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Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis

Volume 1 | June 6, 2022

Jason A. Mahn, Author

Theme: Pedagogy, Suffering and Death, Vocation

Discipline: Religious Studies, Theology

You have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.

—Eric Milner-White and G. W. Briggs, “Prayer of Good Courage”

In his profound and troubling book, Fear and Trembling, the Danish religious writer Søren Kierkegaard remythologizes the story of the binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. I say “remythologizes” rather than “analyzes” or “understands” because Kierkegaard takes pains to attend to all the unthinkable components of the story—to the narrative elements that resist translation into takeaway ethical lessons or airtight conceptual categories. Christians (together with Jews and Muslims) are quick to declare Abraham the “father of faith,” to praise his willingness to sacrifice his son, and to praise God’s willingness to offer the ram in its stead. Kierkegaard would have us slow down and re-imagine the story from Abraham’s point of view. Abraham doesn’t know the ending to the story—until it ends. He hears God’s horrific calling to sacrifice a beloved child, but does not know what the readers of Genesis know from the opening verse (Gen. 22:1)—that all this, as the radio waves periodically declare, “is only a test.” While we who read the story can skip quickly to the happy ending a dozen verses later, “we forget that Abraham only rode an ass, which trudges [slowly] along the road, that he had a journey of three days [up Mount Moriah], that he needed some time to chop the firewood, to bind Isaac, and to sharpen the knife.”1 Genesis 22 is a story of acute psychological and spiritual suffering and the conflicting callings to love and protect one’s child while also being willing to give him up. For Kierkegaard, it is also a lesson in the nature of religious faith (or “trust,” as the Greek pistis is better translated). Authentic faith is not secured by the good outcome that follows difficult times; it is forged as we follow God’s voice through fear and anxiety. 


I am indebted to Deanna Thompson for helping us think carefully about the relationship between the work of helping our students discern their vocations, and the work of supporting and caring for them as they process the pain and trauma in their lives. I agree that we too often hold those two tasks far apart. Muted conversations about student wellness, mental health, and raw grief belong in a chaplain’s or counselor’s office, while congratulatory accounts of students discerning vocations, following passions, and changing the world for the better populate the homepage of our college websites. Vocational programming at my college frequently uses a version of Buechner’s “where deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger” motif. The Venn diagram we ask students to fill-in is actually three-fold; we ask them to consider where their gifts or talents intersect with their passions and interests—and then again where these overlap with the deep needs of the world and earth. It can sound as though the discerning students bring only the “assets” of gifts and commitments, and “the world” brings liabilities, needs, sufferings. We forget that “passion” is from passio, meaning suffering, and that our students bring to their unfolding vocations not just gifts and interests, but real and abiding pain. Love and service to the neighbor (as Lutheran accounts of vocation would have it) is not something that is discerned and lived out once one works through one’s own need and pain. Rather, neighbor love and service is forged in through one’s own passions and other sufferings.

And so, I have learned to reframe my understanding of vocation as emanating from deep sadnesses as well as from deep gladnesses from reflective Christian scholars such as Deanna Thompson. Yet I have also learned this from present and former students of my college, as I followed their “wild and precious lives” over the past year. On March 17, 2020, a few days after my college moved to distance learning and my family began sheltering in place, I began writing daily reflections on my own felt calling to neighbor love during those days of fear and anxiety. I would continue writing through August 31 of that year, when my college reopened for an unprecedented academic year. Together, the entries (plus an epigraph penned on January 1, 2021) would become a book, Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis. Although I did not know it at the time I started writing, throughout much of the book, I tell stories about the vocations of present and past students—how they love and care for neighbors—and how these vocations are discerned and lived out while the young persons attended to their own deep pain and grief.

I tell the story of E., a recent graduate from my college and former student in my upper-level seminar, “Suffering, Death, and Endurance,” who had moved to Boston to look for jobs and attend to his own mental health. He reported early on in the coronavirus pandemic that the streets and squares of Boston had been disconcertingly quiet, like the calm before a storm. “Still, it’s not all bad,” he said. “People are settling into their new norm. I’m starting to get involved with the mutual aid networks popping up across the country. It’s wonderful to see how much people are willing to share, both in knowledge and resources. I’m grateful for social media allowing us to stay connected while remaining distant.” E. started organizing people in his Sommerville neighborhood, ensuring that channels of communication remain open. At the end of his email E. asked me for advice about how to talk with people about the pandemic itself. He confessed, “I’m not sure how to talk about this moment in time we’re living through. I want to be a source of stability, but I don’t want to be more than what I am.”

