God, Suffering and Salvation

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I have complete sympathy for atheists and agnostics.  I’ve wrestled with questions my entire life and whether or not there is a God is always one of them.  But the one thing that I can’t understand is being angry about human suffering, from a rational basis, if God does not exist.  If there is no ultimate good, no greater purpose or meaning to life, on what basis do we make a moral judgment about suffering?

Okay, let’s back up a second.  I’m here at my local establishment drinking another Long Island, one of many since the death of Uriah, and it hasn’t given me an answer as to why he would die of cancer at twenty-four.  The medical diagnosis is simple enough.  He had cancer.  The aggressive kind.  It started with the lump on his ankle during boot camp.  I still have the picture on my phone taken out of morbid curiosity and never dreaming it was a death sentence.

Uriah and I, despite our difference in age, got along in a way that only cousins do.  He was like me.  We didn’t simply accept those easy cliché answers.  He was someone who was both determined and also full of doubts.  He was also the six-foot tall and better version of everything I ever was.  The best part was that I could claim some of his success for myself given that I had encouraged him to continue his college education, telling him that it was better to keep going than to live a life of regrets.

Watching Uriah sacrifice a leg only to have the cancer be found in his lungs a year later. It was a gut punch.  I think I stopped praying, at some point, because I just knew what the prognosis was.  

The hardest part, however, is that Uriah was not the first of his family that I had to carry out of the church on a cold winter day.  His parents had already lost one of their children to a seizure disorder.  His two other siblings are severely disabled and will need constant care.  Judy, his mom, is an incredible woman and has extraordinary faith.  Ed too has great strength of character.  And neither of them wastes any time feeling sorry for themselves despite losing the one healthy child they had to this terrible disease.

Where was God?

When my little Saniyah died, unexpectedly, it was a really big struggle for me.  It took me years to get my feet back under me again, spiritually and emotionally speaking, and I had both doubted my own faith along with the existence of a loving God.  The death of Uriah, along with my disappointments with those whom I put my trust in, and my long wait for Charlotte, have really tested me the past few years.  But, I have those who need me to be strong this time around and, for this reason, have had to push back against falling into despair again.

Nevertheless, I totally get why someone who has encountered suffering in a personal way is angry and denies the existence of God on this basis.  I mean why would this kind of pain and loss be allowed if there is an all-powerful good in the universe, right?  Why would God not intervene and stop this all rather than let us go through such terrible experiences?  It doesn’t make much sense, does it, that we should be left so lonely and struggling if God is good.

However, if we eliminate totally God from the equation, then we dismiss religious morality and must acknowledge that there is nothing written in the fabric of the universe that says our existence entitles us to good feelings.  I mean, as far as evolution goes, pain is more or less a survival tool, a feedback system to tell us what to avoid.  Feeling sad about the death of a friend or family member is, by this logic, a malfunction. 

In this harsh environment, where everything is out to kill us, why would we ever expect anything more than suffering?

The moral reasoning that makes this bad, if you are truly an atheist, is nothing other than a construct.  In terms of pure biology, it is good that fire hurts or we might burn our arms off.  That is pain for a very practical and utilitarian purpose.  Undeniably good if there is such a thing.  But what reasonable good is there in mourning those already dead?  No point in crying over spilled milk, right?  A totally rational being would simply move on to the next social resource and not be so attached or sentimental.

Being upset over suffering and death, if there is no God, is irrational.  And, if there is a God, like that of Christianity, then suffering and death are exactly what we’re promised in this life.  Sheesh.  Did you read the story of Jesus and how he was betrayed, beaten, and then unjustly killed in the most brutal fashion all as part of a redemptive plan?  If you actually believe in eternity then why be angry about a few years living out this rich narrative we call life? 

At the very least, how can we judge anything, especially a fictional character, on the basis of a moral standard that doesn’t exist? 

If there is no God, then there is no basis for morality either.  That too, including the idea that suffering is bad or pleasure is good, is entirely a construct.  Pain is good in some circumstances, it protects us from injury and causes us to change behavior in ways that are beneficial.  In other words, without the discomfort of hunger or thirst, we would not correctly prioritize our life.  Pleasure can be bad when it makes us eat too many donuts and become diabetic.  So how does one truly know that their own interpretation of these signals is the correct one?

