HOW CAN GOD ALLOW SUCH PAIN?

  In the past twenty years wildfires, famines, hurricanes, tsunamis and floods have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left many more without homes and means of livelihood. Given all this, how can anyone say God is a God of love?

      Whenever we are overwhelmed by the evil and suffering in the world, we should always remember that evil is only a corruption of something that was originally intended to be good. For example, illness is a corruption of original health. War is a corruption of original peace.

       So goodness is original and foundational, evil is only secondary. According to the Jewish scriptures, God made life and everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

       God provides for us most of the time. The oceans God made are good to human beings 99% of the time: the source not of tsunamis and hurricanes, but of fish and of rain that makes the plants thrive that animals and humans eat. God constantly provides air, food, water, and shelter for us, but this is so commonplace we normally don’t think about it.

       God does not want or cause suffering. The laws of nature, and misuse of human freedom, are the twin sources directly responsible for suffering.

       Normally, natural laws serve us well, create order in the world, and allow us to predict what will happen. However, nature just obeys its own laws. It doesn’t matter to nature if people are in the way of an avalanche – it is going to obey the law of gravity anyway.

       If God kept interfering with natural laws to prevent our suffering, life would be totally chaotic and unpredictable.

       God allows suffering for higher purposes. Through suffering, we learn compassion for the suffering of others, and wisdom: how we and others can avoid even worse suffering. Also, service to others, self-sacrifice, courage, and heroism emerge. If God eliminated all suffering, life would lose its’ profundity.

       Suffering, to some degree at least, is an inescapable part of life because suffering is a continuum, all the way from stubbing your toe to the massive tragedies of famines and war.

      We have to ask: should God eliminate all suffering from life? And if not, what degree of suffering should God allow?

       As Helen Keller once noted, “Life is full of suffering, and it is also full of the overcoming of suffering.”

       God allows suffering, but God also motivates us to overcome suffering. Thus, all the helping professions and agencies arise: medicine, psychology, social work, churches, mosques, synagogues, the United Nations, Red Cross, etc.

       God always brings greater good out of any tragedy or evil. Through God working in them, people all over the world respond generously to disaster relief.

       The pandemic has caused people all over the world to examine their own lives and priorities: are material things that important? Any of us could be gone in the blink of an eye, so maybe God, taking care of each other, and what happens to us in the afterlife are the important things.

       Perhaps the biggest answer to suffering is this: if God had not created human freedom (and therefore the capacity to do harm), and natural laws, there would be no suffering. Therefore, while God is not directly responsible for suffering, God is indirectly responsible for it. Given that God indirectly causes suffering, one could say it is necessary that God suffer with us, that God not be in heavenly bliss while people on earth suffer.

       If God is ultimately responsible for suffering, the cross is a necessity, if we are going to maintain any idea of a compassionate God. The cross is the great symbol that God suffers with us, that God is, indeed, a compassionate God.

       Where is God in the face of natural catastrophes? God is right there suffering with the people who are suffering. God is always right in the center of human pain, trying to alleviate it. God is a God who cares and is close to the brokenhearted. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures say this over and over.

       The cross in turn demands resurrection and heaven. It wouldn’t make any sense that an all-powerful God could be ultimately defeated. It is another necessity of faith that God ultimately must triumph over all suffering and death, and there is a place where all suffering is wiped away forever. Resurrection and heaven are necessities.

       Suffering is ultimately a mystery beyond explanation. We could talk to the victims about all the points above, but it would still not take away the pain of those who have lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods.

       Sometimes all you can do is hold, cry, support, and try to be present (either physically or in your prayers) with those who are suffering.

       Besides giving whatever aid you can, sometimes all you can do is feel people’s pain with them. This is what a loving God does.

 Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author. btallman@rogers.com

 

GOD’S JUSTICE IS ETERNAL LOVE NOT ETERNAL PUNISHMENT

 You may find the idea that God is only pure love, not a mixture of love and wrath, revolutionary if you grew up as I did with an idea of God as an angry old man in the sky constantly watching us so he could punish us for our sins.

