The Final Question, Which Has No Answer
At the end of our exhausting discussion of how the Roman Catholic Church, for its own, usually self-serving purposes, has continually re-invented, distorted, and often plainly ignored the fundamental teachings of Jesus as they are expressed in the Two Great Commandments, there is yet one more issue for my readers in particular, and for Christians in general, to discuss. This is the issue at the root of human hope: Does God really care about us, especially when we are suffering? Or are we, in fact, on our own? What are we human beings to make of God?
There are no answers to these final questions. They are not questions which plunge us to the depths of our personal spiritual experience, where we might intuit a living answer, an answer which arises from our experience of What Is. Rather, these questions call us to examine and evaluate our spiritual experience, in order to construct a story, a myth, an explanation, an interpretation of our experience. These questions force us to conjecture about who or what, if anything, God is to us as experience human life.
Because the specter of solving logic-puzzles and of constructing abstract arguments arises from asking these questions, it is natural for one who seeks What Is to dismiss them as worthless. But despite that these questions produce nothing but conjecture, to examine them might yet be useful as enlightenment and as disillusionment.
The Disarray of Our Experience as Humans
From Moment One of the life of each of us, we find ourselves disoriented in our experience of existing. As infants, we feel strong bodily and internal/psychological/spiritual needs for, and attractions to, and even demands on our environment. As newborns, we experience a maze of these sensations, among which over time we learn to discriminate, and which we later learn to categorize.
During this early period of life, we also learn to manipulate our bodies within our environment, and to distinguish our body from our environment. Later still we learn to manipulate the categories of experience which we store within us, and thus we begin to think.
Simultaneously, in the normal situation, we are from Moment One cared for with love from beyond ourselves by someone, usually our mother, perhaps our mother and father as a team. We learn in this way how to be loved, and we find our environment generally satisfying.
However, during this time and for the rest of our lives, we also discover pain, injury, personal offense, danger, the threats that exist within our environments, the assaults of apparently malevolent people, the brutality of enemies, the indignity of being bullied, the horror of kidnapping, abduction, rape and physical/sexual abuse, the hopeless outcome of slander against us and of our own mistakes, the loss of loved ones, loneliness and isolation, the death of loved ones, oppression by economic and/or governmental forces, war, the scourges of non-human forces which are beyond our control, such as disease, infirmity, starvation, pestilence and epidemic, and finally the experiences of dying and of personal death.
This is to say that we experience ourselves as loved by others, and if we are trained well or learn easily from others, or have a predilection for it, we experience loving others. We also experience the privations and the depravities which human beings might inflict on one another. And finally, we find ourselves helplessly subject to life-impacting forces which (or who) are entirely beyond our control.
Five Typical Responses to Our Experience
There are many responses to these ordinary conditions of human experience. One notable and widely occurring response is desperation. Thoreau wrote: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The person doggedly exists from moment to moment, but has little else of meaning. The person endures the cruelties of other human beings, the ravages of time, the privations inflicted upon him (including poverty, ignorance, and isolation), and the damage done by the great forces upon him, and simply stays alert for the next meal, the next attack, the next opportunity to gain, and/or the next hollow pleasure. It is the way of prisoners and slaves and subjects of oppression.
A second response is the way of selfishness. Recognizing that the present moment is all that each person has, and that loss and pain and, finally, death are the destiny of every person, this person strives to “get ahead of the curve,” to get for himself as much wealth or pleasure or fame or some other form of self-aggrandizement as he can before death cuts him down. He “might as well live the most satiating life possible while I’ve got it.” Or as the gang-bangers say it: “I’m gonna get mine now. I’ll be dead by twenty-five.”
A third response is the way of naïve optimism. This person segregates in his mind the undesirable experiences of human life from the desirable, and then attends mostly to maintaining the desirable. He lives a life of judgment, evaluating experiences against a framework of desires or a system of values. He looks at the world “through rose-colored glasses,” praising the progress in goodness and other positive values which he perceives in his experience.
