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Theodicy and Butterflies

Hello, old friends. I feel a little shy jumping straight back into the jollity of the Rabbit Room after such a long absence, but I’ve missed this place too much to delay any longer.


I think my posts here dwindled about the same time I moved to Oxford. I’d fully intended to be the Rabbit Room’s UK correspondent, but I ended up holding on for dear life as I found myself falling in love with theology, turning a one-year certificate into a three-year degree, then also falling in love with and marrying my husband (an adorable Dutchman named Thomas whom I’m scheming and dreaming of bringing to Hutchmoot someday), and while I was at it, having a baby (her name is Lilian–she’s elfin-sized and blue-eyed and already very opinionated and the joy of my heart). Yes, I’m still mostly sane, thank you. But also very glad to have the margin to jump back into the conversation here now and then.

And I think I’ll begin by telling you about the subject that has gripped my imagination and set me to wrestling and researching for years to come. Theodicy. Before I came to Oxford, I had never heard the word “theodicy,” which is basically the theological attempt to vindicate the goodness of God in view of the existence of evil. But the moment I heard and understood that word, I knew it was my topic. It has been my topic ever since I was nine years old and fascinated by butterflies; it’s the reason I fell in love with the work of J. R. R. Tolkien when I was seventeen years old. It’s also one of the great reasons I take such joy in the Rabbit Room and find it to be such a home for the soul and why I hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts if I write about what I’m studying now and then in the future.

Let me explain, and let me start with butterflies because that’s where I first began to understand what theodicy was. The summer I turned nine, my family moved to the sun-baked wilds of Texas hill country. The space of our rural life was an abrupt wonder to me; the stretch of those western skies with storms rolling through them like ocean surf, the unfettered blackness of the night with the thick, spattered stars. And the butterflies. Early one hot, crackly morning I went for a ramble in my grandmother’s garden and discovered a dewy-winged marvel of a creature, all midnight black and iridescent blue with orbs of white that glimmered up at me like eyes. I ran to get my grandmother and show her this wonder. “Oh, it’s a swallowtail,” she said, nonchalantly, as if this creature, this glimmering wonder looking like something from the realm of myth was a matter of the everyday. She marched inside and pulled an old Audubon guide off the shelf. “There, look,” she said, “it’s a spicebush swallowtail.” From that moment, butterflies became my obsessive study as I immersed myself in the world of tiger and spicebush swallowtails, fritillaries and buckeyes, painted ladies, and that rare blue ghost, the “Diana.” I haunted the fields round our old ranch house, my eyes trained to catch the slightest flicker of wings.

One day, I chased a buckeye through a field of yellow grass; it tantalized me, landing every few seconds in the dirt and closing its wings so that the camouflage brown of its underside blended into the dirt. I would crouch in wait until suddenly the earth somewhere near my hands seemed to slip apart into flashed glimpse of some otherworld reflected in the burst of orange and azure that were the butterfly’s magical wings. I remember sitting back and laughing after my fifth attempt to catch the little thing, delighted in the hunt after that beauty, the way it flashed out, an unexpected grace in the brown landscape, the way it made me hungry and happy all at once.

Even at that age, I recognized that the darkness I saw presented a powerful narrative about existence: it closed the horizons of hope by caging me in with fear; it cut me off from relationship as I drew away in shame from others; it told me that the bleak, shattered reality I experienced was the ultimate reality of the world itself. Sarah Clarkson

I sat back on my heels, alert and still. And suddenly, my sense of time was suspended as I lifted my face to the great blue dome of the Texas sky, brimmed with the honey-tinged light of late afternoon. The sounds of the earth grew distant and a quiet came into my mind and body. For one mesmerizing moment I became aware of the personal, present goodness thrumming in every atom of the world around me. I knew I was encountering God. And I knew I was loved. And the next instant the buzz of the cicadas and the far off cough of a pickup roared back into my ears and time stomped forward and I was a sunburned little girl with grass-stains on her jeans, chasing butterflies. But it was as if, for a moment, the brown wings of the cosmos itself had fluttered open, and what I glimpsed was the mesmerizing beauty of Love, a beauty stronger and more real than anything else I knew.

And that was saying something because the summer of the butterflies was also the summer that my imagination went haywire with the first tremors of the earthquake that would later be diagnosed as OCD. For several months, I knew a powerful, daily darkness that I didn’t know how to tell anyone. It would take another almost ten years before anyone gave a name to my interior malady, one marked not by a fear of germs or the need for symmetry that is the common notion of OCD, but by its lesser-known manifestation in vivid, intrusive images of violent things happening to me and to those I loved, images that shattered my sense of safety and left me feeling broken and guilty.