There’s so much here to comment on, but I am particularly struck by the wisdom of not wanting to be more than he is. He could have said that he didn’t want to overextend himself or that he didn’t want to do more than he could effectively do. But his language is about personhood and character, not activities and tasks. In other words, he’s writing about his sense of calling, that understanding of oneself and one’s necessary limits that must be carefully discerned and then courageously lived out in service to others. While many idealistic young adults bravely want to change the world in whatever ways they dream up, E. intuited the more discerning insight of American author and activist Parker Palmer—namely, that pretending you are something you’re not is a recipe for resentment, then fatigue, and then cynicism. We must rather, in Palmer’s words, “accept that our lives are dependent on an inexorable cycle of seasons, on a play of powers that we can conspire with but never control.” Accepting those God-given limits alongside our God-given gifts can be painful. We inevitably “run headlong into a culture that insists, against all evidence, that we can make whatever kind of life we want, whenever we want it. Deeper still, we run headlong into our own egos, which want desperately to believe that we are always in charge.”2

Also early in the book, I tell the story of C. a graduate from several years back who is now an intern doctor at a major university hospital in a state that was hit hard by Covid-19 last summer. C. lived in Micah House her senior year, a living and learning community dedicated to the ideals of hospitality, service, spirituality, and vocational discernment. She wrote an honors thesis on identity formation through personal narratives among adolescents with chronic diseases. She graduated with a pre-med major summa cum laude. She did all this while living with her own chronic, immunosuppressant disease, sometimes taking final exams from a hospital bed. Last summer, she texted me about trying to discern her appropriate place in the hospital rotation, having gone into medicine knowing all too well the life-and-death balance of self-care and other-care that every nurse and doctor was then negotiating as well. 

As C. and I were texting back and forth, I thought of Henri Nouwen’s description of “wounded healers”—those who know their own vulnerabilities and limits (like the ultimate limit of mortality) well enough to compassionately help others. Compassionate healers avoid “the distance of pity,” but also the “exclusiveness of sympathy” that results from overidentifying with a select group. Like the good Samaritan, they “come near” (Luke 10:33) and are moved to help those who summon them. But they know, too, that nobody is helped for long by rash self-sacrifice. 

Nouwen in fact resists language of balancing self-care with other-care, seeing self-knowledge and self-care as the very instruments by which hospitality to others can be offered. He retells a Talmudic story about a rabbi who questions the prophet Elijah about the coming of the Messiah. Elijah tells him that he will find the Messiah at the gates of the city. When the rabbi asks how he will be able to recognize him among all the poor and injured, Elijah identifies the Messiah as the one who distinctively tends to his own wounds:

He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed: if so I must be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”

Self-care and care of others is not so much a balancing act, but a rhythm, a pulse, an art. At its most practiced and graceful, it is an art that uses one’s own woundedness as a place of connection. Ministers and medics, like the exemplar Messiah, know and look after their own wounds because from them comes their healing power.3

I know this to be true of C. She feels called to care for the sick not despite her sickness but because of it. She attends to others not on top of, or in place of, her own self-care, but in and through it. The language of self-sacrifice doesn’t quite capture how selves are connected through their wounds, or how healing happens together.

I also tell the story of G. who lost two brothers to cancer during her senior year of college, and whose raw poetry of lament I quote in an entry that I drafted on April 11—that was Holy Saturday last year, the last day of Lent, and the middle day of the Paschal Triduum, the three days central to the Easter story. I noted there that Holy Saturday seems fitting of those weeks of waiting, watching, and mourning throughout a pandemic. The day tends to get skipped over in contemporary religious observances; it feels mainly like a day in-between, and especially the time before—that which we must get through before getting to Easter. Which is also why the day feels symbolic of this perpetual pandemic, something to try to bookend with target dates for getting back to normal. When observed rather than hurried through, Holy Saturday holds the other days together, saving time itself from pure passage, lending gravity to the moment. No resurrection without death. No hope without facing despair. As I say in the book, that’s a different way of sitting with suffering, and thus forging compassion, than what often passes for hope.4

