Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Problem of Evil in the Face of God...

Welcome to the weekend, my friends. Time to write. I work all week, which leaves me no time to blog. It makes me sad, but I wouldn’t be able to blog AT ALL if I didn’t spend time during the week working. You’ve gotta pay your dues, I suppose.

Today I’m going to write about my favorite talk so far. Reverend Tom Honey, a priest for the Church of England, spoke in 2007 about having faith in the face of the horrible atrocities that hurricane Katrina brought about (here’s the talk). It’s one of the biggest questions that people of faith have to answer at one time or another: How can we believe in a loving God in the face of such pain in the world? Every hour, thousands of innocent people die needlessly. AIDS, malaria, starvation, war, unclean water. The list goes on and on. It’s a problem I’ve dealt with for years. In my mind, it came to the surface after I had my first real experience with death. Let me talk a bit about that.

When I was really devout about going to church (I still go) and participating in extracurricular bible studies and youth group activities, I had a great youth pastor named Rick. He was a strong family man with two daughters my age who led with conviction and both feet on the ground. It was nice. He and my dad were very good friends. Running buddies, to be exact. Rick ran marathons, was in a big local band once upon a time, had a cool family, rode four wheelers, and was one of the coolest people and role models a fifteen/sixteen year old kid could ever ask for. Then Rick got cancer.

For the year or so, we laid our hands on him as a congregation and prayed over him. We came together and invested all the time, energy, and love we possibly could to help Rick and his family out in their time of need. He went through treatment, and after some time we were proud to say that Rick was cancer free. It was truly a miracle! God had answered our prayers! Then Rick got cancer again.

Again, we put our energy towards doing what we could to make Rick well. I remember being on part of a team of “prayer warriors” for Rick. There were 24 of us, each covering an hour of the day to ensure that Rick had constant “prayer coverage.” He went to the best cancer treatment center in the Midwest, and fought harder than I think I ever could. Still, we watched as he slipped away. It was slow and painful, which made it all the more hard for those of us who had to watch. I can't imagine how much harder it must have been for Rick.

I remember when Rick finally passed away I was asked to sing at his funeral. His family said that he would have wanted it that way. I got up on in front of Rick’s closest friends and family and sang “Homesick” by Mercy Me. It was to this day the hardest thing I have ever had to do. I encourage you to read the lyrics, though. They’re beautiful.

I remember barely being able to maintain my composure. I held my eyes closed tight because I knew that if I opened them, I would see his family. I would see his two daughters who wouldn’t have a father to dance with at their weddings. I would see his wife who would have to figure out how to fend for her self now. I would see my father, Rick’s best friend, choking down the tears and being as strong as he could because he had to deliver the eulogy. So I sang one last song as well as I could for my friend, Rick, whom I still miss immensely (and I must admit I had to get up and cry a bit while I was putting this paragraph together. Apparently I still haven’t quite come to terms with the whole thing years after it happened).

That whole ordeal changed my life forever. Questions began to pop into my mind - the same questions that Father Honey asks in his talk - about the nature of God. Does he truly love us if we’ve done everything the Bible asked and he still took our friend away? What about the holocaust? What about the starving children in Africa? It’s very easy for many religious people to say, “Well, it’s just God’s plan. We are too finite to know what the infinite God has planned for us.” That answer is far too simple for me; and further, I doubt that I could say that to a Jewish man walking into a poison gas shower during WWII. I could not look an African child who is about to die of some easily cure-able disease in the eye and say, “This is part of God’s plan. Your needless death is leading to something greater.” Besides that, is such a God who would allow innocent children and devout followers die slow, painful deaths for some "greater cause" (which, by the way, is a point of faith which is entirely impossible to prove this side of death) worthy of worship?

