Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Where the Hell is God?

Christians have a recurring problem over suffering.  Apart from the fact that they actually suffer, which is a problem everyone has, the Christian-specific problem is this: Christians traditionally believe in three things.
  1. God is all-powerful, both knowing and being in control of everything that happens in the universe.
  2. God is perfectly loving, desiring nothing but good for his/her children and creation.
  3. Humans have free will and are able to decide the direction of their own lives, including being able to reject God and to make mistakes.
The problem is that these things are logically incompatible, and nothing brings this incompatibility into focus more than suffering.  If God is both loving and all-powerful, why does he allow suffering in the world?  There are two common answers.  One is that the suffering is a result of our misuse of our freewill.  This, however, calls into question either God's power (could God not have designed things so that our freewill need not lead to suffering?) or his love (has God now withdrawn his love from us?).

I must admit that for a long time this question didn't bother me in the slightest.  I think there are two reasons for this.  One is that I was brought up with a rather stoic idea of suffering.  My mother always said that when something goes wrong there's no point complaining, just get on with it.  And that's what she did, right to the end of her life.  Yet I think the more important reason is that I just haven't suffered all that much.  Sure, I've experienced grief, I've been afraid, I've been anxious, but I'm much better off than the vast majority of people in the world.  I have a good income, a comfortable home, I'm mentally and physically healthy, I have a happy marriage and two lovely grown up children, I do work that I love.

How should I talk about this?  It seems rather pagan to say that I've simply been fortunate - blessed by the goddess Fortuna, lady of chance and fate.  Yet if I say "God has blessed me" or "God has been good to me", what does this say to all those who are worse off than me - those who are poor, ill, grieving, and so on?  That God has been bad to them?  That he has cursed them?

All of which is a rather long introduction to a short and lovely book, Where the Hell is God?,  by Jesuit priest Richard Leonard.  His starting point is the story of his sister.  At 25, she was a faithful young Christian woman who had devoted her life to helping the poor, first in Calcutta with Mother Theresa and later at a remote Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory.  Then she had a car accident - which wasn't even her fault - and became a quadriplegic, in need of full time care for the rest of her life.  This experience led him and his family - and especially of course his sister Tracey, who has also written her own book - to delve deeply and personally into the problem of suffering.

He starts with the standard lines that Christians think the sufferer might find comforting, but which the Leonards found offensive - like "God wants to teach you something through your suffering", or "God has a purpose in all this".  As if God couldn't work out his purpose by some less clumsy and drastic means.  Then there were the Job's comforters who said, in more or less subtle ways, that Tracey must be being punished for her sins.  Which, besides being very insulting, begs the question - why would God so drastically punish a dedicated, generous young woman for some unspecified sin, while leaving oppressors and mass murderers untouched?

The tendency of all of this "comfort", in Leonard's mind, was to make God seem cruel, arbitrary and perhaps even a little unhinged.  He is particularly scornful of the line often used to comfort grieving parents who have lost young children - "God must have needed another angel".  So he killed our child?  How psychopathic is that?

All of this leads him to a set of broader questions about how God acts in the world and the picture that emerges is fascinating and thought-provoking.  Leonard's God is not the God of popular piety who will meet all our tiny requests.  He does not order our suffering - the suffering simply happens as a result of the laws of nature, or our own mistakes or misjudgements.  We may learn from our suffering, but God does not send it to us for this purpose.  Instead Christ, who came into this world to be like us, suffers with us, and comforts us in our suffering.  He wants us, in turn, to learn to suffer with and comfort others.

His comments on two other pieces of popular piety also struck me.  One is his reluctance to pray for rain.  He is not unsympathetic to farmers suffering from drought - far from it.  However, he says that when we pray for rain, or say special masses for it, we misunderstand God.  Instead, we are praying to someone like the Greek God Zeus, an unpredictable character who controlled the weather and had to be placated through ritual and sacrifice.  God is not like that.  He does not interfere at random with the planet's climate system.  Instead of thinking that if we pray hard enough God will send us rain, Leonard thinks we should take our lament to God, and our pain and suffering, and lay it before him.  In the process, perhaps we should reflect on our own behaviour, the damage we have done to the planet, the havoc we are causing to the climate system, and repent and change our ways.

The second (and I promise to stop here) is his reflection on the hymn How Great Thou Art and particularly the third verse.

And when I think that God, his son not sparing,
Sent him to die I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin.

If God sent Jesus to die, he says, why did he warn Joseph about Herod's murderous intentions?  Why not get the whole dying thing over at the beginning?  Why go through the charade of the next 30 years, if all that was required was a death?  No, he says, God didn't send Jesus to die, he sent him to live, to show us what God is.  It was people who sent him to die, arresting him and crucifying him because they did not like the light he shone on their injustice and oppression.  Thus it always is.  We blame God for our suffering, but so often we do it to each other.

So for Leonard, free will is intact.  We should not expect God to direct our every move or fiddle in the minutiae of our lives.  Instead we should get on with living as he has taught us.  God's love is also intact.  He cares so much for us that he came to share in our lives.  Where in this is God's power?  Leonard leaves the question unanswered, and leaves us much to think about, many questions to explore further.  It's a short book, and left me wanting more.

1 comment:

Alex Smith said...

Great post Jon :)