Monday, February 21, 2011

Meaning and Suffering

Last Friday I attended a lecture by New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman. During the talk he mentioned that he had abandoned his fundamentalist Christian faith because he was unable to reconcile its belief in a good and interventionist God, with all the suffering he saw in the world. I understand Dr. Ehrman’s problem, but opt for a different solution.

My own position is simple: God is not good. Neither is God bad. God is just God, Reality. We humans invent the categories of good and bad: good is what we like, bad is what we don’t like. Different people have different lists of likes and dislikes, and some among us insist that their lists come from God. God never says otherwise, so their claim can be ignored or denied, but never refuted.

As a student of the Bible I have trouble believing that God is opposed to suffering. God drowns almost all humanity in Genesis, terrorizes the Egyptian people, and murders their first born sons in Exodus, and then goes on to order the genocide of the indigenous peoples of the Promised Land.

Causing suffering is God’s MO: look what He is willing to put His Son through just to keep Himself from condemning all of humanity once again. God could have simply forgiven humanity, he didn’t need the torture and death of Jesus. Or did He? The Jewish and Christian Bibles make it clear that God needs the death of innocents (animals, babies, Jesus, etc.) to assuage His wrath. So who says God is anti-suffering?

I find the Book of Job to be the most honest book in the Bible. Job suffers because God wants him to suffer. In his conversation with Job God makes it clear that suffering is part of life, and there is nothing anyone (including God) can do about it. That insight was enough for Job, and he found comfort in the chaos of life. I accept the truth of Job, but I want something more: I want the chutzpah of Abraham.

When God tells Abraham of the coming destruction of Sodom, Abraham demands that the Judge of all the world should himself act justly (Genesis 18:25) . Killing the innocent along with the guilty is wrong. God agrees, though both he and Abe are willing to let the city die if ten good people can’t be found within its gates.

Dr. Ehrman left Christianity because its loving God seemed false. I have yet to leave Judaism because its God—Job’s God—seems all too true.

Judaism is (for me) a blending of Abraham and Job. Like Job I know that suffering and injustice are inescapable, and like Abraham (and the Prophets) I fight against them anyway. Judaism is a rebellion against reality: making meaning in a universe that transcends meaning. It is a rebellion that cannot be won, yet cannot be abandoned (It is not for us to complete the task, but neither are we free to abandon it—Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:21) . Our messiah is always coming and never arrives because our vision of a perfect world is always a hope and never a reality.

Suffering does not drive me from Judaism, it confirms the need for it.


Mary Ingmire said...

Dr. Ehrman abandoned Christianity, you hold on to your Judaism, and I am developing a hybrid to understand God. An adventure not taken lightly.

Karen said...

I abandoned Christianity because it makes absolutely no sense, as do most organized religions for me. I embrace your idea of God is Reality (all the good, all the bad, all the indifferent), and I agree that suffering and injustice are inescapable, and I do what I can to fight against both. There's also a lot of love, compassion, and beauty in this world, and I'm happy to cultivate and nurture as much of all that as possible.

dg said...

I am conflicted. While I agree that life is full of suffering, there are still moments of grace that I cannot explain. Yes, possibly, it is mere chance. But how do you explain Gandhi, MLK, Abraham Lincoln. Their existence seems more than simply luck. I wonder if there is something else going on we can't see or know. Just curious...

The Right to Write said...

The Jewish traditionalist (or Christian, for that matter) can always counter, and has, that God has given people free will to choose whether to do good or bad. The generation of the flood, the citizens of the cities of the plain, the natives of Canaan, all chose to exercise their free will on the side of evil. God wipes them out not because he/she/it enjoys suffering, but because God enjoins us to choose to be just. If we don’t, we open ourselves to God’s wrath. Yes, there is the case of Job. An upright man who is made to suffer. But doesn’t his example still illustrate this point? God does not want us to suffer. He wants us to be just. Job comes out of his ordeal as just as when he started it. And then he gets back everything from God. The just universe with a just God at the helm prevails.

Rabbi Rami said...

Just to be clear: I am not suggesting I have the answer to this, only that suffering isn't enough for me to lose faith. As for Gandhi, MLK etc, I assume they arise for the same reason Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot arise: humanity contains both saints and sinners.

And it is true that believers always blame the victim, though to say Job came out the same is to ignore the fact that God didn't resurrect his kids only replaced them.

The truth of the Bible is that God isn't just as you and I might define justice (Job) but Judaism says God ought to be (Abraham). Judaism is a religion for Don Quixotes tilting at windmills.

Lou Mindar said...

Bart Ehrman is a fascinating author and teacher. His book, “Jesus, Interupted,” should be required reading for all Christians.

Despite my admiration for Dr. Ehrman and his work, I too have come to a different conclusion on the God question than he has. I don’t have a good answer for the “If God is just, why do good people suffer?” question, but I’m fairly certain that the answer is not contained in the Bible.

As Dr. Ehrman teaches, while most American Christians consider the Bible to be the true and inspired word of God, history teaches a different lesson. The Bible is a compilation of man-made texts that have been changed and re-changed over the centuries. Even if the books of the Bible as originally written were the true and inspired word of God (doubtful), they no longer contain the original “true and inspired” words.

I‘m going a little off topic here, but it seems to me that most American Christians have elevated the Bible (or at least their interpretation of it) to false idol status. Rather than knowing God with their hearts and minds, they look to the “Good Book” to know God. If they knew the history of the Bible, they might not be so quick to accept everything it says.

I know what I believe, but I have very few answers. I hope my thoughts further the conversation. Rami, I look forward to our continuing dialogue.

andrea perez said...

If you are the mirror image of God than you are all of existance. I think that what the "Bible" teaches through stories of example and nonexample is how we function in the world and then we decide if that is the way we want to act. It teaches us to question. As a Jew, I find it impossible to believe in salvation from outside sources. I find it hard to believe in any type of salvation. Just don't get saved all that often. Therefore,God is us. And we do all the horrible unjustifiable things "He" does in our collective storybook. Or the creative wonderful things that are taught. It's up to us to decide what kind of "god" we want to become.

Eruesso said...

It's posts like these that remind me how much I miss taking your classes at MTSU.

~Sam M.~

Rabbi Rami said...

Great comments, everyone. Thanks, and good Shabbos.

baird said...

I recall that Dr Ehrman left Christianity because of "needless" suffering, not so much suffering in general. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, the timing couldn't have been better for where I am on life's spiritual journey.

Paul Harris said...

Thank you for saying that God is neither nor bad. In Hinduism also Brahma, the supreme being, is said to be neither good nor evil, but both good as well as evil has originated from Him.