Such a person can see the good in every sorrow, so that everything painful comes to a happy outcome. And he neglects or disparages those experiences which threaten or contradict his values. He might say, “I see that you’re bleeding from your eyes and your ears? Oh, it’s probably nothing to worry about.” Or she might say, “Is that so? You’ve been married for sixty-seven years! Oh, but yesterday your husband died of cancer. That’s too bad. But don’t worry, he’s in a better place now.” Or he might say, “We have a fine way of life in this country. But we need to protect it from foreign invaders, like those immigrants sneaking across our borders illegally. If we keep them out, we’ll again control our incomes and our way of life.”
This naïve optimism is quite popular in affluent American culture, especially in Southern California, where optimistic blindness to human realities is so prevalent that it might as well be a subject taught in their schools.
Another response to the vagaries of human existence is the quest to discover or to accomplish something of meaning and value. This person strives to make his or her contribution to the well-being of humankind, each in his own large or small way. People strive to spread love and to make peace and to smile at strangers and to raise their children to be “good people.” They look forward to saying, as they die, “This is the good I have done. This is my legacy.”
Hope As a Response to Suffering
The final response to which we wish to attend is the dedication to hope. The person who is hopeful is realistic enough to know that human experience is filled sometimes with joy but often with suffering and sorrow. His response to these realities is to seek relief from the dis-pleasures of life by constructing internally a future time or condition in which suffering ceases, and joy and peace dominate heart and mind. He finds a strength in his expected future joy, which he uses to endure the pain of the present. The brightness of the future burns for him through the darkness of the present.
But hope can be as weak as a newborn animal in the grasslands: a quivering thing, born in a fearful heart, and standing, as it were, on spindly, uncertain legs of desperation. This hope feeds on the weak food of wishes and dreams and unrealistic expectations. And so, hope vacillates between existence and extinction in his heart, as the burning winds of ill-circumstance blow with more or less force through his life.
A person’s hope, when it is founded on individual fears or wishes, may never be strong enough to resist the crushing forces of defeat. And so, the person’s hopes and fond desires for the future can sink into despair.
However, in the same way that an individual finds place and strength in membership in a community which has the same goals that he or she has, a shared communal hope is a more powerful source of strength for the members of a community than individual wishes may be. Such communal hopes can be expressed in secular “mission statements” or in political declarations and constitutions, but it is, in particular, religious hope which draws our attention now.
A religion is a relatively coherent assemblage of beliefs about the relationship between human beings and their “gods.” These gods are depictions, either sensory and concrete, or abstract and reasoned, of partly or wholly non-physical entities which are more powerful than human beings. These gods are believed to be responsible for, and have control over, those forces which impact the day-to-day individual and collective lives of the adherents to the religion. These godly entities might control the believers’ existence, their good or ill fortune, their health, their food supply, their success against marauding enemies, their deaths, and their destinies after death.
However these gods are characterized in any particular religion, as either benevolent or malevolent, capricious or principled, close or distant, personal or impersonal—religion always provides its adherents with a way of entering into a relationship with these gods which offers hope to the adherents. And this hope is strong. It is structured and stabilized by the religion’s myths and legends and stories of the success of previous spiritual masters in achieving the object of hope, such as appeasement of angry gods, victory in battle, answer to prayer, knowledge of the future, healings and miracles, spiritual freedom from the physical, “enlightened” understanding, or an afterlife of joy.
And this hope is anchored on the rock of shared community beliefs. It is because of the strength of the community’s hope that communities “know” what will occur in the future in their individual and collective lives. And so, every incident which the community members interpret as a fulfillment of their shared hope (for example, the healing of a sick person, the successful birth of an endangered child, the coming of rain during drought, victory in battle) strengthens that communal hope and deepens the community’s dedication to the god to which they prayed in hope.
On the other hand, if the expected destiny does not occur, the religion provides explanations for the failure of its hopes. Consider, for example, the Christian expectation of the Second Coming of Christ. It is clear that very early in the life of the Christian community, the adherents held the following belief: After his death by crucifixion, Jesus revived and rose from death to a new, more capable, more powerful life. He demonstrated the renewed life of his body to his followers by several post-resurrection appearances. Then he left them physically to return to Heaven, the place of God’s residence, promising to return in the near future in glory and might, in order to bring justice to the oppressed people of Israel—and the world—by defeating their human and spiritual enemies, and then by reigning in majesty as Conquering King forever.
