IS THERE A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF EVIL?

Early in my faith-seeking, I realized how attractive the idea had become to me that the world was created with human beings especially in mind. Later on, my take on the sciences suggested giving up on the idea altogether. Contemplating doing so left me feeling angry and sad.

Then theology came along, and with it the encouragement to look at the idea a little differently. With the help of the eighth Psalm, I began to see that God can still be God and be “mindful” of human beings without being especially mindful of them. God’s mind is on the whole of things, in which we can have an important place without having to be at the center of it all.

This accommodation comes with difficulties, however. For one thing, it can leave people deeply troubled whenever they get a feeling of living in an order of nature whose center is not holding. For another, there is a lot about nature that seems anything but a fit habitat for human beings. She “wrongs” us too often, whether from earthquakes, sunamis, famine, disease, or errant asteroids.

It just may be, though, that her seeming wrongdoing — “natural evil,” as philosophers talk about it — is not in fact something intrinsic to the working out of her natural laws. Our positing of it may stem more from a stubborn refusal to accept her either on her own terms or God’s.

By taking issue with the earth and the universe being just what they are and doing just what they do, we can all too easily lose the capacity to take wonder and delight from them. Instead, we demand participation in the natural order on our own terms, and become mired in feelings of anxiety, and loss when nature fails us.

With all due respect to the Priestly writer’s account of creation in Genesis 1, striving to “subdue” the earth is not the most fruitful way to relate to it. The Jahwist understood the relationship more in terms of “caring” for the earth, tenderly. (Genesis 2) I like his idea better.

Natural evil does not lie in natural things and processes themselves. Like feelings, these are neither good nor bad. They just “are.” When we acknowledge and respect them in their own right, and not for what we want from them, the “evil” attributed to them goes away.

 

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KEEPING FAITH SIMPLE, BUT NOT TOO SIMPLE

For at least one listener, my talk went on too long and made a bad impression. She held little back: Life gets overwhelming sometimes, and I just want things boiled down to the essentials, like they were before people became too smart for their own good.

I got it right away that I was one of those “people.” About all I could do was hope that she was not completely right. She certainly was not alone in wanting faith to be simpler than people like me believe it is.

Simplicity and the certitude that goes with it often come down to little more than an intense wishing for things to be either this or that, beliefs to be either true or false, and decisions to be either right or wrong. For no gray areas, no middle ground, no compromises.

Especially in matters of faith. God has told human beings all they need to know, including whose version of the telling is right. And that is all that needs to be said about anything.

But this description does not fit well my listener, who usually entertains new ideas eagerly, and makes good arguments for her own. Her reference to life getting “overwhelming” clearly signals something more than just petulance, or insecurity, or a false sense of self-assurance.

I think it is Complexity Fatigue. Reality is just that: complex. Our theories about it are constantly changing, partly because we are just not smart enough to get them right, but even more because reality seems to relish representing itself to us in ever new ways.

Trying to take everything into account that must be taken into account in order to understand even the physical world, not to mention the spiritual, can exhaust even the brightest among us.

In clinical terms, the only lasting cure for Complexity Fatigue is (a) to relinquish the wish for reality to explain itself in the simplest terms possible and (b) to learn to enjoy the unfolding of new possibilities for understanding. Complexity begets serenity as well as confusion.

In spiritual terms, the cure is to make friends with the paradoxes which a growing faith cannot avoid encountering. The spiritual world is both seen and unseen. Breaking spiritual laws has consequences, but grace abounds. We are alone in the universe, yet embraced by its Creator.

With faith comes weariness — but also peace

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HOW MUCH CONTROL DOES GOD NEED IN ORDER TO BE GOD?

A substantial majority of people in our society say that they believe in God. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether the God they believe in is directly involved in human affairs or remote from them altogether. Either way, the object of belief still seems to be the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the theistic religions.

But believing that such a being exists is one thing. Trusting with one’s whole heart in such a being is another. To be sure, faith does involve believing something. But it is much more besides. “Trust” says it better than “belief” does.

Many people find it easier to put their trust in a God who is near at hand and in control than in a God who is far off and indifferent. But not everyone does. Recently, a friend of mine put it this way: as mucked up as our world is, I’m more comfortable believing in a God who has nothing to do with it than a God who’s supposed to be in charge of it.

It may be counter-intuitive to think that a God could truly be God who isn’t in control of everything. After all, more than a few believers ask, if he isn’t, what do we need him for?