    Although I have grown beyond that image intellectually, the vestiges of it are still deeply planted in my brain and make it difficult for me to totally trust God. Even as an adult I used to think that, on the one hand God was purely loving, and yet on the other hand we had to maintain God’s “holiness,” by which we meant “hatred of sin,” and since sin has to be punished, God’s justice was always punitive and wrathful.

    But what if God’s justice is only restorative not punitive, and God is forever only pure love? What if, as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr always says, “Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.”

    The best human being would do everything they could to fully understand and help others, not punish them. However, we live in a dualistic, tit-for-tat culture that divides people up into good and bad. The bad are your enemies and the culture tells us enemies are to be punished and destroyed.

    This punitive cultural attitude even infects our churches and warps our theology. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, but many Christians do not believe that God does this, God condemns sinners to be tortured forever in hell.

    Jesus taught that we should forgive seventy times seven, that is, forever. But many Christians do not believe God does this, God sends people to eternal torment in hell.

    Why would someone as great as God, who has infinite power, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy choose to eternally destroy infinitely small, vulnerable creatures because of the stupid things they do, usually out of their own ignorance and brokenness? Doesn’t that make God infinitely petty, unloving judgmental and angry – qualities we don’t admire in any human being?

    Even in civil courtrooms, the length of the sentence must fit the crime – we don’t send people to lifelong imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread for their family because they are food insecure. Eternal punishment therefore does not make sense. What could we possibly do that would warrant, not just imprisonment but torture, and not just for a lifetime but forever? Forever is an awfully long time, particularly if you are being tortured! This idea makes God a monster who is eternally vengeful, something we admire in no one. This idea makes atheists not believers. Surely, God is far greater, not far lower, than the best human being?

    Maybe God’s holiness is God’s infinite and eternal love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy? Maybe God’s holiness is like the story Jesus told about the father of the prodigal son who runs out to meet and embrace his son and celebrates his return, rather than punishing him for squandering his father’s fortune? Maybe God’s holiness is like Jesus who, when a woman is caught in adultery, rather than stoning her for her sin, as the elders wanted him to, says, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.”

     I think the idea of hell as a place of eternal torture is a projection of our worst fears onto God and religious leaders used this to control people. It is easy to control people who are afraid. I also believe though that there is a hell, not as a place but a state of mind. We create our own hell or heaven on Earth by the choices we make. I suppose it would be possible to make eternally bad choices and so condemn yourself to eternal hell, but I don’t think God condemns us. Rather, God would eternally pursue us until we gave in to God’s eternal love.

    Of course, this brings up all the verses in the Bible about the wrath of God. There are good theological responses that give alternative ways of interpreting these verses, but I reserve my answers for another article. Suffice it to say for now, that the Bible is full of examples of God’s restorative not punitive justice. For now, let us merely consider and savor the idea that God’s holiness and justice are found in God’s eternal love not eternal wrath, that God is only loving not both loving and wrathful.

Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author of God’s Ecstatic Love (Apocryphile Press, 2021). See www.brucetallman.com/books

 

 

 

   

   

GOD IN HUMAN FORM

Within Christian ranks in the past 40 years or so there have been persistent attempts to recast the basic tenets of Christianity itself. One of the most remarkable of these has come from Tom Harpur, who noted in The Pagan Christ in 2004 that other cultures had myths about the dying and rising god, and therefore the early church just made up a myth about the dying and rising Jesus.

    My sense is that Harpur is either not being true to himself or has somehow forgotten his theological studies as an Anglican priest. Every student of Christian theology is taught that the distinctiveness of the Jewish God was that this God acted in history. One of the most dramatic examples of this was when God liberated the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. God acted throughout Jewish history from the time of Abraham to the kings and prophets.

    This experience of God acting in history simply continued in the most dramatic way of all when God became human in Jesus Christ. God acting in history was not a new idea that the early church made up. The church did not try to change a myth into a reality. Rather, it proclaimed that all the myths of other cultures suddenly became a reality when Christ was born. This was Paul’s basic approach when he told the Greeks and Romans that Jesus was their Unknown God.

