Set Alight: The Suffering of the Son of God, Part 1 of 3

This is an essay I wrote for a class about Annie Dillard and the problem of suffering, presented in three parts.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard has published only sporadically since her 1974 debut, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She writes mostly creative nonfiction, meditating on the wonder and cruelty of the natural world, and wondering why God made it this way. In this paper, I will lay out something of an outline of what Annie Dillard is talking about when she talks about God and human suffering, and then I will respond to her position creatively.

Annie Dillard, born Ann Doak in Pittsburgh in 1945, met and married the writer Richard Dillard, many years her senior, while attaining her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Hollins College in Virginia. They were married ten years, divorcing shortly after the publication of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her most famous work. She became something of an anchorite, moving to a small cabin in the Cascade range, living alone with a cat named Small. In 1977, she published Holy the Firm, her most God-haunted work.

Using several intertwined stories of human and animal suffering, most memorably a moth caught in a candle flame, and a little girl burned in an airplane crash, Dillard accuses God with an immense payload of winsome but slightly dizzy prose.

The works of God made manifest? Do we really need more victims to remind us that we’re all victims? Is this some sort of parade for which a conquering army shines up its terrible guns and rolls them up and down the streets for the people to see? Do we need blind men stumbling about, and little flamefaced children, to remind us what God can—and will do?…We do need reminding, not of what God can do, but of what he cannot do, or will not, which is to catch time in its free fall and stick a nickel’s worth of sense into our days. And we need reminding of what time can do, must only do; churn out enormity at random and beat it, with God’s blessing, into our heads; that we are created, created, sojourners in a land we did not make, a land with no meaning of itself and no meaning we can make for it alone. Who are we to demand explanations of God? (And what monsters of perfection should we be if we did not?) We forget ourselves, picnicking; we forget where we are…”

For Dillard, this God who does not make our days comprehensible must be Himself incomprehensible—but not less worthy of worship because of it. She realizes the irony in the ant demanding that its creator reveal and justify Himself, but insists that the ant must demand meaning, must show that it is uncomfortable with this state of things in which children die for no reason. Despite her roiling conscience, Dillard affirms a worship-worthy God. “I know only enough of God to want to worship him, by any means ready to hand.” In all her works, Dillard exhibits a very modern uncertainty about God, but also a picturesque worshipfulness, rooted in the beauty of the earth and the unstoppable passage of time.

It seems to me that Dillard’s extensive ruminations on suffering and its cause are what chiefly colored her view of God, and made her think of God as someone unrevealed. As a young person, she relates in An American Childhood, she left her family’s church in high dudgeon over human suffering. An assistant pastor met with her and gave her a collection of works by C.S. Lewis. She compares The Problem of Pain unfavorably to St. Luke’s view of the problem of evil, which she summarizes as, “Forget about it.” So the first time Annie Dillard left the church, she did it because of this problem. Later in life, she slunk back into the church, wrote a few beautiful books, and then apparently left again, leaving behind some excellent prose about the uncertainty of being human and the fear of the Absolute.

It is I who misunderstand everything and let everybody down…God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love, and love, and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.

 In all her work, Dillard could come up with no satisfying, ultimate answer to the question of why God allows humans to suffer. In the years since I first read Holy the Firm and fell in love with her lyrical and rapturous style, I’ve thought about the book a lot, even writing a short reply to it for a writing assignment. Looking back at that paper, I can see that it is pompous and derivative, overcooked. Annie Dillard is a great stylist, but sometimes she gets drunk on her own words, and I got drunk on them too. But like Ms. Dillard, I have thought long and heard about the problem of suffering. Here are those long, hard thoughts.


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