By and By, Love


The candles in the churches are out, 
The stars have gone out in the sky. 
Blow on the coal of the heart
And we’ll see by and by…


Rabbi Harold Kushner quotes Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B. in his work When Bad Thing Happen to Good People, to illustrate that where power ends, love begins. When the lights have gone out, we will blow on faint ashes to give them life. When darkness descends it comes to the forefront, and we must confront this darkness directly and honestly, in all its unfairness and unknowingness. Yet we must also try to keep a perspective of the light, however faint it may seem, in the throes of despair. We must gently blow on it until it kindles and bursts forth into fire.

Kushner’s main theme in this work is giving up God’s omnipotence for his compassion. The world runs off of natural laws, and is mostly an orderly, good place. Yet there also exists a part that is chaotic, and it is in the chaotic realm that suffering occurs. Suffering due to death, illness, loss. Kushner believes that these bad things don’t happen because of God, that He can neither cause nor intervene in them. It is inevitable to feel angry when we are hurt, and rather than being angry at God, it makes more sense to be angry at the situation along with God – God feels angry just as we do by the unfairness and tragedies around us. Suffering does not have inherent meaning in the ‘why?’, but meaning can be found in the ‘what do I do with this suffering now?’ God’s role is in helping the sufferer, giving him courage, strength, and hope. Prayer then is something that changes us internally, rather than changing things externally.

This view is not unique or new, but Kushner gently unfolds it through his narrative. I don’t know if it’s possible to reconcile theologically the idea of a God who is not omnipotent. It is difficult not to pray for miracles which according to Kushner exist in the chaotic realm and therefore un-pray-able in a way (miracles cannot be attributed to God, but rather to that same chaotic realm. It would be a fallacy to think that some people are granted miracles while others are not. Just as natural calamities make no distinction of whom they target, neither do miracles.)

I don’t know how much I agree or disagree with these ideas. I agree with suffering and calamities being unprejudiced and unfair, but what I am unsure about is whether how we view omnipotence isn’t flawed. The God I believe in is still theologically omnipotent, even though I am not sure what the consequences of that omnipotence are, what it truly means. Yet, Kushner from the get go explained that this was not a theological work, but something deeply personal following the death of his child who suffered from progeria, a rare disease resulting in rapid aging. For those who are angry at God for neither directly nor indirectly acting, Kushner’s work is a solace in moving beyond anger at God to anger with God. If we envision our belief in God as a relationship, which it is, then relationships evolve, and this is perhaps the first step in moving away from hurt and anger. I wonder what the next step or steps would be in this evolution, perhaps it would be the searching of God’s omnipotence beyond the childhood prayer-as-candy notion, and how it would look like through another humane narrative.


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