From what I’ve observed in myself and in others, unbelief stems from disappointment when things do not go as expected.  It is about who is in control.  We can cling, in our own arrogance, to this notion that the universe should bend to our will.  Or realize that our own perceptions, based on senses which are not very reliable and a brain prone to making mistakes in judgment, are not infallible or ever actual truth.

The thing is we only ever know if suffering is good or bad if it is properly contextualized if we understand the end.  For example, feeling the burn of exercise is good pain because it is what accompanies muscle development and so we embrace this.  So what is the real context of our life?  To what end, or for what reason, did we become conscious?  What is behind this ‘accident’ if it is one? 

How do we contextualize our existence enough to judge what is good or bad?

If there is such a thing as an eternal reward, that would change the calculus, right?  It would mean that all pain can be gain, and all suffering can draw us closer as much as it drives us away because defining the moral character of any experience depends on the end.  I am willing to subject myself to many hardships if the reward is big enough.  No, this doesn’t take away the question of why we must go through here to get there.  But seeing past our immediate feelings is pretty much the only way to make progress.

Angry is a feeling, not a guide for life…

I was at this time living, like so many Atheists or Antitheists, in a whirl of contradictions. I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with Him for creating a world.

C.S. Lewis

People don’t walk away from Christianity for rational or scientific reasons.  Sure, they may guard their emotion-based unbelief behind a wall of post hoc justification.  But the reality is that they’re upset about something.  They had expectations and are now disappointed and acting as wounded people do.  It’s just strange that anyone at all Biblically literate would suddenly lose faith over our suffering when that’s literally the only we’re promised in this life.

What really doesn’t make any sense is why anyone would rather suffer with no hope at all of eternity.  If God is dead, then nihilism is the logical next stop and that life has no real meaning or purpose.  But the suffering does not go away simply because we’re angry at the giver of life.  No, it will only intensify and become a spiral of despair.  Our salvation is in our understanding that, smart as we may think we are, we’re truly quite ignorant and even our most ‘concrete’ reality is not real:

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you. 

Werner Heisenberg

For those who don’t know who that is, Mr. Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, in 1932, for the creation of quantum mechanics.  Materialism, despite the zombie corpse of this thing staggering on, died with the discovery of things in defiance of this entirely too simplistic conception.  Sure, this kind of physics is well-beyond most, but it does support a notion of reality that requires a Universal Perceiver (as described in this article) and we could call that God.

So, if you’re actually serious about science, then the hard science of physics is the place to start and, with its mathematical origin and proofs, is much less likely to be clouded by emotion one way or another.  We can’t run from God.  But we may need to leave behind the baggage of our own misconceptions and learn the value of true repentance.  Maybe Uriah died, and went to his reward, so some of us would have our flawed thinking broken and seek our salvation in Him?

Maybe some of us are just too stubborn, or too needing of control being in our own hands, to admit we can’t save ourselves?

I’ll tell you this.  The universe, without God, is an infinitely dark and lonely place.  It is that starring abyss of which Friedrich Nietzsche warned, the existential horror H.P. Lovecraft describes.  Highly intelligent men, both of them, and understood the implications that come with true unbelief in God.  You will not escape your suffering simply by denying that the Divine all-powerful good exists.  No, rather you will just remain in that hell of your own creation.

Postscript: Questions Remain

I still grieve Uriah, as I do Saniyah, uncle Roland, and others that seem to have been taken before their time. I’ve long struggled against sources of trauma much more basic, the lack of unconditional love in the church that could make up for my shortcomings, and much of that is unresolved. At the time of my writing, the impossibility is something yet to be fulfilled. I do not have answers for any of this nor do I expect to. I’m not the arrogant kid who argued with his high school biology teacher, not a Bible-thumping fundamentalist at all, and yet must believe.

