Saturday, November 15, 2014
Me on Suffering
A few months ago I read a book by a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina named Bart Ehrman called God's Problem. I wrote about this guy a little on my other page. He is overbearing and arrogant towards everyone who is inferior to him in academic rank. I suspect he is probably insecure enough around those he perceives to be his peers or superiors that he expresses some of it through this overblown arrogance. Why do I judge the man in this way? I don't know, he does write that up until about the age of thirty or so he was a zealous and combative evangelical Christian, at which time his immersion into the world of academia and professional research as he pursued his career persuaded him that the episodes and personalities of the Christian story as they are related and traditionally interpreted in the Bible and other familiar sources, were most unlikely, and nothing substantial enough on which to base a belief in a supernatural deity. The need to account for his not having come to this realization until relatively late in life in his new professional and social circles, one suspects to have been, and to continue to be, a somewhat humbling experience for him. Being by nature a man of fire and a lover of debate however, whatever crisis of mind or spirit this caused our professor does not appear to have shattered his intellectual self-confidence at its core, and he is now as zealous in his exposing of the lies and inconsistencies of the standard Christian narrative as he previously was in championing it.
Anyway, the professor wrote in his book that, textual dubiousness aside, the main reason that he ceased believing in God was the existence of inexplicable suffering in the world, especially among children and other innocent people. The contrast with his own life of material comfort and plenty--if you're ever in Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman's fridge is apparently stocked at all times with high quality steaks and craft beers--which he senses has been afforded him due to no outstanding moral merit on his own part, is disconcerting to him. He can't accept God, and certainly not the idea of God as an all-loving force of good in the universe on those terms. Personally I find this way of thinking about the matter inadequate. Historically the periods of the most fervent religious belief seem to have their origins in times of greater than usual suffering. There seems to be a point of suffering beyond which all hope or care to obtain hope is crushed and the human being becomes nullified, but even this is more concerned with the capacity in people for religious faith than the actual existence or not of a God. In the West and I suppose in the wealthy countries of the Pacific Rim in Asia as well the emergence of the modern life largely free from physical suffering and torment has hardly been accompanied by a more certain conviction of the existence, and greatness, of God, but in the certainty that the whole idea of God is ridiculous, and was the brainchild of men and women of whom the kindest thing that can be said is that they were intellectually stunted, probably through no fault of their own.
Obviously I cannot myself really believe in gods, at least not in any of the more charming ways that humans have conceived of them, I have an idea that the effects of such belief are often beautiful and inspiring and give an intensity to life that is hard to replicate for most people in other pursuits, but I am probably deceiving myself in this. My tendency has been to find people who are commited to a religious life admirable however, especially in that singular aspect. I don't know for the life of me why I do, especially since most people of this kind that I am thinking of tend to hold political positions that are at the least unpopular in the part of the world where I live and are considered by many to be dangerous or mad. I am sympathetic to the desire to be religious and to participate in that life. I admit that I think it an attractive trait in women especially to think that abortion is terrible, perhaps because I have known so few women in my life who seemed to think this. I go to a kind of church, though I do not consider myself a member of that church, and I enjoy the ritual, though I don't think there is a single person in the congregation who actually believes in the reality of the Christian God, and none of the people I was thinking of as being beautifully touched by religion are among its number. There is no suffering, at least none where I feel the existence of God is one of the forces at work in its operation. But then perhaps I am so prejudiced against this church that I cannot feel the presence of any spiritual feeling within it. Are these modern Catholic and remedial-level simple evangelical believers whom I feel some admiration for any more authentic? Well, I think perhaps, yes, though the Catholics at least are not outwardly very intense. I trust them more to be able to tap into something of the true spirit. They might not suffer physically, but if they retain their belief they will probably also retain some sense of their own wretchedness and the attendant humility, which awareness is not perhaps the main aspect of a healthy religious sensibility, but it is a great part of it.
This is just going to be like my diary now. It's 2:24am and I cannot write coherent essays at this juncture of my life.