For others, however, the more cogent question is: if God is in control of everything, what does he need us for? The answer to this question that makes the most sense to me is: for running the show here as best we can while God is off starting up new worlds for others to run, also in his absence.

But this kind of sense doesn’t lead to faith; it leads away from it.

Tradition to the contrary notwithstanding, “being in control of everything” isn’t much by way of describing a God worth glorifying. “Sharing power, out of love” just might be. As might be the idea of a God whose power is sufficient to sustain a world in which everything is bound and knitted together in love.

The corollary of this latter idea, though, is that not even God can keep things together where there is no love. Or: where the only love that exists is God’s, the things formed by it cannot last.

Surrendering control, in the name of love: perhaps this is what being God is really all about.

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HELPING THE EYES OF FAITH TO SEE BETTER

Tucked neatly into John Calvin’s exposition of the Apostles’ Creed is an intriguing idea about the proper use of the Bible in the life of faith. I think it can be applied to all religious scriptures.

The idea is this: scriptures are to faith as corrective lenses are to vision. The purpose of both is to help people see things more clearly, in heaven and on earth respectively.

There are at least three ways in which religious scriptures seek to strengthen believers’ eyes of faith. One way is to focus their vision more on the overarching message of a religion and less on its myriad and often conflicting stories. For example, in Judaism knowing which of the many possible routes the ancient Hebrews followed to the Promised Land is not of importance to faith. Knowing the God who finally got them there is.

Another way religious scriptures focus vision is by directing attention toward what is truly ultimate in a religion’s stories rather than to the idols in them which are of human making. At the heart of the Christian story is the image of seeing into God through seeing Jesus. The image leads to idolatry when it morphs into a belief that people can see God only through seeing Jesus.

And the third away is to help believers become a servant people with one voice to a world rife with war. When the lenses of scripture become cloudy or cracked, however, what believers too often see through them is themselves as the warriors rather than as the peacemakers.

This last observation opens out on the fact that all analogies are imperfect, Calvin’s included. What is imperfect about his is its depiction of the Bible as a single set of lenses rather than as a container of many different ones. And as the only set that fits everyone.

There are many verses, chapters, and even whole books in the Bible which obscure rather than clarify the holiness of God. Testing faith by means of them is like testing vision by means of a chart painted over in black.

What is helpful about Calvin’s analogy, however, is its reminding us that in every body of religious scriptures there are verses, chapters, and books through which we can see Divine glory, majesty, power, and goodness with a clarity that can be almost blinding in its splendor.

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ASKING ABOUT EVIL: AN IMPERATIVE FOR FAITH

There is pervasive evil in the human spirit. It helps me to think of it the way many theologians do, as an absence of good. But the devastation that human beings inflict on one another also makes me wonder whether the evil in us is a permanent presence rather than a remediable deprivation.

“Moral” evil, as philosophers refer to it, is the result of human freedom’s running amok. There is surely enough of it around to account for a large amount of undeserved suffering in the world. But it cannot account for all such suffering.

“Natural” phenomena such as earthquakes, sunamis, famine, and disease offer a surfeit of reasons to question whether evil is wholly the result of human beings’ less than humane acts of omission and commission. It is nature, and not a misguided humanity, which is at the heart of the problem that evil poses for faith.

In specific, it is natural catastrophes and not human actions, which raise the deeper questions about (a) whether we live in a created order at all, and (b) whether its Sovereign is powerful and benevolent enough to overcome their destructive consequences. Sadly, religious authorities all too frequently respond to questions like these with denunciations for asking them in the first place.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?, God is reported once to have asked. (Job 38:4) Although the question may have been meant only to be humbling, it also comes across as insulting. It strongly implies a discounting of every believer’s right — and in my view, calling — to ask questions in the interest of separating the wheat of truth from the chaff of opinion.

To be sure, believers, inquirers, and sceptics alike are at a disadvantage, when the issue is reconciling nature’s occasional rampages with the idea of a powerful and benevolent deity. The author of the Book of Job was right. We must never forget that we were not present at creation.

We do not even yet see things as a whole. This means that we can neither claim nor deny that were we to see “the big picture,” we would somehow know how and why natural catastrophes are not really “evils” at all.

Even so, because we cannot help asking, we have the right to ask a still deeper faith-question: is this world the best that God could have created?

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IS IDOLATRY A SIN, OR SOMETHING EVEN WORSE?

As Ancient Israel came to understand it, idolatry is the act of conferring divine status on something that is merely human. The result is the deformation of the gloriously human into inglorious idols.

