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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“COME NOW, AND LET US REASON TOGETHER”: IS IT STILL POSSIBLE?

In politics, rational discussion may be an idea past its prime. Reasoning together about social issues has become more pretense than inquiry, and its end winning rather than discovering.

But what about in religion? After all, this invitation comes from the Bible (Isaiah 1:18), and the prophet who issued it did so not on behalf of himself, but of God.

There are other ways of translating his key word than by “reason.” “Talk things over,” for one. The prophet himself seems to have meant something like “argue it out.”

By whatever rendering, though, the invitation has a promising sound to it. It suggests that in matters of faith, disputes can and should be approached with an openness to others’ opinions and a hope for peaceable resolution. The idea is to resist the impulse to judge and condemn, and to respect disagreements about divine precepts as normal features of religious life.

Unhappily, however, this not what either Isaiah or his God seems to have had in mind. “Come now…” is not an invitation. It is a summons. And its aim is not to initiate a conversation. It is to convey a demand to accept the divine judgment that has already been passed on us.

There is no hint in this verse that God was envisioning anything like a real give and take. Or that he might have been genuinely open to considering that at least some of his peoples’ actions were not what they appeared to be. Or that it could have been helpful to listen to what they had to say before passing judgment on them.

One of the biggest problems with religion is that it all too often posits a God who is beyond being reasoned with on human terms. We can reason with each other, but with God we are to succumb numbly to his defining our reality on his own terms exclusively.

That doesn’t make for much of an invitation to genuine dialogue. If God has already judged us to be in the wrong, what is there to talk about at all?

But what if God’s mind were not as closed as Isaiah thought it was? What if God genuinely expects to learn more about us by listening to us? Particularly when we question whether his threats are the best way to make us better people.

 

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HOW CAN A FAITH THAT KEEPS ON GIVING BECOME SO ANNOYING?

I thought she had come to talk about her final paper for my theology class. Instead, she (I’ll call her Polly) began murmuring a series of epithets against her pastor, her church, and even God.

What provoked the outburst was her husband’s conversion — eleven years previously. I was eager to hear more.

All the years he fought me over religion, she said, I tried to be a faithful person like I was raised to be. But nobody — nobody — in my church ever prayed for me the way they did for him, or ever expressed any appreciation whatever for my being there.

And then, her husband — let’s call him Pete — became their church’s success story of the decade. A guy who thought that religion was for people who couldn’t manage to get through life on their own.

By Polly’s account, Pete’s conversion was a made-for-TV one. On a Sunday afternoon, watching cynically from a distance as his 13-year-old-son walked into a fast moving river to be baptized, Pete all of a sudden raced into the swirling waters himself and asked to be baptized too, then and there. He told the minister: God was standing there right beside me on the bank, telling me that he loved me and wanted me.

The story gets even more interesting. Pete’s conversion “took.” According to Polly, he has been a changed man ever since. But for her, it is still a source of annoyance that, as she put it, he draws crowds with his story and mine just doesn’t seem to matter.

The rest of my conversation with Polly focused on two major challenges to faith. She defined the first one herself, and almost immediately: keeping score of the accolades we don’t get for being steady and not dramatic in our faith.

And the second challenge: acknowledging the many and very different ways by which people come to faith. There isn’t just one way.

For people like Pete, it is being made a different person, in the twinkling of an eye. For people like Polly, it is making the way you were brought up your own way, but on your own terms. For people like me, it is eliminating everything that doesn’t make sense about God until something remains that does.

And there are so many more ways besides.

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THE BIBLE, THE LAW, AND MARRIAGE

In theory, American law is never determined on the basis of religious values alone. Nevertheless, religious traditions continue to exert a formative influence on social policy-making, especially on matters of sex and marriage.

Consider, for example, how Jewish and Christian traditions bound us to policies and laws that (1) subordinate women to men, (2) impose unreasonable restrictions on divorce, (3) condemn homosexuality, and (4) threaten to reduce sex to procreation.

They do this on the basis of sacred texts, most especially from the first chapters of The Book of Genesis. Do the texts support the views spun from them? I don’t think so.

First, the very first chapter of Genesis presents being male and being female as equally important human representations of God in the created order. In each, God’s likeness is fully manifest.

Second, although the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis’ second chapter is in an important sense about an indissoluble relationship, it is not about a joyful commitment to mutual nurture. It is rather about a lonely man who wakes up from a divinely-induced sleep enamored more with himself than with his God-fashioned companion.

And it is about a woman whose sexual interest in the only man available is something imposed on her, along with the pain of childbirth, by this same God as punishment (3:16) for having led the man astray among the fruit trees. (3:1-7).

Third, the Old Testament’s condemnations of homosexuality are the product of a desperate search for identity in a land which ancient Israelites conquered only with great difficulty. The Canaanites’ homosexual practices gave the Israelites an excuse — a poor one — to assert their differences from them as evidence of a superiority over them, and thereby to put forward what they believed was a rightful claim to the land.

And fourth, although the Eve of this story is given her name by Adam, and with it the designation mother of all human beings, in her created state she is anything but this. She is an inquisitive, self-assertive, and courageous person whose fecundity should in no way be misconstrued as a validation of her sexuality.

Undoubtedly, religious traditions will continue to have significant impact on the institution of marriage in our society. But normative teachings about marriage are more difficult to defend by the primary sources of these traditions than many of their followers readily admit.

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WHAT’S DIVINE ABOUT THE “GOD PARTICLE?”

I have enough trouble getting electrons, protons, and neutrons straight, much less the physics of bosons. However, I do think I grasp why physicists around the world are excited about newly emerging evidence for a very special sub-atomic particle. Perhaps people of faith should be, too.

Named for the physicist who first posited its existence, the Higgs boson is believed by particle physicists to account for everything in the universe’s having mass. One scientist friend recommended my thinking about it as a sticky kind of stuff that fills space and makes possible a thing-y (rather than a string-y?) kind of universe.

But how did this particular boson come to be called a “God particle”? The answer seems to be that it, and only it, performs the function of holding very, very small things together. Somewhat like God’s sustaining of “all things, visible and invisible” in the created order.

The God in the God particle, however, is not the Transcendent, Creator God who produced the primordial Big Bang. Rather, the boson-God is more like an Immanent Presence in the post-Bang transformation of energy into matter in motion. It is a space-filling particle that binds everything that is still proceeding from the originating Explosion. It keeps the furniture of the universe now in place from disintegrating before or along with our very eyes.

There is a passage in The Book of Colossians that nicely links the Christology of early church teaching with the cosmology of post-boson scientific speculation: “all things are held together in him” (1:17). To be sure, the writer could not leave it at that point with respect to Christ; he made Him agent of the universe’s creation as well. But the writer also left us a very powerful idea of a very present God in the midst of indeterminacy and even chaos.

The close-at-handness of a God so understood is a welcome improvement over the idea of an infinitely high and remote God that has so dominated Christian theology. Ancient Stoics once posited the universe as God’s body. It’s an idea worth contemplating that the Higgs bosons are all His, and maybe even Him.

If the search for these bosons is any indication, people soon may be able to take such an idea to their comfort just as much in science as they always have in religion.

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