FOR THE TIME BEING
by Annie Dillard
New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1999
205 pages, Hardcover $22.00
Dillard has done it again. Twenty-five years after the appearance of her Pulitzer prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard's latest book, in her familiar stream-of-consciousness style, consisting in reflections on nature, travel notes, and commentaries on humanty's foibles and vanities, as well as its occasional heroism, would certainly seem destined to recapture the attention that her first book so richly deserved.
To begin with, this is not a book for the squeamish. It opens with a review of grotesqueries, a gallery of birth-defected children who are hidden away in institutions -- if they are unlucky enough to live for long. And it is also a book filled with statistics, such sobering facts as, given the age of the human race, that despite the current population explosion, the dead still outnumber the living by a ratio of about 14 to 1, and that half of these dead were babies and children. It is also filled with paradoxes and caustic observations, like that attributed to Stalin, about human forgetfulness, and those for whom "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths [...] a statistic." Thus, like another of her earlier books, Holy The Firm, the unifying theme of Dillard's new book is our human struggle with the problem of evil in this world, and because of those evils, our struggle with belief in a loving God. It is, in a word, a book on theodicy -- that is to say, on the subject of God's justice or alternately, the justification of God.
This book also takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation drawn from many sources, both ancient and modern, principally (representing the ancient traditions) Rabbi Isaac Luria and the Jewish Kabbalists and their Hasidic counterparts, as contrasted to very modern viewpoints, such as those of the French Jesuit priest-paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose speculations on evolution, human origins, and on the nature of God, in some strange ways seem to uncannily echo these Jewish mystics of old. But here we also find input from more recent theologians as the American Paul Tillich, the martyred German anti-nazi Dietrich Bonhoffer, and the philosophers Martin Buber and A. N. Whitehead. An amazing performance all around!
So has Dillard solved the problem of evil in the world? Not quite. For despite her convictions, based on all the above, that humanity has been charged with the task of completing creation, or as Luria put it, "releasing the sparks of the divine", Dillard seems to have grown somewhat impatient with Teilhard's scientific speculations, and is drawn mostly to the man and his more mystical writings instead. In fact she actually dubs his masterwork, "Le Phenomene humain" as being "crackpot" -- a rather odd adjective to apply to a book that has been translated into about twenty languages and still generates serious discussion among scientists, philosophers, and theologians nearly a half-century since it was first published. As a result she seems to have missed the connections between role of chance or the play of large numbers in evolution, the biological origins of reflective human consciousness, and the phenomenon of human freedom. Or as one might put it: "No chance -- no choice." Granted, this not a particularly consoling solution to the problem of evil. Nor is it meant to be. But as the Messianic expectations of her Jewish mystics and the speculations of Teilhard on the "Cosmic Christ" indicate, the full answer to and remedy for the problem of evil lies within another realm.
Nevertheless, we can forgive this one shortcoming, for after all, as the title of her book indicates, hers is still a work in progress. Even better, in contrast to so many other books on the subject, all of this is packaged so attractively, yet unassumingly, that the book is highly readable, with sparks of wry humor, and passages of breathtaking beauty and wisdom that one feels compelled to mark or write down. Consumable in an evening or two, its contents could take months or even years to digest. It is a book that deserves to be read, pondered, and still read again.
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