It is no wonder that the word “false” so easily attaches to the word “idols.” Idols falsify both our human and God’s divine nature.

All kinds of things in human experience can become idols, and we have become more than adept at letting them do this. Consider, by way of examples:

  • Ancestors, parents, lovers, and rulers;
  • Carvings, paintings, sculptures, and ideas;
  • Family systems, conceptual systems, political systems, and religious traditions;
  • Beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, and inflexible codes conduct;
  • Wealth, fame, power, and pleasure.

We can and do worship any or all of these — and not just the carved images referred to in the Second Commandment — as if they were gods. In Paul Tillich’s phrasing, each can become the object of an ultimate concern, and as a result contaminate devotion to what is truly ultimate.

Most fundamentally, idols dishonor what is genuinely worthy of human beings’ highest praise and loyalty, by drawing attention to themselves and away from what they are intended to symbolize. Humanly fashioned symbols for God in the world — e.g. kings, sacred books, religious leaders — become gods in themselves.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all speak of idolatry as something which cannot but bring punishment down on our heads.

And not only on ours, but on our children’s heads as well, even to the third and fourth generation, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god. (Exodus 20:5)

Unfortunately, with this image the distinction between faith and idolatry threatens to vanish from sight altogether. The Holy One of Israel is here an angry, grudge-holding, vindictive demi-god little different from tribal deities whose sole reason for being is to fan the flames of enmity in the human heart.

This strangely out of place scriptural text does little more than reduce Israel’s God to yet another idol. The jealousy whose source is only human sinfulness becomes a defining attribute of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

Obeying the Second Commandment, the prohibition against the worship of idols, is most certainly important to a maturing faith. But not because we have to obey it to keep divine rage under control. It’s to stay human about our own.

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ON PAIN WITHOUT MEANING AND PRAISE WITHOUT CEASING

There are people suffering much greater pain than I am, she said, and they don’t deserve theirs any more than I deserve mine. The day after my theology student, a 32-year-old mother of two, said this to me, her cancer cells finally defeated her.

Throughout her year-long struggle, she — may I call her “Susan?” — and I had many talks and prayers together — after class, in my office, then in ER’s, and finally in a hospital room, there with her husband holding her tenderly and the three of us humming together with her nurses a song of praise.

One thing that kept Susan going, while her cancer spread relentlessly and her pain increased exponentially, was the arguing she did with God. After all, she once teased, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do with my theological studies?

She argued well, against all the so-called answers she had received to her heart-felt questioning. Mine is a pretty simple question, really, she said: Why does God allow people suffer pain they don’t deserve to suffer? For a while, it angered Susan that the reasons she had been given seemed so far off-base.

It angered me, too. These were the “answers” we talked about together: Since God is a just God, all suffering has to be deserved. And: All suffering, especially the worst kinds of suffering, serves a greater good. And: There are evils that not even God can overcome. And even: Pain isn’t real; we only think it is.

Then, of course, there was the most outrageous answer of all: We have no right to question how God apportions or withholds his benefits.

Eventually, Susan came to a better “answer” to the question of undeserved pain than any of these, all on her own. The first part went this way: Undeserved pain is just that, undeserved, and because it is undeserved there can’t be any good reason for it.

But it was the second part of her answer that for Susan represented the answer of faith: God sees undeserved pain just as I do, as undeserved, and that is good enough for me.

It was indeed “good enough.” As the end drew near, Susan had already achieved inner peace with respect both to her condition and her faith. It came not from abandoning her struggle with faith’s logic, but by entering even more deeply into it.

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MAKING ROOM FOR FAITH TO GROW

In many faith communities, space is tight — too tight. Not for pews, pulpits, and altars. But for questions, doubts, and new ideas.

For the first kind of tightness, the remedy is simple and affordable: add on a room or three. For the second, it is complicated and demanding: make the community a welcoming place to people who think for themselves.

Opening things up for membership to grow is a short-term, landscape-altering project. Opening things up for faith to grow is a long-term, soul-transforming one.

Faith communities bring off the first better than they do the second. The main reason is that it’s easier to figure out where to move dirt than it is how to move the human spirit.

Making room for faith to grow becomes easier, though, when one major impediment in particular gets cleared away: wrapping people too tightly in the language of “You must,” “You can’t,” and “Or else.” Wrappings like these mummify; they do not liberate.

The problem with religious language-games like these is not that they are devoid of truth. Religion does make demands on us, and some of them are crucial to genuine spirituality.

