Tag Archives: suffering

…to the least of these

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

This morning I posted a link to a blog I follow and mentioned that I believed being a decent human being was our number one goal. Oh, I also mentioned something that validated other beliefs and faiths. That earned a punch back. I was breaking the first commandment and following Jesus should be my number one goal. I responded that, in my opinion, doing what Jesus said to do was an act of following him. I also referenced Matthew 25:31-46. Then I thought for a bit and decided cherry picking may not be the best approach and I should widen my response. You know me, FB posts often grow into blog posts so here we go.

I have recently completed a manuscript that studies the Book of Job. This was a years’ long project. I have been told that the book is “thoroughly researched,” that the research is “dissertation level,” and that “it is the most comprehensive treatment of the Book of Job that I have come across.” Some of the concerns expressed were whether I could connect with a general market, or if I was going to be limited to those who study these things. I hope not. You see, I still believe there are those who are not scholars of sacred texts who hear the voice of our ancestors while they try to piece together what it means to live in a world that often passes understanding, that is often beyond our reason.

My studies took me all over the world and sent me to the words of many ancient civilizations and spiritual/ethical leaders. I found a drumbeat, one that spoke deeply to who I wanted to be, and I chose to share it.

For this bit, let’s focus on the Judeo-Christian scriptures (hopefully my Jewish friends will bear with me in this usage). Scripture wars where one side says, “what about?” and the other side says, “well here’s one for you,” get us nowhere. As noted above, I responded with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, a favorite of mine, which talks about how we treat fellow beings as being the metric by which our soul is measured. Can I back that up with any other passage? Well, yes, several. Here are a few.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19 is quoted often these days since it admonishes Israel on the doorstep of Canaan to love the resident foreigner, at least in part because once you were one.

Isaiah 10:1-4 is a declaration that those who enact unjust policies are as good as dead. That when you deprive the oppressed and steal from those who are widowed or orphaned, destruction is assured.

Matthew 5:1-12. The Sermon on the Mount would do us all good in this day and age. The common name of the Beatitudes says much about how we should view fellow beings.

Matthew 19:16-22, often interpreted as a mandate against wealth, it is really a well-defined lesson on how to apply wealth. It also has something to say about rules. The “rich man” who approached Jesus swore up and down that he was following the commandments and yet he felt something was lacking. He was told he needed to sell everything and give it to the poor.  I don’t think Jesus was trying to tell rich people to be poor, I think he was making a comparison between following all the rules and having compassion. I know a few rich folks that use great mountains of their wealth to make this world a better place. Non-believing rich people. Can a person of faith do any less?

I’ve always loved 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I’m afraid I know a lot of clanging cymbals.

There are so many more passages that address how we treat others. Scripture also addresses the treatment of animals, and the earth that provides us with sustenance. There is a sense of responsibility when you are instructed not eat meat that was killed in a manner that poisons the flesh with the adrenaline of fear. Or, to eat those creatures which are scavengers and predators. Letting the land rest every seven years helps protect the fertility of the ground, gleaning allows those who have no other resources to find food and nourishment. Beyond the wars and smitting and flooding, there is much about how to be a decent human being; even when things are not going our way.

That’s where my hero steps in. Job tests the boundaries of what it means to live a righteous life, a life according to the rules. The rules so many treasure so dearly that humanity itself is left behind. Job demands answers, and (in my opinion) he gets answers. If the chapters referred to as the science lessons are to mean anything, it is crucial to put them in context. Once you can speak from a time and a place relevant to the author’s thoughts, wide vistas open and a light shines on an ever-creating universe. A universe where not every nanosecond or picosecond is focused on our personal wellbeing. Once we learn to see the world from a perspective Terry Pratchett called the universal view, then doing what is right in the world becomes a natural goal. You follow a Creator by becoming a positive and compassionate part of that creation.

Whether you are an academic, a curious layperson, or a member of the general public that just wants to see a different point of view on why there is suffering in the world, and what you can do in the face of it, come join me in the author’s study while we explore the riddle of Job.

Redefining Job and the Conundrum of Suffering – projected publication early 2020.

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When things align…

Suffering

A reflective weekend wrapped up in the emotions of my agency’s annual fund-raising dinner and the process of formatting Job for advanced reader copies. This is all such an emotional roller coaster so I will do what I always do when I need to sort through things – share.

Let’s start with Friday night. I’ve been working for Behavioral Health Resources  for over a year now. I love the people, I love the work, and I feel I have sincerely found that spot I always wanted. Friday night was our annual dinner event. Since I work in the administrative offices, I was privy to some of the hard work that went into putting this event together. Our focus this year was our school-based programs.

