One of the oldest problems in religion is the prevalence of undeserved suffering and its implications about good and evil. However we might conceive it, if Spirit is good, why do bad things happen to good people, and why do bad people seem so often to come out on top? There is even a technical term for analyzing this problem: theodicy.
So far 2011 has provided us with an impressive (or depressive) exhibition of examples.
In Japan bad things are happening to good people on an extraordinary scale. The newborns and children washed away by the tsunami certainly were about as blameless as any human being can be. I suspect it is also true for many older people. Entire towns were wiped from the face of the earth, and the relative merits of some inhabitants over others appears not to have mattered at all. For those who have not seen videos of this disaster, e two of the most powerful are here and here .
In the Arab world for the first time ever rank and file people have stood up en mass against corrupt and brutal oppressors. They have often acted peacefully and with great personal bravery. In two cases their oppressors fell and today Tunisians and Egyptians have reasons for hope they never had before. But elsewhere the efforts of the brave have been less successful, and despotic rulers still kill wantonly to stay in power, and not only in the Arab world.
Here at home Republicans elected on promises of focusing on jobs have ignored their promises, preferring to attack women and society’s most powerless while further enriching its most wealthy and often corrupt members. From seeking to end bans on child labor to having the IRS investigate abortions to preventing poor people from being able to carry any but trivial amounts of cash ($20) to ending cigarette taxes while cutting medical care, there seems no limit to their depravity. Many of our country’s most privileged and morally debased members cheer them on, ignoring values of truthfulness, integrity, and respect for others in the process. There seems to be a selection process favoring the worst in America.
Bart Ehrman, one of my favorite Biblical scholars, ultimately found the problem of evil and undeserved suffering too much for his faith. Entering religious study a convinced Christian Fundamentalist, Ehrman had managed to handle the collapse of claims the Bible was inerrant, maintaining his faith despite this. But the problem of evil was too much. Today Ehrman is an agnostic. I think it is hard for a thoughtful monotheist who has not had a mystical experience to avoid Ehrman’s conclusion except perhaps through sheer force of will. If God is in charge, oversees everything, is omnipotent and omniscient, and is also good, the problems around us seem inexplicable.
But this problem is not just a Christian one, nor one just for monotheists.
The problem of evil and undeserved suffering may not impact those who believe in an animate world where ultimately there are no moral values, no ultimate good but what of the rest of us Pagans? How might we make sense of it?
This is a topic I have often discussed. My first attempt was chapter 5 in Pagans and Christians. I still think it is good, as far as it goes. But I have returned to the issue periodically because it impacts me so much personally and constitutes one of the greatest mysteries in human life if there is a larger spiritual context that redeems this world.
To some extent I will cover territory I’ve discussed before, but I hope they take us a few steps beyond my first discussion in Pagans and Christians and later posts in thisblog on suffering and beauty and another on hard cases of suffering. I will begin with what is on everyone’s mind these days: the spiritual implications of what has happened and is continuing to happen in Japan, and the larger problem of suffering caused by the natural world.
Where I am coming from
Today the death of a small child is a tragedy, however, it is only with modern medicine that few children die. At our country’s founding the frequent deaths of newborns, children, and often their mothers was not unusual. Only one male child of our country’s Founders made it to adulthood: John Quincy Adams. The others died young.
When Columbus arrived the Americas were populated by many millions of people with cities, written languages, sophisticated mathematics, and families where parents loved their children and one another. Over 90% of these people died within a few generations, entire cultures wiped from the face of the earth, as a result of Old World diseases. This depopulation of two continents was probably the biggest demographic disaster in human history, but it was far from the only case where millions have died from disease. Floods, droughts, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the like have taken millions more lives. Often those who survived were grievously injured physically and psychologically.
And still I argue the earth is alive and sacred?
There are two dimensions to my answer, one experiential, and one from thinking about those experiences. The experiential dimension has two facets. The first has been my encounter with nature, the second my encounter with Spirit.
The first time I ever felt unadulterated happiness was during my first rest stop on my first backpack while attending a summer camp in the Colorado Rockies. There, surrounded by snowy peaks, groves of trees, deep valleys, and the special perfection of scale that exists just at timberline, I felt a peace I had never felt before. I was resting at the head of Forest Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park, not far from the largest snow bank at the middle right of this picture.
I had had earlier intimations of this peace and beauty while in nature, camping with the Boy Scouts, playing in the snow, or exploring a stream near my home. But this was qualitatively different. Later in my life these experiences grew in intensity, particularly as I explored the West and then the far Northeast.
My first Sabbat, was held in a glade surrounded by trees in Tilden Park, above Berkeley. There I had an encounter with the Goddess, whom I have ever since called “My Lady of Forests and Fields,” for She was as much the spirit of Nature as I can imagine anything or anyone being. Additional powerful experiences, particularly on Mt. Shasta, further strengthened my awareness of the spiritual power, beauty and goodness of this earth. Robinson Jeffers put my point perfectly:
… the human sense
Of beauty is our metaphor of their excellence, their divine
nature: – like dust in a whirlwind, making
The wild wind visible.
So, if I know anything, I know this earth is good.
But then what about all that other stuff I described in my previous post? The tunami killing thousands, plagues, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes? What about the devastation and death? That’s all true as well.
The perspective we take towards spiritual reality helps guide our answers to these questions. Bart Ehrman’s transcendental monotheism could not withstand the pain caused by his caring awareness of others’ sufferings. Were I of similar spiritual views, I doubt my beliefs would do any better.
But I am not a monotheist.
Personal spiritual experiences have convinced me spiritual reality has at least three dimensions; dimensions that are not reducible to one another. They are not a spiritual hierarchy. They cannot be ranked as one being “more advanced” than the others.
I have always been reticent about describing my experiences because I do not want to even seem to be claiming to be “spiritually advanced.” I think I’ve made progress in my own life, given where I began. But I have come to know enough people to be very wary of comparing myself to others in this way. Perhaps I had experiences in order to communicate them to others. Perhaps I needed these experiences to develop qualities others developed on their own, without need of such help. Whatever the case, I certainly do not for one minute regard myself as a spiritual teacher or exemplar. Not at all. But these things did happen to me.
As I understand them, these three spiritual dimensions are the Non-Dual, described by Buddhists and some other mystics; the Monist, experienced by other mystics; and the Dual, which is the sacred dimension of the world of separate beings. This third is our day to day world when experienced as spiritually filled with meaning.
The Non-Dual is beyond distinctions between subject and object. I can best describe my own encounter as “experience without an experiencer.” “I” did not exist as separate from experience. There was no sense of watching or observing.
Experiencing the Monistic dimension is often described as encountering the Source from which all things emanate. If this Source is described as God, it is God without any limiting personal aspects whatsoever. Often it is described as God as pure love. That was my experience. I was experiencing that from which I and everything else came, but I was having the experience.
The Dual is the Sacred dimension of the world we see around us, and of more subtle dimensions of a reality where individuals are in some way distinct from one another, including spirits and Gods and Goddessses. A deity is not the One, but they share, at least some of them, in the quality of unconditional love. And these qualities bleed out into the mundane world, which is why while I and others who have experienced it do not ourselves manifest unconditional love we recognize it as love, and that we ourselves can also love, if not so fully, and that our capacity to love can grow.
We might experience these different conceptions as contradictory, but then, we find that photons can manifest as waves and as particles, and so are contradictory to us without that fact bothering the photons one bit. As limited beings who cannot comprehend even a photon, it is silly to imagine we can do better with what is Ultimate.
This is where I am coming from in the discussion to follow.