It is doubtful in my mind, and among many current scholars of Christian scripture and history, that Jesus ever made such a promise historically, for this Second Coming has no relation to the contents of his genuine message to his followers. Jesus simply taught how to live the Way of Love in their daily lives and thereby to enter union with Divinity in the present moment. This simple teaching creates no expectation that the one who opens the Way of Love to his devotees will be any sort of conqueror. For, the Way of Love is a way of interior freedom found by serving the needs of others. It is not a way of conquering those that oppress you.
Nonetheless, Mark’s gospel has Jesus saying,
Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. . . . Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come to power. (8:38-9:1.)
In these words, Mark’s Jesus foretells his Second Coming in glory. He also predicts that the fulfillment of this messianic promise to Israel will occur within the lifetimes of his listeners. Of course, that did not happen. The promise of heavenly relief from the oppressive burdens of living at that time, and the start of the conquering reign of God in power over the oppressors of his devotees just did not happen on the promised schedule.
One can trace in Paul’s letters his early enthusiasm for the Second Coming and his dwindling hope for that event in his later letters. This reflects what was occurring in the Christian communities. At first they were buoyed by this hope that if they did not falter into apostasy (“Whoever is ashamed of me”) but rather endured faithfully in their dedication to Jesus, even to death, they would be richly rewarded by joining the Christ in his glorious victory. As the years passed, however, this initial optimism weakened, and Christians became distressed that this promise was “delayed,” as the leaders said, in its fulfillment.
Explanations were offered by the community leadership. Peter writes that God delays the Second Coming in order that Christians might make themselves fully prepared when the Christ returns in glory. And the medieval Church, betting all its chips on sin-guilt, turned the glorious return of Jesus into a threat, preaching in effect, “You’d better be free of sin whenever it happens that Jesus returns—it could be at any moment!—or else you’re going to hell!”
Nowadays, it is “daily grind” Catholicism as usual in what remains of the Catholic Church. In my experience, almost no attention is paid any more to the immediate possibility of the universe-wide Second Coming. Although the Second Coming is a central doctrine of the Catholic faith, the expectation that the “God-man” will appear in the skies in triumph over the forces which bring about human suffering no longer causes Catholic pulses to race. The doctrine of the Second Coming has no perceivable influence on the routine lives of individual Catholics, nor of the community as a whole.
Rather, the prospect of the Imminent Return is forgotten, except on those Sundays when the Second Coming story is proclaimed and preached in one form or another. And when those Sundays occur, the Second Coming is usually conveniently packaged with the doctrine of “personal judgment” at the moment of death. That is, the Second Coming of Jesus is now expected to occur for each person immediately after their death, when the individual will stand before the glorified Jesus and be judged by him for their life-works and their final condition of heart. Because of this judgment by Jesus, the person will either be welcomed into eternal glory (possibly with a time of cleansing in the painful sorrows of Purgatory appended to the welcome) or else the person will be doomed to eternal punishment.
[I have to ask: In this “personal judgment” scenario, is Jesus actually a conquering hero who rids the holy people of God of their enemies? In other words, are these hapless, broken sinners whom Jesus sends to hell the “enemies of God” whom the Messiah came to destroy? If so, this re-working of Jesus’ original promise dilutes his conquest into cosmic insignificance. For the people whom Jesus “conquers” are simply broken, lost, misguided, trivially stubborn, stupidly arrogant human beings—the “dust of the earth,” like us, and the “lambs” whom the Good Shepherd goes out to find and to carry home on his shoulders.
[On the other hand, if these sinners are not the enemies of God, but rather, it is the Devil and his monstrous minions who are the objects of the wrath of Jesus the Conqueror, then the human sinners who are sent to hell are “secondary casualties” of Jesus’ punishment of the demons. They are “collateral damage,” as it were, because they kept bad company with demons and misdirected the 30 or 70 or 100 years of their lives under the influence of demons. For this, they receive eternal suffering from Jesus the Teacher of Love and Forgiveness! How could this be? If Jesus truly acts as judge of the newly dead in this cruel way, Jesus emits such an unpleasant, autocratic odor of hypocrisy and revenge that I lose interest in him as being too unremarkably human.]
That is the way all religion works. When the expectation of hope is unfulfilled, explanations are offered for hope’s abeyance, and these explanations—however artificial and self-contradictory they may be—satisfy the believers’ needs in a way that does not diminish hope.
