The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God is a book written by a skeptical but spiritual person for people who struggle with the subjects of God, divine providence, prayer, and related issues; people who are looking for honest and thoughtful—and sometimes humorous—theological reflections, but no easy answers.
A work of creative theology fifteen years in the making, The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God deals primarily with the issue of suffering, starting with the book of Job, and addresses the subject of theodicy before going on to explore related topics of the role of prayer, God concepts, the meaning of revelation, and how we can best live together. Laytner intersperses these penetrating theological reflections with pertinent episodes from his life, starting with the personal tragedies that sparked this book. Trained as a liberal rabbi, he riffs on Jewish themes to offer a universal yet personal response to each of the challenges he discusses.
His thesis is this: If you are troubled by the issue of suffering and wonder about God’s presence (or lack thereof) in the world, and you find no solace in any of the traditional theodicies, then change your conception of God and God’s involvement in the world.
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
Beautifully written and heartfelt. This book takes us on a journey into our own hearts and souls. It allows us to face the fears we try to avoid while reminding us that there is something greater and if we look closely, listen quietly, we will experience that greatness and find a path for our personal walk in life. It challenges one to set aside dogma and actually reach deep into the spiritual. It may be the best book I’ve read all year.
— Krishna (from Amazon website)
As a hospice chaplain, I often hear questions that stem from a struggle with developing a personal theodicy. The ‘why’ questions (Why me? Why now? Why this?) are never really answered outside of a faith structure. But it is most frequently these ‘why’ questions that drive us to seek the Divine on a deeper level, and to invite hope and peace into the process of reconciling our ‘whys’ with our faith.
This is not easy work and is not taken lightly. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner writes with humility and thoughtfulness into the fray, taking the book of Iyov (Job) into his conversation and reflections. Rabbi Laytner lays out first the arguments which stem from a reading of the book of Iyov (Job), and then walks the reader through his own trials and sorrows…
Rabbi Laytner describes the tsumani of events for his family; his parents, in-laws, daughter and other relatives all struggling with disease and dying within this ten-year period. He describes the process of finding emotional balance, struggling to make meaning, and heal from loss after loss. And he acknowledges his suffering was peripheral to the physical diseases that attacked others, though no less traumatic for his own emotional and spiritual well-being.
Laytner’s book provides theological content and reflection through a series of chapters that untangle the book of Iyov (Job) and replace a transactional view of theodicy with one that is nuanced and grounded in restoration and trust that G-d hears and responds to our pleas. Rabbi Laytner also admits that though he has come through the firestorm of loss, he still sees his joys through that lens. “Even my happiest moments are grayed with a little grief. There is no forgetting, only a patching over the past with new life experiences. I live restored and content, but wounded nonetheless. And I continually think about what it all means to me.” (pp 135-136)
Kudos to this author for extensive footnotes, a helpful index, an extensive bibliography and his personal “39 Hypotheses – Or, Where I am Today”. In a time of puff pastry theology and “name-it-and-claim-it” charlatans, I am grateful for the deep dive into this topic. It will take more than one reading to absorb it all.
There is much wisdom in his writing, and much to contemplate. I recommend this book to the reader highly, especially if you have come through a storm of suffering and are struggling to put your shattered theology back together.
—Reverend Mama (from Amazon website)
REVIEW ARTICLE in Reviews in Religion & Theology, 27:4 (2020)
Arguing with Each Other about Arguing with God
By David R. Blumenthal, with a response by Anson H. Laytner
The question of suffering and God is as old as humanity. Anson Laytner offers a very modern reading of this problem based on a learned knowledge of the Jewish sources and his own very personal experiences of death and of God. The whole is set in the context of the Book of Iyyov (Job). Rejecting the supernatural understanding of God, Laytner proposes an acceptance of God as a presence and force for good, together with a healthy spirituality based on our newer understanding of our place in the universe, onmodern cosmology, on the apparent laws of nature, and on mutual respect for our various faith traditions. The reviewer disagrees and affirms the personalist theological language of the biblical and Jewish traditional sources. In addition, he affirms the ability, indeed the obligation, of the believer to adopt a theology and, indeed, a liturgy of protest. To keep such a theology and praxis from
overwhelming those who took them seriously, he suggests that protest theology and protest liturgy have to alternate with healing theology and healing practice. In this essay, Laytner responds to the critique.
Anson Laytner has written a courageous and beautiful book in contemporary Jewish theology – courageous because he draws deeply and poignantly on his own experience of suffering, of God, and of community; and beautiful because he writes well and the reader is drawn into his suffering and into the caring that leads him toward healing.
