Yesterday’s pool excursion with my son, Cameron, may have been a big divine hint that I need to do more preparation for Sunday’s small group discussion on the nature of evil. My son, afterall, unlike me or my esteemed cohorts, is not a self-described cynic, skeptic or religious misfit. He is just a mostly typical five-year-old boy, who simply prefers running barefoot over the dubious looking, cement floors of the women’s locker room at our local public pool; this as opposed to the alternative of laboriously strapping on his Tivas: whereas by now Cameron knows how to put on most shoes, his Tivas remain a bit of an enigma, his right Tiva still often appearing on his left foot, and vice versa. This process seems to demand too big of a withdrawal from my son’s reserves of humility, patience, care and openness to correction- reserves, which, for a little boy who likes to go, go, go constantly and has an ego that, I’m hoping, a few years of growing up will massage into manageability, are frankly not great in size. (To give you an idea of what I mean by “ego,” a few days ago, Cam strolled into the bathroom and said, “Am I the most handsome boy in the world?,” at which point I exclaimed, “No, you are most definitely not the most handsome boy in the world! But I think you’re very handsome.”)
All of this to say that an effort to persuade my son to wear his Tivas in the locker room resulted in the following conversation:
Mom: Cam, it’s important to wear your sandals here, because if you go barefoot, you might get something called “Athlete’s foot.” Do you know what that is?
Cam: Yes, I remember Bopa (Albuquerque granddad) said something about it.
Mom: I’ve had it before, and it’s really itchy and sometimes painful and (a mother’s attempt to issue compliance by appealing to the gross factor now) once it got so bad that the skin on the bottom of my foot began to peel off and I had to go to a doctor who had to cut off the rest of the skin. (Sorry. Honest-to-God truth from a life-long swimmer.) It really hurt.
Cam (looking solemnly pensive now): But how do you get Athlete’s foot?
Mom: You get Athlete’s foot by walking on floors at places like this where a lot of people have been walking and the floors can become unclean and get germs on them.
Cam (frustrated): I know, but how do you get Athlete’s foot?
Mom: Do you mean, how do you get Athlete’s foot scientifically speaking?
Cam: Uh huh.
Mom (thinking she wished she had paid more attention in high school biology): Well, there are certain live bacteria, tiny, tiny creatures you can’t see, that like to hang out in places like this and eat the skin off the bottom of your foot.
Long pause before the bomb of a question drops.
Cam: Did God make Athlete’s foot?
Mom (realizing that if my son’s question had been on my ordination exams six years ago, I may not have passed): Hmm. Well, I guess God made the live bacteria, so yes, I guess God made Athlete’s foot.
Cam (thoroughly aghast): What?!!
Long pause. I’m realizing that if what I just said hasn’t held theological muster with my five-year-old, I better get my ducks in a row for Sunday.
Mom: Well, actually, Cam, it’d be more correct to say that when God made the bacteria, God made them eat other things, so they didn’t have to eat peoples’ feet and cause Athlete’s foot. (I’m trying to imagine a family of live bacteria happily snacking away on their form of “ethical” food. Just what such food would be, I have absolutely no idea, but I’m pretty convinced that it would not include the sweaty underside of my feet.) But then when human beings began to do bad things and sin, that changed, and all creation began to seem different after that. That’s when the bacteria began to eat people’s feet and cause Athlete’s foot. (In the passage from John 11 that I preached from a couple weeks ago, Jesus grows “angry” when his friend Lazarus dies; so if God gets mad about death, why can’t God be at least a little annoyed by Athlete’s foot? Further, Augustine described evil as the “absence of the good.” By that definition, Athlete’s foot most certainly qualifies as “evil.”) Does that make more sense, Cam?
Cam (looking satisfied now): Yes.
Phew. Tough one.
Got some wise, theological reflections to share on the nature and problem of evil as it manifests itself in sickness and natural disaster? Send your helpful distillations along before Sunday and I’ll be delighted to hear from you. Send them along after Sunday, and I’ll be mildly grateful for your response.