Philip Fogarty SJ responds to the disappearance of the sense of God’s presence in the secular culture of our day, and he broaches in particular the question of how God can be understood in the context of a world of suffering.
149 pp, Columba Press, 2003. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie.
Part I: Is God unfair?
1. Is God unfair?
3. Living hope
4. An eye for an eye
Part II: Who is Jesus?
5. Who is Jesus?
6. The kingdom of God
8. Jesus as saviour
9. Is Jesus the only saviour?
10. Whatever happened to hell?
Part III: Has the church a future?
12. A sense of belonging
13. Strangers after communion
14. Lumbering dinosaurs
CHAPTER 1: Is God unfair?
How can we believe in God when there are such terrible sufferings in the world: when someone we love is taken away in death or becomes incurably ill; when we see children suffering from serious mental or physical disorders; when we stand at the coffin of a seventeen year old friend or watch the slow death of ageing parents; when we see starvation in Africa or the old dying of hypothermia on the streets of Dublin; how can all this fit into God’s scheme of things? Why does God not prevent such suffering? Either God cannot and so God is not all-powerful, or God will not and so can hardly be called good. Is God simply disinterested and above all human suffering while we struggle and suffer here on earth? Is God indifferent or impotent? Is God nothing more than a cruel despot?
God’s seeming unfairness can haunt us as we struggle to reconcile a God of love and the depths of human suffering. It may be impossible to reconcile the immensity of human suffering with the mystery of a loving God in a way that fully satisfies the human heart. However, there may be ways of thinking about the problem that can at least give us some insight and provide renewed strength and hope. To begin, we need to remind ourselves that we live in an evolving world.
The theory of evolution seeks to explain the origins of the different species on earth, their modifications and sometimes their extinction. It accounts for the variability, adaptation, and distribution of living organisms that take place over millions of years. Evolution is determined by the ‘laws’ of nature, which govern how things come to be, change and adapt. Without such laws the universe would simply not exist – nor would we.
Millions of years ago, scientists tell us, the universe erupted spontaneously into existence – out of nothing; an event popularly termed the Big Bang. The Big Bang is the earliest event in the history of the universe accessible to science – that singular moment in which cosmic matter appears to have exploded from a point of infinite compression. Space and time made their appearance with the Big Bang and the process of evolution began.
Some scientists believe that the universe continues to expand indefinitely. For others, however, evolution is moving, imperceptibly but inexorably, from the Big Bang towards the Big Crunch, an eventuality reflected poetically in the New Testament: ‘The heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.’ (1) There is more than poetry here. The sun shines because it burns up its hydrogen fuel to form helium in the process of nuclear fusion. In another five thousand million years or so, some scientists say, this hydrogen will be used up and all life on earth will be destroyed.
The world has evolved from raw energy to ninety-two different chemicals, to the first living cell, to viruses, bacteria, fish, birds, and animals and ultimately to the appearance of human beings on the planet.
We humans have evolved within a complex network of natural forces that obey their own laws. When, for example, human male sperm penetrates the female egg, the human body begins to take shape according to the laws of nature. The body is a miracle not because it defies the laws of nature, but precisely because it obeys them. Our digestive systems extract nutrients from food. Our skins help to regulate body temperature. When we get sick, our bodies have built-in defence mechanisms to fight the illness. The food we eat, the climate that shapes us, the materials for the clothes we wear, even our ways of thinking, are all products of forces and influences that have been at work over millennia. All these wonderful things happen, usually without our being aware of them, in accordance with the laws of nature. However while nature may produce the beauty of flowers, sunsets, mountains, rivers, lakes and seas, not to mention the wondrous birth of a child, it also produces earthquakes, tidal waves, heart attacks, cancers, physical and mental disabilities and death. The fact is that we could not survive on the planet without the laws of nature but that means that we have to live with their potential dangers also.
As we think about the great evolutionary process that has been going on for millions of years, we gradually become aware that we are part of something that is greater than ourselves, that we can never make fully our own. We are part of the’ stream of life’ and this sense of being part of some great evolutionary movement can give rise to a sense of wonder, mystery and awe. It can also tell us something of the grandeur and mystery of God.
God did not simply create the universe millions of years ago and then leave it to its own devices. At every moment of its existence God ‘births’ the energy that moves the evolutionary process forward from the unfathomable network of forces that move the tiniest atom in its inner dynamism to the vast galaxies in their cycles as they become separate and individual.
