Lightning struck in Baltimore a few days ago. For an unbeliever, I emerged relatively unscathed, though the heavens were clearly angry. The congregants of First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church were not so lucky. At the height of the storm, a bolt struck their steeple, setting the spire aflame and sending it crashing down onto the roof of the church. “The building will be a total loss,” Baltimore Fire Chief William J. Goodwin told the Baltimore Sun. The 3,000 devout members of the congregation have been devastated by what, for the purposes of insurance, would be considered an “act of God.” If the Lord is their shepherd, he’s not doing a very good job.

I’m not one to fulminate against religion. Whatever helps someone get through the day while basically encouraging adherents to be kind to others is alright by me. But I do find faith bewildering. That people can maintain it in the face of such overwhelming evidence that if God exists, He, She or It is immensely cruel is proof to me that faith is both deeply irrational and deeply needed, at least by some. Invariably, when tragedy strikes – tiny children incinerated in their beds, whole villages wiped out by tidal waves, churches immolated – the first act of the faithful is to pray. What should shake their delusion only strengthens it.

I say “delusion” not to make any claims about absolute things but simply to state the obvious: if God is all-powerful he cannot be benevolent; if God is responsible for all that is, he cannot love you. Defiant faith gives comfort of course, confusing a wish with the truth, and it would be cruel to taunt or excoriate those who indulge in this fantasy. But to engage in such absolute denial is essentially repellent. It is the denial of the battered woman who insists her tormentor is a good man, that he is right to hit her. The faithful are grateful for every beating, thanking the one who, by the logic of their faith, is the one who beats them. (It was our fault, they will say, like the battered woman of her black eye.) They long to be taken into the arms of the one who hurts them, to embrace the fire that burns them. How can one not be sickened by it?

Various rationalizations are offered up by those who believe in answer to this challenge. Most involve some twisting of agency – not God but man, not the Lord but Satan. But they cannot have it both ways. If God does not have absolute agency he does not have absolute power. They cannot maintain both claims. God, they say, has His reasons. But this is to make the grotesque assumption that all the horrors we encounter have some ultimate purpose – that the gassing of Jews and the tumors of infants are somehow good. It is all part of the “mystery of God” they say. But this simply means that we do not know, and that God’s existence and benevolence are impossible to determine. And yet believers “know” that God exists and that he is “Great.”

“We are a people of faith, and we have just been preaching on faith for the last six, seven months,” said Bishop Oscar E. Brown of First Mount Olive Free Will Baptist Church after God sent the fire this time. “I can only say that was preparation for this moment, for us to trust God.” So tragically stricken, Bishop Brown and his congregation remain blinded by the light.

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