As another example, throughout Jewish historical scripture, the question is raised, “Why did we lose that battle?” And the answer is always, “Because we have sinned against God and he has punished us for our sins. So let us sin no more, and God will reward us with victory, as he has in the past.” In other words, the blame for suffering always falls on human beings. Sinfulness causes suffering because God is just, rewarding obedience to his law and punishing disobedience. Therefore, the end of God-inflicted suffering depends precisely on everyone’s being perfectly obedient to his law. In practice, this means that only when each and every human being accepts spending their lives learning the complexities of the 613 commandments of the Law of Moses and disciplining themselves to obey each commandment scrupulously, that human suffering will end. When all people become successful at living this kind of obedience, that the bright hope and promise of social harmony, peace, and happiness will be realized.
In this “suffering is punishment for sin” scenario, the people maintain their hope by overlooking the extraordinary demands placed upon imperfect humans—demands which are in practice impossible to conform to universally at every turn of circumstance. For in practice, human emotion and desire powerfully overwhelm one’s intention to obey the law. To suppose otherwise is a case of the naïve optimism of which we spoke earlier.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, such characterizations of God as hero and conqueror and king are intended to depict God’s understanding of his relationship with us, and in the process, produces in us a certain image or understanding of God in which we find hope. It is the same in those religions in which the god or gods are greedy and angry. Their adherents learn to appease these hostile gods, who are nonetheless so powerful—as powerful as the terrifying thunder in the black night or the rumbling, fire-spewing volcano or the dreaded earthquake which mightily crushes the people under their own shelters. They learn to offer their blood sacrifices and to give their wealth to the gods. And in that appeasement the people have placed their expectation of the fulfillment of their hope.
A God Like Us
It does not often strike us as unusual to say that God is—or the gods are—angry with us or offended by our actions or jealous of our worshipping other gods. We easily accept that our gods or our God has the equivalent of human feelings. How else could we understand the Almighty God, other than to understand him as simply more exalted in the powers and abilities that we humans find within ourselves? The more we understand God to be like ourselves, the more we can assign our motives to him—and also the more easily we can criticize his ways from the viewpoint of human ways, even to the point of accusing God of offending us! (I admit to having done that in my own frustration. And I know that I’m not alone in that, for, in other circumstances, I’ve often told people to whom I’ve ministered that “God can take our anger; he has broad shoulders.”)
The God who is easiest for us to understand, and appreciate, and complain to, is a god made in the image and likeness of us. That is the meaning behind what I once heard a preacher say: “The Almighty God in heaven is hard to imagine. He seems like a foreigner to us, like a stranger. But Jesus, since he is God become a man, is like us in every way but sin, and so we can have confidence that he understands us when we come to him.”
Our God or our gods, when they experience emotions in response to our behaviors, when they take sides and choose winners, when they howl or speak in a thundering voice or shake the earth as they walk, or when they cast a glance that strikes fear into the enemy—these gods are us. They are us reshaped into beings of power. We are powerless, so we make gods who are strong. We need love, so we make gods who love us, and similarly, we need friends, so we make gods with whom we can talk intimately. We know ourselves to be the victims of the forces of nature, and so we create angry gods who victimize us, and in many cultures, we go to the most horrible lengths, including to slaughter our own children, to appease them. (I often wonder how Isaac felt for the rest of his life about his father Abraham after Abraham raised his sacrifice knife over Isaac’s throat, in obedience to God’s command to him. What did Isaac see in Abraham’s eyes? An implacable iron will? A heart of ice? Conflict between his duty toward God and his love of his only son? Uncertainty that he was doing the right thing? Merciful compassion for his son for what he thought was to come, by his hand? Fear? Anger at God? -- And consider Isaac after God restrained Abraham from sacrificing his son. Could Isaac ever trust his father, Abraham, again?)
When we attribute human characteristics—especially, human emotions—to God, when we call him Father and King and Jealous God and Shepherd and so on, we are humanizing God, anthropomorphizing God. We are essentially cramming the Universal Deity into the shoebox of our own creature-hood.