No one could quarrel with a “must” like this: We must care about others as much as we care about ourselves. Or a “can’t” like: You can’t be a spiritual person and cheat people in your business dealings. Or an “or else” like: …or else you’ll never find the God you’re really looking for.

But many can and do quarrel with the must-do’s and can’t-do’s of faith communities that are hurled from on high by all too human officials who view questions as dangerous, alternatives as meaningless, and discussions as pointless.

Examples? Here is one that is making the rounds yet again, and with the same ferocity that it always displays: If you are married, you must remain married. If you don’t, you can’t receive communion. If you take communion anyway, you will be damned for doing so. And if you ask any questions about any of this, you are not one of us.

It is precisely in the encouraging of the questions, though, — and the wrestling with alternatives, and the tireless discussing of both — that we make room for faith to grow, both for ourselves and for others. Come, then, says the Lord, and let us argue things out. (Isaiah 1:18)

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THE SPIRITUALITY OF RELIGIONS’ FOUNDERS

Across the grand sweep of history, transformational events can occur as if in an instant. One sequence of such events worth contemplating has been referred to as an axial shift in humanity’s thinking about ultimate reality.

What I have in mind is an astonishing infusion of mental and spiritual energy into human consciousness that may have taken place across no more than a sixty year period. As if part of a concerted effort, sages as different as Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, and the Hebrew Prophets all helped bring the spiritual awakening to expression. Early Greek philosophers were involved also. And none may have known anything about any of the others’ contributions.

Although I keep looking for a credible explanation for this epochal breakthrough in the experience of transcendent realities, I also believe that by its very nature it will defy our best efforts to discover one. Why? Because there is too much about it to fit neatly into any single belief system or conceptual scheme.

This does not mean, however, that it is beyond understanding altogether.

One thing that seems especially clear about it is how strongly it calls into question those religious authorities who themselves demand unquestioning loyalty. All of the sages and philosophers of this remarkable period subjected all kinds of religious beliefs and practices to severe scrutiny and assessment on both logical and moral grounds.

By way of examples, Confucius relegated to the status of superstition revered practices designed to appease the spirits of departed and yet still-meddling ancestors. The Buddha challenged Hindu Brahmins’ claims that only they had the capacity fully to understand the divine-human relationship. Zenophanes deemed belief in Homer’s gods a mainstay of error. And the list goes on.

To me, the legacy of the Axial Age has been ambiguous almost from its beginning. It offers to each of us the possibility of a spiritual awakening beyond all present imagining. But with it comes the knowledge that experiencing its fullness may require leaving behind much of what we have been told previously about spiritual realities.

Before us are truths that, through the experiences of great spiritual leaders, are available to us, too. But so also are their over-zealous followers, who demand loyalty to their leaders more than to the truth. Jesus once summed this up by asking why people called him, rather than God, good.

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HOW TO BE FAITH-FILLED WITHOUT BEING RELIGIOUS

Too often, “being religious” amounts to little more than being loyal to a particular religion’s institutions and traditions. And even worse, to those alone — other religions don’t count. Nor do those who subscribe to them.

There is an important fact left unaccounted for in an outlook like this. Human beings sought the Ultimate long before there were religions to tell them that there is an Ultimate worth seeking.

Once, it was possible to express this point by saying that human beings are by nature religious. Or more importantly, by saying that we cannot be fully human without honoring the religious yearnings that dwell in the deepest places of our souls.

For these convictions to be fully appreciated today, however, they will have to be given expression by means of some other word than “religion.”

It is not as if the word itself somehow belies our true nature. The problem is that it has become contaminated by the very institutions which define themselves by means of it.

The contamination begins with these institutions’ condemning people who find little in them by way of inspiration and nurture. With one voice, their leaders confidently proclaim, the problem is not with their particular institution. It is with the unfaithful who will not make themselves subservient to it.

We be fully human without being religious, in these leaders’ sense of the word. But we cannot be fully human and deny something else in our nature, something more important than the need to identify with a particular religious organization or cult.

What that something is might be expressed this way: the need to seek connection with realities that are truly worthy of our highest devotion. In a word, it is a need to live by faith rather than by religion.

For increasing numbers of people, religion must offer more than the approval of peers who believe and do what they are told, ask no questions, and condemn all doubt. It must nurture faith: the capacity and the freedom to respond to what is of all-surpassing meaning, power, and value with gratitude and joy, on the basis of deliberation and choice, and not impulse or coercion.

Maybe someday the institutions and traditions of religion will get it right again and help us in just this way. For now, though, seeking faith will have to be enough. And it is.

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