Two post-evangelical memoirs (am I inventing a genre here?) I read recently, Losing My Religion by William Lobdell and Reasons to Believe by John Marks, make for some interesting comparisons. Both these authors are journalists who for a time embraced an evangelical form of Christian faith, but who lost that faith, including belief in a God of any kind, through their work of chronicling human suffering. Both concluded that a God who would allow such things as priests raping children with the knowledge and collusion of their superiors (in Lobdell’s case) and a father living in the false hope of reuniting with his sons who the journalist knows to be dead in the Bosnian war (in Marks’ case) cannot be any sort of superior being.
Both also encounter suffering people who devote their lives to God through Christ, including an adult survivor of horrible childhood sexual abuse by his priest (Lobdell) and a middle-aged couple whose adult son, once headed for success, spirals through mental illness to an early death (Marks).
This has me wondering. To the thoughtful but detached observer of suffering, the thought of God is understandably offensive. If God is like me, standing there watching such things, but infinitely superior to me in being all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow this? How can I justify accepting such a God?
But many who suffer greatly tell us that God is extraordinarily present with them in that suffering. Of course, many others who suffer have also found nothing, no one, no god, and their voices deserve our ears and respect.
Though I keep hoping for news of something else, for now I have concluded that there are really only two ways of dealing with evil – either to destroy it with violence (which inevitably is only a lesser evil and never seems to ultimately get the job done) or else to go on living in the face of evil and refuse to return violence for violence. This often works like salt in a wound, drawing out the worst of the poison, but in so doing exposes the evil for what it is, making an appeal to justice which is often more powerful at defeating a particular evil (think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless others . . . “one more in the name of love”).
Assuming there really are only these two options, is it possible that God chooses option two? Certainly we humans have attributed great acts of destruction to God, when we felt that destruction was justified, the lesser evil to bring about the greater good. (Read the Old Testament, read much of church history, read the billboard on the side of Interstate 35 that says God is speaking through twin towers and hurricanes but no one is listening.) Is it possible, though, that God only ever has chosen option two, to simply be, the “I AM,” present with people, which means that by definition, the “I AM” is always suffering? And yet that by virtue of being God, as shown in God incarnate in Christ – if this is true – that God has power to bring life from death, and therefore make evil as we know it ultimately powerless?
And that God’s presence with the suffering ones records the truth about what has been done to them, even as it sometimes reveals to the sufferer the humanity – and therefore the suffering – of the perpetrator? And that somehow in this mediating presence there is the possibility for peace and love to erupt?
I tread very lightly here, mostly ignorant to any depth of human suffering, cushioned and cut off as I am from pain, privileged and rich, comfortable like only a slice of humanity has ever been, expressly because others suffered – and suffer – to make this unsustainable lifestyle of mine possible. Do I have any right even to speak of suffering, to treat it lightly as a subject for philosophical conversation?
Is there any valid response to suffering other than being present with the sufferer? Is that what Jesus meant by enjoining those who would follow him to “take up your cross”? Shut up and listen, hush up your condemnations and your ideologies about who’s right and wrong and love everybody, dammit?! I do know enough to know that love, the unconditional kind, the non-respecter-of-persons kind, cannot last long without suffering of some sort.
I agree with Lobdell and Marks that Supreme-Righteous-Ruler-of-the-Universe-God just doesn’t make any sense with the way things are. A God standing over and above all things, watching Rwandan machetes and Nazi gas chambers with unblinking eyes and idle hands is no god I want to worship. I’m an atheist too when it comes to this god, and wary of the religionists who follow this god.
A suffering God, though – a “least of these” God, a “with us” God; I can consider this, even as the thought of it condemns me. Of course it is hard for me to sense a God like this – I am mostly the perpetrator and rarely the sufferer.
These thoughts are hardly conclusive, just another untried idea kicking around in my brain. To quote a song I’ve been writing for six years now, “there are rocks in my heart and holes in my thoughts but I’ll keep pounding this pavement with my genuine rubber soul.”