We can admit that there are no other meaningful terms to conceive of God in, other than these humanizing metaphors. I believe that’s true. Can we understand what terms like omniscient (“knowing everything”) really mean with regard to God? No, unless we picture God as an enhanced version of the old person looking out over a degraded urban street, watching everything that goes on, and remembering everything that he or she sees every person doing? And that’s the point of the term anthropomorphizing. By that term, we mean that God does what we can do, but we imagine that God does it much more extensively in our vague and cloudy images of what eternity and the physical universe mean to us. -- In other words, with regard to God, every time we speak, we don’t know at all what the words we’re saying mean. Or more simply still, we don’t know what we’re talking about.
The problem with “understanding God” by using these super-human metaphors is that these merely suggestive comparisons between God and human things quickly become literal, as though God is literally a King, with emotions and toenails and hunger pains, dressed in his fiery power and sitting on his hand-crafted throne, and that he really does possess broad shoulders like a nose-tackle, and therefore, wears a size 86 ermine robe.
Once we take the metaphors about God literally (and virtually every culture does), then we want this God who is so strong and so wise to make the rules for us, because we believe that the laws which God makes will be in our best interests and therefore we must follow them. As a result, God becomes not only the Lawgiver but also the Judge. But an unanticipated consequence of making God the judge of the community is that if the laws are unjust or inapplicable to the people’s situation, or if the people find the laws unfairly applied, they have cause to resent God, and the worms of controversy and of rebellion begin to devour the moral fiber of the culture.
The Problem of Evil
When worshipers attribute to God the strengths and virtues which their leaders tell them that they too should possess and practice, then just as God can hold his people accountable for violations of his laws, so too can his people rightfully hold God accountable for behaving properly with respect to these same virtues and strengths – that is, for acting with the same virtues, such as justice, that his laws expect from his people.
From this humanizing of God arises the enigma of the problem of evil. Why does the God of justice permit bad things to happen to his own devotees, who are striving to form their lives in accord with his commands? Why doesn’t he encourage them, rather than crush them?
That is the problem, said simply. I will tell you now that there is no explanation or answer to this question by which God is exonerated and comes out “smelling like a rose.”
One common explanation offered for such defeats of hope and of expectations of loving protection by God for his people is the old Jewish explanation that his people have done something to anger God, and therefore he is punishing them. In Christianity, this explanation—no matter how quickly it springs into the mind of every victim of circumstance or of human error or of barbarity—is disqualified by the Crucifixion of Jesus, by which all sin, past and future, is forgiven and compensated for. No matter what his people do, God has no reason to punish them because Jesus has already paid the price.
And so, if God punishes his people in the present for sins for which Jesus paid the compensation millennia ago, God is not a just God. And thus God does not have the fragrance of a rose.
Another explanation, found in Christian scripture, is that God, like any loving parent, disciplines his child and makes the child toe the line so that, as an adult, the child will be an upright person. If this explanation were true, it would mean that the agony of bodily torture or the maiming of living bodies in war or the constant injustices of prejudice and hatred are God’s formative encouragement of his people to ---- to do what? How does God’s causing (or allowing, if you must) a soldier’s legs to be blown off prompt that soldier to grow in virtue and in love of God? Can we really expect the soldier to pray: “Thank you, God, for blowing off my legs. It’s taught me to be less self-reliant and more dependent on the kindness of my caregivers. It’s made me more humble”? From our human perspective, such an act makes God appear to be callous. He steps beyond the limits. He uses “a cannon to kill a mouse.” And the smell of gunpowder and death consume any whiff of roses here.
And what virtues is God teaching those babies killed by abortionists or those children dying of thirst in dusty refugee camps? What instruction in virtue is worth their suffering?
No roses here.
Still another explanation for God’s part in human calamity is that God is responsible for all the good things that happen, and that some other entity is responsible for the evil things that happen. In particular, the source of evil is usually one or the other of two possibilities. Evil occurrences are caused either by some spirit or demi-god or demon who has power over the evil situation or over the people in that situation. Or alternatively, evil is caused by the human will of the evil-doer, either as the result of carelessness or of selfishness or of greed or of disdain for the human beings involved or of jealousy or of spite for God.