    It makes sense that God would not just tell us how to live, as God did in the Ten Commandments, but God would also show us how to live by becoming human. In Christ, God gave us a three-year audio-visual demonstration of what a true human being is and what God is really like.

    There were many witnesses to the specialness of Jesus before, during, and after his life. First, there is the ancient scriptural record. Before the historical Jesus appeared, there were dozens of prophecies in the Jewish scriptures of what the Messiah would be like: royal, suffering, and divine. Jesus fulfilled all these prophecies, particularly the ones by the prophet Isaiah, who said that a child will be born who will be called “Mighty God” and “Everlasting Father” and will have a kingdom without end (Isaiah 9: 6-8). This suffering servant will be “pierced for our sins,” but “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

    Then there is the vision of the prophet Daniel of a man who was led into the presence of God. God gave this man everlasting authority, sovereign power, and glory, and the people of every nation worshiped him (Daniel 7:13-14). There are many other Jewish prophecies like this.

    During Christ’s life he gave great and sublime teachings such as the Sermon on the Mount, in which he focused in the Beatitudes on the nature of true happiness. The rest of Christ’s teachings also extended and completed the spirit of the Law and the Prophets.

    Another witness is the astounding miracles: Jesus calming a raging sea, multiplying food for the hungry, healing all manner of illnesses, raising a man to life who had been dead for four days!

    Even if we overlooked the miracles, there is the witness of the way Christ lived. His courage, integrity, wisdom, and compassion were so complete they must have had a supernatural source.

    There is the witness of the appearances of Christ after his resurrection to hundreds of disciples, and there is the New Testament record of miracles performed in the name of Jesus by these disciples.

    There is also the witness of people dying for their faith in Christ, the record of all the martyrs in the early church. No one would lay down their life for some mythical human being. Then there is the record of the ongoing growth of the church through the centuries, and of so many present-day martyrs.

    Put all this together and one is almost forced to conclude that in Jesus something extremely special was going on. In fact, it all points to one reality: that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God. In the birth of Christ, God gave us the greatest gift of all: God in the form of a human being.

Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author of God’s Ecstatic Love (Apocryphile Press, 2021). See www.brucetallman.com/books

 

 

WHAT THE POSTMODERN WORLD NEEDS NOW

The most important role for religion in the postmodern world

is to act as a sacred conveyor belt

moving people from myth to reason to trans-reason

that is, to see the limits of reason and transcend it.

 

Today we need to transcend both reason and science.

Buddhism tells you from day one

to find out for yourself what is true –

it encourages constant seeking –

even the teachings of the Buddha

should be questioned and tested.

 

For fundamentalist Muslims there is no need to ask questions

for the Koran has all the answers already –

their Sacred Book in its 114 suras (chapters)

is considered by them to be the final revelation

of the final prophet Mohammed

of the final purpose and will of God for humanity.

 

But mystics/contemplatives/sages of all traditions see

that their viewpoint is just a view from a point –

they have the ability to observe

their own inner dramas and dilemmas

in an egoless way

which is the primary form of “dying to the self”

that Jesus and Buddha lived and taught experientially.

 

Today however, the self reigns supreme

individualism leads to anti-institutionalism

people think institutions like family and marriage

are too restrictive – no one should have a say in how I live

and so people rail against government taxation

meant for the common good

and church is seen as impeding my spiritual growth –

individuals want to create their own self-religion

and free autonomous individuals get infected

by the pandemic of loneliness

which scourges the postmodern world.

 

What the postmodern world needs now

is community/togetherness/love/

sweet love.

THE EXPANDED UNIVERSE AND THE COSMIC CHRIST

Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality likely came from the Celts

who spread across Europe and may have come from India

where Hindus saw the divine in all of nature –

in trees/rocks/rivers/animals.

 

From the Patristics, the Church Fathers, to the Middle Ages

cosmology and theology were one

but then the heliocentrism (Sun-centerism) of Copernicus

gave a different cosmology than the Earth-centrism of the Church

so that cosmology and theology divorced

and God was separated from the universe

but this is “deism” not Christianity.