At nine years old, I was confronted with evil (because that’s the only name I can give to what I saw in my mind), with the inescapable sadness of a broken mind and the story told in the world by sorrow. Even at that age, I recognized that the darkness I saw presented a powerful narrative about existence: it closed the horizons of hope by caging me in with fear; it cut me off from relationship as I drew away in shame from others; it told me that the bleak, shattered reality I experienced was the ultimate reality of the world itself. Against that knowledge then, was set the moment of luminous sight I found in the goodness of the butterfly, in the flickered glimpse of a Beauty untouchable by shadow, outside of time and yet present to me in it, affirming me as its own and drawing me out of time and suffering to itself. I knew that Beauty told the truer story and so it was, in that instant, my theodicy, my way of clinging to the goodness of God in the midst of pain.

I'm pretty darn convinced that what our skeptical, despairing world needs isn't more arguments trying to rationalize evil and defend an abstract redemption, but rather narratives that immerse us in stories where beauty invades suffering, where characters can act in hope, where the horizons of possibility are open to redemption, to Tolkien's eucatastrophe, the 'unexpected grace of a happy ending.' Sarah Clarkson

Eight years later I encountered that Beauty again in a saving way in an actual story, Tolkien’s good old epic to be exact. I was in my late teens and to my continuing and ever evolving grapple with OCD was added profound disillusionment with my faith. I didn’t trust Christians. I didn’t like the God they worshiped, who, I had been told simplistically, willed all the bad things that happened to me. If everything was determined, and God caused harm, I saw no point in acting courageously or creatively and the horizons of my life seemed suddenly to shrink in discouragement and lethargy. I began to read The Lord of the Rings in sheer boredom but into the shadowland of my mind crashed the epic of Middle Earth, with a story that set me back on my feet and told me I had a choice to make, a quest to follow, that livened me to beauty and made me hungry, with an aching, healthful yearning for a goodness I could barely name. I looked up from The Lord of the Rings upon my own existence with healed eyes that could imagine God as the king who arrived in my own world with “healing in his hands.” And in that moment, Tolkien’s work operated upon me as a theodicy, an argument for God’s goodness despite the existence of evil.

When I arrived at Oxford and began to pore over tomes of doctrine outlining all the different arguments for God’s goodness, all the schemes to explain the presence of evil in the world, I realized that the best theodicies I could find were outlined and rather dry arguments for something I had already encountered much more viscerally in the hope that came to me like a rope to a drowning woman in the form of beauty and story, image and song. That realization sent me into six months of work on a mini-dissertation on how beauty teaches us to hope, how stories narrate us out of despair and into action. At the end of it all, I’m pretty darn convinced that what our skeptical, despairing world needs isn’t more arguments trying to rationalize evil and defend an abstract redemption, but rather narratives that immerse us in stories where beauty invades suffering, where characters can act in hope, where the horizons of possibility are open to redemption, to Tolkien’s eucatastrophe, the “unexpected grace of the happy ending.” So, I want to write those stories of course (someday I’ll finish that novel), but I’m also going to spend the next year doing a longer dissertation on why the works of imagination—stories and songs, art and drama—may be one of the best ways we have of offering a profoundly Christian theodicy to a broken and skeptical world doubtful of God’s existence because life is just so sad sometimes.

The reason I want to tell you about this is because, well, I’ll be wrestling with these themes for years to come I think, and they might just show up here. But also, and much more importantly for me, the Rabbit Room is a space in which I have encountered, countless times, that “light and high beauty” (Sam Gamgee, in Mordor), that vision of goodness that is, I think, what a robust theodicy must offer. In these crazy years of study and change, I’ve thought often of you here, keeping alive the flame of hope with story and song, laughter and the hobbit-like fellowship that I have come to love in Rabbit Room gatherings. This is, I think, a deeply theodical community because it is a fellowship of storytellers and lovers, of those who acknowledge the profound brokenness of the world even while kindling the holy fires of creativity, imagination, and community in which we glimpse the redemption that is drawing our own stories forward to wholeness. I love what is being created here; I love the Beauty you all speak and sing and give in all that happens here. You keep me rooted in hope and for that I’m continually grateful (and determined to make it to Hutchmoot again).

Bless you all if you made it this far. It’s good to be back.

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