When I began these reflections months ago, I thought my calling, and our collective callings, would push past fear to love the stranger and even the enemy, making them neighbors by treating them as such. By the end of the project, I realized that commitments to love the hitherto unlovable actually undershoot the more difficult, humbling vocation of showing up and being present (often virtually), even when I cannot really do anything. I was being called to be patient and to be a patient—to suffer this time well. To reflect on meaning, purpose, and callings while living through fearful days is no easy task, especially when many are anxious to skip to the end. “We are a species,” writes Kelly Corrigan, “of unreliable narrators desperate for closure.”5 Our desperation has been particularly fraught over the past year. Distraughtly wanting this long chapter to end, we conjecture about the future—whether churches will really reopen by Easter, whether the economy will rebound by September, whether a vaccine will be ready by the end of 2020, whether Derek Chauvin will be found guilty, whether we can finally call ourselves woke, and well, and move onto our new normal.


For the rest of this presentation, I want to think more about the relationship between how we make sense of suffering and how we hear and heed the calling to neighbor love, especially through fearful and anxious days. In the book, these two themes of attending to suffering and finding the purpose and meaning of our lives are closely juxtaposed; each is reflected and refracted in light of the other. But I do not there theorize about how or why they relate, which is what I want to do—or at least begin to do—here. My provisional claim is that both vocation (or calling) and theodicy (or more generally, making sense of suffering) turn on critical examinations of what counts as “the Christian story.” I claim that the narrative accounts of our individual lives and of our shared life as creatures of God should be clearly distinguished from other, more theoretical, ways of knowing. Only when our stories, as stories, resist translation into univocal lessons and tidy resolutions, can the purpose and meaning of our lives and of the suffering therein be glimpsed. To use Deanna’s Thompson’s language, only when our narratives are not airtight, when they are given “some room to breathe,” do the stories of our lives become hopeful, open to a yet undetermined future, as we journey “by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.”6

Explanations for why suffering makes sense are known in philosophical and theological quarters as “theodicies”—literally, the justification or defense (diké) of God (theos) and of God’s ways. To offer a theodicy is to “justify the ways of God to men” (John Milton), or, more philosophically, to offer a defense of the rational or moral coherence of the universe as “the best of all possible worlds” (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz). 

While most theological and philosophical treatises treat a single (and abstract) “problem of suffering” rather than particular historical or personal instances of suffering, historical events do occasion theodicies of a more popular kind. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans 15 summers ago, for example, it left in its wake not only massive destruction of human life and property, but also a number of religious and secular explanations for why God (or Mother Earth) was angry with us. Some conservative Christians saw the storm as God’s way of punishing evildoers, driving unbelievers to conversion, and preparing the elect for the Rapture. God was angry with the U.S. for abortion, or homosexuality, or its lack of unqualified support for the State of Israel. Liberal environmentalists had their explanations as well. Mother Earth was fighting back against our conspicuous consumption and idolatrous worship of fossil fuels. Violent storms are consequences or comeuppances for the violence humans have inflicted on Her.7

Whether coming from the right or left, explanatory accounts make sense of a storm that its victims only experience as utterly absurd. It makes sense that the hurricane struck New Orleans (or so the explainers explain), given that the Gulf Coast is home to over a quarter of the nation’s oil refineries, or that the Big Easy is known for its sexual license and immorality. Connecting dots and perceiving patterns allows people to double down on meaningful worldviews, even and especially in the face of meaningless tragedies. 

Fast forward 16 years. Whereas I heard some reports of apocalyptic preachers trying to connect dots between Revelations’ Great Beast and Wuhan, China, most of the Christian circles that I travel in did not try to explain—Christianly or otherwise—why we were suffering from a global pandemic. Perhaps that’s because, according to medical doctor and ethicist Lydia Dugdale, our country currently lacks a shared story—a “common existential narrative”—that could illuminate the meaning of shared suffering and death.8 While that may be true, we should be careful what we wish for. When worldviews make perfect sense of suffering, they tend to explain too much. They treat suffering as a concept that doesn’t fit with other concepts—such as the idea that the universe is fair, or that God is all-good and all-powerful and therefore could create a world where babies don’t die and tsunamis don’t ravish coastlines. Theodicists (those trying to solve such conceptual problems) then work over the concepts until they line up. They might thereby solve an intellectual problem, but the “solution” only sidesteps the existential problem of suffering as it is experienced by those in pain. Theodicists would sound more than a little tone-deaf if they were to answer screams of “Why?” with explanations, theories, and apologia

