We hear of thousands of ordinary people who have lost their lives or been severely traumatised by civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, invasion, slavery and so on. Where is the meaning of life in this innocent suffering? If humankind has a humane spirit of care, generosity and goodwill that respects the rights of others, where does social coercion and violent aggression come from? If there is an all-powerful divine force within the universe, why are tyrants and suicide bombers allowed to cause such misery?
Similar questions arise in connection with natural events. Some people in the world, through no fault of their own, have experienced devastating earthquake,
like the one in Haiti, not to mention volcanic eruption, tsunami, hurricane, flood, or famine. These events can result in much suffering and many casualties. And then there is disease. Which of us, during the course of our lives, will have to endure serious injury, congenital disability, or progressive, mental or terminal illness?
The creator seems careless about creation. If there is a perfect force that made the natural world, why are there imperfections in nature?
We feel confused and bewildered at the dreadful predicament of those enduring such horrors. It is quite normal to be upset and feel anger about the plight of those people who, often through no fault of their own, have suffered such terrible things. We may indignantly blame God for dereliction of duty, for casting a blind eye.
And so many people these days are asking ‘How can we believe in an all-powerful and loving deity that allows terrible misfortune so often to fall upon the innocent and helpless?’ Some give up trying to find answers at this point and simply deny God’s very existence.
And the rest of us would acknowledge there are no easy answers. Yet, these matters are probably worth our deeper consideration for after all they reflect a central issue for all of us; we confront it every time we open a newspaper, watch the news on television or visit an ill relative; the issue of human suffering. Perhaps there is a rational and perceptive understanding that might give some notions of an answer for those not satisfied by the orthodox faith of religious believers.
A new theory of God
Historically, the western world has been exposed to a religious culture that favoured the notion of a punitive God; the traditional idea that not only is there a loving side to deity that wants our happiness but also another side – a divine retribution that demands punishment for wrongdoing. Many millions of people were taught to fear an angry God who wants reprisals – only assuaged by the suffering and death of Christ.
A new theory however has emerged – one that assumes what actually is a radical view in these materialistic times – that pleasure-seeking as a top priority doesn’t make anyone happy in the long run. Instead, it is argued, real inner contentment and peace of mind depends on one inwardly choosing to live in mutual concern with other people rather than in self-centred ways.
Actually this ethical view is old as the hills. It is central to the philosophy that has permeated all religions as well as current day humanism. It is all about thinking of the needs of our fellow human beings as well as oneself; being willing to compromise when vested interests are threatened; doing to others as we would others do to us; loving the neighbour as the gospel puts it.
However, we see what goes on in social and international conflict, in local reporting of crime and in many family disputes that end in tragedy. This is human beings putting self first and thus bringing about a selfish sphere of greed, aggression, and cruelty in the world that can cause great suffering – even endured by those who are innocent.
The central hub of the new theory is that no divine power, however benign, could make us truly happy, even if we were conditioned, through rewards and punishments, to outwardly give respect to human rights and altruistic ideals. If we were forced to feel concern for others, then the choice would not really be ours. The point being that, in being free to choose the humane way, we are free to choose the opposite.
In other words, just because a higher authority were to permit human suffering, it would not necessarily mean it would desire it. The reason given for this theory is that like a loving parent, there is a God who knows we can only be happy – deeply and enduringly happy – if we are permitted to be free to choose or not to choose the humane way of living.
We might say that allowing us personal choice is quite a risk God would be making. For our freedom necessarily means we are also at liberty to make mistakes even to the point of behaving in inhuman ways, hurting, exploiting and even killing others.
Isn’t bad behaviour caused by factors studied by science?
One objection to this train of thought is that many factors studied by science have been shown to cause criminal and other bad behaviour. Sociologists point out for example that high population turnover means a neighbourhood may not be stable and thus possess no shared awareness about proper social conduct.
Without public standards of behaviour, people suffer from crime and other forms of social disorder. Delinquent gangs might be seen as security against violence as well as offering illegal ways of reducing poverty.
Psychologists have found that individuals, who as children have suffered brutal abuse, are at higher risk of themselves becoming abusive in adulthood. It is thought that criminal behaviour is more likely when individuals do not attach themselves to others who believe in moral values.
These, and other factors studied by academic researchers, show how personal choice is reduced. Of course the world of science which studies nature – including social science which studies the nature of human behaviour – has no room for anything that cannot be measured and so has no time for a super-nature or a spiritual dimension.
