Book Review: The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God

The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God: Autobiographical and Theological Reflections. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner. Resource Publications (Wipf and Stock), Eugene Oregon. © 2019. Paperback, 176 pages.

Theodicy in theological terms is the way that humanity explains appearance of evil and suffering in the human condition. In the purest and messiest of theological constructs, there are few explanations that bring relief or intellectual understanding.

As a hospice chaplain, I often hear questions that stem from a struggle with developing a personal theodicy. The ‘why’ questions (Why me? Why now? Why this?) are never really answered outside of a faith system of some kind. But it is most frequently these ‘why’ questions that drive us to seek the Divine on a deeper level, and to invite hope and peace into the process of reconciling our ‘whys’ with our faith.

This is not easy work and is not taken lightly. Rabbi Anson Hugh Laytner writes with humility and thoughtfulness and brings his personal story into the fray, using the book of Iyov (Job) into his conversation and reflections. Rabbi Laytner lays out first the arguments which stem from a reading of the book of Iyov and then walks the reader through his own trials and sorrows. As he writes in the Introduction:

“At the heart of my story is a period of ten years during which my family and I endured wave and wave of suffering, grief, and death. At at the same time, it is also a story filled with love and transformation… Having lived through the trauma of those ten years, I now dwell in the life-after and continually reflect on how I came to be where I am today.” (p. xv)

Rabbi Laytner describes the tsumani of events for his family; his parents, in-laws, daughter and other relatives all struggling with disease and dying within this ten year period. He describes the process of finding emotional balance, struggling to make meaning, and heal from loss after loss. And he acknowledges his suffering was peripheral to the physical diseases that attacked others, though no less traumatic for his own emotional and spiritual well-being.

Layton’s book provides theological content and reflection through a series of chapters that untangle the book of Iyov and replace a transactional view of theodicy with one that is nuanced and grounded in restoration and trust that G-d hears and responds to our pleas. Rabbi Layton also admits that though he has come through the firestorm of loss, he still sees his joys through that lens.

“Even my happiest moments are grayed with a little grief. There is no forgetting, only a patching over the past with new life experiences. I live restored and content, but wounded nonetheless. And I continually think about what it all means to me.” (pp 135-136)

Kudos to this author for extensive footnotes, a helpful index, an extensive bibliography and his personal “39 Hypotheses – Or, Where I am Today”. In a time of “puff pastry theology” and “name-it-and-claim-it” charlatans, I am grateful for the deep dive into this topic. It will take more than one reading to absorb it all.

There is much wisdom in his writing, and much to contemplate. I recommend this book to the reader highly, especially if you have come through a storm of suffering and are struggling to put your shattered theology back together.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I was provided this book without cost from the publisher and was not required to give a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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