Theological language that speaks of God’s relationship with human suffering is particularly risky. German political theologian Dorothee Soelle came of age in the wake of the Shoah (meaning “the catastrophe,” an alternative name for holocaust, which is Hebrew for “burnt offering”). Having seen all the ways that her German nation used Christian theology (including Lutheran theology) as justification for its anti-Semitism, she vowed to write about suffering with eyes wide open to all the risks. Too often, explanations for suffering portray a Sadistic God, a God who wants us to suffer because we deserve it, or to test us, or to teach us a lesson. These explanations lead as well to Christian masochism, with believers accepting their lots, like an abused spouse convinced that her cross-carrying is commanded by God and a sign of her faithfulness.9

Many throw out theological language altogether. Faced with pandemics or the deaths of unarmed Black people, they seek only the technical solutions of finding a vaccine or using more body cameras. They refuse or do not think to ask what our susceptibility to viruses and violence all means. In Suffering, Soelle argues that such purely practical responses often entail “one-dimensional” thinking that inoculates us from suffering no less than airtight theodicies do. We must find or make some kind of meaning within meaningless suffering if we are to learn from it, live well with it, and become more fully human.10

At best, Christian lament, testimony, and other primary narrations of suffering and loss provide a kind of meaning that functions differently than explanations for why we are suffering. They treat suffering as a mystery that must be known as a mystery rather than solved as a conceptual puzzle. Secondary, academic theology might follow suit, theorizing about the ways that Christian stories of crosses and resurrections come to terms with suffering and garner resilient hope without explaining suffering away and confusing hope with triumphal optimism.

For example, in her book, Resurrecting Wounds, Christian theologian Shelly Rambo attends to the resurrection stories, and in particular, to the wounds that are resurrected within the literal body of Christ, around which Christians (also the body of Christ) might gather to speak of their own pain, stitching together healing. Her last chapter attends to ways that hero scripts emphasizing the sacrifices of soldiers—their redemptive suffering—do damage to veterans suffering from PTSD insofar as they fail to make space for the ongoing woundedness of trauma. Still, other stories can and do step in; veterans engaged in healing circles hold one another’s pain like Thomas, the disciples of Jesus, touching the hurting and healing wounds of his crucified savior.11 In her book Glimpsing Resurrection, Deanna Thompson lifts up the psalms of lament, the story of Job, and Jesus’ cry from the cross—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?—as “spaces within” otherwise neat sin-to-salvation stories, spaces which give some room for these stories to breathe. What seem like subplots or excursions within Christian triumphalism offer ways to “resist solvability.” They enable us to hear and hold the stories of those living with tragedy and trauma.12 By telling such stories, reflecting on the function of those tellings, or even by naming the silences that ensue when we don’t know how to talk about them, we may discover meanings deeper than explanation and a purpose more delicate—and also more true—than those that we project from places of assumed autonomy and relative invulnerability.

I want to turn now to the related issue of vocational discernment. In my experience, a plague similar to the one plaguing overly-conceptual rationalizations of suffering plague accounts of vocation, or the work to which a person is called. Soelle traces the former problem as arising from the essentially “anachronistic” nature of acute suffering. All acute suffering (or what Simone Weil calls affliction) has an anachronistic character, Soelle claims.13 Those not suffering rush toward the future; the afflicted remain stuck in another time, which passes with agonizing slowness. Cheap consolations try to pull them forward toward closure, assuring the sufferers that everything happens for a reason and will work itself out in the end. Those explanations won’t help, and will probably feel like the patronizing rationalizations of Job’s so-called friends. We can only help, says Soelle, by stepping into the timeframe of those who are suffering.

A related anachronism often plagues the advice we give to young persons discerning the work to which God is calling them. Christian and church-related colleges educate for vocation. We want students to form the kinds of selves and live the kinds of lives that are attuned to—and can capably respond to—the needs and callings of others. The formation necessarily relies on stories and storytelling. That is because to come to know and form one’s character depends on coming to know oneself as a character in a larger story. It is to find yourself in a story that you did not create but can fully own and narrate. It is to understand yourself and your world as having a plot, meaning, and purpose—above and beyond the random incidences and coincidences that too often decide how we live.