Chapter 2 (pp. 23–26) tells the story of the death and serious illness of several close family members, including his wife, his sister‐in‐law, his mother, and father, and then his own injury and the diagnosis of leukemia for his daughter, with Laytner being the caregiver and witness to their suffering. Chapter 10 (pp. 120–34) tells the story of the last days of his wife and the tender care with which he and his family managed her dying, her death, and the period of mourning. In addition to the two chapters on suffering, Laytner tells clearly the story of three primary experiences of God’s presence – in nature (pp. 89–90), in the story of the almost‐sacrifice of Isaac (pp. 78–80), and at a funeral of his sister‐inlaw who had died at an early age at which he spoke of God and justice (pp. 63–64).
The stories of suffering and of spiritual experience are interwoven with narratives of anger and distrust as well as of support, love, and healing.
Laytner’s experience of God in nature is central to this. The whole is set in the context of the biblical character of Iyyov (Job), drawing the reader into a deep and complex tapestry of Job’s/Laytner’s suffering and his wrestling with its religious depths.
The book is also courageous because Laytner has clearly set forth his own theology in Chapters 8–11 in which he states his views on God, on revelation, on the afterlife, and on deeds and community. Not many rabbis and Jewish thinkers would do that.
In this process, Laytner rejects the supernatural God of Jewish tradition:
Associated with this concept of the supernatural God are qualities that I reject as contrary to my experience, repugnant, or archaic; first and foremost, that God is omnipotent and omniscient; second, that God has the ability to intervene in history and/or individual lives; third, images of God as male, a warrior, king, judge, punitive father or husband […]. All these attributes are a problem to me because of how petitionary prayer does not work; they are a problem because of unwarranted suffering in our world; they are a problem because I think a supernatural God belongs to an era in which the earth was at the center of the universe […] with God enthroned […]. For me, that God is dead; but YHVH is and shall be […] I have let go of the traditional perceptions of God and let go of the issue of divine providence in order to let God simply be YHVH (pp. 103–04).
Laytner repeats this theological position as a goal for all humanity: ‘As we gradually become a global civilization, we are ever so slowly replacing the anthropomorphic, personal, intercessory, and supernatural God of our traditions with God‐concepts that are based on our newer understanding
of our place in the universe, on modern cosmology, on the apparent laws of nature, and on mutual respect for our various faith traditions’ (p. 149).
The rejection of the supernatural understanding of God implies the rejection of the traditional concepts of revelation, prayer (especially, petitionary prayer), and so on – as, indeed, Iyyov rejects the theodicies of his interlocutors. In its place comes an acceptance of God as a presence and force for good (p. 107), of life as a given, even as a blessing (‘life is all there is’, p. 130), and of a community of ‘healthy spirituality’ (p. 150) – Iyyov’s theophany in the final chapters of the Book of Job in which he is restored but wounded nonetheless (p. 136). All of this is beautifully written and poignant in the suffering and in the religious wrestling that it draws us into.
But I disagree with Laytner’s theology. Biblical language about God is precisely personal; it is anthropomorphic and anthropopathic (having human feelings). God is not only a transcendent force in and behind the universe; God is also human, given to anger, to compassion, to love, and even to error. These tropes are also the language of rabbinic midrash.
And the language of liturgical prayer. And the language of Zoharic mysticism. And part of the understanding of God in European Hasidism.
There is, to be sure, a river of Jewish theological language that emphasizes the ineffability of God and ascribes little importance to the personalist language of the tradition. This is the language of Isaiah, Chapter 40; of some rabbinic views; of Maimonides and, in modern times, most prominently of Mordecai Kaplan. But the predominant view of God is ‘personalist’ (I think that this is also true of the divinity/incarnation of Jesus in Christian scriptures, liturgy, and preaching with its parallels in more philosophic theology). Taking the personhood out of God, then, does not appear to me to be the best answer to personal or historical suffering.
In his first book, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (Jason Aronson, 1990), Laytner traced the motif of arguing with God in biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and modern Jewish literature,making it clear that arguing with God is a fully acceptable reaction to unjust suffering. In my own book, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), I took this insight two steps further and argued forcefully that, given the providential nature of God, one can only see God’s action in the shoah as abusing (ie, as unjustifiably violent); and that, given the personalist nature of biblical‐rabbinic language about God, the proper solution was protest to God, even within the received liturgical framework.