Diary Of A Tortured Soul

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What makes me a forever tortured soul is that I’m standing on the knife’s edge.  On one side my ideal, my hopes, dreams and faith.  On the other side my rationality, my anxiety, my knowledge and fears.  

The current cultural paradigm tells me the prior things are built upon social construct, the latter upon science.  They have first deconstructed meaning and purpose, now moved on to trying to even erase categories built upon biology, constantly destroying the rule by highlighting the exception.

The problem with me is that I’m not able to dismiss one or the other.  In many regards I am a postmodern thinker, having rejected modernism, and yet not in the way of those out to destroy every religious tradition or cultural institution.

My own understanding is that social structures, like family, gender distinction or nation, do exist for a reason.  Sure, they should not be an excuse for injustice or unfair exclusion.  However, those who only see these things in negative terms or as unnecessary are severely mistaken.

There are things that can’t be viewed under a microscope that are as needed for human thriving as oxygen or water.  Sure, it is easy to dismiss religion as superstition or redefine terms to suit the current demands of outliers.  

But being unable to appreciate the balance of forces that keep a bridge from falling doesn’t mean that someone can keep removing structural members without consequences.

While being a critic of abuses by these institutions of culture and religion, my point has never been to destroy them.  Sure, it is not acceptable, for example, that the word “modesty” in the Bible is misused to blame women for male lusts, nevertheless tearing down all expectations is an abuse as bad or worse.

Perhaps there are benefits to promoting healthy masculinity or a distinct feminine role?

Those trying to erase all difference in the name of equality are the most controlling and unpleasant people.  In the name of tolerance, they are literally at war with everyone present and past trying to preserve an identity they cherish.  They worship the exception while making life miserable for everyone else.

That’s where I differ from the ‘woke’ and the virtue signaling masses that empower their tyrannical edicts.  Sure, I believe in recognizing disadvantages of some and making wrongs right.  But that’s not what social justice is truly about.  It advertises itself as being a solution, yet is only the same evil of intolerance in a new more ‘colorful’ form.

Still, I am not capable of being fully engulfed by the teachings of Christianity either.  I tend to be philosophically in alignment rather than spiritually and that’s because I’m continually dismissing my own experience as invalid.  I mean, so what if I got the warm fuzzies at a church service, right?  I’ve also experienced euphoria on Adderall.  Been manipulated by music, a rousing speech or what have you.

I can identify fully with H.P. Lovecraft:

“We all know that any emotional bias — irrespective of truth or falsity — can be implanted by suggestion in the emotions of the young, hence the inherited traditions of an orthodox community are absolutely without evidential value…. If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. With such an honest and inflexible openness to evidence, they could not fail to receive any real truth which might be manifesting itself around them. The fact that religionists do not follow this honourable course, but cheat at their game by invoking juvenile quasi-hypnosis, is enough to destroy their pretensions in my eyes even if their absurdity were not manifest in every other direction.”

But this writer of horror, who lived in his own existential crisis hell, does not seem like an example to follow.  What is the point of being ‘rational’ if it keeps one in a state of constant dread about how insignificant and out of control they are?  Is this holding to an agnostic and meaningless interpretation actually intelligence or simply another form of ignorance?

I vote the latter.

Command of language, the ability to pull together a vast amount of information and sift science from superstition, these are things seen as signs of intelligence.  And certainly they are measures of a particular kind of capability of mind.  But, as a person can be knowledgeable and unwise, saying things that bring us pleasure or purpose are not real is simply ignorant.

Serotonin is as real as the stars in the sky, the feelings this hormone produces are no different from light.  It would be stupid to argue that light waves are less important because they lack mass.  Likewise, to say that the spiritual is non-existent, because it cannot be weighed or otherwise measured, is not brilliance either.  Lack of appreciation or ability to comprehend things of emotional value is not intellectual strength.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which seeing behind the veil changes things, there are things that can’t be unseen.  And those Lovecraftian monsters do exist even if only in the mind of the author.  

My own experience, unfortunately, has left me untethered from the comfortable and floating in space.  My sincerest hopes rejected as being delusion by the very people who I had thought would appreciate such things.  It is difficult to cling to the belief that “with faith all things are possible” when your former pastor’s daughter, encouraged by him, supposedly missionary minded, tells you she can’t love.

