The perennial question of suffering

Job_tormentsThe editors of Arts & Letters Daily state it bluntly: “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.”

Most reporters, however, have realized that theologians have more than that to say about God’s role in human suffering. Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided a helpful survey of responses from religious leaders, including these:

Rabbi Efry Spectre, Ahavat Achim Synagogue:

“We as Jews are concerned more with action than with thought. You can’t speak for all Jews at any one time, but for the most part we are a people who believe that God created a world that was good and ever-developing, and gave the human being the great gift of free will. It’s up to us to be partners with God in bettering the world.

Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, part of the Islamic Network Group:

“The Islamic perspective is that God is the master of the universe. Anything that happens, Muslims look upon it as a test. Muslims also believe that at the day of judgment, the deeds of all people will be looked at. When a test is given such as this, their reaction is what they will be, if you will, graded on. Were they patient and thanking God, or were they thinking, ‘Why me? This is unfair.’

Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention:

“Whether a disaster happens when you’re on an airliner or in a fire or a hurricane, if your faith and hope is in Jesus Christ you know that should you die, you will live eternally in heaven. That is a tremendous comfort for people who have faith in Christ.

“As to why this kind of thing happens, that’s the perennial question. We live in an imperfect world. The issue is not whether disaster will strike us or sadness will come, but are we prepared spiritually for that moment?”

Ed Buckner, southern U.S. director for the Council for Secular Humanism:

“I understand that for some religious people it stirs deep questions for which there are no easy answers. For a secular humanist who doesn’t believe in a supernatural explanation for anything, it is easier in some ways to take events like this. We don’t ask questions like ‘How could God let this happen?’ since we don’t believe there is a God.

“To people who think we are not compassionate or not moral, we feel great compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering unimaginable agony right now. It’s not exclusively a Christian impulse to want to reach out and help.”

Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News has done a fine job of reporting how Buddhism and Hinduism differ from the three great monotheistic faiths in their understanding of suffering:

Buddhists believe the universe operates on a strict system of karma, moral justice that spans generations. Bad things that happen to a person in this life are the result of bad things the person did in this life — or in myriad earlier lives. That means there are never “innocent victims.”

“What goes around comes around,” said the Rev. Prem Suksawat, the Thai-born religious leader for the Dhamma Cetiya Buddhist Vihara in Boston.

. . . Unlike most Western faiths, Hinduism has no universally recognized authorities, texts or doctrines. Rituals and practice change from region to region.

But Hindus generally agree that there is one all-powerful god who manifests in many forms, male and female. And that god can sometimes send messages though natural events.

Sunday’s local deepa puja, attended by more than 100 devotees, included a prayer for the dead to that single, highest god:

“The light symbolizes the divine power of God, the brightest and most sacred of all. Similarly, the light that emanates from the departed souls is also powerful and sacred. We pray that these two lights merge, symbolizing the unification of the immortal soul of God.”

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  • Dan Crawford

    “Whether a disaster happens when you’re on an airliner or in a fire or a hurricane, if your faith and hope is in Jesus Christ you know that should you die, you will live eternally in heaven. That is a tremendous comfort for people who have faith in Christ.

    “As to why this kind of thing happens, that’s the perennial question. We live in an imperfect world. The issue is not whether disaster will strike us or sadness will come, but are we prepared spiritually for that moment?”

    Perhaps we take comfort, too, from the fact that God Himself in the Person of Christ lived as we do in the world brought to the brink of catastrophe by the sin of Adam and Eve.

  • Bill

    “C. S. Lewis gives the answer in long form in The

    Problem of Pain, but it

    can be summarized succinctly: If matter and

    energy obey regular laws,

    events will occur that abruptly alter the

    environment, and organisms may

    be unable to cope with the results. In the

    particular case of the Indian

    Ocean, two tectonic plates struck each other,

    forcing one to sink and one

    to rise. The process created a huge wave that

    then spread until it came

    violently ashore.

    That God could have created a universe in which

    no clashes of this kind

    would occur is not imaginable. He could still the

    waters, but a continual

    procession of miracles would make natural law

    unreal. The choice is

    between a cosmos in which law is the norm and

    miracle the exception or one

    in which constant divine action imposes pain-free

    harmony.

    A little reflection reveals that life in the

    latter universe would be

    pointless. We would be denizens of an eternal

    nursery, with no reason to

    think or act. That fate would be worse than the

    risk of being struck down

    prematurely by flood, fire, pestilence or famine.

    No one likes to say bluntly that pain is the

    price of meaningful life. It

    sounds like an abstract and unfeeling response to

    a gigantic human

    tragedy. The purpose of philosophical inquiry is

    not, however, to bestow

    comfort. It can only inform us that the universe

    has hard edges and would

    not be improved by being constructed of sponge

    rubber. For consolation

    after being cut and bruised, we must look

    elsewhere.”

  • Stephen A.

    I find few of the religious comments in this blog entry very satisfying, although all have some truth buried within them.

    That the suffering like the families of those killed in the tsunami have experienced is simply a “test” is grotesque, in a way. But it’s also true in a real sense because these things really do test us.

    While saying that salvation is a comfort for the doomed is pretty harsh, there is a reality there, too.

    Perhaps the worst thing to say, in my view, is that the dead “deserved to die” because of actions in a previous life. Maybe THAT theological nicety needs examination, rather than the Western, conventional view.

    Still, the first line of the blog should more properly ask the question on everyone’s mind: “If God is all-powerful, how can He *allow* this, if He is all-good?”

    Frankly, I like the answers given by Harold Kushner in the book, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.” While some Christians will answer that question by saying ALL people are bad, and therefore deserve death and suffering (correct, for a rather parsed reading of Genesis) that’s an unsatisfying answer in real life, as it was to Kushner when his son was killed and he was offered it as one of many bad answers.

    Instead, he says, “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because He knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years. But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”

    In other words, God is in the relief effort, not in the tsunami. That is a sentiment that does no damage to the concept of faith OR reason.

    Stephen A.

  • http://wildfaith.blogspot.com/ Darrell Grizzle

    “If God is God, he’s not good. If God is good, he’s not God.” This is a line from a play by Archibald MacLeish called “J.B.,” about Job.

    Thank you, Stephen A., for the quote from Rabbi Kushner’s book. I never read that book, but after reading the quote, I’ll have to check it out.

    And thank you, Doug, for an eye-opening look at how other religious traditions respond to disasters like the tsunami. I’m glad I believe in grace instead of karma.

  • Saint Dumb Ox

    It’s not that God is not good if bad things happen, it’s that The purpose of humanity is to love God. To love God we must choose it. To choose it we must have free will. If we have free will we can choose to not love God. When we choose to not love God death enters in to our life. Hence the Fall. ALL created nature fell when man fell. That people’s bodies die at all(no matter on what scale or by what method) is a result of our choice, made first by Adam and Eve.

    God has never ignored this and Jesus is the solution to living eternally even when we are from a fallen, non-eternal world. God is good because he has never ignored this or his creation and sent his very own son to fix it.

    As Chesterton says, Christianity is the most sane of any belief.

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    The professors over at Mirror of Justice have had this discussion, too. One response to their inquiry can be found here:

    http://paragraphfarmer.blogspot.com/2004/12/reconsidering-problem-of-evil.html

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    I am truly astonished by all this sudden philosophizing. Like what — nothing bad has ever happened before? I don’t have the stats handy, but I’d be rather suprised if natural events didn’t kill 100,000 people every month, every year, everywhere. One here, one there; one by this; one by that. The only difference in this case is that so many occurred in the wake of one event, and it all happened so visibly before the world.