Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti and suffering

This is what I would have preached this morning, if I had been well enough to get there! Essentially the same as something I preached following the tsunami five years ago.
At my Bible Group on Friday afternoon the question came up about the suffering in Haiti: how can God let such things happen? It now looks as if some 200,000 people will have lost their lives in the disaster. But the scale of this disaster doesn't really affect the underlying question. I think that Fyodor Dostoyevsky framed the question well in the nineteenth century, when, in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, he has one character say that there is nothing which can justify the suffering of one innocent child. I think that is right. There is no greater tragedy than that which can happen to one person, to one family. What happened in Haiti is not a greater challenge to belief in a good God than a beloved child getting cancer, for example.

Formally the problem looks like this - we have four statements:

P1: God is omniscient - he knows everything

P2: God is omnipotent - he can do anything

P3: God does not desire suffering - he is good

P4: There is suffering

It is incoherent to assert all of P1 - P4.

Now, as you might imagine, there are lots of ways in which religious people have responded to the problem, most of which take the form of denying one or more of P1-P4. I have some sympathies with all of those, in other words, I think that all of P1-P4 are complex truths which need to be broken down, and that much of the immediate force of the problem is lessened when they are broken down. But I don't think that this answers the real force behind the question, which I think is much more direct and relevant than most philosophical questions. As I see it the problem of evil is much more about how to live in the face of suffering, rather than being an intellectual nut to crack. When you are faced with trauma, all the philosophy in the world means nothing.

Some years ago I took the funeral of a 33 year old man who had died in tragic and unclear circumstances. There was some suggestion that drugs were involved, but there were no clear answers. In talking to the parents, the father talked about how he had built a swimming pool in the garden for his son to play in, but that now his son was dead, he said "was it worth it?" In other words, the real problem of evil is one about the meaning of the suffering that we experience. In my ministry so far, I've discovered that those who can place some sort of interpretation on what they experience are far better able to cope with tragedy than those without some sort of guiding framework; in particular, those who lack any sort of religious faith can be totally overwhelmed by an experience such as this.

I think when any of us are faced with an overwhelming experience of suffering, there is a profound existential choice that is made - and all of the religious and philosophical arguments only come in to play after that choice has been made. The choice is about whether life is meaningful or not, and it is that choice which generates the various resources needed in order to live. In other words, when the problem of evil becomes one that is of vital importance to resolve - because life has just whacked you over the head with something awful - then you are forced into determining your own attitude.

If you resolve that life is meaningful, then you carry on building your life around whatever it is that you value, and you say that those things which you value are sustainable in the face of evidence to the contrary (the suffering, the logical problems etc). And I would say that as soon as you start to talk about those things which you value in this context, you are inescapably resorting to religious language. ‘To believe in God IS to see that life has meaning’ (Wittgenstein)

If, on the other hand, you resolve that life isn't meaningful then - I would argue - something essential for a good life is taken away, and you are left with suicide in various different forms, some of which don't immediately lead to a physical death. And religious language is meaningless.

For me, when I am faced with the logical arguments about the problem of evil (much the strongest arguments against the existence of a loving creator) I am content for there to be an irreducible element of mystery about it, and to say that although I can't answer the problem now to my own intellectual satisfaction, I believe that there is an answer. This is because I see the alternative as unliveable - I could not raise a family, and enjoy that raising, if I didn't experience it as 'worth it', whatever the future might hold for me or for them. In other words, my answer to the problem is a choice about how I live, not a belief that I hold in my mind.

And the way in which I think about this issue is through the language of cross and resurrection. The cross represents the way of this world, and the nature of our suffering. And the resurrection represents our hope that one day it will make sense. For in Christ we have received a promise, a promise of eternal life for all who turn to Him. When we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject what God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross, and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t understand how this can make sense, I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that nothing and no-one who is truly loved is ever lost. That somehow our brokenness will find a place in God’s design. That is our hope, that is our faith, that is the God in whom we put our trust. May God guide us all through the valley of the shadow of death, and may his goodness and mercy cover us all today and for ever more. Amen.

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