In the Christian mythology, which is often taken literally by today’s Christian believers, the source of evil in the world is human sin caused by human desire. The characters Adam and Eve are offered the opportunity to sin by the serpent, understood to be the Devil, who encourages them to do so. The two humans turn their wills away from obeying the simple rules which God established for them and they choose to satisfy their desires instead. As they do so, the whole created world changes, both within them and beyond them. They had sought knowledge of evil, and they woke up to it then, realizing not only the previous purity and innocence of their relation with God, but now experiencing shame, guilt, self-consciousness, regret, duplicity, lying, sleaziness, and the whole dark brooding of the soul when the adolescent first recognizes the wretchedness of human behavior.
As a result of their rejection of God’s will, they unwittingly brought death into the world not only for themselves, but also for their children (namely, Abel, the brother of Cain) and for all creatures. Every beetle that dies feet up, and every mouse gutted by the talons of a hawk, and every turtle snapped up by the noiseless alligator, and every person devoured by their own cells or by hordes of creatures too small to see – every living thing of every sort – inherited death due to the careless sin of our parental mating pair.
There is a riddle in this problem for Christians, however. In some religions, the good god and the evil god are each so powerful that neither god can conquer the other. And so, good motives and good aspirations and good actions exist in our world in balance with evil motives and evil aspirations and evil actions. But in Christianity, the benevolent force, the Almighty God, is superior in might to the malevolent force, Satan and his legions. Orthodox Christians believe that Satan surely works with tireless hatred of God to lure human hearts away from devotion to God, and to tempt them to disobey God’s commands, and to nurture in these hearts contempt for God. But Satan and his crew, for all their supposed effort, are not the equals of God in power. They are indeed all creatures of God, made in divine love by God. And so, in comparison with the power of God, the power of Satan is inconsequential. For, God the Almighty is believed to have the power at this moment—and has always had the power—to wipe Satan, God’s “enemy,” entirely out of existence. And so, if God in fact objects so vehemently to the seductive work of Satan, what could be God’s reason for permitting Satan to continue to exist?
The usual Catholic explanation is that God permits Satan to tempt people to sin in order that the people may resist the temptation and thereby demonstrate—and increase—their love for God. Well and good for those who are successful at resisting the temptation, as our mythological proto-parents, Adam and Eve, unfortunately were not. Those who successfully resist temptation to sin are rewarded by having the gates of heaven swung open for them and by entering paradisal bliss.
On the other hand, what is the fate, in Catholicism, of those who fall for Satan’s wiles and lose themselves in Satan’s trickery and die in the condition of sin? God mercilessly damns such “unrepentant sinners” to eternal hell, as spiritually weak and pathetic as they are, saying to them, in effect, “You refused to abide with me during your life; therefore, I will give you what you desire, namely, life without me.” This damnation is said to be divine justice because it gives the person what the person actually desires—distance from God.
And the Satan who seduces such people into sin and then into hell, what is God’s treatment of him? Stunningly, God allows Satan to continue his work of seduction! The consequence of this is that God’s tolerance of Satan’s sowing the seed of evil among humans results in at least some of those people being damned forever. In other words, God knows the seductive power of Satan, and yet God knowingly creates human beings who possess faults and deficiencies which render them spiritually unable to resist Satan’s devices. In brief, God creates some people whom he knows will be damned to hell. He intentionally creates spiritual rejects, who have no hope of salvation, since they have not been given the strength to achieve it.
God creates some people to be damned.
This is not what a just person would expect from the God Who Is Love.
If God is in fact the Good Shepherd, wouldn’t his faithful sheep expect him to kill the wolf, rather than to permit the wolf to devour the sheep on one hill while the shepherd entertains his favorite sheep on the other hill?
The stench here is not roses.
Let us move on now to our final consideration. As long as we are discussing God’s judgment of the worthiness or sinfulness of individuals and their actions (as we have been), the discussion will always be clouded by questions about the “free will” of the sinner, and by arguments about the level of responsibility for goodness or for evil which the humans involved must assume, versus the level of responsibility for just and considerate judging which God must assume. In other words, so far, our questions about God’s judgments come down to this: “Was God really being just when he inflicted suffering on that person, or not?”
But our view clears quickly when we move into the arena of communal suffering, over which the involved humans have absolutely no control, as for example in natural disasters. Responsibility for these disasters—tsunamis, cyclones large and small, earthquakes, avalanches, mudslides, flash-floods, wildfires, pestilence, and all the host of other “natural” afflictions—cannot be laid upon the involved human beings. The planet itself does these things. And for believers, the planet is designed and built and maintained in existence by only one entity, the Creator, the Almighty God.
