Wednesday, 2 September 2015

God and Pain

If I were God, I'd end all the Pain, says John Dickson in a book whose subtitle is Struggling with Evil, Suffering and Faith (Matthias Media 2001, rev. ed. 2002).

John Dickson loves to doubt (question) everything. This is how he introduces himself. "So, whatever else this book represents, at its heart it is a tribute to doubt."

The last one standing: John Dickson doesn't propose to settle the questions raised. He compares the perspective found in the Bible with alternative perspectives on suffering and suggests that the biblical is the most intriguing and beautiful one on offer.

The alternatives. In Hinduism suffering is a question of balance. Present suffering is pay-back for past evil, quite possibly evil committed in a previous life. It's intellectually satisfying. Everyone gets what they deserve until one's individual karma allows one to escape physical existence altogether and attain nirvana. Emotionally or existentially it is maybe less satisfying.

Buddhism proposes that suffering is an illusion. "Buddha came to believe that our experience of suffering was intimately related to our desire or affection for the things of the world." Remove the desire (e.g., for good health, for a better life) and the suffering (e.g., from bad health or poverty) is gone. "Philosophically, the Buddha's insight is profound. There is little question that our experience of suffering is related to desire. If I desire a full stomach, starvation will feel like suffering; if I desire human intimacy, being widowed will appear to be a tragedy; if I desire wealth, bankruptcy will look like a misfortune, and so on. Remove these desires, and all such feelings dissipate." But can I live this way?

Islamic thought puts emphasis on all events in history, including all suffering, as absolutely determined by the will of God for reasons unknowable, and indeed unquestionable, by us. For the Muslim "the cause of suffering is therefore not to be found in any factor external to God, such as the doctrine of karma in Hinduism or philosophizing about 'desire' in Buddhism, but in the personal activity of the Sovereign God. Suffering thus becomes an opportunity for the faithful to 'submit' (true to the meaning of Muslim) to Allah's indisputable will, and to reaffirm the central creed that Allah is the 'Cause of all causes'."

Within Atheism suffering is natural, "the unhappy by-product of a universe driven only by the random intersection of time and space. Everything that happens in the world - whether good or bad - happens without any design and without any thought of us at all." [The very use of value judgements like "good" or "bad" may be problematic in this view.] Can anyone really live consistently believing this?

Invitation to doubt. "One of the distinguishing things about the Good Book's approach is that it stops short of providing a single, all-governing answer such as that found in Hinduism ('balance') or in Atheism ('natural')." Especially in the Psalms, "the God of the Bible bids us to approach him with our doubts, our fears and our frustrations." It's personal engagement that matters.

The justice of God. A world without pain and suffering could have been created in the form of a Truman Show, God playing dolls-house with the world. "Much of the suffering we experience in the world is a direct result of [our] God-given independence being turned to ill effect, being turned into autonomy. And so we are able to say No to the ways of the Maker: No to justice and peace; No to marital faithfulness; No to sharing resources with the poor; No to equal rights for all; No to daily human kindness." But God pledges justice in a Day of Judgement at the end of history.

The renewal of all things. In the biblical story the disorder of nature is related to human sin, as we are intimately connected with our world and God pledges to renew "the creation damaged by our displacement of God" - the resurrection of Christ demonstrates that God means to renew the physical world.

The wounds of God. Unlike the Aristotelian and Islamic 'Unmoved-Mover' the God presented in the Bible is a 'Deeply-Moved-Mover' who has himself wounds." The God who is in control of all things, who acts behind the scenes in all things, is also the God who willingly suffers. He is the one I can shout at, cry with and find comfort in. His heart, if not all his ways, is clear to me because on the cross he wore it on his sleeve for all to see."

"Christ's death is more than an identification with us. The Bible makes clear it is a substitution for us." From it springs the invitation to mercy through which I can experience the forgiveness of sins now and the renewal of all things then.