If religion’s purpose is to help people find peace and strength and to live good lives, which I believe it is, it makes sense that people would turn to religion to explain why terrible things happen in the world – particularly terrible things that happen to individuals that apparently didn’t do anything to deserve it.
I think the most profound and true religions – or the most profound and true forms of the various religions – refrain from any definitive explanation of “why.”
Our longing to know “why” is perfectly natural and reasonable. We would like to understand the “why” so we can try to prevent terrible things happening to people, including us and our loved ones, in the future. We would like to understand the “why” so we know our own culpability in the matter (ideally we find we are free of any responsibility for a given event, but at a deep level we appreciate this is rarely, if ever, true).
Religions throughout time have offered up all kinds of answers for why terrible things happen: the whims of capricious gods that must be cajoled and pleased; the position of the stars; the will of ghosts or spirits; the people affected or involved deserved their fate because of bad things they did in a past life; the people affected or involved deserved their fate because they were displeasing to God in their current life. Whatever the answer, a religion is also obligated to provide corresponding recommendations for how to avoid similar calamity via ritual, offerings, beliefs, codes of behavior, or adepts who can intercede with gods or spirits on our behalf.
Thus, with the help of religion, out of the sadness, confusion and fear associated with terrible events and situations there can arise certainty and a plan of action. But at what cost? It’s one tiny step from explanation to blame. If you are the one who is suffering right now, what good does my explanation for that suffering do you, unless you agree it is correct and get with my religion’s program? Far more likely that you do not do either of these, and the comfort my religion provides me only serves to alienate us from each other.What if a religion offers no explanation, but instead offers this: “In this world there is great suffering as well as great joy. It can be very difficult to find peace and strength and to live a good life in such a world, but here are some ways to do it…”
With support, then, the religious practitioner is asked to develop the spiritual maturity to tolerate ambiguity and a lack of control over the fortunes of life. Without trying to come up with explanations just to comfort herself, this kind of religious person can bear true witness to the sadness, confusion and fear that come along with terrible things. Out of this bearing witness there can arise insight into what might best be done to minimize suffering now and in the future. The easy, simple refuge of an explanation is foregone for a resilient ability to find a more poignant kind of peace without reliance on explanations.
I respect the nod to mystery that is given when religions answer the big “Why” with, “It’s part of God’s plan. We cannot possible comprehend God, so we cannot always understand his plan.” This invites us to let go of explanation. However, religions generally add, “Still, even if you can’t understand it, you can rest assured that God has a plan, and that it is a good and beneficial plan.” Oops, one step too far. Nice to think that everything is going to work out well in the end, but what kind of good plan involves the slaughter of innocent children? At some point the explanations religions offer become too ridiculous for people to accept – and then those explanations cease to provide the peace, strength and context they were intended to.
I hope religions as well as individuals will continue to grow and evolve. I hope we will all work to stay with the discomfort a little longer each time and postpone as long as possible explanations that might bring some relief but will shut down our dialogue with the world. I hope religions will begin to refrain from offering explanations when there aren’t any, but instead offer support to people to find peace, strength and direction in the midst of the wonderful, terrible, ambiguous world in which we find ourselves.