Choosing Life After Tragedy
An Experienced Based Theological Journey

Anson Hugh Laytner

A Review
By Frank A. Mills

May 31, 2024
Book Cover

Choosing Life after Tragedy: An Experienced-Based Theological Journey, Anson Hugh Laytner. (March 4, 2023, Resource Publications) ISBN: 978-1-6667-7048-3. !29 Pages including an extensive bibliography.

Death, tragedy, suffering … How do we deal with such calamities while still holding on to God? Anson Laytner, a retired liberal rabbi, suggests that we learn to argue with God. Arguing with God, by the way is an ancient Jewish tradition, but one that has been lost in Jewish and especially, Christian practice. Choosing Life after Tragedy however, is not a polemic about learning to argue with God, it is a deep and profound personal story of choosing life after a series of tragedies.

For most of us, our theology is what we’ve been taught to believe. It has little to do with our life experiences, but if our theology was experience-based? Not a theology that translates our experiences to fit our theology, but rather an understanding of God that arrives from our experiences and arguing with God?

Choosing Life After Tragedy is an “experience-based field guide.” It is the experience – the journey – of Rabbi Laytner as strugglers after a wave of disease of death with grief and suffering, argues with God, and ultimately chooses Life. As I said, this is a very personal story.

Laytner writes, “This book is my attempt to make sense of those recurring waves of disease, dying and death that have washed over me and my family, leaving us grasping for meaning and dazed with pain (p.2).”

Laytner asks himself the same question we often ask ourself, what is the meaning of suffering and what does it have to do with God? Choosing Life After Tragedy is not an argument for believing in God, the existence of God is not in doubt for Laytner. Choosing Life After Tragedy we might say is a personal argument for arguing with God as the deeply emotional way to ultimately choose life.

In “Making Sense of Suffering (Chapter 5)” the author suggests that suffering is not caused by sin. God is not punishing us through suffering. Nor is suffering a tool that God uses to prove (make) us worthy. The old cliché of resting in God’s goodness doesn’t work either. How do any of these explain the Holocaust, Laytner askes? Likewise with Buddhist/Hindu idea of good and bad karma. Can’t blame Saten, as this takes the burden off of us. Nor can we fall back on the New Age mantra, we are what we think we are. None of the old platitudes work.

In Choosing Life After Tragedy, Laytner discovers an understanding of suffering that makes sense. It is an understanding of suffering based on four premises:

1. “Radical monotheism,” a way of reframing God which makes us rethink our idea of what is “good” or “bad.”
2. A refusal to make a casual connection between what happens in life and God.
3. Our life experiences acquire meaning solely from what we choose to impose upon the experience, as well as from what we learn from the experience. We make the meaning.
4. We cultivate an inner balance that provides suffering with positive meaning, yet allows for our emotions. Quoting a Christian friend, it is the “looking for the Grace in everything,” or as Laytner puts it, “praising God in the good and bad.

“My Problem with Petitionary Prayer (Chapter 7),” Laytner writes, is that it doesn’t work. What we need is to pray prayers of protest, that is prayers that argue with God. These are prayers of gratitude and contemplation. Prayers of protest are transformation. In them we find the Wisdom within ourselves.

Arguing with God reminds us of a long tradition beginning with Abraham, Jacob wrestling with God, Moses’ protests, David’s psalms, Job complaint, through the prophets. The tradition says this is how we are to interact with God. What God expects.

Choosing life after tragedy is learning to let go of God to find God (Chapter 11), practicing what Laytner calls “naked spirituality.”

Choosing Life after Tragedy: An Experienced-Based Theological Journey is honestly and beautifully written with deep humility. For this reviewer, a Christian, it was a deeply moving and inspiring read that challenged me to think about suffering in a way other than the traditional view of suffering being from God.

Anson Laytner is a retired liberal rabbi, living in Seattle. His work has focused on arguing with God, and fostering interfaith and interethnic relation. His books include. Arguing with God, The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God. He is the co-author of The Animals Lawsuit Against Humanity.

Website 05.31.24 Sheffield Lake, OH

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