So, there’s a guy (Bart Ehrman) who has released a book with the provocative title of God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. He’s doing the rounds of the talk shows, to promote it and is talking about that most difficult of questions, from the perspective of a man who became a fundamentalist Evangelical, studied the Bible deeply at university and subsequently lost his faith.
I listened in, the way you slow down to gawp at a traffic accident, or the way you keep poking with your tongue at the gap where you recently lost a tooth. I wanted to know if it would hurt, if he could shake me. I have a large store of doubt, so I’m always curious and a little nervous when people get going on these questions.
As he began to talk, I quickly realised that I had nothing to fear. I was almost disappointed. It wasn’t that I wanted my faith shaken, I just wanted his points to have more rigor. He’s the chair of a religious studied department at a university, for goodness’ sake, and his best points were ones I could counter without a moment’s extra thought.
(Now, I haven’t read his book, and he was talking to a broad, radio call-in audience, so maybe he was dumbing it down a bit.)
Here’s one point he made, more or less: People use ‘free will’ as an excuse for suffering and that works on an individual level. If I do something bad that harms me, then that suffering is a result of free will. BUT, he said, what about all the starving people in the world? It wasn’t free will that caused them to starve. Then he moved on, point proved.
But, Yes it was, I shrieked at the radio. That’s a flawed assumption. My history professors would have a red pen and a “support your point” in the margin of that one. Granted, it wasn’t the free will of the starving person that caused famine or poverty, but it was human free will. It was my free will, your free will. The free will to choose to ignore butter mountains and surpluses and government subsidies to huge corporations masquerading as ‘family’ farms, that keep the cost of food low for me but do nothing to share the wealth of the ‘developed’ world with those who need it.
He also used the Tsunami victims and victims of other natural disasters as an example, but that doesn’t hold up either. If we had invested money in a good Tsunami warning system there would have been much less suffering. If we provided education and opportunities to people living in low-lying areas, they might not have been in the way of the tsunami. If we had invested in shelters and quality housing, the casualties would have been dramatically lower.
Look at New Orleans. There is no excuse beyond human laziness and selfishness and greed for the suffering that continues to go on there, since Hurricane Katrina. (Oh, and stupidity.) We have all the technology and resources we need to prevent all the suffering there, but we instead we chose to concentrate on Iraq and send a tax rebate to middle class people who are not living in formaldehyde-riddled trailers, and wondering if that washing machine is going to stay stuck in the tree outside their window until the tree rots.
I suspect Mr. Ehrman’s next point would be that it does not reflect well upon a loving creator that he allows this to go on.
But he is not just a loving God, he is a JUST God. (Incidentally that’s why I believe the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation (confession) isn’t the Get Out Of Jail Free card that people accuse it of being. If you can repent, perfectly, of everything you’ve ever done that separated you from the Godly way of doing things, on your deathbed, then good luck to you. Otherwise, no matter how loving, God is going to have to call you to account. That is justice.)
It’s not an argument that’s going to impress an atheist with a bad impression of religion, I’ll grant you, but if you are ‘cursed’ with faith, it is an explanation that makes sense.
Then we get into the point that there would still be natural disasters and some people would still get hurt and injured and what about that. And this is where it gets tricky because I hate to impose my beliefs on other people, and it seems really, really harsh to say ‘hey, your suffering helps other people’, BUT I do think it is possible that this is what suffering is ‘for’. We have all known and been impressed with friends who have suffered unfair illnesses or losses and borne them with grace; who have kept their faith or held onto their sense of humor, and who have taught us how to live better.
(My friend Beth who is losing her sight and keeps on praying, keeps on asking for healing, inspiring untold people along the way; my friend Mary who was graciousness itself while losing her fight with cancer, but growing in faith and understanding.)
I think there’s more to it than that, even. I think there is opportunity in suffering to help yourself learn how to live better. It sounds incredible when you hear people talk about suffering as a blessing, but many people can embrace it that way. (Michael J. Fox, whose autobiography is called “Lucky Man”; Ivan Noble, who blogged about his ultimately fatal brain tumor and whose last spontaneous entry, talking about his life now and what it meant to him makes me cry every time). That has to be worth something.
I don’t think we can answer the question of why God ‘allows’ suffering because we can’t answer the bigger question of ‘what is God?’. I know it seems really odd to believe in something when I don’t really know what it is, but I can’t help it. Try as I might, it won’t go away. And beyond that tricky question, I believe firmly that if you try to follow the basic rules as spoken by Jesus (love God — which I interpret on my weak days as ‘have great respect for creation’ — and love others as you love yourself), especially when it gets difficult or scary, then you get closer to that idea of humanity made in God’s image. Life becomes, if not easier, then at least more fulfilling and meaningful.
So there. Of course, I could be wrong and I’m very used to people telling me I am, on this point, especially in popular culture, and often on a personal level, so feel free to have your rant, below.
But no name-calling.