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Friday, March 2, 2012

Let's Talk About Suffering

Suffering is a recurrent subject in discussions about religion. Even the most faith oriented people can't help wondering why there is so much suffering on earth, not to mention the non-believers. One of their refrains is: "If there was a loving God, this wouldn't happen". Even the philosophers David Hume hold this opinion!
I cautiously attempted an answer in my first post, titled "The Ultimate Question". But it's Lent, the time of Jesus' suffering, so a few more random reflections seem appropriate.

The Christian aim is the perfect world, heaven on earth. The prophet Isaiah predicted the coming of a new Garden of Eden, where all the wars, diseases and misery would disappear. Christianity, as opposite to Eastern religions, doesn't wait for the end of this illusion that is our world, but only for the end of its imperfections.
Christianity teaches that God doesn't intervene in the world, but it doesn't explain exactly why He doesn't. Of course I might be wrong, but I have my own answer: When he created the world, He put in motion a sort of chain reaction that we call "Evolution", and chaos, or evil if you want, is still present in it. He can't step in here and there to fix it. It's in our hands; we have to make it work.
This may sound like a paradox, but it's precisely for this reason that I believe in miracles. Now and then, one of us truly opens his or her mind to God, and through this person He can act in the physical world.
Faith is offered to everyone, and when someone answers the call all the way, he or she can work miracles, even after death. But why not all prayers are answered and miracles occur so rarely? Perhaps the recipient, or the one who makes the plead, must have complete faith in a positive result. Jesus, in fact, couldn't perform miracles when faith hindered.

However, these difficulties have a good outcome, if one looks at it globally. Try to imagine what would happen if prayers were answered each time. If the faithful were to survive every disease, then the existence of God would be evident, and we would have to obey Him.
But why does He care so much for us to have free will, if it is the cause of so much pain? Wouldn't the world be perfect without it? In a sense it would, but we wouldn't be human anymore. Animals can't choose, they only respond to their instincts. In order to be human, we must be able to choose, there is no way out. God created an imperfect world for our own sake, so that we could evolve from our animal condition.
But are human beings really endowed with freedom of choice? This is an old philosophical problem, with huge religious implications. Christianity, in fact, places the concept of free will at the core of its theology. In Genesis, Eve chooses to eat the prohibited fruit. Human beings are free to choose evil over good. God doesn't manifest Himself because He wants humans to freely open their hearts to the divine. Even nature was created to follow its course, and if a tsunami has to occur, so be it (tectonic plate movements are said to be necessary to create a moderate climate on the Earth's surface).

In one word, free will is the cause of every suffering. Even Jesus surrendered to it. Think of the time of Jesus. The Romans would crucify up to five hundred rebels in one day, most of them Jews. The emperors were mostly crazy maniacs who believed to be gods. Cruelty was accepted as a part of everyday life: for the average Roman citizen, going to the Coliseum to watch people tortured and killed was the equivalent of a modern evening at the movie theater. Yet God didn't strike the Romans with thunder; instead, he sent Jesus on earth.
Let's face it: The possibility that Jesus could have put humanity on the right track during His lifetime was nonexistent. He represented God's extreme measure, His "sacrificial lamb". I'm baffled at the offense that atheists take when they hear this expression; their lack of insight is astonishing. The God of Christianity is for them a sadist who required a human sacrifice to forgive our sins. But what really required Jesus' death, and His resurrection, were actually the circumstances. Nothing else would have shaken the world enough to change it. Not so, for example, at the time of Nazism: by then the rest of the world knew that to exterminate innocent people is wrong. When a Roman emperor died, the next would let the atrocities at the Coliseum go on, but when Hitler died, the killing of the Jews was over. God used human beings to end Nazism, and it took twelve years instead of the three hundred that were necessary to Christianity to defeat the evil of the Roman Empire.

"God is weak and powerless in the world," wrote the theologian Bonhoffer, "and that is precisely the way, the only way, He is with us and helps us".