Monday, November 20, 2006

The argument from evil

Listening to the esteemed Rabbi and the Archbishop respond as Humphries probes, I find their responses to his versions of the so-called 'argument from evil' unconvincing in the extreme. The argument from evil is perhaps the most difficult argument for a believer in either religion to answer: if God is perfect, all-knowing, interventionist, omni-powerful etc.- how does He let suffering and evil occur? It never made sense as a small child, and it does not make sense now. One is forced to one of two conclusions: either He is a sadist and enjoys suffering (or callously allows it to happen), or he is not all-powerful, interventionist after all.

Humphries is open and ready to share in the joy of the beliefs of the Rabbi and the Archibishop, but neither comes close to explaining the basis of their faith. I share Humphries' feeling: I look upon people with 'faith' and feel like we are in different rooms separated by a solid glass wall (a bit like at an airport): either they have found a secret which they cannot articulate in any foundationalist sense, or they have merely taken an irrational leap into an unfounded system of belief.

It simply re-affirms the centrality of Buddhism in my life, because Buddhism, as more of a practical pyschology and spiritual grounding in the world than a faith, does not posit an all-powerful God. At the centre of Buddhism is the attempt to embrace dukka - suffering. Rather than run away from suffering in the name of a universe created by a divine Creator who is somehow outside yet inside the world, Buddhism suggests that all there is is this world, and the spiritual depth of the world lies in our practiced ability to confront suffering. Suffering here isn't simply the Holocaust, Rwanda, a family member dying of cancer etc; rather, dukka refers to the suffering of temporality itself. Life is transient; we all suffer from it. Only when we engage and embrace our own mortality can we begin to deepen our relationship with our own bodily-grounded spirituality.

Buddhism is then much less a faith, and more a step-by-step method to enable us to face reality in all its awesomeness. We will die. Nothing will happen afterwards except perhaps our memories will live on. Some people will die in pain. Others will be raped or bereaved in violent ways. All of this is suffering, as time itself is suffering. Through mindfulness and loving kindness we slowly open ourselves to this reality, strong in the knowledge that our ego-conditioning is illusory, that we are just one energy node in the universal process of becoming. Our death is not final because we will live on, it is not final because the world will live on. If we can de-condition the cravings of our ego to a certain level, we will see that this is enough. Perhaps we will see, in a state of enlightenment, that the world is perfect in every way, even through the evil..

I have yet to tread so far as those last few sentences in my own practice, and perhaps will not come within a light-year of enlightenment should I meditate for six hours a day for the rest of my life, but the Buddhist path avoids theological knots about the argument from evil by confronting suffering head on, locating spirituality right there, where the suffering takes place. It is the opposite of escapism.


Talatu-Carmen 4:22 am  


I'd love to enter into an extended conversation with you on this, except that I'm heading off to New York tomorrow and likely won't have much internet access for about a week.

But just some preliminary thoughts and questions. What you describe as the Buddhist embracing our suffering is, I agree, quite practical. In fact, I think that people of other religions do embrace suffering, especially in times of extreme hardship, with the exception that we DO believe in the existence of God and an ultimate purpose, a pattern, individual meaning as well as universal meaning. My question to you, then, would be: If we embrace suffering as something which much be endured before we can "deepen our relationship with our own bodily-grounded spirituality"; if we believe that "Some people will die in pain. Others will be raped or bereaved in violent ways....that we are just one energy node in the universal process of becoming," then why try to change the systemic abuses of oppressive systems? Why try to stop war and rape and torture? If our purpose of being is to merely be aware of our own subsumation in the energy of the universe, where is the agency? where is the passion? where is the fight for human rights? Where are the foundations for ethics?

