I do not think that raising questions about fundamental religious convictions should be necessarily taken as an attack on religion or anyone’s core beliefs. Questioning, after all, is natural for inquisitive humans.
Speaking for myself, I raise the questions below with an open mind, hoping to learn something by reading the responses of others. My questions are sincere – I’m not looking to score points or seeking to justify disbelief in God, rather, I am looking for insights that help explain and bolster God’s existence.
A few days ago, I read the following on the First Things Blog (http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2010/05/spirituality-without-spirits) , criticizing today’s common trend toward vague, undemanding personal spirituality unattached from formal religion:
“The man wasting away from pancreatic cancer will get no help nor comfort from the “spiritual,” which will seem a lot less friendly and comforting when he feels pain morphine won’t suppress. He has no one to beg for help, no one to ask for comfort, no one to be with him, no one to meet when he crosses from this world to the next. He wants what religion promises. And he is right to do so. The dying man is the true man, in the sense of being the one who reveals to us what we essentially are. We are on our death bed from the day we are born. To paraphrase Pascal, dying men want not the God of spirituality, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
I’ve watched people I love die of cancer. I’ve been with them at the end in hospice. Some of them were sincere Christians, one of them an ordained Deacon for many years. Forgive me for being honest, but it seemed that God and their belief in God provided no comfort, alleviated no pain, and played no useful or perceivable role at the end – when you would think it counts most.
I am well aware that I am not the only one who has witnessed loved ones die. My experience of suffering and loss is not unique, and I am not arrogant enough to think that somehow my situations were special. We have all faced loss, death, illness, and pain. And some people will and do respond differently than I did. They see something differently than I do, they have an insight that I don’t, or approach the situation in a manner that I am not. I’d like to hear about such things and learn from them.
My question is this – what role, if any, does God play in these situations? My question is related to theodicy, but I’m focused on the practical dimensions mostly. The First Things blog author seems to assert that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob comes in handy for people dying of cancer. My question is, how so?
It seemed pretty clear that God didn’t eliminate anyone’s pain, no less heal the people I knew. And in reality, its morphine and other such drugs – human inventions, that provide pain relief. Additionally, the emotional comfort provided, was provided by humans.
And it seems God doesn’t keep or protect you from getting pancreatic cancer – such an idea is practically meaningless, unless you want to assert that God allows some people to get this disease – and what sort of God is that?
God doesn’t even seem to offer any hope of eliminating pancreatic cancer. He’s had several thousands of years to do so, and so far has apparently chosen not to act. It will be human beings that eventually find ways to treat or even cure pancreatic cancer, and when they do, there will be no reason to credit the Divine.Does living forever provide any sense of meaning or comfort at the end? None of my loved one’s seemed to be focused on heaven. I can’t rule out that some people do when faced with illness or death. Does saying that the Universe is rooted in love provide any meaning to the dying man, wasting away? Such sentimental notions might provide some abstract intellectual comfort, but it begs the question as to why a loving universe allows people’s lives to be cut short, racked with pain, and forced to waste away horribly as they are torn away from their families and loved ones.
Of course, some people regularly assure one another that God is not responsible for human suffering. Some readers might now execute the following mental gymnastics: God cannot be judged by merely human standards of morality. But, of course, human standards of morality are precisely what the faithful use to establish God’s goodness in the first place.
Still others might say that human reason doesn’t comprehend everything and should be humble in these matters. Some go even further, asserting that human reason lacks the authority or right to question in these circumstances. But such assertions are merely side-stepping the issue. As I’ve stated in previous blog posts, such assertions also seem self-defeating in the end, eroding reason altogether.
Others might say that God was with the dying person, suffering with them. Again, that’s a lovely, even intellectually powerful sentiment, but does it do any actual good? Some will argue that such notions provide meaning and that there is existential comfort in meaning. But what is the meaning that God provides, exactly? I know Wiccans who find comfort in believing that their souls will live on in Summerland and Buddhists who take comfort in notions of rebirth and reincarnation.
We can adopt the approach of a more moderate idea of God – something like the God of Tillich, Armstrong or Kaplan – a more impersonal God – something akin to the ground of being, or the ultimate creative principle of the universe.
Positing such a God helps us realize that some of the above expectations – that God can reduce pain, heal cancer, and so on – seem unrealistic or amount to missing the point about what and who God is.
But the same question can be raised, this time in a more general sense – what role does this more remote, mysterious God play? What’s the benefit? What’s the impact of affirming such a being?
I suppose affirming such a Divine being can help philosophically, playing an intellectual role as a useful concept. And affirming such a God might also serve some psychological function, motivating us in some manner toward better behavior. Yet it seems to me that other notions can do exactly the same thing, achieving the same results.
And I’d like to add a distinction for you to consider while reflecting on these matters – there is a subtle difference between the function God might play versus the function of religion in general. Buddhists derive comfort, meaning, moral guidance, and even community from their tradition, without affirming the existence of God. Ritual, meditation, narrative, community – can all have benefits that do not require anything divine for their effectiveness.
So, I ask – what role does God play in your life? What difference does affirming God make for you? How would your life be any different if it turned out God didn’t exist?
I’m eager to hear the insights of others on this matter.