No enhancement of human virtue, such as increased respect for the common good of humankind, or the awakening of generosity toward strangers, or increased motivation to develop more effective tsunami early-warning technology, could possibly justify the loss of the quarter million human lives, and of whole villages of homes and of agricultural fields, and the scattering of family members who will never gather again—all the devastation that was brought about by the tsunami that struck the coast of Indonesia in 2004. Whatever humanitarian good might have derived from that terrible devastation could not possibly justify or balance the horror and misery which those million human beings experienced when the flood-waters struck with such violence, and in the years and decades following it.
This is especially painful since the finger of responsibility must point directly at the Creator of All Things, who is said to create everything in love, and to whom one human life is said to be infinitely precious, so that the Charismatic preachers of the 1970s used to proclaim that “if there were only one human being on earth, Jesus would have died to save that one person.” In 2004, that same God threw away 250,000 of those precious lives for no clear reason that we can adduce or understand.
Who is this God to whom his faithful people pray? Who is this God to whom believers pitifully turn for help in their trivial, pathetically human needs? Are these horrors the doings of the God of love and mercy and justice? Are these the works of the “Father” of Jesus the Kind-Hearted, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Compassionate Brother?
Since God appears in our experience of his works to be so extravagantly wasteful of the human lives he is said to consider precious, it seems that God in fact has no regard for any person individually. Therefore, believers must question his love of them, and they must question the reasons for which he created them at all.
His faithful devotees call him Father and the God of Love. Should they? He brings each person, even “his only begotten Son,” to suffer the fears and the torments of dying. And in occurrences like the Indonesian tsunami, he seems to flaunt his reckless power over humankind, his carelessness of us all.
And his devotees? Should they pray to such a God? Indeed, is there any actual God to pray to?
God the Creator of All Things cannot escape the ultimate responsibility for catastrophic events like the Indonesian tsunami. No “free will” human decision caused this. No deception of the Devil caused this. No fault of the planet caused this. The planet was acting exactly as it was designed to act. And the people whose villages and whose families and whose lives were devastated in 2004 were living on the coastal plain for the same reason they had always lived there: the sea is their source of food. Suddenly, on a bright day, the sea rose up against them, and crushed itself into their lives, and swept away a quarter million of them in the space of five minutes, and they all died.
The God Who Creates All Things created this. There is no one else to call to account.
When Divinity reveals itself to be so careless of human well-being, one cannot help but wonder where God’s love is stored away, and where the object of hope is hidden. Occurrences like the Indonesian tsunami lead us easily to conclude that such a God might as well be no god at all.
No Answer: Just a Choice
Following is the atheistic, scientific explanation for the fierce loss of life during the Indonesian tsunami. As the Australian tectonic plate continued to slide bit by bit under the Eurasian tectonic plate, on December 26, 2004, the pressures built up by the intersection of these plates and the sliding of one plate under the other were released by the sudden shifting of the plates— an earthquake— beneath the floor of the Indian Ocean off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake sent vibrations through the water above so that the surface of the water rippled into waves of considerable force. As these waves radiated out from the epicenter of the quake, some of them approached the shallows of the coastal plain of the Indonesian island of Aceh. When the waves encountered the shallows, they were carried ashore as giant waves by the force of the earthquake that created them, One after the other, they crashed against the land, and surged inland for a quarter mile, each wave rushing back out to sea with the same horrific force it had landed with, and carrying out to sea everything that had fallen prey to its inland rush. Wave after wave came, each wave followed by the rush of retreating water which carried all the lives and all the happiness of the people out to sea with it.
That is the scientific explanation. What is described there is simply the laws of physics operating in a certain place at a certain time under certain conditions.
Following now is the theistic, Divinity-respecting account we have been discussing. In his love and creative power, God constructed the crust of the planet in such a way that it is a clattering set of huge tectonic plates afloat on a liquid mass of molten rock, called magma, which comprises most of the planet beneath its crust. As a result of the rotation of the planet, all these massive plates, afloat on this magma, are constantly bumping into each other. For example, the Australian plate is currently subducting (sliding under) the Eurasian plate. On December 26, 2004, . . . And the rest continues as above.