I think there is much wisdom in the practical embracing of suffering, but I think we must take it further than a mere surrender. Charles Williams writes of the mystical bonding of community (he uses the metaphor of the city) in which we carry eachother's burdens: the bonding of individual to individual in which we become a part of something much larger than ourselves while at the same time realizing how we become more ourselves when we lose ourselves. The Christian idea of the incarnation, the death, and resurrection of Christ, in my belief, is the embodiment of this idea. Christ took the burdens of the universe on his body and died underneath the crushing weight of the world's suffering. Yet out of this moment also comes hope--God's ultimate intervention in the universe. In this formulation, God DOES intervene in a suffering world. His intervention as Creator who becomes creature is at the centre of the universe and ripples outward from that centre. He understands our pain, and in this identification, we can find comfort. I assume you are familiar with the discussions of free will, so I won't go into that here--that is foundational to my own attempts at understanind the problem of pain (and, no, I don't think we will ever completely understand it--how could we?--For example, how could a BEING which is 10 dimensions be understand by one which is only three dimensions?). In order to be non-determined free agents (and therefore have the potential for the highest and most piercing joy as well as the lowest and most piercing pain), then we must also live in a world where the free will of others to choose evil will affect us.

As Christians, Jesus exhorts us to "take up your cross and follow me." Therefore, very similar to the philosophy you expouse, Christians are called to embrace suffering, not to run away from it. However, out of this great loss of freedom, out of this embracing of suffering, comes the awareness of something greater and bigger than ourselves. The unfathomable joining to a community of other believers--a GAINING of multiple other selves rather than the loss of self. This is why in so many cultures the best way to sympathize with someone who is grieving is to go and sit with the bereaved--not to try to explain away the suffering--not to say that there will be another life, but to offer a human presense--to say silently that I am here with you, I have no answers for you; I participate in your pain. It is out of this communal participation, the building of connections, that somehow begins to bridge the yawning gulf of evil that surounds us. And the intervention of God through the incarnation is in providing us with a model to build these connections. Ultimately, we believe that in the beginning was an unobstructed communion between humanity and God. Basically, the fall was in breaking that communion, that trust with God, which resulted in breaking of communion and trust between other humans. In the story (which you can read metaphorically or literally whichever way suits you) the rift between Adam and Eve
(in the temptation to try to to "one-up" God--basically to flaunt a superior understanding) happens at the same time as the overall rift between God and humans. This loss of trust results in the corruption of the earth, fratricide, rape, incest, all of those horror stories of Genesis.

So, ultimately, we believe, that God's intervention comes in the form of Christ healing the rift in the relationship between God and humans--and thus also healing the rift between human to human. The hope that we have then is both in our relationship to him and in our relationships to others--so you see, it is both metaphoric and literal. The embrace of suffering is the first step to wisdom, but our hope goes beyond a melting into the universe to something much much more complex--a hope in which the suffering we suffer now will be woven into a larger fabric of connections. The wonder of it is not that God causes specific horrors in order to further his plan but that since these horrors occur (tied to the fundamental fact of living in a free and fallen world), God is able to redeem them and incorporate them and make them into something beautiful. Think of the windcatchers/mobiles made of broken glass in the recent South African film Tsotsi. Think of the little toy cars made of discarded rubbish in the slums of Lagos. The spiritual songs and blues that come out of slavery. Think of all these little patches of creativity and beauty that come out of the most unspeakable horrors, and that gives a little clue to the hope that comes out of suffering, and the agency that comes out of despair.

And, sorry, that I'm going to run off away from the internet for a while now. This is one of those questions that has haunted and obsessed me since my childhood. Ultimately, I think that the truth lies not in "answers," (how could we possibly fully "understand" the universe) but in those brief glimpses of beauty in the midst of the ugliness--those hints at something beyond the present despair. It's almost always there if you look hard enough. Where does this persistent beauty come from? What keeps us hoping? And is rationality always the ultimate truth, or is there something that goes beyond the human mind, something so large and infinite that we can only grasp at corners of it?


Kemi 2:45 pm  

The question of why an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-together perfect and loving God would allow evil to continue in the world is a legitimate one. It's a question that would occur to any right-thinking individual regardless of their religious persuasion (or lack thereof).