God, out of love, creates what is ‘other’ than God – sets in motion, in a time-scale that is unimaginably enormous, an evolutionary process that profligately gives birth to the cosmos and to our own tiny planet. ‘We know that all creation is groaning in labour pains even until now.’ (2)
We may feel, of course, that if we were in charge of creation we would manage it better. We would retain the good and eliminate the bad! However, the balance and relatedness of all things shows that it is not as easy as we might suppose to make such changes if the universe is to remain subject to its own underlying lawful regularity enabling the human species to survive. Of course it is possible to conceive of a world in which God intervened on every occasion cancer cells formed so as to eliminate the disease by direct action: possible but difficult to conceive if that world is to be rational and orderly instead of magical and capricious. However, it may be that the way that God creates the world reflects God’s character in some way.
‘The world that science describes seems to me to be one that is consonant with the idea that it is the expression of the will of a Creator, subtle, patient and content to achieve his purposes by the slow unfolding of process inherent in those laws of nature which, in their regularity, are but pale reflections of his abiding faithfulness.’ (3)
Pace Shakespeare, the world is not a stage but a process in which everything that exists, has existed or will exist is intrinsically interdependent. We are linked symbiotically not only to the impersonal flow of nature but also to all other living beings, to others and to God. Even our names are given to us, symbolising the fact that we are descendent from and dependent on others for our very existence.
While we tend to think of ourselves as unique, as separate individuals over against nature and other people, it is only in and through our relationships with others that we become persons. Inextricably linked to others, we are also inextricably linked to the impersonal flow of the natural world. As an individual one never outgrows this basic solidarity with everything and everyone else. Our lives are always personal and inter-personal and because, and only because, we are linked to planet earth do we exist at all.
Sara Maitland makes the point that ‘if the cosmos, matter itself, exists in love, rather than from some bureaucratic or edifying purpose, it can, indeed it must, be free to grow, develop, evolve, change, experiment – profligately, extravagantly, randomly. The first ping into being of the first hydrogen atom ex nihilo, unthinkable and violently radical though that was, cannot be enough for love – any more than looking at a new-born baby, or spotting someone seriously fanciable at a party can be enough; you desire the thing or person you love to display more and more of what it is to be, what they are in the process of becoming, to change and grow and respond. It is only in this context of this extraordinary activity that we can truly rejoice in the generosity of our God; that we can live free from fear; that we can choose love and participation and joy; that we can realise what we have truly been given.’ (4)
But we are still left with the basic question of how to reconcile human suffering in all its ugliness with a God of love. One of the problems is that God seems to be above and beyond human suffering. Classical theology, based on Greek thought, speaks of God as unmoved Pure Being. It says that God cannot suffer or be directly affected by suffering. Even when speaking of Jesus, classical theology will say that he suffered only in his human nature, not in his divine nature.
Furthermore, God is said to be omnipotent, in ultimate control of whatever happens and nothing that happens is outside God’s will. The fact that suffering and evil are not prevented by God means, not that God wills them directly, but that God permits them to happen for some purpose; to punish wrongdoing, to test character, to educate or form personality or to bring about some greater good. But it is hard to see how suffering that destroys the lives of very young children, for example, is a just punishment, tests character, educates in any way, or brings about some greater good. There is even a radical suffering that affects people so that they no longer exercise any freedom, feel any affection, have any hope or feel any love.
The idea of God being unaffected by the barbarous excesses of human suffering simply cannot be tolerated. If God could stop all this suffering but does not, how can God be called good or loving? A God who is unaffected by human pain hardly merits love and affection in return. A God who stands by and simply ‘permits’ evil is hardly worthy of love or praise.
However, the God of Jesus Christ is not some lofty, apathetic deity but a compassionate God, rejoicing in our joys and suffering with us when we suffer but, of course, in ways far beyond our understanding. ‘God is love and whoever remains in love remains in God,’ the first letter of John tells us. Love is giving and receiving in mutual relationships. Love means being open to others, sharing oneself with them, allowing oneself to be vulnerable to others’ experience, rejoicing with them in their joys and grieving with them in their sorrows. Such is the very essence of love. God’s love, if it is to mean anything at all, must mean that God is vulnerable in some unfathomable way and rejoices and suffers with us also.
Perhaps the best place to see God’s involvement with suffering humanity is on Calvary where Jesus endured that most violent, disgraceful, scandalous, shocking and gruesome form of execution known to the ancient world, crucifixion.
1. 2 Peter 3:10.
2. Romans 8:22 ff.
3. John Polkinghorne, One World, SPCK 1993.
4. Sara Maitland, A Big-Enough God, Mowbray 1995.