But here is the problem, the tension, or anachronism. While stories are almost always told backwards (that is, from the point of view of the ending), Kierkegaard and other existentialists insist that life must be lived forward, that is, always from a place of ignorance and uncertainty as to how the story will end. We do students a disservice when we do not clearly recognize the ways that our own vocational stories or those that we have them read or watch—precisely because they are further along—do not always help them make “suffering well” the pathos about who they feel called to be. Especially when we clean up those stories, underplaying the tragedies, the ongoing suffering, ignorance, wanderings, failure and dead-ends in our own life stories, we suggest to students that they should be learning grit, endurance, and positive thinking without also learning the necessary negative dispositions (what Keats called negative capabilities) of patience, regret, grief, and lament. Our success stories may be meant to inspire students to press through adversity in pursuit of their own happy endings. Too often, they—again like Job’s friends—insist that if the young person is stuck in another place, then the problem is with her and her lack of resolve and clarity. In other words, vocational stories can and do often function as theodicies in the worst sense—stories that legitimate success as the will of God and which implicitly link failure to a lack of faith. As Christian educators schooled in a theology of the cross, we ought rather to be helping students to listen for the still small voice of God not only beyond or through but also within the pain of affliction.

I stated that I did not theorize the relationship between being called to works of love and coming to terms with suffering in my book, Neighbor Love through Fearful Days. One exception—or almost exception—is a chapter titled, Turtles all the Way Down, which is dated July 8, 2020. I include part of that chapter verbatim—in the present tense in which I write these real-time reflections—before concluding with a final word about the value of reflecting on our vulnerable lives when we do not know whether the story will end well. You will see that I have been reflecting on the pandemic of COVID-19, as well as on our nation’s widespread white supremacy (which I confess to sharing and from which I am trying to repent), together with the earth’s own vulnerability and woundedness. On July 8th, I find myself stepping back and reflecting on these ways of reflecting: 

Turtles all the Way Down – July 8, 2020

When I started writing these entries four months ago, I thought that there would be a clear climax to the story. I thought the coronavirus pandemic would hit like a hurricane and that we would soon be rebuilding from amidst the rubble. Now, I’m not sure whether we are still in a first wave, already in a second, or if the idea of waves has misled me and many others into thinking there would be something in-between. A second pandemic of racial violence erupted ferociously last month, and that one has been raging far longer than the novel coronavirus (in this country, by about 400 years). A third crisis—what Jim Kunstler calls “the long emergency” of climate change14—goes back to the industrial revolution, picked up speed with the consumerism following World War II, and is now manifesting itself in glacial melting, rising sea levels, cataclysmic storms, and loss of biodiversity—all of which, with tipping points and feedback loops, is quickening at a rate beyond even the most fearful predictions. 


It is hard to tell stories when we are out on sea, caught between simultaneous storms and converging catastrophes, without a sense of beginning, middle, and end. To understand one’s life as having a plot enables one to act purposefully and meaningfully, as one pushes past conflict and toward resolution. These days, however, many of us have the existential version of writer’s block. Meaning and purpose seem like luxuries. We are caught in absurdist plots that are not of our choosing and which don’t promise to end well. We aim merely to survive them. 

I think of Professor O., a creative writing instructor at the Lutheran college I attended and one of my favorite professors there. He had a handlebar mustache, a deep Texas drawl, and a fine-tuned bullshit detector. He was known to sit with each student at the end of the term to discuss the grade they thought they deserved. “B???” the student would say, the rising voice already acknowledging that the opening bid was too high. 

The lesson that Professor O. repeated most often was about the economy of words and the tightness of literary structure that writing short stories demanded. He was paraphrasing the Russian author Anton Chekhov, and probably said as much, but I thought the words came straight from the folk wisdom of his Texas homestead. He repeatedly told us, “If you describe a gun that is hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of a story, that gun better damn-well go off before that story is done!” In other words, don’t set something up and then not follow through. For a detail to be important, it must move the story toward resolution. 