Nevertheless from the latter perspective, it can perhaps be argued that there is always some element of inner freedom, regarding what to think and feel, that is the essence of being human. It gives us a crucial sense of individuality for we feel we own our thoughts and attitudes. It has been claimed this freedom comes about because inherent in the scheme of things there is an equal balance of positive and negative influences into human consciousness.
Our need to learn
This new theory maintains that, in being free to make mistakes in the way we conduct our lives, we can have the chance to learn the way to a happiness that is deep and lasting. Without personal choices no one could really feel human and be able to form their our own character and way of life.
The spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg wrote about ‘natural temptation’ by which he meant anxiety over the naturally occurring setbacks of life, which thwart our worldly hopes and desires; for example anxiety about any threat to our security, food supply, or livelihood. He compared such anxiety over bodily or temporary difficulty with one at a deeper level such as doubts about the meaning of one’s life or fear of loss of a cherished relationship.
For him the hardship associated with an external loss, such as material possessions, would likely eventually pass in time, albeit in a gradual manner. He wrote about such difficulties in terms of personal learning. We may have been immobilised by a change in our outward circumstances, but gradually we would probably start to notice a small voice within us suggesting it is we ourselves that needs to change.
This can be construed as a challenge to find a new happiness – to stop blaming others and fate for what has happened. Also there is the point that our own misfortune can pull us up sharp in our complacency and self-indulgence.
It has also been pointed out that if the suffering of others were prevented, it is suggested that we would never need to learn about sympathy for others. A world without compassion is one full of indifference and disdain. The thesis is therefore that suffering can promote personal growth. Unless things go wrong, one is not challenged to choose more mature attitudes.
State of spiritual civilisation
Ignorant politicians, negligent public administrators or exploitative employers may be partly responsible for allowing the conditions conducive to some caught diseases to develop. This can happen for example through lack of proper sanitation, unhygienic working or living conditions, and poor wages resulting in malnourishment.
Some unfortunate individuals suffer a congenital disease such as blindness, cystic fibrosis or a deformity that is cruelly disfiguring. Some time ago it was widely reported that a manager of the England football team lost his job because of his ideas about ill people being to blame for their illnesses, due to their conduct in a supposed previous life.
He lost his job because it is widely accepted these days that, although sometimes people increase their risk of disease such as diabetes and coronary heart disease by leading an unhealthy life-style, nevertheless, disease is generally something we get rather than due to any fault of the individual.
Likewise Swedenborg maintained we are not to individually to be blamed. He wrote that natural sickness occurs because of the inner state of our civilisation as a whole – it corresponds to humankind’s spiritual sickness.
The extent of needed transformation
Swedenborg claimed that, because of the state of our civilisation, if we wish to be deeply happy we require a personal transformation. The reason given is his view that we all have some degree of inherited tendency towards self-orientation, bodily pleasure and social status. This is due it is claimed to an unsatisfactory historical spiritual state of our forebears.
Nothing here to cause unhappiness, one might say, but his argument was that these inherited tendencies can easily become our focus and then – if we are not careful to guard against it – potentially can lead to selfishness, greed, conceit, and other vices which definitely will cause us unhappiness in the long run. Speak to someone who has overindulged some appetite over a period of time if there is any doubt about this.
Self-orientation means people tend to see things from their own perspective. They are quick to notice any threat to personal comfort. Because of self-consciousness they may feel shy. It is not uncommon for them to be concerned about their self-worth. These are examples of self-orientation and can result in people with such states of mind suffering anxiety or depression.
Self-orientation can become socially undesirable when people choose to satisfy their own desires in a self-centred way at a cost to someone else. They might adopt self-serving attitudes. Self-aggrandisement can cause direct harm. Unprovoked aggression by greedy nations or ethnic groups can cause warfare. It is possible to see the origins of man’s inhumanity to man in excessive selfishness. Sadists enjoy inflicting torture. A mob can run riot whatever the damage to things or people that gets in its way.
When human conduct is so bad, the moderating effect of civilising forces has been ignored and terrible things can happen. One example is the senseless murder of people from a cruel whim as dramatically shown in the film ‘Schindler’s List’. Another example is the attack near Doncaster on two other children by two boys aged only 10 and 11, who had reportedly been raised by a drunken father who beat them and made them fight each other. Their mother was said to be equally drunken and drug addicted.
Self-orientation may be a common disposition but those who persistently act in a self-centred way cause bad experiences for others.
