Pain of Knowing
winds, and crack your cheeks! rage, NNblow!
Your cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
till you have drenched our steeples, NNdrowned the cocks!
. . .
And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germains spill at NNonce
That makes ungrateful man!
insane, in King Lear, Act III, Scene 2
Adam and Eve, you’ve got to love them, poor schlubs. All that
those mythic parents of ours wanted to know was the answer
to everything. Is that so bad?
What happened to them didn’t have anything to do with apples.
It didn’t have anything to do with sex. It was understanding
that they hungered for, knowledge. It was the fruit from the
Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that they found so
juicily irresistible. It was supposed to make them all-wise,
all- knowing. Hell, I’d have eaten it, too.
But once they eat it they end up knowing too much. They know
about their imperfect bodies, for example—a little nose hair
here, a little flab there, body parts that are just not the
ample dimensions they had seemed when life had been all about
love, love, love and nectar-and-ambrosia.
Along with discovering that she’s not Angelina and he’s not
Brad, Adam and Eve also discover the satisfaction of lying
and blaming. Adam lies to God. Then Adam blames Eve for the
fruit episode. Eve blames the serpent. I’d have blamed the
It’s all there in that little story: the craving to know,
the drive to blame.
Meanwhile, we’re all like Lear standing on the heath in the
middle of the storm, and frankly, we don’t understand it;
we don’t know what to make of it:
The earth around us has been groaning and heaving and pulsing
and weeping, releasing the dead from their coffins, entombing
others in graves of mud or water or rubble. The earth is dispersing
its inhabitants, taking the streets away, smashing civic order
It has always seemed so easy, so benign to assign the earth
an identity and a personality. We give it a pronoun and celebrate
her as our primal mother, the cradle and sustainer of human
life. Now we are on shaky ground when we try to anthropomorphize
a planet convulsing with natural disasters. Because what are
we supposed to say in the midst of all this? That Mother Nature
is mad as hell? That Gaia is in menopause?
Certainly that’s a temptation that folks of a variety of faith
traditions have indulged, casting God as a supreme rule-keeper,
meting out consequences like a divine Dean of Discipline.
That kind of thinking is best summed up by the billboard that
says “God is coming and, boy, is he pissed!”
But it’s also on record that some religious leaders have seen
the hand of God working in what can only be described as absurdly
mysterious ways: the tsunami as God’s judgment on a predominantly
Muslim nation; Katrina as a cosmic finger-shaking from God
aimed right at the southern crescent of sin.
Most people find that kind of thinking reprehensible, an insult
both to our intelligence and the nature of God. But however
offensive the claims, they arise from that basic, burning
human drive for knowledge and the accompanying expediency
of blaming others for why bad things happen.
It’s almost unbearable to have to believe that bad things
And it isn’t only fanatical finger-pointers who want to understand
what happens when nature groans and shudders. We all do.
can I feel good about being safe when I just read that the
earthquake has now taken over 20,000 lives?” a woman asked
did this happen?” somebody else asked me about the tour boat
accident on Lake George.
was God in the hurricane?” is the headline of a story in a
magazine I saw.
When it comes to violence and terrors humans do to other humans,
there is usually some kind of reason, however despicable.
And blaming makes some sense, too, as a way of assigning culpability.
But accidents, natural disasters—what are, unfortunately,
termed “acts of God” in insurance policies and legal contracts—don’t
respond to our rage for order, for our compulsion to try to
understand why bad things happen.
For some people the idea that bad things happen for no good
reason settles the question once and for all: God simply does
not and can not exist.
For other people, the idea that bad things happen for no good
reason is unacceptable; it would too much threaten their idea
of a puppeteer God who oversees and decrees every human action.
It’s no wonder we hunger for understanding. The Tree of the
Knowledge of Good and Evil seems to promise responses to questions
that now only echo back to us answered.
But I think that probably most people live in-between the
two poles that either deny God’s existence or cast God as
the Master Blaster. I think most people hold to both a belief
in mystery and wonder as well as in random misery. And maybe
that’s the most rugged kind of faithfulness to live with and
embrace—the strange tension of affirming some sort of good
God even while recognizing that we are far, very far east