Seeking Meaning in Aurora
We might enlist the help of the great Viennese psychologist Viktor Frankl.


John O’Sullivan

Maybe I am mistaken, but my sense is that the massacre in Aurora has stimulated fewer “big think” articles than did earlier mass killings at Columbine and elsewhere. One reason perhaps is that those tempted to make the massacre a justification of their partisan loyalties or political projects were warned off doing so by the crass error of ABC News in jumping to the guesswork that the Tea Party may have been involved. It flagged the indecency of that kind of “news analysis.” Another possible explanation is that most journalistic “big thinkers” — I have to include myself as an occasional practitioner — have nothing fresh or insightful to add to our earlier reflections on these horrible outbursts.

The existence of “radical evil,” or the willing embrace of evil for its own sake, is one plausible interpretation of such events. But it is a cul-de-sac of an argument. It lends itself to example and illustration but not to development. And, besides, it can be brought into play only when the many kinds of insanity have been examined and discarded as explanations. That brings me to the third reason: We are learning about the mind of James Holmes only very slowly. Some things that we have learned point to the crime; others magnify the mystery. Until we know more, we are sensible to remain silent.

Writing on the Conservative Home website, however, the British journalist Bruce Anderson examines one aspect of the murders that, while unknowable, is actually of practical use. He looks at the theodicy of Aurora: How can we reconcile God’s goodness with such a terrible crime?

A brief word about Anderson (who is an old friend) may be in order: He is an agonized agnostic who wishes he could believe in Christianity but (so far at least) cannot do so. In his article he briefly summarizes the traditional Christian view: “If we take the first few chapters of Genesis as an allegory, humanity rejected pet-hood and innocence in favour of knowledge and travail. Beyond Eden, there was a world which had been admirably designed as a moral playing field for an endless fixture. The game would throw up heroes and Hitlers; saintliness and savagery; beauty beyond words: bestiality equally beyond words. . . . This moral assault course could only work if man possessed free will. If the Almighty were always on the touch-line as a celestial G4S or St John’s Ambulance Brigade, the game would lose its drama.”

As Anderson concedes, however, these are not truths that even the most compassionate and skilled pastor would find it easy to preach to the bereaved in Aurora. Almost all of them are likely to be believing and practicing Christians. Their faith is being harshly tested. Anderson tells the moving story of a priest friend who, early in his vocation, had to deal with a tragic but not uncommon family case: “A delightful young mother who had been suffering from aches and pains went to the doctor in expectation of a few pills. Instead, she was rapidly referred to a solemn specialist who broke the terrible news. Cancer, inoperable, nothing could be done. She had two months to live. ‘How could God allow this?’ she railed. ‘I have three small children and a distraught husband who is barely able to boil an egg. What will become of them? I don’t claim to be especially holy, but I have tried to be a loyal and obedient Christian. Is this my reward? How can I still believe in a God of love?’

“The priest . . . told the mother that she and her family were very popular in the parish — which was true — and that everyone would rally round to provide practical help, as well as endless hugs. He also said that when she arrived in Heaven, she was perfectly entitled to be angry with God. She should march straight up to Him and ask what He meant by it. He would reply: ‘But my daughter, I have all eternity to make it up to you.’”

Bruce concludes: “The idea of being angry with God tickled her fancy. She regained her courage and retained her faith. She did not quite die laughing at the thought of giving her Creator a good ticking-off, but it helped to ease her passing.”

Unsurprisingly, Bruce Anderson’s article — read the whole thing here — has elicited a good many comments, some grateful, some critical, some contemptuous. As regards the latter, they have accused him of rank sentimentality, retreat into illusion, attempting to imitate Patience Strong, and so on. Well, Bruce’s shoulders are wide, as is the rest of him — if he ever does become a Christian, that would inter alia complete his resemblance to G. K. Chesterton. But it is hard to see how he is retreating into illusion since he is describing how Christians might comfort one another but doing so from outside Christian belief as an agnostic. Where he differs from his critics is that he does not treat other people’s beliefs as despicable delusions but as sources of moral truth and psychological comfort. In doing so, he is being perfectly realistic.