THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 99
I listened on the radio the other day to two Rabbis talking about where God was in relation to the terrible tsunami in Asia earlier this year. This is not a new subject! The contrast between the God of love and terrible happenings in the world has always puzzled people.
Indeed, trying to understand God has been a preoccupation of humans since the dawn of civilisation. We can imagine that back at the dawn of history the elders of the tribe asked anxiously what they could do to ensure that their potato crop came good that year. They tried slaughtering a baby and spilling its blood on the ground and - wonder of wonders - the crop was a bumper one! So the next year they sacrificed two babies … and so it went on. All through history people have tried to manipulate God to their advantage. They have sought to propitiate the gods - and when it has appeared to be successful they have repeated the actions. And when it has failed they have sought explanations - perhaps it failed because they had ‘sinned’ particularly badly or perhaps the God is angry with them because they didn’t kill enough of the men, women and children from the neighbouring tribe after they fought and won. And so on and on and on.
The Asian tsunami has brought questions to the minds of many people and they, too, have asked where God was when the tsunami killed so many and devastated the lives of so many more. That event has for some become a crystallisation of why they cannot believe in God.
The discussion I heard on the radio centred around whether there was an interventionist God or not. One Rabbi thought that God did intervene - although he was careful to specify that any such intervention only took place in certain ways. The other Rabbi seemed to think that God did not intervene. As far as I could tell he did not think that God walked away after creating the world - although many people today tend towards some such belief.
We have recently had the anniversary time for the liberation of Auschwitz - that graveyard for over a million Jews. The holocaust has scarred our minds and memories, and people who have no faith have seen it as positive proof of the absence of God, while those who do have a faith either shake their heads in dismay or plod on in blind faith.
What sort of sense do you make of a world where the Holocaust happens? Or where four young men are allowed to blow up innocent fellow citizens? How do you attempt to explain a loving God who allows such terrible evil? Whether the disasters are natural as with the tsunami, or man made as in the Holocaust or the bombings, it seems incomprehensible when laid alongside the idea of a loving creator God. Perhaps most of us feel helpless and don’t try to explain it.
As far as I am concerned, I have come to an understanding of the whole position that helps me tolerate the contradiction. These thoughts may not satisfy you - in which case you must find your own way forward. But for me there is an additional way to understand suffering, quite apart from the usual Christian explanation. That standard explanation - for how a loving God could allow such suffering - is that we just can never understand this contradiction this side of the grave. While I completely agree that it is presently beyond us to understand, nevertheless I want to suggest that we may, perhaps, be able to go a little way forward in this perplexing situation.
My understanding rests on four linked statements which I will set out as clearly as I can.
The first statement is that there is a loving Creator God who has formed the earth and the humans on it for a purpose. I don’t think that is too revolutionary and idea, especially for a Christian!
The second statement is that God is present in his world in an intimate way - everywhere, all the time. By that I mean that he is both outside our universe and within it. He is immanent and transcendent. The newly coined theological term for this is panentheism (as distinct from pantheism - which, as you will remember, is the belief that God is identical with the material universe!) The panentheistic God is in each brain cell and every other cell of my body - in fact in every molecule of everything - but he also dwells outside the whole cosmos. In a very real way therefore every detail of everything that happens does so within his knowledge and purpose. He is intimately concerned. Not a sparrow falls but he is there and conscious of it.
The third statement is that this Creator God has given us free will - but it is a limited free will. By that I mean that although we feel and think ourselves entirely free to live just as we please, we are in fact limited in our choices in all sorts of ways. This is obvious if we are blind or deaf, but it applies to us in all sorts of more subtle ways too. One limitation is through the condition of our mind and body which set all sorts of limitations to our desires and actions. Then there are our genes, which have an enormous influence on how we are and which predetermine a lot of our attitudes, actions and, indeed, health. Then there are our hormones which govern so much of our lives. Then there is our early experience of life - our upbringing - a powerful factor in what we do and decide. There is also the extent of our education, along with many other influences that affect our choices.
What I am trying to say here is that although our perception is that we are free to decide everything just as we wish, in actual fact our scope for making choices is a lot more constricted than we think it is. Much of our life is predetermined by our circumstances. We do have some free choice (albeit, again, limited) in the moral and spiritual field.
The fourth statement is that God created the world exactly as it is in order to give us the essential degree of uncertainty that allows faith to be exercised. Without the possibility of real doubt how can there be real faith? What do I mean by this? I mean that, obviously, if God proved his existence to us in some way then we would be fools not to believe in him. It is only because there is real doubt about whether God exists or not that we have the capacity to decide for ourselves whether to believe in him or not.
If God stepped in every time danger threatened or suffering was faced by someone it would soon be obvious that there was a greater power (a Creator God) shielding us from harm. And with that realisation any need for faith would disappear. Paul talks somewhere about the difference between seeing and believing. Where we cannot see we have to decide whether to believe. In the world which we inhabit we are forced to have faith or not to have faith, as we choose. This is actually the only way things could be set up so that faith was called for. It is the only way we can truly have a free choice.
