Theodicy and Butterflies

By

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.

Sarah Clarkson’s brand new book, Book Girl, is now available at the Rabbit Room Store. Click here to learn more.

Sarah Clarkson is the author of several books including the best-selling The Life-giving Home, which she co-authored with her mother, Sally Clarkson. Sarah is currently studying literature at Oxford University where she's not only a brilliant thinker and writer, but is also the president of the C. S. Lewis Society.


8 Comments

  1. Elizabeth Allen

    I can’t help but picture a traveler returning home to the Shire to find the lights on. 🙂 This is beautifully written, and your sincerity reached me in a difficult year. Glad to have you back!

  2. Robin Clayton

    Thank you for introducing me to a word that describes exactly what I too have experienced in this world. I will look forward to reading more of your thoughts as you write about this fascinating dichotomy. I loved reading your thoughts so far!

  3. Matthew Cyr

    @matthewcyr

    I didn’t expect to love this post when I opened it, but boy, did I. I didn’t know the meaning of “theodicy” either – if I encountered it in the wild it was one of those things that wasn’t worth looking up. So I thought: now I see it’s just that thing that has gripped my imagination too, and occupied more and more of my mind the last several years. Keen to read more of your explorations as you share them.

  4. Anne

    Welcome back! I have missed your voice and stories, and look forward to hearing more about your journies. You are such an encouragement.

  5. LornaLightThoughts

    Ah!! There is such life in your words. I too, have come to find life and life abundant in the creativity of the Rabbit Room Community. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your profound thoughts and the rich imagery of your encounters with beauty and light!!

  6. Bobbi Standish

    OH thank you, so beautifully written, I loved reading it, such a joy, I will look for more and look forward to the book on Tolkein’s “eucatocracy” and I had not heard this term as such but realize I am alert for it looking for it in everything I read or watch and totally loved hearing of your study of theocracy and in agreement with your wonderful conclusion at the end of what we really are yearning for in our hearts; a robust thocracy as you say. My heart leaped when you mentioned Sam Gangees one of my most cherished characters in the story. And don’t get me started on C.S.Lewis. In my 70’s now I discovered the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in my late twenties as a single mom, when looking for good reading for my two boys (5 and 8 yrs old at the time) read all seven chronicles and then went on to fictional works of George McDonald and later Tolkein. ( and reread them many times and then later on to a whole new set of boys who i was privileged to give birth to in my 40’s, but that is another story!) I can never express the blessing richness and goodness that came into our lives through their genius and so much more. I also love The Rabbit Room and am so grateful to have discovered it a good few years ago and come back again and again for steady richness, delight and discovery I find here. Thank you again so so much for sharing yourself and your thoughts with us here. There is so much deep deep richness there and look forward to seeking out your books. Many many blessings and every good thing. Bobbi

  7. Audrey Drennen

    Dear Sarah,
    I have recently grown into a habit of trying to rationalize myself into things, including why God sometimes cannot be seen in the midst of stifling darkness. I think rationality is something I have always valued, because when linked with inner knowledge it can bring powerful light. However, when I am discouraged, and I cannot see the light of hope, rationality becomes flat and meaningless. Perhaps this is the problem of our human condition, and we shun solutions that don’t “fit” with mere reason. But I am learning, through witnesses like you, that Light isn’t something which can’t fit into rationality– its just that it transcends it. Reason, when turned toward Light, is a powerful screen, and becomes a most beautiful witness–otherwise it fails us. But encounter with beauty never fails us. We need to keep reaching toward that higher Truth which only experience and spiritual action can bring us. Thank you for being such a sincere witness of this, and for sharing the fruit of your struggles.

  8. Dorothy

    Thank you for this wonderful, well-written piece. A friend shared the link on Facebook, and I almost scrolled past after reading the quote she shared with it, but then I thought, “I have time to read this, and it’s one of my pet topics, so why not?” I’m so glad I did. I enjoyed your articulation of how light and beauty touch us through narrative and art, but more than that, I knew that this was a divine appointment when I read about your struggle with OCD, because I have a very similar story. I struggled for years with graphic thoughts and their attendant guilt and anger, and Lord of the Rings showed me that life was still worth living anyway. It took me years to figure out that I had OCD, and even longer to tell anybody. There are so few books about this mental disorder, and I didn’t have access to anyone’s stories about similar struggles until I knew to start reading them. I wish I could have read a post like this years ago, but I’m glad that I got to read it now. Thank you for sharing both your passion for beauty and the specific details of your struggle.

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