This is to say that the only difference between the scientific explanation and the theistic account is that the theists believe that the loving God created the earth to behave the way it did on that day in 2004. Is God necessary to this event? Theists would say, “Yes because matter cannot cause its own existence and needs a creator to account to its existence.” Scientists would respond, “Who needs creation to account for material existence? Matter/energy has always existed in some form or another, and it now operates according to physical principles which arose as a consequence of the initial inflation of the current material universe, the Big Bang, 14 billion years ago.”
There it is. You have your choice. You can either accept the existence of the Creator God, or you can accept the existence of an always-existing material universe which has no explanatory need for God.
If you accept the scientific view and at some point we learn for certain that the scientific view is true—that there is no God—then you will have the satisfaction that your original belief has been confirmed. That’s all there is to say about that.
If you accept the theist’s view that God is the Source of All Things, then you must be careful about how you envision God. Is God the white-bearded, swirling icon that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Is God the man Jesus who lived and taught in first-century Palestine? Is God in any way anthropomorphic? Is the God whom theists believe created us in any way like us humans?
If the God you envision as your God is in any way anthropomorphic, then that God is subject to all the questions and characterizations which we have been discussing in this essay. In that case, the God you envision has been decorated with characteristics which contradict each other and which violate the principles of love, mercy, and justice. The God you envision is the subject of those hopelessly unsatisfactory and incoherent mythical and theological explanations which the Catholic Church has been generating for two thousand years. Your God is a God who gets angry at the creatures who are his “enemies,” a God who creates pain and suffering in the lives of his devotees as well as of his opponents, a God who carelessly snuffs out the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in an instant. Such a God cannot be the Almighty God of the Universe because he is too much like us, weak and fallible and hopelessly incapable people.
What is the point of—and where is the hope in—worshipping a God who is at one moment loving and kind, and at the next moment cruel and erratic? It is like being the child of a father who, when he is sober, is loving and gentle with his children, but when he stumbles in the door drunk beats the living hell out of his kids.
I cannot love a God like that, even though that is the God I was taught as a child and the first God I sought and followed. But I struggled to escape that God. I could not love him and surrender myself to him because, perhaps like Isaac with his father, Abraham, I cannot trust him.
The God of the Universe whom I seek must be more than a more powerful me. He cannot be as chaotic as I, nor as unsure. The only God I can trust is a God who is so inestimably beyond the joys and the sufferings of my life and of the world which I experience around me that that God is entirely unknowable. That God does the things he or she or it does, including creating all that is, for the reasons he or she or it does them. I am not privy to the reasons.
That God is incalculably beyond anything I might say about him. And so, I need ask no questions nor characterize that God in any way. I relax into the peace of a quiet mind.
The God of the Universe is. I know that from my experience of being present within that God’s on-going presence. That’s all I know. And that is enough. Anything more, and that Divinity would begin to deteriorate.
That is the choice I have made. I do not urge you to make the same choice. You will make the choice you are disposed to make. And that is as it should be.
I have made the choice to recognize and to honor the Divinity which I cannot know because that knowledge has not arisen in me. As I have been encountering the experiences of my life, I have been seeing increasingly clearly that I have since the beginning been seeking God. When I encountered Divinity plainly, earlier in my life, I recognized that I was encountering the Unknown Sacred, and that was all I knew. Whether I heeded these encounters or not at the time, I have remembered them all ever since, and they have all come to bear on the understandings in this essay.
When I was finally brought to the condition that I could accept the presence of Divinity in every moment of my life—or rather, that I could accept my place within Divinity the Creator—then my heart turned to honoring Divinity by experiencing Divinity in the Now as often as I am brought to remember to do so. In this is silent joy.
My friend, it is all one creation. It all arises, as I prefer to believe, within the One Who is the Source of All Things. I have come, without any effort or even intention on my part, to know the presence of Divinity in my experience. And so, I know the things I am writing. Your path and your conclusions may be different from mine. Differences don’t matter. It is all one creation abiding within the One Source. Whether you agree with me or not, I love you as a brother or a sister. That is the simple message of Jesus. And that is all there is: Love in the one creation.
Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Skulicz