One consideration is that if liberty were not allowed for people to develop a dark side to their lives then it would not be possible for bad habits, inconsiderate behaviour, and other socially undesirable conduct or worse to be recognised and tackled. Thus such people would have no opportunity of inner remorse and genuine change.
What about suffering caused by nature?
I would suggest that an important part of human hardship that accompanies natural hazards is man-made. For example the toll of human suffering in the Haiti earthquake was both predictable and avoidable. Many buildings easily collapsed because the country was both chronically poor and badly governed. Construction was unregulated. Cheap concrete was used which was barely able to withstand a tropical storm, let alone an earthquake.
This state of affairs had a historical human cause. When its slaves rose up in rebellion, the colonial power made the country pay a fortune in compensation. The settlement crippled Haiti and by 1900 it was still spending 80% of its national budget on the debt which it finally paid off in 1947. In 2004, it was estimated that Haiti paid France a total of 21 billion USA dollars for its freedom.
Throughout the world, human negligence and corruption in government can lead to unnecessary injury and harm for individuals in times of natural hardship. Racism and ethnic hatred can lead to poverty and starvation during drought and famine.
Some political leaders use their positions to advance their own power and prosperity at the expense of their citizenry who can ill-afford to deal with extra problems caused by natural adversity. In other cases the cause of extra suffering resulting from earthquake or volcano is sheer laziness or negligence in organising appropriate rescue, shelter and food.
There is a pattern to human calamity related to natural disasters across the world. Treacherous ground (like at sea level, in flood planes, or along fault lines in the earth’s crust) is the only place some poor people can find to live. Weak or incompetent governments fail to set up or maintain town planning or building standards, early warning systems, rescue protocols or protective infrastructure such as sea walls – and nature does the rest.
What kind of divine love does nothing to prevent severe suffering?
Is the position of God not like a couple contemplating having a baby? They can foresee the child will suffer troubles and difficulties in life, and know that it may have to put up with even worse than this; nevertheless they go ahead because of their hope for the future happiness of their offspring.
This way of thinking about it is to say that God, like a loving parent, allows the children to learn the lessons of life the hard way whilst at the same time counter-balancing what is bad by providing what is good. This has been traditionally claimed as the work of a divine providence which is said to facilitate the flowing into the world of a loving spirit. This providence it is claimed offsets disease with healing, tempers hate with love, and moderates despair with inspiration.
Often when we do someone a favour we expect something back in return. However this ideal of a loving spirit is different. It is said to be selfless, providing for others without imposing any conditions. The central claim is that without a selfless love, no deep lasting happiness is possible. Such a loving attitude cannot be forced on to our character if it is to be genuinely deep-seated.
How can one believe in a divine providence if it cannot be seen?
Unless one happened to witness a miracle 2000 years ago in Palestine, no one today could directly see God’s hand at work in the world. If they could, it would soon be repeatedly shown on television. Yet according to some people, miracles are going on around us all the time – such as the miracle of the migratory and other instincts of animals, or the miracle of the universe with its unimaginable vastness.
Just as beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, so people differ in their spiritual perception, which goes beyond sight of the eyes and even beyond rational understanding. Sensing divine providence working in the world requires more than knowledge and understanding of what is claimed about it – it requires spiritual awareness that also involves the heart as well as the head.
It may be a mystery to us how loving providence works in the detail of life with which we thought we are so familiar. However perhaps it might be sometimes seen after the event. Fortunate co-incidences in personal life have been reported. The psychiatrist, Carl Jung had a term for this called ‘synchronicity’ although he made no attempt to explain the cause.
It is often quite impossible to assess from our limited perspective whether a current event is good or bad. One needs a longer time frame to see things in their true perspective. There is an ancient Taoist parable that tells of an old man and his son who lived alone in poor conditions. Their only possession of value was a horse.
One day, the horse ran away. The neighbours came by to offer sympathy, telling the old man how unlucky he was.
`How do you know?’ asked the old man.
The following day the horse returned, bringing with it several wild horses, which the old man and his son locked inside their gate. This time the neighbours hurried over to congratulate the old man on his good fortune.
`How do you know?’ asked the old man.
The next thing that happened was that his son tried to ride one of the wild horses but fell off and broke his leg. The neighbours were quick to tell the old man that this was a disastrous turn of events.
`How do you know?’ asked the old man.
Soon after, the army came through, press-ganging young men into service to fight a battle far away. All the local young men were taken – except the old man’s son, because his leg was broken.
Maybe – just maybe – our suffering is not always a bad thing.
Copyright 2008 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Extracted from the book Heart, Head and Hands