More Thoughts About God and Violence

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.”

The Myth of the Present

“By the time you look at something it’s already history,” sings Bruce Cockburn in his song “Tie Me at the Crossroads.” I’ve been pondering this fact a lot lately. Every image, every event, must be perceived by the observer through senses that take time, however fractional, to perceive.

The eye takes in light (which even before it hits the eye has already traveled away from the initial event), then processes the light and sends that picture to the brain, which must itself process the picture to give the observer information about the event.

So too with the ears receiving sound waves, the nose taking in smells, the tongue reacting to tastes, and the skin registering the pressure of touch. Our senses give us their impressions of the past. We never truly experience the present in the present; we are constantly processing our sensory experience of history.

But what even is the past? Is it anything more than the collected observations of various people, ultimately the picture of events painted inside their minds based on their own limited processing capabilities?

Recently I finished reading Andrew Parker’s The Genesis Enigma, in which he notes this fact with the observations of a scientist. Parker has spent much of his career studying the inner workings of the eye and tracing its development throughout biological history, yet he says that only recently has it really sunk in for him that we truly live in a virtual reality world.

He is referring not to digitally-created realities – which in this understanding now become  secondary virtual reality – but to the world we all – and each – perceive. Parker reminds us that the “real world” actually does not contain colors, but only light waves of varying lengths. It is the apparatus of our eyes and brains that makes color a reality to us the observers.

Birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, so their eyes see markings on flowers and insects that humans’ can not. Dogs’ range of hearing and smell, most of us know, are greater than those of humans.

What if, Parker asks, there is all sorts of information around us that actually exists, which we simply cannot access with our range of senses or our current scientific instruments?

For thousands of years people have held that there are two modes of reality, two worlds, two tracks. The physical and the spiritual; the material and the mystic; the temporal and the eternal. But what if there has only ever been one reality, one unified system of everything?

What if those “spiritual” sensibilities we speak of having, impressions of truth, beauty, sadness, love, longing, and such things which cannot be scientifically explained, actually come from something as real, as material even? – as the light waves hitting our eyes, the sound waves received by our ears?

What if these impressions are just as measurable as cold or pain or depth or distance, but science has yet to fashion the instruments needed to detect them or explain how humans have the access we do to such things? What if they are just as real as anything else we observe, but at this point we can only dimly access them?

Would this prove or disprove anything about the existence of God?

This is me thinking out loud. I’ve got no hidden agenda or point to make, except for one brief observation that both atheists and science-denying religionists often begin from the same basic assumption – that “God” must be defined as a supernatural being responsible for all the things that science can’t explain. I’m going to leave it at that and ask readers to think out loud here along with me. What do you think?

About God

I’m currently reading It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian by Samir Selmanovic. Selmanovic’s life story includes growing up a cultural Muslim and philosophical atheist in Croatia before converting to Christianity as a young adult.

Often as I read this book, I find myself nodding, smiling, tearing up, reading passages to my husband, or exclaiming, “I’ve got to buy this book!”

Here’s a thought from the book to mull over: “Both faith and doubt are opposites of certainty and therefore part of the same whole.”

And another to help me feel sane, said by his friend Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “If you are not doubting the existence of God every two weeks, you are theologically comatose!”

The Second Big Bang?

Good grief. Here I go again. Thanks to those who are reading and journeying with me through the dark and doubt. I don’t particularly enjoy these posts, but nevertheless feel compelled to put them out there – probably because I believe I’m giving voice to something felt by more believers than just me. Take comfort – you are not alone – and you can be angry and bewildered with God and still be faithful (in fact, if you are angry and bewildered with God, being honest about it is the only way to be faithful!) Maybe we can call these latest entries in my blog the “angry Psalms” section.

God says, in Ezekiel the book of the Bible, through Ezekiel God’s prophet to Israel, “I’ll slaughter these people – I’ll obliterate that nation – then they [Israel] will know that I am God” (my paraphrase of much of the book).

In church these days, it’s fashionable to say, “God is good all the time.” I can’t say it without wincing anymore. That doesn’t sound like the God of Ezekiel. I am quite aware of what the beaver said about Aslan, the Christ-figure of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia: “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” I even admit that when Aslan slashed Aravis’ back in The Horse and His Boy, to help her feel the pain she had carelessly inflicted on someone else, it seemed right to me. Maybe it even seemed good.

But how could God’s total annihilation of a nation be good? What is “good,” if it includes threats like those in Ezekiel? What is “good,” if we are to believe that the prophet Samuel was truly speaking for God when he said to Israel’s King Saul – “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ” (I Samuel 15 – a mercilessly decreed holocaust that was actually carried out)? How is it good that God commanded the slaughter of babies? Or is it possible that God is not good all the time? I hope not, but an honest reading of Bible passages like these begs this question.

Whatever his reasons, God’s destructive ways towards people never seemed to stick in convincing Israel “that I am God.” Some might say that the most concentrated destructive act of God – in slaughtering the innocent Christ, in being slaughtered as the innocent Christ, has resounded as the most convincing of God’s ways of communicating “that I am God.”

In the crucifixion, they may say, God threw out the angriest, deadliest arrows imaginable, fully worked-up righteous wrath, lashing out completely; and then traveled at the speed of light out through the universe, circling back, and absorbed every shot. The anger and the agony met in their most intense moments, in the person of Christ, in the center of God, and the big bang of that moment set in motion a whole new creation, one that is spreading like the indestructible mustard plant all through the old world order, transforming it from inside – even destroying evil systems and pulling down evil power structures – and maybe that is good, but it is surely not safe.

Some might say that. I said that not long ago, and it sounds profound and poetic. But underneath it all it just sounds like more destruction. I’m weary of violence being the only problem-solver, unwilling to accept that God’s ultimate fix for a sick world was self-destruction.

These days, my faith has lost its resting place. From without, from within, it’s being pulled forward down a path of uncertainty, of wondering and wandering. How does one live faithfully when faith itself comes unglued?

Or maybe faith was never meant to be glued, nailed down, safe and snug in a resting place. Maybe that’s why Jesus’ call to his disciples was “follow me.” Movement. Road trip. Flux. Big bang setting everything in motion. Doubting believer faithfully tussling with the living God.