With all due respect to Professor O., there’s a big difference between making up a story, in which you get to put guns above fireplaces, shoot them off at the appropriate time, dream up endings and tie up loose ends, and living a story that feels random, if not absurd, and where no good ending is in sight. The intersecting plots we are embroiled in—the coronavirus pandemic, structural racism, the potential loss of Earth as an inhabitable place for humans—feel like we are waiting for Godot (in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play) or, maybe only slightly better, accepting our meaningless fate, like Sisyphus (in Camus’s interpretation) deciding that he is fine with rolling his rock up the hill again and again and again.

Actually, while an utterly absurd, story-less life is nothing to settle for, Americans and perhaps especially American Christians often err in the other direction. Often not knowing how to endure (or narrate) real tragedy and persistent loss, they tend to clean stories up. They look away from the messy middle of our lives and instead narrate how it all started or, more typically today, how it will be resolved. The neat tripartite stories often fail to capture, or too quickly look past, the ongoing suffering and meaninglessness that many of us experience.

The “problem of suffering” can sound like a different matter, like a philosophical or theological conceptual conundrum rather than a question about how we tell stories. If God is really all-good, God would want to prevent tragedies. If God were all-powerful, God would be able to prevent them. And, yet, shit happens, and some of that shit can undo us. Some people, like Job, sit on piles of it.

Ultimately, though, these questions and all the various responses—from theological and philosophical theodicies to folk wisdom about reaping what you sow or pain making a person stronger—are really about how we tell stories. In the West, those stories typically move in a linear fashion and emphasize either end. The biggest, our foundational national or religious myths, think about ultimate beginnings—about God creating a “very good” world, or the Founders setting out to “form a more perfect Union.” In Act II, the world falls into exile, sin, and suffering. Depending on who tells the story, that could come from eating a forbidden fruit, or slavery as America’s Original Sin, or the loss of family values or global leadership. The story ends with resolution, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus saves. We recommit to making an even more perfect union. America is made great again. 

These stories, however much they differ in details, together reflect “the Christian story,” if indeed it is a single saga. God made the world and it was good. Humans screwed up and now there is pain. God will make a new heaven and a new earth and 

will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Rev. 21:4).

It is a powerful story, and rightly so. Christians traditionally find meaning in suffering insofar as they look backward and narrate where it came from or look forward to describe the good that can come of it. Christians of old favored the first method; they traced all human suffering back to human sin, and thus justified it as appropriate and just. There was in this broadly Augustinian tradition simply no such thing as unjust, innocent suffering. Christians today—especially in the United States—typically look forward rather than back. They focus on the good that emerges after and from suffering rather than the bad that produces it. 

So too with America as a whole, both religious and secular. According to psychologist Dan McAdams, the story that highly generative, talented Americans typically tell of themselves is one of “redemptive suffering”—how they have developed grit and resilience by overcoming pain and hardship. These are inspirational, powerful stories, which can help people make the most of a bad lot, when there is something to make of it.15 When there is not—when irredeemable loss remains—telling redemptive stories becomes irrelevant at best or, worse, sides with the script over the sufferer. Implicitly or explicitly, the message becomes that pain cannot be that bad or go on for that long; we blame those who cannot finally get over it.

There are alternative ways to speak of our suffering, indeed, to story our lives in ways that give them a different sort of meaning.

Buddhists and Hindus can help. They tell no fewer stories than do Christians; many redirect attention from ultimate beginnings and final endings to help us deal with our messy middle. If you have been shot with an arrow, the Buddha said, don’t spend your time trying to figure out who shot you and why you were shot. Instead, pull out the arrow. Another story, shared by Hindus and Buddhists, describes a novice monk who approaches his master seeking truth, asking, “Master, upon what does the whole world rest?” 

“The world rests on the back of a giant turtle,” replies the master. 

After meditating on this truth for some time, the novice returns to the master, and asks, “Upon what does the giant turtle rest?”

“An even larger turtle,” explains the master. When the student approaches him a third time, asking the predictable question about what the two turtles rest on, the master puts a stop to it: “You have misunderstood me. It’s turtles all the way down.”

That’s a meaningful story about the interrelatedness (or ecology) of everything and about the absurdity of searching for ultimate meaning in primordial beginnings and otherworldly endings. It clears the space to focus on the penultimate, reality as we know it here and now, and how to develop compassion and care for our interdependent, fragile whole. 