We always have a silent auction. Baskets are contributed by staff, board members, sponsors, and other interested parties to put up for auction. Some truly creative ideas made their way to the table. There were so many interesting combinations that created festive themes including several which focused on our kids. We also have an auctioneer who comes with all sorts of fun ways to raise money, silly games to get folks involved, competitive games to draw out the best in us; and then there were raffles. This was all sprinkled throughout the evening that included live music, a catered dinner, and stuff about kids. Let me tell you a bit about that.

Folks at our agency put together a video to explain something of what we do. No real clients were involved, but through the narration/interview of one of our Program Managers, our guests were introduced to just how much BHR does for children in the three counties where we have offices. He told us that we were now represented in 29 schools within our service region. We are not just “on call.” We are there, addressing problems that include depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, and early diagnosis of mental disorders. Our clinicians work in high-intensity situations every day to help kids learn to cope and develop the skills to be successful, all while negotiating goals with teachers and administrators.

The video (using actors) described a case regarding a young man who was banned from school due to aggressive behavior. By working closely with him, our team was able to get him re-integrated with his classmates and to help him accomplish his school requirements. He is looking forward to college. During a talk given afterward, our Program Manager described several cases where being there mattered. One involved a young woman who had gotten out of bed that morning prepared to commit suicide. She made herself one promise. If anyone reached out to her that day, anyone that indicated they cared how she felt, she wouldn’t follow through. One of our clinicians had the privilege of being that one person. Our agency serves approximately 500 children throughout three counties. Although not always as dramatic, every single day our clinicians are working on giving the next generation tools to be mentally healthy, successful adults.

We were also entertained by the folks from Olympia Family Theater. This non-profit organization uses the tools of theater to teach, to encourage creativity, and to touch lives with joy. I can tell you they had a room full of adults roaring like lions, voting for the prettiest feather, and encouraging good choices as we watched Aesop’s Fables played out in adorable skits. It was an emotional and rewarding evening. So many people gathering together to have fun and support good things in their community. And I get to work there.

As much as we love our children, our focus is on mental health in many forms throughout our service region. We have programs that support Pregnant and Parenting Women. These programs do amazing things to help moms shake the stigma of mental health issues, break the chain of substance abuse, and learn to be good parents. We offer outpatient services and have recently opened our more intensive in-house program where mom’s come and stay – with baby – to get help to find productive solutions for their lives and the care of their children. And there is sooo, much more we do. We are involved in assertive community treatment programs, integrated programs, residential support, and community information programs designed to chip away at the stigma attached to mental health challenges. And I get to work there.

This brings me to the meme. I’ve seen the unclaimed quote before, and it is one that I have chosen as a guidepost in so many things I do. I no longer subscribe to some philosophical debate about why a God we have defined as X allows Y to occur. There are reasons for that, and I have worked through those reasons thoroughly in a manuscript soon to be on its way out into the world to see if it can find a home. Redefining Job and the Conundrum of Suffering is very much about what our responsibility is when it comes to dealing with those who face challenges of whatever nature.

I find it all a bit scary at times as the things that are so important to me find alignment between my “day job” and my love of writing. It is an amazing journey, and I hope you will join me.

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A book review ~ sort of.

When Bad things

Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, currently published by Anchor Books. available for less than $10.00

One of the things that one must do when preparing a book proposal to market your masterpiece to the publishing world is find comparables in the market. What’s out there, what does it say, and why is your work different. In that process, I read Rabbi Kushner’s best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The title has sold millions, and although I don’t aspire to such heights, I do feel there is much in his work I would agree with, and a few things I don’t.

I can understand why the Rabbi’s book has reached so many people. He builds on the interpretation that there are random events in the world, events that are caused by other people’s freedom of action, and events that we are unprepared for. He strongly believes that we should not be Job’s visitors and try to comfort those who are suffering with some unfounded bit of wisdom about how this will make the victim stronger, or God has a message, or some other bit that rarely helps. Sometimes, such ministrations make the whole matter much worse. In this I agree, at least in part.

Kushner also devotes much of his book to the idea that we must step away from the blame game. Everything that happens in our lives is not punishment by some super-spy deity that wants to ensure we pay for every infraction we have ever committed, whether the reasons are known or not. If I had to decide, one of the most critical ideas he presents in this book is to stop the blame. The universe does not turn on your every decision and sometimes you are not guilty of initiating some horrible outcome. Sometimes you are. Those instances should, however, be clear and correctable. Don’t blame God for lung cancer if you insist on smoking.