However, the fact that there is evil in this world does not negate the existence of God. The first thing we have to understand as human beings is that we have a very limited, very myopic view of things. We are finite, while God is infinite. It is arrogant for us to assume that we can or should fully know everything!

Consider this analogy - a loving parent takes his/her child to the doctor for an MMR jab. This supposedly-loving parent holds the child in place while the strange doctor pushes a needle into the child's arm, obviously causing the child a lot of pain in the process. What is the child to think? How can my parent who supposedly loves me, stand by while this stranger causes me harm? The child obviously cannot comprehend the fact that his/her parent allowed the pain for a greater good. All the child sees is the present pain. Does the child therefore conclude that his/her loving parent is a fraud?

Now, I know that this a very crude analogy but I only use it to illustrate the point that we human beings, are at best, little children when compared to God. How can we hope to fully understand His ways?

This is why we Christians talk about faith in God. We simply believe that God is, and that He is thoroughly good. We believe that all things work together for good for those who love God. We also believe that we are God's agents for positive change here on earth. Suffering and evil are an unfortunate consequence of living in a 'fallen' world but we are called to do everything in our power (by His grace) to effect positive change where we can.

No serious Christian will deny that evil exists in this world. Evil exists and we cannot trivialize it, or wish it away. However we are not merely to passively accept the evil in this world either. God has equipped us and expects us to do all the good we can in all the places we can as often as we can. This is the very essence of Christianity.

However, the bottom line is this - Christianity is a matter of faith, not debate. You have to believe first. Everything else is secondary. My two cents......

culturalmiscellany 3:04 pm  

Jeremy, noone can convince you, you have to decide to look. That's my opinion anyway. I spent many many years felling like I too was separated by that wall of glass and many times still do when we get some of the American preachers in our church. If we ever meet maybe it will end up part of the conversation and you will realise that just because I call myself a Christian I haven't got any better understanding of the gospel than anyone else, I haven't got four heads (last time I looked) and I do still manage to have fun with both Christian and non-Christian friends rather than simply pointing out all thats wrong in everyone elses life. I don't push my faith on others (I hope) but I am more than happy to discuss it if people ask.

Jeremy 3:14 pm  

But then can we all agree that religious 'truth' must be relativised: we find religious truth in whatever way we can. Whichever language and practice suits us is all the truth we can access.

Buddhism suits me fine because it does not require a leap of faith. Christianity suits others fine because of the powerful moral-spiritual leadership of Jesus, and precisely BECAUSE it requires faith. Ultimately, no religion can claim superiority (spiritual, moral, pedagogical, practical) over any other.

This religious-relativism argument is the acid test of whether one is a fundamentalist (and therefore intolerant of other creeds) or not.

Dotun 3:31 pm  

I wouldn’t try to re-emphasize some of the points articulated –and correctly too- by Talatu and Kemi. I’ll just add this; it will be very hard to put the concept of God in a little box.
Those of us that believe in God and the centrality of the death of Jesus as the basis of the relationship between humanity and divinity didn’t come to that belief system because we had it figured out in our brain. That is why it is called faith. You might call it existential escapism, but it is more than that. It is faith in a God that is real in various aspects of our lives. I may not be able to logically prove to you the existence of this God (I wouldn’t try), but I can tell you His interventions in my life. I have my prayers answered by Him and I do communicate with Him daily. That people find it hard to articulate what they believe doesn’t mean that what they believe is not real; it simply means they are seeing what you ain’t seeing.

Anonymous,  8:25 pm  

God lets us suffer precisely in order for us to learn to distinguish the good from the bad. We learn how to have empathy by watching others and or ourselves suffer. We learn how to have hate for evil practices by seeing how they effect our friends and such. God does exist....he loves us, we must choose to serve and love him. I'm grateful for your searching soul, continue and you will find what you desire.

Idiare Atimomo 8:12 pm  

All your comments are quite illuminating.

I just have to add that for someone like me, faith in Jesus is a result of an encounter with God himself.

God doesnt reveal himself this way to everyone, why that is im not sure. I speak for myself though....I have met Him and He said the only thing i really need is Jesus.

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