I once heard someone say that the illness and death of a child, or a child born with a severe handicap, made him doubt the existence, or at least the benevolence, of God. I understood what he meant, but anymore I have a hard time agreeing.
Such an idea seems to come from the belief in a God who should make the world perfect and just and fair, a world free from suffering, free from pain, free even of worry, as if the primary role of religion is to offer safety and protection.
But taking in the entire swathe of human suffering, from the innocent child abused or killed, to the family or town massacred or made destitute by natural disaster, to all the collateral or expected deaths from war or violence, the questions come:
Where, and in what religion, does it say that anyone can avoid suffering, can avoid a horrible—or just untimely—death, or that anyone can guarantee their safety in any way?
Where does this notion come from, that religion is not about dealing with or living amidst suffering, but is instead about safety, and living without unfortunate events of any kind?
I don’t know of any religion that denies the necessity of suffering. Why, then, do we expect such treatment from God, especially when it’s obvious that the protection from suffering which people seek never materializes, when we rarely see any correspondence between our actions and what happens to us, from someone cutting us off in traffic, on up to being diagnosed with a terminal illness we did nothing to bring on?
Why do people lose faith in God when their child dies, or when thousands of people die by whatever awful way?
Why did I even hear a religious leader say, after a particularly horrible terrorist attack, that all he was left with, in the aftermath, was his faith? What can we possibly have at any time, except our faith?
Or rather, what are we pretending to have, in addition to our faith? What sense of certainty, or sense almost of magic, that someone’s youth, innocence, kind disposition, intelligence, aspirations, or religious persuasion or piety, by themselves can and will protect them from hardship, illness, suffering, financial ruin, or untimely death?
I would be content to allow people this sense of certainty if it merely propped up their own lives only, but this way of thinking—especially the assumption that it is the only way to think about God, the terribly uncomplicated kind of God that is so popular today—leads both believers and nonbelievers to think, assume, and probably do, the most terrible thing: annihilate the possibility of empathy for the suffering of other human beings, and to destroy the importance of the world and our experience of life in it.
For instance, I once heard on the radio about a woman with cancer and how, after many difficulties, it went into remission. I thank God every day for my recovery, she said. Yet the committed atheist next to me remarked, How about not give me cancer in the first place, God? This kind of simplistic response to religion is entirely justified, since it is only a response to a simplistic idea of God.
When we say God’s will is beyond our comprehension, both beyond the comprehending abilities of our mind but also of our language to express, we should take that notion seriously. A God who can be spoken of so cheaply, and denied just as cheaply, destroys the entire religious impulse.
Worse than this is when believers lose their empathy. They become the equivalent of Job’s friends, people who cooly and heartlessly diagnose someone’s ills, downfalls, and misfortunes by saying they must deserve them. When the supposedly “innocent” are mentioned, sometimes it’s the most fervently religious who will say a remarkable thing like, “If God were really just, we’d all be in hell: on good days you should be happy you aren’t suffering”; or in the words of one Catholic preacher who railed against “the unjust complaints of men”: “God who has raised them from Nothing owes them Nothing.”[i]
By this point, the strengths of religion—its weakness, its mystery, its questions without answers—have been replaced by a conclusion of simple cause and effect. And this allows religious people of all faiths to simply not care about the suffering of others, others who can then be easily judged, easily dismissed, and easily forgotten, the algebra of theology allowing so many to be wiped away from thought or consideration, a theology completely unable to see the limitations of what can be known or said religiously.
And if we can not and are not meant to expect fairness, justice, and safety from God or our religion, there are other questions to ask, ones we would never get to if we were still stuck arguing with God, rejecting God because of the problem of suffering, or going in philosophical or theological circles while those in pain are entirely ignored:
Should we think differently about suffering than we do?
If we aren’t meant to be free from suffering, if there is no answer or explanation as to why we suffer, and no way to know when something unfortunate will happen, what are we supposed to do when we are suffering, or when someone we love is suffering, if we can’t complain to God about it?
If we aren’t meant to expect to live a long life, if we aren’t meant to expect to avoid illness or financial hardship or other difficulties, and if there is no barrier to keep the young or the old or anyone from any of these things, should we think differently about illness, financial hardship, or any other difficulty?
How, for instance, can a life be said to be cut short? How can there ever be an “untimely” death? When are we “supposed” to die, and how can we pretend to determine this? Are the lives of children who die at seven or ten not “real” lives? And if age is the barometer, why do we mourn the old when they die?
And what about when financial hardship arrives—not the kind that comes about from our own bad choices, but which are out of our hands? Should we realize money and possessions aren’t actually as important as we thought? Should we rethink the priorities of profit and loss which we allow to govern our lives?
Should we be able to think differently about living in the world, without jumping onto the other bandwagon that hates it? Should we stop over-emphasizing the afterlife to the point that we ignore the process of death until the last moment, making it that much more difficult to deal with?
And so, should we also think differently about illness and death? I don’t mean that we should look forward to death, or that we shouldn’t mourn those we lose, but imagine how much more deep and meaningful our mourning, imagine how much more deep and meaningful our reminiscences and memories, if they weren’t buried under the garbage and distraction of blaming God, or wondering why it happened?
How much more deep would all of our emotions and memories associated with grief and pain over death or illness or addiction be, if we both didn’t look for and didn’t act as if we had an answer for them, but instead drowned in the experience of grief the same way we do joy, not wondering why we’ve been given such a good day or year?
And if we admit we have no answers, and that our religious and political and philosophical persuasions offer no answers as to why a seven year old has cancer, why a tsunami hits any populated area, why some disgruntled person kills someone they don’t even know, why so many billions of human beings throughout history have died from war, famine, disease, and genocide—and usually as the result of religious and political certainty—if we admit we have no satisfactory explanation for these things, what are we left with?
We are left in the vulnerable position of simply dealing with those who are suffering, and those who need our love. We are left looking into the eyes of total grief, complete emotional collapse, the absolute annihilation of all that seemed good and joyful, and the complete failing of our physical bodies and minds.
When put this way, it’s no wonder we’ve developed these defense mechanisms, this anger toward God or these circular theologies or these ways of dismissing the suffering of others for whatever reason. It’s almost impossibly difficult to stare into the eyes of total suffering, but if human beings are as grand and full of decency and dignity and honor as many religions teach, then the difficulty of achieving true empathy is, with the grace and help of God, only to our benefit.
There are no answers, and answers are not the point. The point is that there’s a suffering person over there who’s wondering what you’re doing, twiddling your thumbs and messing with words and ideas.
In other words: stop talking, writing, thinking, and trying to quantify; stop trying to organize, stop bickering amongst religions and denominations, and stop putting down other scriptures with your own; stop trying to make sense, stop trying to systematize, stop refusing every one and every thing that doesn’t fit with what you believe.
Stop all of it and find meaning despite the lack of sense and reason and organization for so many things, and simply care, simply help, simply help us all endure.
[i] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, 442.