Although this thought is not discussed in his book, I believe it gave me some insight to some of the issues we are facing in society now. We are told, in scripture, to love one another as we love ourselves. On the flip side, if we are always blaming ourselves, if we believe that every bad thing that happens is punishment for something we, or someone else, did – then we must assume that folks that are in deep poverty, sick, or otherwise challenged did something to deserve it. And that’s what we do. If she had dressed differently, if he had not let people know he was gay, if he had prayed harder, if she had given more, if they had better control over their children, and a thousand other reasons why “that thing” happened to them and not us. If we do manage to escape the consequences of a catastrophe, we are somehow especially blessed and protected by God. I must ask – does that make you better than me? If I die in a plane crash and you don’t, are you somehow more holy?

This was the problem with Job’s visitors (I can’t come to a place I can call them comforters), they could not allow the world to be a random place where God’s justice and power did not reach into every detail of every life. To avoid the thought of calamity in their own lives, they had to find reason to blame Job for his.

To return to Kushner’s book, from a pastoral perspective, he does a masterful job of teaching people to let go of the anger. Anger at themselves, at others, at God, and to find some way to move forward. His position is that God is not in the event, He is the one that helps us find a way to deal with the consequences. He is there to help us convert the bad into something we can take forward. The Rabbi is not a stranger to calamity. He wrote the book to help others understand the journey he and his wife experienced as they watched their first born suffer from an incurable disease that killed him at age fourteen. He knows what it means to ask why.

Here are some excerpts I considered very much to the point:

“If we want to be able to pick up the pieces of our lives and go on living, we have to get over the irrational feeling that every misfortune is our fault, the direct result of our mistakes or misbehavior. We are really not that powerful. Not everything that happens in the world is our doing.”

One of the hardest lessons of children who have been abused in any way is, “It’s not my fault.” I would add, we need to learn the same of others. We can assess responsibility and still avoid being judgmental of other people’s choices. Learn the difference.

“If we believe in God, but we do not hold God responsible for life’s tragedies, if we believe that God wants justice and fairness but cannot always arrange for them, what are we doing when we pray to God for a favorable outcome to a crisis in our life?”

The Rabbi is very much against the “grocery list” prayer and chooses to teach an approach where we seek the strength to move through the disaster, where we find ways to accept the good or the bad outcome, without blaming persons or forces that are not responsible. If they are responsible, is it a situation that must be dealt with, was it an accident, can you move from the hurt, and even hatred? How do you release the anger so that you do not destroy yourself in the process? That is the space where Kushner feels God lives. The sum of his work teaches that suffering finds its meaning not in the why it happened, but in the what we do with it.

“God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.”

As noted, there is much here that is a part of my view. However, Redefining Job and the Conundrum of Suffering takes the reader in a slightly different direction. Rather than surrender to a belief that all is random and there is no cause, I prefer to see the universe with a sense of the quantum. Quantum physics works because predictable results occur. We do have a universe of laws. We do have probabilities that are within our purview to discover, to understand, to mitigate. To me the author of Job is trying to tell us that we are given the gifts to change the world. We do not live in a vacuum of circumstance, and we are not pursued daily by a vengeful god. Bad things happen, and they will continue to do so. The question is, what do we in response?

I like this bit that Kushner includes in his book. It is a Likrat Shabbat prayer by Rabbi Jack Riemer.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end war;
for we know that You have made the world in a way
That man must find his own path to peace
Within himself and with his neighbor.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end starvation;
For you have already given us the resources
With which to feed the entire world.
If we could only use them wisely.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to root out prejudice,
For You have already given us eyes
With which to see the good in all men
If we would only use them rightly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end despair,
For you have already given us the power
To clear away slums and to give hope
If we would only use our power justly.

We cannot merely pray to You, O God, to end disease,
For you have already given us great minds with which
To search for cures and healing.
If we would only use them constructively.

Therefore, we pray to You instead, O God,
For strength, determination, and willpower,
To do instead of just to pray,
To become instead of merely to wish.

Plan a visit with me and my hero, Job. We’ll be ready very soon.

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Reviews – or is it a reflection? Pleasantville and Nietzsche

Pleasantville (1998). A classic example of metaphor in art. The standard interpretation of the piece written, produced and directed by Gary Ross is that it was a metaphor of the sixties. America was leaving behind the Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver paradigms of the 50s and launching full speed ahead into the sexual revolution and peacenik philosophy of the 60s crowned by such shows as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Okay, I get that. After all, I was there. It was a time when we transitioned from collectively looking the other way when Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to the President (May of 1962) to the cultural “freedom” of opening our homes and our bedrooms, to public view – and criticism. Happy Days and Opie consigned to the archives and re-run channels; enter South Park.

There are also the more personal interpretations. Moments of personal change such as when Betty Parker (the quintessential 50s mom) makes the decision to stop hiding the fact she is now in full Technicolor and refuses to use her grayscale makeup to hide it. Or when Mr. Daniels discovers color as an art form and refuses to give it up, even in the face of town statutes. The struggle to seek personal integrity even in the face of prejudice, conflict, and self-doubt.

