The Hardest Question
During my second semester, I took a course on literature and theology, and at one of the first few sessions I woke from a daydream to discover that my classmates were eagerly discussing The Odyssey. I panicked, figuring that even though for once I had done the reading, I had done the wrong reading. But when I fiddled in my notebook to check the syllabus, The Odyssey was nowhere to be found. I poked my neighbor at the seminar table, gently, in the rib. “We were supposed to read The Odyssey?”
“Huh?” she said. “What are you talking about?” When I'm not in class, I work as a pediatrician, and I noticed pretty early that though divinity school, like pediatrics, is full of large-hearted, patient people, during intense intellectual discussions my fellow students can get a little testy.
“Why are we talking about The Odyssey?”
“Not The Odyssey,“ she said. “The Odyssey. Leibniz. Bayle. Polkinghorne. Those guys.”
“Oh,” I said, but she could tell I was still confused, so she wrote the word on my notebook, which was blank except for a half-finished doodle of a pony.
“Oh,“ I said, as if I recognized the word. The class discussion moved on without my ever deciphering what exactly they were talking about—everyone lamenting the problem of theodicy without ever saying what it was—so I walked to the library after class to consult the dictionary and discovered that, like anyone who has ever felt afflicted by existence, I was already familiar with the concept, if not the word. It means an attempt to reconcile a God who is thoroughly and supremely good with the undeniable fact of evil in the world. It was as strange and embarrassing as the episode in class had been, to stand there and learn a word I suddenly felt I should have known all my life.
You don't have to have your cookies stolen in kindergarten too many times before you start to perceive that all is not right with the world. My cookies were stolen so often that I learned to offer them before they were demanded; my tormentor was a girl whose name I have long forgotten but whose face, round and sweet and utterly at odds with her dreadful disposition, has remained with me forever. I was raised Catholic, but was at that age more a dreamy little pagan, and it was indicative of my particular brand of religiosity that I prayed to Big Bird and not to Jesus to deliver me from my freckled oppressor. When nothing changed, I continued to believe in Big Bird, but I gave up on the notion that he cared very specifically about what happened to me.