Sunday, July 11, 2010

 

Sunday Reflection: Tragedy and God


When I talk to people about faith, I often find that the person I am talking to has fallen away from faith because of a tragic event in their life. Perhaps a parent died, or a child, or their own life was stricken with illness or misfortune, and they can't believe in a God that would allow this to happen. Some argue that nearly the entire body of Jews fell away from faith in some way after the Holocaust, an almost unimaginable tragedy.

It is probably the most important question of faith to many: How could a loving God allow such tragedies to happen?

It is one of the many questions of faith for which my best answer is "I don't know." By that, I don't mean that I have thought about it and not come up with a good answer. Actually, I have thought about it and come up with a lot of good answers-- ie, "God teaches us through tragedy." However, I don't know if that is God's answer. More powerfully, I don't think I could ever claim to know God's answer to that question. I am in the humbling position of being in relationship to a God I believe to be incomparably powerful and complex, and what he does is necessarily beyond my comprehension but for revealed truth. Because, as a Baptist, I do not believe that truth is revealed through a church hierarchy, I rely on the Gospels above all else, and they provide no clear answer to this question.

In other words, there is a God. I am not God. I cannot imagine God's logic but for revealed truth, and I do not see an answer to this question in revealed truth.

And thus, sadly, I tell those suffering tragedy that I just don't know why God would allow that tragedy to happen. It is a humbling moment, and one in which I so wish I could honestly say something else.

Comments:
You and I must be in tune. I just wrote about this subject on my blog. (Yes, I restarted it to give myself deadlines to write a book.)
 
I would be interested to hear how ministers deal with this issue. They must face this question a lot.
 
My experience aligns with yours: most atheists and agnostics who have tolerated my inquiries lost their faith because of some singularly bad experience with other people of faith.

It seems to me that faith and trust are usually based in emotion and anecdotal evidence, whether we're talking about God or people. Every time somebody does something nice for us or does what they were supposed to do, they gain a few points of trust. And every time they mess up, they lose a few points. If they do something big enough either way, they gain or lose a ton of points. Think about the husband who stays faithful for 25 years, slips up once, and destroys his credibility with his wife. That one big mistake wiped out all the little things he'd done over the years to earn her faith and trust.

I think it works the same way with God. When times are good, we feel like he's taking care of us, and it's easy to trust him. When times are bad, we feel like he's not doing what he's supposed to do, and it's easy to start losing faith, bit by bit. When something really bad happens---a sudden death in the family or the Holocaust or a cancer diagnosis---it wipes out all the points he earned by keeping us out of trouble all those years. The weird thing is that really good things don't seem to be worth as much as really bad things.

Maybe it's like that wife walking in on her husband naked in bed with another woman. "It's not what it looks like!" he protests. Maybe it's not---maybe it is---but it sure is hard for her to believe him. When we try to comfort people dealing with tragedy, aren't we basically playing the role of the best friend who says, "Look, Sharon, I'm sure there's a reasonable explanation for him being naked in bed with Julie." The best friend sounds hollow, maybe even delusional or in cahoots.

The only (unsatisfying) answer I can ever reach is that I am not the center of the universe, and neither is anybody else. Maybe the tragedy isn't even about us. But then, who wants to be in a committed monogamous relationship with a polygamist?

So, uh, I don't know either.
 
I am one of those disillusioned people.

No one has ever given me an answer that didn't really come down to "god didn't care about him."
 
Do we want to distinguish between tragedy and suffering? With that said, the problem of evil also must be considered, as must in some instances, the problem posed by human sin.

If there is a God and God is indeed good, how can God let bad things happen to good people (Kushner)?

This applies to personal sorrows, tragedies, and suffering, as well as, to more monumental and widespread suffering such as that of the Holocaust and other instances of genocide.

We cannot know because to say that we can know or that we could know implies that our knowledge or language can contain a presence or a Spirit or a Being or... which we should like to believe is beyond our knowing.

In Christian Tradition, which borrows so heavily from Jewish Tradition, we believe that God so loved the world that God chooses to suffer alongside us as part of a wider program, if you will, in which God chooses to know all of human experience and feeling as a human person knows and feels them.

Thus, God chooses in Christ to feel our sorrows and suffering and tragedies.

God also chooses to not overcome human evil or natural evil, for that matter, with violence. The Cross is not a glorification of violence but a sacrifice of love through humility in the face of blinding jealously and hate.

The image of the Crucifix is not truly about paying the penalty for human sin, which though true within a certain theological framework manipulates the metaphor pointing to redemption in sometimes ridiculous ways, as it is a witness that no matter what God identifies with our human experiences (and the experience of the entire creation) in such a profound way that God limits God's power to 1.) truly understand and feel what it means to be human and 2.) to be in solidarity with our great vulnerability.

God becomes one of us, and hopefully, we can through this reality and mystery, become more like God or at least more loving, merciful, humble, etc.
 
To Scott: Yes. Thank you.
 
Ah, the unknowable purposes theodicy.

As far as theodicies go, it's really the best answer to the logical problem of evil. But it is entirely unsatisfactory to people in the grip of tragedy... although, I must point out, rejection of the idea of the divine based on hurt feelings is just as irrational.

Personally, my lack of belief is based on serious philosophical consideration of the concept of "God" being so far beyond human experience that I do think one can say, with any honesty, that one has "knowledge" (in the philosophical sense) of the existence or non-existence of God. It is, aptly, one's faith which secures knowledge of God, not human rationalism. That aside, my view is that the stories religion tells derive their value not from being true but from the value and stock people put in them. How would you respond to a vile heathen of my stripe?
 
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