Some feminist Christian theologians have criticized those stories for too neatly and naively containing evil and suffering within the middle stage. They suggest that waxing nostalgic about an original paradise or fantasizing about a final utopia privileges a quintessentially male focus on the sin of pride and portrays God in the image of a (male) military victor. This can only distract us from attending to the messy realities of the here and now.16

There is nothing wrong with happy endings and final victories. We should celebrate them when we experience them, and acknowledge the redemptive suffering that enables us to grow in mind, body, or spirit. The problem is when we try to shoehorn all suffering into that which is just, because it is deserved in light of sin, or redeemable without remainder, because it brings about a greater good. We need to speak of the suffering that remains.17


Why write the chapters of my book in real time, before I knew what would become of the pandemic of COVID-19, not to mention our country’s racial reckoning and the fragile earth’s violent hemorrhaging? Honestly, I wrote the Neighbor Love when and how I did because this kind of real-time reflective grappling to me feels like prayer, and I simply did not know how else to pray throughout much of the past 15 months. But, as I say in the Introduction, which I first wrote in the middle of last summer, I was writing in media res—not knowing how the story would end—precisely because:

I see no ending to the stories of our summonings among fearful days that would allow us to hear them more clearly. In fact, thinking about the struggle only in light of its resolution will probably simplify the story, and so distort it. If, for example, we wait to come to terms with 2020 once a vaccine has been tested, approved, and administered widely, the story we tell about the time before becomes the story of questing after a cure, neatly contained and easily understood in light of the end. Our lives are not so easily understood and contained. What we are living through right now is not just a long chapter before the end of Covid-19, or the end of injustice, or poverty, or the climate crisis. We should be able to tell stories about our lives before they are over. Otherwise, as Aristotle suggests, we would not be able to assess the character of our lives until we’re dead.

In the resurrection of Jesus, Christians have a glimpse of the ending of the story, but it is glimpsed from the middle, which is where we remain. We hope for resurrection, and trust in the one who resurrects, but we also know that resurrection is not erasure—that even Jesus gets up with wounds in the hands and his side. Christian hope—even know—that there will be a day when God will wipe away the tears from our eyes, but to wipe away is not to wipe out and forget. And so, when we tell the Christian story and our own vocational stories of meaning and purpose within it, we, too, should make space for lament, for pain, and for suffering all that we did not and would not choose. This affliction is not the end of the story. But it is certainly a part of it.

  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, edited and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 52.
  2. Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1999), 97.
  3. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2010), 45, 87–88, 94–96.
  4. See Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003), and Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
  5. As cited by Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless (New York: Convergent, 2019), 189.
  6. See epigraph above. The prayer of good courage is used as a final blessing when long-term residents of Holden Village depart from that religious community.
  7. See Deborah Caldwell, “Did God Send the Hurricane?”
  8. From an interview with Dugdale through Harvard University’s Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality, available at:
  9. Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 9–32.
  10. Ibid., 33–41.
  11. Shelly Rambo, Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma (Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2017), 109–143.
  12. Deanna A. Thompson, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2018), 71–117.
  13. Soelle, Suffering, 15.
  14. James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Grove, 2006).
  15. Dan P. McAdams, The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3–14; as excerpted in Leading Lives That Matter, 2nd ed., Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020), 549–57.
  16. For trenchant critique of Christian narrative of paradise, Fall, and a final and full redemption, see Kathleen M. Sands, Escape from Paradise: Evil and Tragedy in Feminist Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994); as well as Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World (Boston: Beacon, 1996).
  17. “The suffering that remains” is Shelly Rambo’s definition of trauma. See Spirit and Trauma, 15, as well as the discussion in Thompson, Glimpsing Resurrection, 5–8.
Author Headshot

About Jason A. Mahn

Jason A. Mahn is Professor of Religion, Director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning, and the Conrad Bergendoff Professor in the Humanities at Augustana College. He is the author of Fortunate Fallibility: Kierkegaard and the Power of Sin (Oxford University Press, 2011); Becoming a Christian in Christendom: Radical Discipleship and the Way of the Cross in America’s “Christian” Culture (Fortress, 2016); and Neighbor Love through Fearful Days: Finding Purpose and Meaning in a Time of Crisis (Fortress, 2021).

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