The traditional way of dealing with these problems is to re-assess the properties we ascribe to God. The modern Abrahamic tradition follower will say that God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. If you watch Reverend Tom Honey's talk, you can listen as he goes through each of these characteristics (he doesn't really mention them by name) and discusses the ramifications of discarding them. For example, tossing the idea that God is omnipotent means that God is often helpless in the face of evil. Perhaps God can't interact in our realm of existence. This is the position of many process theologians, those who say, "During the Holocaust, all God could do was weep." So then why do we worship a God who loves us entirely but couldn't save the Jews? It also doesn't make sense that God could create the universe but can't reach out and save starving children.

The scariest "omni" to discard would be omnibenevolence. Perhaps that means that we only have a theistic God who made the world and now stands back and watches. A bit voyeuristic, very disappointing, but it solves many of our dilemmas about the death of the innocent and natural disasters. Worst case scenario: We get some super powerful evil puppet master. This process is described more in depth (and certainly more passionately and thoughtfully) by Honey.

Rick’s death proves that the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, which almost creates more problems than solutions theologically. I think having an idea of God being anthropomorphic and anthropocentric simply falls short. Truthfully, writing this post has taken a lot out of me. It has admittedly been a somewhat poor post, but I’m begging those of you who read this blog to take twenty minutes out of your days to watch Tom Honey’s talk. I am not trying in any way to shake people from their faiths, but if you believe in God, you have a responsibility to ask yourself these questions. You would be being inauthentic to yourself and your belief in God if you don’t. There is so much suffering in the world, my friends. So much pain. So much hurt. How do we as intelligent, authentic people deal with it?

I hope to write again tomorrow. Hopefully something a little less emotionally taxing to think about. I have a question though: With the TED talks drawing to a close (I'm not going to write about all of them), where do I go from here? I like having a focus like the TED talks, but I might need a bit of help finding another topic. I'll keep my eyes open, but suggestions


thailandchani said...

I've really been enjoying your blog the past few days. Even though we are of an entirely different belief system, I like the fact that you examine these issues.

As for suffering in the world, I think it is created by three things primarily: an unwillingness to accept impermanence, craving and desire.

It is our job while here to alleviate suffering however and wherever we can.

The TED talks are wonderful!


Paul said...

Thanks for recommending this talk by Rev. Honey. His concluding sentence is the perfect summation.

"But in the end the only thing I could say for sure was I don't know, and that might just be the most profoundly religious statement of all."

As you said, he lays out all the different concepts of God, all the omnis, and he concludes none of them apply, or are at best unknowable.

God cannot at the same time be the almighty and vengeful puppet master and one who suffers along with us. "Almighty God is just incompatible with loving God."

What he doesn't say explicitly is that human beings have ascribed all of these characteristics to God to suit our wants and needs. When we want a vengeful God, we create one. When we want a compassionate God, we create that one too.

I appreciate his honesty and eloquence in asking the questions he does. The adamantly faithful may well reject such questions as blasphemy. I don't know. Others, though, will come up with the same answers I did on my own years ago.

"I don't know " is a good start.

God cannot change, because anything that changes cannot be perfect. If God is not perfect, then what's the point? Anything that changes becomes unsatisfactory by nature and one way or another leads to suffering.

The difference between Rev. Honey and an atheist is he still believes there is a God (or so it would seem).

Mark said...

Chani - Thanks for the kind words. I think my next post might address some of the differences of the positions you and I hold in terms of religion. I do find it really exciting that my blog can be a place of strong inter-faith dialog, especially regarding important issues like how we can learn to love each other better and help alleviate suffering in the world.

Paul - Good to hear from you again. I've been keeping up with your blog as well (though I've yet to comment). I think there are some interesting ways to resolve these issues, though the problem of evil in theology has never been resolved satisfactorily for me. What it leads me to believe is that the notion of God we think of most often is childish and inconsistent with reality. If we really want to figure some of this stuff out, we're going to have to open our minds a bit and be willing to engage ourselves like Honey did. Hope to hear from you again sometime.