My theological conclusion was uncompromising, and my liturgical suggestions were radical. To keep them from overwhelming those who took them seriously, including myself, I suggested that protest theology and practice had to alternate with healing theology and practice. In sailing a boat, one cannot sail directly into the wind. To go in that direction, one must ‘tack’ (sail forward) to one side and then ‘tack’ to the other side, repeating the process in order to advance. If one stays on one ‘tack’ for too long, one cannot return to one’s desired path. So it is in many areas of life, we alternate our tactics to achieve our goals. Thus, we discipline and love our children, and we fight evil and heal the wounded. I have often regretted that people who read the book did not realize how important the chapter on ‘Seriatim’ is. In the context of suffering and God, then, one should not take the personalist dimension out of God; rather, one should assert it and then alternate between protest and love. This is the solution I have used. For a while, I used my own severe liturgical modifications. Later, I no longer needed them but I still pray ‘“Our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who were killed for Your Name” – ‘You did not do that in the shoah, we remember and we call You to account, as we are obligated to do under our covenant with You’. And when I do this, I love God, and I am grateful that so much of my life has been devoted to following His calling.
I have not suffered the deep personal losses of my ‘fellowtrailblazer’ (p. 99) Anson Laytner and so I hesitate to say this, but I must: I also disagree with Laytner’s therapeutic suggestion that one reaches peace by depersonalizing the source of evil (I do, however, agree that one cannot achieve peace without a healing mission). I think, rather, that we achieve some measure of peace when we realize that the other has limits that do not permit him or her to love more deeply. Take, for example, one’s parents: Unless one has been enormously lucky, one feels resentment and anger toward one’s parents for the injustices that one has experienced, especially if the parent has been abusive. Sometimes, one can protest, but confrontation is not always possible or advisable. And, even if one has protested, peace comes in realizing that one’s parent is simply emotionally, intellectually, and morally limited. Not exempt from reproach, but limited.
The same is true of one’s children: They, too, are limited in their emotional, intellectual, and moral capacities. They cannot always do what is right, or best, for themselves and for others.And for one’s spouse. In truth, we, too, are limited; not above justified reproach, but limited. It is our compassion
for ourselves and for others that enables us to reach this judgment.
Perpetrators of the worst suffering, including abusers, nazis, and torturers, are certainly not above reproach. One should protest their acts, if protest is safe. They should be held accountable in the law for what they have done. But, in the end, they, too, are limited in their ability to love. (I tried to indicate the limited nature of perpetrators in The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition [Georgetown University Press, 1999].) If we are to reach peace of some kind with such people, we must recognize that limitedness.
As this is true of persons, so it is true, as I see it, of our relationship to God: If we are to achieve some peace with God, we must acknowledge God’s personhood and realize that even God is limited, as indeed Scripture teaches. When God regrets destroying the earth in the flood, God show us His limitedness. When God restores Iyyov (Job), God shows us His limitedness. Even in tolerating – perhaps encouraging or demanding – protest, God shows us the limits of divine omnipotence. Admitting this theologically is the source of whatever inner peace one can achieve in suffering.
At least, this is how I see it.
The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God is a courageous and beautiful book, and Laytner’s theological and therapeutic path is one that will find resonance in the minds and hearts of modern people. Those who need, or respond to, a more personal God may find my objections and
by Anson H. Laytner
If I still believed in a traditional Jewish God‐concept, a supernatural being with anthropomorphic and anthropopathic qualities, I would believe as my colleague, David Blumenthal, does. One cannot hold that God can intercede in human affairs but, for God only knows what reasons, sometimes chooses not to do so. And, since God is ultimately in charge of everything, to choose not to intervene when evil is being done means that sometimes this God can and should be accused of being abusive.
At that point, a person has three options: One can protest to God, against God, for the evil done, whether by God’s passivity or engagement; or one can break off relations with God, never to speak with God again; or one can reframe the problem completely.
Blumenthal chose the first course while I, ultimately, have chosen the latter course. (But both of us remain engaged with the divine nonetheless, each in our own way.)
Where once I believed that it was incumbent upon everyone to use prayer to protest against perceived divine apathy or injustice, I now believe that God has nothing to do with either human or natural evils.
Humanity does what humanity does, and the world runs according to its own natural rules. God cannot change that, even if, somehow, God created everything. Matter has its limitations, and God, I suppose, is limited by the materials at hand.
For me, it is no longer a question of ‘God will not’ but rather ‘God cannot’.
