Lindsay reflects on "Casimir Pulaski Day," (the video linked above) a song by Sufjan Stevens, writing:
Anyway, I think I like the song because it's about someone who believes in God trying to reconcile his faith with reality. The singer is confused about why his God is taking his girlfriend away, even though he and his friends are praying for her.
To me, the last four stanzas of the song are the most interesting:
In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window
In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing
Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window
Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes
The narrator is describing how, on the morning of his girlfriend's death, a cardinal hits the window. In the last two stanzas, the singer is is seeing God in the bird's blood spattered on the window, but he can't accept that this God he sees on the spattered pane is a god of love or mercy.
I took those lyrics in a slightly different way (or rather, perhaps I took them in the same way, but took something different from it). No doubt that last line: "He takes and he takes and he takes" is an expressing of the uncomprehending rage of an individual who fails to understand why an omnipotent God would allow such suffering. At the same time, the line, and those that precede it, also speak of the presence of God in the midst of suffering. This strikes me as the paradox at the center of the problem of evil -- Can God be both all loving and all powerful at the same time.
If I were more the philosopher and less the theologian, I might have a lot to say about the various approaches that have been taken to answer this question (none particularly satisfactory), but it strikes me that the reason that philosophy does such a poor job answering the question is because it tries to see the situation from the outside. As a theologian, looking at the problem from the inside, what I see is precisely the solidarity that God shares with the suffering of the world.
God's face is reflected in the cardinal's blood splattered on the window. But rather than taking this as a repudiation of God's love or mercy, I read it precisely as an affirmation that God is there amidst the suffering of the mourners. God shares the suffering of the suffering, the pain of the afflicted, the loss of the grieving and the even the fate of the dead. And, in sharing these things, God overcomes and transforms them.
But that overcoming and transforming aren't the kind of things that can be seen from the outside. From the outside, the cardinal's blood just looks like the remnents of a pointlessly dead bird. But from inside the perspective of faith, is is an expression of God's compassion (literally, "co-suffering), and that compassion is significant for the believer in pain.
But Christan faith also affirms the power of God. That such power can be perceived in the transformation of mourning and the healing of the wounds of loss is something that's difficult to see in the midst of things. It seems then that God is simply arbitrary power, as Lindsay points out, neither loving nor merciful. But the Christian message is that God became human precisely because his love and mercy were most fully expressed, not by acts of arbitrary power, but by sharing the human condition.
This is the same kind of issue raised by XTC's "Dear God" -- the suffering of the world is evidence against the existence of God. But if God is also affected by the suffering of the world, and if the world has its own freedom, which is necessary to its integrity, it may be that God's most potent action can be to be among us in the midst of suffering, and even in the midst of our own cries of anguish and anger against God.
The Bible doesn't say only one thing about God and suffering. It says many things, many of them contradictory. Job struggles with the question of God and suffering, and doesn't answer it in any kind of definative way. The story of Jesus offers another answer. In the end, that is the answer that makes the most sense for me. In a fallen world, where else would you expect to find God except the cross.
Post-Script: By the way, I think that the song is good. Not great. Just good. "Dear God" is much better.
Post-Script 2: Also, I have to admit a degree of affection for the song anyway, just because I went to Casimir Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, CT.