residue of re­li­gious hopes even in hard­ened ma­te­ri­al­ists, the re­al­ity of what tran­spired in the real New­town last week — the killing in cold blood of 20 small chil­dren — can make Ivan Kara­ma­zovs out of even the de­vout.

In Fy­o­dor Dos­toyevsky’s fa­mous novel, Ivan is the Kara­ma­zov brother who col­lects sto­ries of chil­dren tor­tured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of sol­diers’ bay­o­nets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freez­ing out­house by her par­ents.

Ivan in­vokes th­ese in­no­cents in a speech that re­mains one of the most pow­er­ful re­bukes to the idea of a lov­ing, om­ni­scient God — a speech that ac­cepts the pos­si­bil­ity that the Chris- tian story of free will lead­ing to suf­fer­ing and then even­tu­ally re­demp­tion might be true, but re­jects its Au­thor any­way, on the grounds that the price of our free­dom is too high.

“Can you un­der­stand,” he asks his more re­li­gious sib­ling, “why a lit­tle crea­ture, who can’t even un­der­stand what’s done to her, should beat her lit­tle aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek un­re­sent­ful tears to dear, kind God to pro­tect her? … Do you un­der­stand why this in­famy must be and is per­mit­ted? With­out it, I am told, man could not have ex­isted on Earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that di­a­bol­i­cal good and evil when it costs so much?”

Per­haps, Ivan con­cedes, there will be some fi­nal har­mony, in which ev­ery tear is wiped away and ev­ery hu­man woe is re­vealed as in­signif­i­cant against the glo­ries of eternity. But such a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tor­tured child.”

It’s telling that Dos­toyevsky, him­self a Chris­tian, of­fered no di­rect the­o­log­i­cal re­but­tal to Ivan’s speech. The coun­ter­point to Ivan in “The Brothers Kara­ma­zov” is sup­plied by other characters’ ex­am­ples of Chris­tian love tran­scend­ing suf­fer­ing, not by a rhetor­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of God’s good­ness.

The Rus­sian nov­el­ist was be­ing true to the spirit of the New Tes­ta­ment, which seeks to es­tab­lish God’s good­ness through a nar­ra­tive rather than an ar­gu­ment, a rev­e­la­tion of his sol­i­dar­ity with hu­man strug­gle rather than a philo­soph­i­cal proof of his benev­o­lence.

All that my re­li­gious tra­di­tion has to of­fer to the be­reaved of New­town to­day — be­sides an ap­pro­pri­ately re­spect­ful wit­ness to their aw­ful sor­row — is a ver­sion of that story, and the re­al­ism about suf­fer­ing that it con­tains.

That re­al­ism may be hard to see at Christ­mas­time, when the sen­ti­men­tal side of faith owns the cul­tural stage. But the Christ­mas story isn’t just the manger and the shep­herds and the baby Je­sus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaugh­tered in­no­cents of Beth­le­hem, and the myrrh that pre­pares bod­ies for the grave. The cross looms be­hind the sta­ble — the shadow of vi­o­lence, agony and death.

In the leaf­less hills of west­ern Con­necti­cut, this is the only Christ­mas spirit that could pos­si­bly mat­ter now.

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