 

Contemporary theologians cannot ignore the new physics

which is the relativistic and revelatory context in our time –

and the sacred story of the universe is being told by astronomy

with an unimaginable cosmology of billions of galaxies.

 

And evolution is the process by which Trinity becomes cosmos

and cosmos is Christified –

Unconditional Love (the Father) is poured into the Word (the Son)

forever breathed anew in the Holy Spirit.

 

Since love is the basis of all created orders

and the Cosmic Christ is first in God’s intention to love

“exoChristology” (the theology of Christ on exoplanets)

claims that planets outside our solar system will be related

to the Cosmic Christ and completed by an Incarnation –

Christ after all is the Alpha and the Omega

the Origin and End of all.

 

If Christians are to survive in this expanded universe

we need a bigger Jesus – there needs to be a shift

from a focus on the human Jesus of Nazareth

to a focus on Jesus as the incarnation of the Cosmic Christ –

for there might be incarnations of the Cosmic Christ

on exoplanets, incarnations not with the name of Jesus

but with other names

but they would still be the Cosmic Christ Incarnate.

 

I know this is mind-boggling but so is the new universe.

However, faith allows us to live in confident patience

that God will eventually fulfill all God’s promises

and we will one day understand it all.

 

EVER-ADAPTING CHRISTIANITY

In the triad of world/flesh/devil

it is almost always the sins of the “flesh”

that are attacked by churches –

birth control/adultery/abortion/pornography

and seldom do sermons preach about the sins of the “world” –

the lust for wealth and prestige that the ego loves.

 

But the difference between the True Self

and the False Self is the difference between

“True Centering” (on God) and “Ego Centering” (on Self).

 

In fact, the True Self can include the False Self

because the way we become whole as humans

is by embracing every aspect of our existence –

our weakness/failures/mistakes

by humility/not taking ourselves too seriously –

we grow by wholeness not by absolute moral purity

which we never reach anyway.

 

Still, we consign to the unconscious

all fantasy, all psychic associations connected with

words/numbers/stones/plants/animals –

but for primitives all these things had numinous power.

 

Friedrich Nietzsche dismissed all primitives

and fancied himself to be a Rational Existentialist –

one who has the courage to stare into the abyss of non-being

and discover complete loneliness, complete aloneness

if God is dead.

 

There have been many Rational Christian responses

that have deconstructed the “death of God” movement

and people like Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong

have also helped us deconstruct Bibical Fundamentalism

and there are many Postmodern Christian thinkers

like Brian McLaren with his book A Generous Orthodoxy

and others have developed The Postmodern Bible

and The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology.

 

As usual, Christianity has adapted to/learned from/gone beyond

whatever the world/the devil/the ego throws at us –

we always include and then transcend

all attempts to deconstruct the Truth.

THE NEW SCIENCE AND THE DIVINE PLAN

The first theme of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis

is dying to self. The second theme is detachment

because attachment to material things

is one of the great impediments to the spiritual life.

 

However, according to Matthew Fox

Meister Eckhart is as different from Thomas à Kempis

as compassion from sentimentalism

as passion from repression

as celebration from asceticism.

 

The new science should cause religious people to celebrate

because “radical amazement,” according to Abraham Heschel

is the primary characteristic of a religious attitude to life.

 

Ponder for a minute what the new science tells us:

the sun emits more energy in the form of light

in one second than all of humanity has consumed

in its whole history – four million tons of energy –

which is thirteen million times

the energy consumption of USA in a year.

 

Non-dual thinkers use knowledge like this

not to “puff up” but to build up/induce awe/transform others

starting with themselves.

They never use knowledge

to shame those who know less or control them –

they use knowledge to help us all

see reality with new eyes.

 

The birth of radical awe is good timing

because along with our new scientific/technical knowledge

comes awesome power

and so greater wisdom is absolutely necessary.

 

Humility/wisdom/compassion are needed

when it comes to science and technology

because humility/wisdom/compassion

are the only things that give us new eyes

to see the Holy Spirit/the Divine Knowledge/the Divine Plan

and according to Oscar Romero

“There are many things that can only be seen

through eyes that have cried.”