In other words. If God had made the world any differently we would not have the degree of free choice that we presently have. I conclude from this that the key purpose of human beings on earth is to find faith in a loving God, and then to grow in their faith and in love towards God and others.
Someone might try to say that if they had been God they would have made the world so that all this suffering did not happen. But surely it is possible that only with the degree of uncertainty and suffering and disasters that we presently experience in this world can we actually have a state of sufficient uncertainty to enable us to have a free choice as to whether to believe in God or not. We must accept that we have limited understanding. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to say that the world is created as it is to provide just the right degree of uncertainty to enable human beings to have a true choice of whether to believe in God or not. Inevitably, such a process involves suffering. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that suffering is the inevitable price we must pay for the privilege of freedom of choice.
This fourth statement is less easy to understand than the others, so let me expand on it a little. Natural and manmade disasters inevitably lead human beings to ponder whether there is a god or not. That means we do have a real choice (that is, there is real uncertainty) about whether or not to believe in a God. It is impossible to reason our way to a decision - so we have to decide within ourselves. We can opt for faith in a loving Creator God, or we can turn away from that concept and assert that the universe is empty of any creator. We have a real choice throughout our lifetime. Without the world being just as it - with its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and disasters, its suffering and successes - we would not have such a real choice.
Although these four statements form the basis of my suggestion of an ‘explanation’ of why there are natural and manmade disasters in a world created by a loving God, they are not yet a distinctively Christian statement of belief. To be a fully Christian belief we need to account for who Christ was and why he came, and to that I now want to turn.
There are various explanations offered for why Christ came. These range from the idea that he was just a wandering preacher to the belief that he was the divine Son of God. In between there is every shade of view of Christ. For what it is worth, my beliefs - which I would label as largely traditional - are that Christ is as much divine as can be accommodated in a human being. Above all else he was a human being like us. He was also divine. His divinity in no way detracted from his humanity. Don’t ask me to explain that any further as I cannot. I think it is beyond our human understanding. But I hold to that belief very firmly.
I believe that the essential mission of Christ - why he came - was to do two things: it was to reveal the essential nature of God to us and it was to bring us into a living relationship with God. Lets look at these.
It was essential that humans learned what God was really like - otherwise how could they choose? Although the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament) are very clear about certain attributes of God - his holiness, his justice, his hatred of sin etc- it is clear that they are deficient in explaining or demonstrating the aspects of God that were revealed by Jesus.
If we only had the Jewish Bible we would be living in a very different world today! Jesus came to live his life out alongside us thus revealing by his life, his teaching, his healing and his miracles, and by his death and resurrection that God was vibrantly interested in each person and wanted to have a close and intimate relationship with each person on the planet.
The totality of Christ’s life was and is a revelation of what God is like. It burst upon the world unexpectedly and explosively, creating new hope. It enabled men and women to face death by wild beast in the arena with joy and a song of praise on their lips.
Turning now to how Christ brings us into living relationship with his Father, we have to face the fact that the cross is central. It is the pivot of history. We may have different theories about the Cross (’the atonement‘), but essentially we believe we are brought to the Father through the life and sacrifice of Christ which he completed by dying on the Cross. However one explains it, the fact remains - when we look at the Cross we understand the Father’s heart of love and sacrifice. Christ sacrificed himself to get us into relationship with the Father. We can understand something of what that cost was and the nature of God’s love when we see the blood and pain being experienced by the crucified Christ.
I believe there was no other way we could have been brought back to the Father. Which incidentally is an interesting confirmation that pain in this life is part of the essential fabric of life on earth.
Jesus said that he would send the Spirit after he rose again and at Pentecost the Spirit was given to the assembled group - which became the Church of Christ on earth from that moment. It is the Holy Spirit who is drawing all people to God. It is the Holy Spirit who now reveals the risen Christ to us and who enables us to be ‘reborn’ into the new life of the Christian. It is the Holy Spirit who inspires us and empowers us and leads us in the way we should go - each individual one of us.
Did the tsunami make you doubt the existence of a loving God? Does the persecution of Jews and gays and other minorities make you disgusted with the human race? Your reaction of doubt and unbelief is very natural and not to be ashamed of or condemned in any way. It is the reaction of a thinking and caring person. The Christian message however is that God was there with the people swept aside by the tsunami, and with the gays beaten up or even killed just because of who they are. Indeed, we believe that God hurts just as much as they did - that he was there for them as they turned to him for comfort. He cannot change his essential nature and we believe that that nature is one of committed love and caring. A caring that refuses to change the harsh requirements of a world in which we all have a genuine opportunity to believe in him even in the face of all that happens. To have made the world pain proof would have been to shut us all out from the opportunity to choose and, therefore, from his purpose for us.
This way of looking at things works for me. But it may not work for you. In which case I recommend you go on refusing to compromise your beliefs just in order to conform. In an extraordinary way God seems to want us to relate to him totally honestly - even when that means we cannot accept the current Christian dogma or beliefs - or even the current Christian morality. God meets us where we are and opens out his truth to us - insofar as we can receive it - until, one day, we discover to our astonishment that we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2.16).