How To Explain Human Suffering?

By | October 24, 2016 | 0 Comments


Tired of politics? Disappointed by the candidates? Sick of the nastiness? Let us take a brief vacation from politics and deal with a much deeper subject.

For many centuries, people have wondered why a good God allows human suffering. I am very far from being a theologian, but I do have some thoughts on the subject.

Much suffering is caused by humans themselves, but this is relatively easy to explain. We have free will, which must include the ability to do evil to our fellow humans. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be independent individuals − we would be mere puppets or robots, able to do only what we had been programmed to do. And who wants to be a robot? A world peopled by wind-up toys would be boring in the extreme.

We must believe in free will; we have no choice.
Isaac Bashevis Singer

When it comes to accidents, we can agree that the physical world must be subject to the laws of physics. A car going 50 miles per hour has a certain amount of kinetic energy, which must be absorbed if it hits something. Harder to understand is why a good God allows natural disasters. But I believe that this too can be explained, however imperfectly.

● Earthquakes and tsunamis are caused by the friction of the plates that make up the earth’s crust. They are a natural consequence of a molten earth cooling, and the cooler surface contracting and wrinkling − like the crust of a pie. That is, earthquakes and tsunamis are a result of creation.

● Storms and floods are caused by the energy of the sun heating some parts of the atmosphere and the oceans more than other parts, resulting in winds and rain. That is, storms and floods are a result of creation.

● Cancer is a result of mutations in DNA. Some mutations are harmful. But others are the engine of evolution. Without mutations, we would still be single-celled organisms. Stretching things a bit, one might even speculate that the past mutations which allowed single cells to divide but not separate are similar to the mutations which now allow cells to divide uncontrollably and cause cancer. Perhaps all multicellular organisms − including us − are the result of “cancers” in single-celled organisms. That is, cancer is a result of mutations, which are the engine of evolution, which is the engine of creation of plants, animals, and human beings.

● Heart disease is a bit harder to explain. Bad diet and smoking play roles. But most diseases of aging − especially degenerative bone and joint problems − are the result of wear and tear, gravity, and oxidation. Oxygen has toxic effects, but advanced life would be impossible without it. Besides, without the diseases of aging, we would live too long and stifle the development of the next generation. That, too, is part of creation, which is an ongoing process.

Diseases and natural disasters would seem terrible indeed if this world were all there is. But they are more bearable if we recall these words:

We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

There, wasn’t it pleasant to take a brief vacation from politics? We have to look down and watch where we are stepping, but occasionally we should look up at the horizon – and the sky.

I get my knowledge of the moral universe from religion, but I get my knowledge of the physical universe from science. It is futile to try to get scientific knowledge from religion, or to try to get ethical knowledge from science. It is harmful to proclaim religious doctrines as though they were scientific theories, or to proclaim scientific theories as though they were religious doctrines. Those who do so are taking something helpful, even beautiful, and misusing it in ways that make it seem unhelpful, even ugly.

In regard to evolution, let me say that we owned Airedale terriers for 28 years, yet sometimes our dogs surprised me. If I cannot fully understand a creature I love, with which I am intimately familiar, and which has a much smaller brain than I, how could I possibly presume to understand the mind of the Almighty? If He chooses to use evolution as a tool of creation, how dare I tell Him that He should not do so?

Besides, whom was God talking to when He said, “Let us make man in our image”? Was he using the “royal we”? Probably not; God usually refers to Himself as “I.” Was He talking to the angels? Possibly. But could He have been talking to the animals, which He created before man?

This makes sense to me. Man is part animal – the physical structure and DNA resemble those of animals. But man is also in the Divine image – hence the reference to our image. Would most religious authorities agree with this interpretation? Perhaps not. But it makes Genesis more comprehensible for me, at least.

Of course, suffering is part of animal life, yet we do not rack our brains to explain why this should be so. Could human suffering be an intrinsic part of our partially animal nature, rather than a punishment for sin? After all, animals cannot sin, yet they suffer – and in ways that are similar to our own suffering, though less complex.

In short, I can’t explain human suffering any better than all those who have attempted to do so before me. But I believe that even the attempt makes us deeper thinkers.

Those who imagine that they have a monopoly of knowledge and wisdom, and that anyone who disagrees is an ignorant fool, should recall what God told Job when Job questioned Him:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand…Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades? Can you loosen Orion’s belt? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens?

We all could use a bit of humility.

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