The following is an excerpt from The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God by Anson Hugh Laytner. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
Each of us has a life story, a spiritual journey, something that we may return to time and time again as we age, and this book represents a significant portion of mine…At the heart of my story is a period of ten years during which my family and I endured wave after wave of
suffering, grief and death…
This book explores how I struggled with the issue of why bad things happen to basically good people, a topic known in the theological trade as “theodicy”; how I dealt with spiritual/emotional crises while braving many waves of illness and death; how I left old beliefs behind and began developing new ones that better addressed the experiences I’d had. These are issues at least as old as the Book of Iyov/Job.
I try to do theology in a creative way, the way artists and poets and authors do their work. Were I a more gifted writer, I might have tried my hand at fiction in order to express my ideas through the characters and events of a novel. (More people probably read and learn theology from Dostoyevsky or Wiesel—or even Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—than Tillich, Thich Nhat Hạnh, Barth, Buber and Heschel combined!) My creative way to do theology is to make an explicit connection between my ideas, the work that I did, and my life.
The late Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, once said that all politics is local. Just as surely, all theology is personal. By this I mean that there are complex personal factors—psychological makeup, personality, stage of life, past experiences, cultural context, and current situation—that provide the shifting sands upon which any theology is built. But just as politicians prefer to obfuscate the personal motives underlying their decisions with grandiloquent rhetoric, so too do theologians generally cloak the personal roots of their theologies with dubious certainties. Instead, I try to keep my theology personal and rooted in my experiences.
As I said at the very beginning, this book is my attempt to make sense of those recurring waves of disease, dying and death that washed over me and my family, leaving us gasping for meaning and dazed with pain. Of course, our family’s experience is not unique. Other people have had life’s events hit them far worse and I almost feel guilty about kvetching (complaining) about what we’ve gone through. Perhaps our experience is more compact and intense than that of other folk, but it is not so special.
Death, as it is so often blandly asserted, is just a part of life. As are pain and suffering. And happiness and joy too—but who complains about these? In truth, words cannot begin to convey the depth of feeling one has when in the thick of things, or the dark thoughts that these sorts of experiences can engender: “Why me?” “Why her?” “Why is God doing this to us?” “What did we do to deserve this?” “Why go on living?”
These are the kinds of questions that suffering raises for many people. They are the very questions that Iyov (Job) asked. They can haunt one's nights, sliding into one’s consciousness between the ticks of the clock in the wee early hours, rousing one with an ache in the stomach, or with a troubling dream, or in an anxious sweat. Many people prefer, I think, to go for years without truly contemplating these questions, only to be violently confronted by them at a time of crisis and loss, be it love, health, career, or the death of someone beloved. At one time or another, almost all of us are compelled by life’s events to struggle to find meaning in what life throws our way, for better or for worse. We do so when we marvel at a birth or wonder about love, when we rage against disease or grieve over our dead.
These questions came to a personal head as I tried to make sense of the suffering my family had endured. What meaning is there in suffering, and how does it connect with God? For answers, I studied the Book of Iyov intensively and then contemplated how its messages applied to my life. Then I wrote and rewrote over a 15-year period. The result is what you have before you—and still it remains a work-in-process!
I begin this book with a detailed analysis of the Book of Iyov. (Once you get through that study, the rest of the book is a much easier read.) This chapter is followed by a mix of personal reminisences and theological reflections on the topics of suffering, prayer, god- concepts, revelation, and how best to live together. I share my stories and reflections with you, not because I am a paragon of faith, but in the hope whatever wisdom I have acquired as a result of this dark encounter may be of benefit to you as well.
For someone else, it might have been quite logical to ask, “Why believe in God in the first place, and how much more so given all that your family had gone through?” But for me, this was never an option because, owing to a mystical experience I had as a young man: I know there
is a God but, like Iyov, I just wonder what on earth S/He/It does.
Praise for The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God
“In this book Anson Laytner explores the experiences of life through the lens of his understanding of God. It is a passionate and deep journey to the edges of an ever changing but always sustaining faith. Lives will be touched by this book, but minds will also be opened. That is quite an accomplishment!”
—John Shelby Spong, Author, Jesus for the Non-Religious
“In the shadows of the Holocaust and multiple personal family losses, Laytner plumbs the dual mysteries of suffering and God with the book of Job as his guide. His spiritual journey moves from the rejection of theodicies old and new, through a phase of unrelieved argument with God, to the experience of the ineffable presence of God beyond ‘God.’ Marked by practical wisdom, generosity of spirit, disarming humor, and a joyful affirmation of the goodness of life and love undefeated by suffering and death, Laytner’s book is a stimulating invitation to theological and spiritual exploration.”
—Daniel L. Migliore, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology, Princeton Theological Seminary
About the Author
Anson Hugh Laytner is a retired liberal rabbi, living in Seattle, whose career in nonprofit and academic settings focused on fostering positive interfaith and interethnic relations. He is the author of Arguing with God (1990), coauthor of The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity (2005), and coeditor of The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng (2017).
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