Along with this change in perception, I increasingly saw traditional Jewish God‐concepts through a human lens,meaning that down through the ages, we have imagined God in very different, sometimes contradictory, ways. This realization led me to seek a divine essence beyond our diverse images and a willingness only to state that God, as YHVH, is and will be. All the rest is commentary.
It is true that I no longer embrace a personalized God concept, but I am not closed to the possibility that at some point in my future, I may choose to reconnect with some of the imagery and attributes Jewish tradition uses to describe our encounter with God. In fact, when I do choose to worship
at a synagogue, I notice that I almost instantaneously revert to Blumenthal’s position on God, which is at once comforting and disturbing. But I understand it and respect it still.
To put my dilemma in traditional terms, I wonder how long should the people in Israel remain married to her abusive spouse, who is clearly a repeat offender? Better to love Him with all His faults from afar and, mindful of the first two Commandments, put no other god in His place.
However, given the choice between a personal God who must be perceived as occasionally abusive and an impersonal God who somehow imbues benevolence into the world, I definitely prefer the latter.
There is one point on which Blumenthal and I agree: the value of prayers of protest. Life in this world can be painful and difficult, but I think we both believe that everything is part of God and that every event that happens ultimately comes from God. Where advocates of traditional Judaism would state that no matter what obstacles we face, it is all a part of God’s plan, Blumenthal and I would assert the spiritual and therapeutic value of protest as an alternate means of coping.
Interview with Anson Laytner
What led you to write this book?
My motivation initially was trying to make sense of how God could allow the Holocaust to happen. Later this expanded to include other genocides and natural disasters. Finally, my family endured a lifetime’s worth of disease and death compressed into a ten-year period. All this led me to question our religions’ teachings about God’s role on this planet.
Your book is an odd blend of autobiographical episodes and theological essays? Why this strange mix?
I believe that our theologies are rooted in our personal experiences even if we don’t recognize this to be true. I just make it explicit in my book, beginning with the tragedies that nearly overwhelmed me and my family and which led me to question God’s role in suffering, just as Iyov (Job) did.
Can you summarize the book’s key message?
Sure. Shit happens and God IS.
Which means what exactly?
Bad things happen in life–which may or may not be part of a divine plan (because we’ll never know)–but, regardless, God’s presence is present in our world. If you have trouble dealing with the meaning of suffering and none of the traditional theodicies work for you, try changing how you conceive of God.
How would you define God?
I wouldn’t. To try to define God is to confine God. It is to create an image of a presence that can be experienced but is best left unexplained.
Do you believe in God?
First, tell me what you mean by “believe” and what you mean by “God”. Because I had a personal experience, I know God IS.
What role do you see prayer playing?
First of all, when you look at the Psalms, you see that they portray a wide range of emotions. I would like to see our prayers reflect a similar range as well. Clearly, protest is part of prayer, not just praise, petition and penitence.
Second, since I don’t believe that God is active in our world the way our religions have traditionally described it, asking God to do something is pointless. What prayer does–and I think it would be better if it did so explicitly–is to focus our hearts on what we need to do for ourselves, or how we want our world to be, or to reaffirm our key values. Then the point is to go out into the world and try to live what you pray.
You write that revelation is available at all times, everywhere, so what are the implications of this for the Abrahamic faiths?
A revelation is a human response to a divine experience. What our scriptures record are the human responses of our ancestors to their divine experiences. Our experiences are as real and valid as theirs but theirs are valued more because of their antiquity. While we do want to honor and cherish our holy texts, we also need to value and encourage contemporary experiences of the divine as well.
What are the implications of this for interfaith relations?
Since the divine is someone or something to be experienced, and since no individual or no religion can capture the totality of God, all of our faiths at best reveal only a part of our limited human understanding of the divine. God is always greater than our collective perceptions. The implication of this is that no religion has a monopoly on “the truth” and none is better than the other. We need to focus on shared values and how to live these rather than on conflicting doctrines. That is the only way our religions are going to remain relevant and helpful.
Why do you use the Hebrew names for biblical characters instead of their more common English names? That’s bound to be challenging for many readers.
That may be true, but I am reclaiming the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish book by using the real names of biblical figures. If you called Jesus “Jesus”, he wouldn’t have known you were calling out to him because he didn’t speak Greek. “Yeshua” he would have recognized. Same with Moshe (Moses), Avraham (Abraham) and Yaakov (Jacob). Jewish characters deserve to be called by their proper names.