It is that disconnect between profession and action that keeps me still precariously balanced on bloodied feet.  

Orthodoxy has brought me a firmer foundation than the ever shifting sands of Protestant theology and practice.  It is certainly more ancient and authentic than the alternatives.  Still, that loss of identity and innocence, that process of degradation of my child-like faith over time, makes restoration of my soul seem as possible as a return to my mother’s womb.  How to become less cynical again?

I do envy the simpletons who can ignore such things.  They suffer without swaying in the belief that God is in control.  Wouldn’t we all live that way if we could?

At some point doesn’t logic dictate we take the advice of Job’s wife, curse God and die, rather than continue to push through the pain against all odds?

This blog site, Irregular Ideation, was a product of my dilemma.  That is what to do when the happily ever after and meant to be fairy tales are insufficient to get us beyond our fears.  What does happen when those teeth of quiet desperation and endless angst finally gnaw through what remains of the moral foundation.  The eternal abyss opens beneath our feet, the inscription over our heads: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Fr. Anthony, the spiritual mentor that met me in my time of need, boiled it down to a choice, either we choose to live a life of meaning or we do not.  Charlotte, my bhest, has also urged me to be strong and that likewise suggests that we decide what is worth the effort.  But none of that makes the choice easy or pain free.  Adam and Eve never lost that awareness that biting from the forbidden fruit of knowledge gave them, the thistles of doubt and despair still remain.

It is both assuring and terrifying that the most notable characters in Scripture were tormented.  Elijah, having witnessed literal fire from heaven, fled terrified into the wilderness because a wicked queen threatened him.  John the Baptist, suffering in prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3 NIV)  And Jesus himself, in angish, speaking of his coming trials, prayed “take this cup away, and on the cross felt forsaken or abandoned by God.

St. Paul, with his undisclosed “thorn in his side,” suggested a division within, the ‘spirit’ being willing while the ‘flesh’ is weak.  The book of Psalms and other Biblical poetry, a great comfort to many today, suggests the writers were experiencing travails and torment.  In no way were these ignorant people living a life of bliss.  They were fully aware, they had their moments of failure, and choose to keep going on in faith despite this all.

As my parish priest reminds us, “If you ain’t struggling you ain’t Orthodox.”

So while my life would be so much easier if I could be agnostic and accept that we’re all products of random chance, biological robots plotting a predetermined course, that everything is about sex and power.  But I don’t give in to that existential dread and will stand against those who, with seeming sadistic pleasure, tear at the foundation of meaning and purpose.

I’m tortured soul because I am able to both see the fullness of beauty and also stare into the void of emptiness.  I live with keen awareness that many have died, clinging to breath and hope, thinking their salvation was right around the corner.  It could all be for naught.  Still, I fight.  I’m not in control, I never will be, and long for that final peace when my journey is complete.  For now, though, I’ll dance on this blade, my persistent uncertainty on one side and strong desire for God on the other.

I can pretty much rationalize around any moral boundaries, maybe eventually embrace a life of self-indulgence and not giving a crap about those whom I’ve stepped on to gain a small advantage.  I could, more easily, give in to self-pity or be overwhelmed by cruelty and give up.  Lord have mercy!  Still, something within, not even sure how to define it, pushes me to endure through hardships.

At some level it makes no sense, why must we go through hell to get to heaven?

It doesn’t make sense.

But then neither does my existence.  How did I come to be?  If my life is finite and time stretches infinity in both directions, there is essentially zero chance of being on this moment right now.  So our existence is not rational nor that we extrapolate, from our pleasure and our pain, that there is something greater.  Maybe belief in the divine realm, where all is made right, is merely a survival mechanism—so why then do we question it?

And so it goes on.  There is no growth without pain, not triumph without suffering, our moments of glory would not be such a pleasure if there was nothing required to attain.  So why not extend this pattern and conclude that our torment, if righteous, will be rewarded…

A picture I snuck of my grandpa, Uriah and myself…while contemplating life…