 

 

SPIRITUAL PRIDE/RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE

Medieval pilgrimage was meant to be a cure for violence

but in the Crusades it became a consecration of violence –

if we believe God is only on our side

now we can kill in God’s name

and believe killing infidels is God’s will.

 

Religious violence comes from hubris –

proudly thinking we know all about God and God’s will

but for theologians like Meister Eckhart

God is better apprehended by negation than affirmation

God is an unspoken word/ineffable/

a light shining in silent stillness

which can be found in all religions

if you dig deep enough.

 

Hinayana Buddhism, the Lesser Wheel,

regards the Buddha as a human hero/a supreme sage/a saint

but Mahayana Buddhism, the Greater Wheel,

goes deeper and sees him as a world savior/an incarnation

of the principle of Enlightenment: silent light shining everywhere.

 

In Christianity, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

reunited spirituality and theology so much

that its treatises are spiritual theology

and can be read as “lectio divina” – “sacred reading/sacred light.”

 

Jonathan Edwards, a Protestant philosopher and pastor

considered one of America’s most important

philosophical theologians, tried to discern

true religious affection from delusion.

He condemned both emotionalism and intellectualism

in religion because true religion

consists in “holy affections” from the heart

a unitary faculty of love and will

which cures the spiritual hubris

of thinking we can feel what God feels (emotionalism)

and think what God thinks (intellectualism)

which leads to religious violence.

 

“My ways are not your ways

and my thoughts are not your thoughts”

says the True Lord (Isaiah 55:8-9).

 

 

THE TEMPLE VS THE MARKET

Humans are integrally part of evolution

because they arise from it

but in reflecting on it they stand apart from it.

Teilhard would agree with Julian Huxley that

“We are nothing if not evolution becoming aware of itself.”

 

This is true, but the secular mythology of constant progress

is that the axial person moves

from the myth and magic of primitive humanity

to the rationalism of the great past civilizations

to the post-conventional stage of Jungian ‘individuation.’

 

However, Johann Baptist Metz, a German theologian

noted that the common theme in western culture is

not individuation but individualism

either by materialistic success for oneself

or by non-materialistic self-fulfillment/self-actualization –

the message is always that self-interest

is more important than the good of society.

 

If the world is a temple, everything is sacred

and has inherent value, which includes you and me.

If the world is a market, everything has market value only –

and spirituality is foolish and a dead end.

 

The ego, like the market

 always has an opportunistic agenda

driven by ideology/fear/or anger

which feeds the False Self

whereas the True Self/the Soul has no agenda

except to help you see reality as it is.

 

The solution to the polarization of western culture

caused by individualism is contemplation.

True meditation is to be mindful –

to concentrate and look deeply

into the nature and roots of your inner life

and so to find your True Self/Soul

the Love which loves

God/Truth/and the Common Good.

LIBERATION THROUGH MINDFULNESS

All ‘holons’ (living systems)

have four fundamental capacities:

self-preservation/self-adaptation/

self-transcendence/and self-dissolution.

The 100 billion people who have come and gone

have always been caught up in ‘I’/‘We’/and ’It’ –

and they have always created ‘Its’ –

institutions/governments/religions

to control them and tell them what to do.

 

Persons with an insecure

or particularly avoidant ‘attachment style’

are much more prone to dramatic religious conversion –

out of a deep need for security

they follow religious authorities without question

and become fundamentalists in every religion.

 

However, when people go to retreat centers

often the monks teach them mindfulness

and that everything can be done mindfully

whether praying/walking/eating/working.

This new level of consciousness

liberates those with a fundamentalist bent.

 

Still, shadow projections can prevail

in every human conflict. The need to be

right/get your way/dominate/control others

can cause the breakup of relationships –

friendships/marriages/families.

 

But children and parents at least

help each other by standing together

through hardships at every stage:

infancy to old age –

through every manner of challenge

until death parts them

but even then, wise spouses

bravely accept and esteem widowhood

as a continuation of their marital vocation –

even death can be overcome with mindfulness.