Watching the movie for the first time in recent weeks, I saw these interpretations; and much more. To me this film was a kaleidoscope of thought provoking moments that went far beyond the superficial presentation of “sexual freedom” and “civil disobedience.” This was most evident in the change brought about in Jennifer/Mary Sue. The most promiscuous individual in the whole story remains stubbornly grayscale until she finds her real passion, literature. Her conversion takes place as she reads from D. H. Lawrence. An author who was considered controversial in the 50s as he confronted many of the underlying themes in the movie. She becomes so impassioned she remains in the Pleasantville universe to attend college. Or, David/Bud remaining grayscale until he ends up in a fight protecting his “mother” from harassment.  It was not all about free sex, free speech, and open rebellion. It was about finding that thing which filled the individual with enough passion to become the deliberate vehicle of change.

How then does all of that relate to Nietzsche?

Because Nietzsche had this thing about suffering. Grant it, his view was elitist. He was quite certain that suffering only made sense for those already strong and healthy and was little more than a deep abyss for those who were not. On this I disagree. For a moment, let’s paint Pleasantville with a different brush, one from Nietzsche’s studio.

Pleasantville was the perfect place to live. The greatest emergency was a cat stuck in a tree and no one ever showed up late for dinner or work. The basketball team never lost. No one was jealous, felt left out or failed at school. It was, quite frankly, what many of us pray for. Unrelenting peace and serenity, no challenges, losses or regrets. The inhabitants lived in a world so protected that they could not even imagine the thought of “somewhere else.” A condition many practice in real life even if they choose not to admit it. Segue to Nietzsche.

Within a number of Nietzsche’s writings we are introduced to his idea of suffering and what it means in the context of being human. In his view mankind, most particularly those of Christian Europe towards the end of the 19th century, was a mass of sickly worms with visions of greatness, but no capacity to reach it. Though he is saddled with the misnomer of being the father of Nazi philosophy, he would have abhorred the result. In Genealogy of Morals he states, “Do we really need to see in him ‘the spawn of an insane hatred of knowledge, mind and sensuality’ (as someone once argued against me)? A curse on the senses and the mind in one breath of hate?” Although not particularly enamored of the “masses,” he was a man that would have fought against any force that selectively suppressed knowledge, passion, and intellectual freedom on any level.

Shall we return to Pleasantville, the land of the perfect and home of the – uninspired? Nietzsche is not, of course, the first philosopher that reserves the true intellectual advance of mankind to some elite group. It is an all too common point of view. In my research for my manuscript on the book of Job I have found many and will, most likely find more. There is, however, a fundamental truth to his perspective.  Again from Genealogy of Morals, “but suffering itself was not [man’s] problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, ‘Suffering for what?” We are not afraid of suffering, we are afraid there is no reason.

The lesson of Pleasantville as I see it is that we can choose to paint our lives, our world, and our universe, with the grayscale-brush of protected perfection. Resting in the assurance that the mystery of the why and wherefore is not for us to understand, but to endure. Except – well – we live in a Technicolor universe. If we are to be all that we can be as individuals, as a race, as a representative of what the creative power of life itself can accomplish – we have to accept the consequences of passion. We must embrace the reality of the ever-changing relationship between what was, what is and what will be. Suffering is every bit a part of being human. An essential part that makes us the creators we are.

Some of the bits that inspired this post.

https://orwell1627.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/nietzsche-on-suffering-analysis/

http://www.valueofsuffering.co.uk/nietzsche-on-suffering/

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Book Review ~ Seeking our Say in the Court of the Universe

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. Available in many formats for $9-15.00

FacesThere are many among us who have suffered some life changing event; an event that changes us in quick or slow ways, forever. These are the kinds of events that cause us to build “public faces.” More often than not, these changes build a wall between us and others at least in part because we do not wish to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to suffer more pain, or its repercussions, ever again.

We also build these walls in our choice to push those who are suffering away. Much like Job’s friends, we seek, in whatever way accessible, to understand the cause and effect of what we see. As humans we are creatures always in search of order. We cannot tolerate the arbitrary, we must find a pattern. In some of us that results in a search for God (or gods), in others it is the explicit effort to eradicate even the hint of the divine from our lives.

I believe, in some way, this was the seed to human sacrifice. In our ancient civilizations, with vastly less understanding than we have today, there was a strong belief that the gods must demand blood and restitution for the shortcomings of mankind. After all; there were famines, natural disasters, accidents, pestilence, and all sorts of ways to die. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they thought to choose those to send to the gods in order to save their own hides.

We have, of course, changed this view over the last several millennium or so.  Although the Aztecs were hard at it in the early centuries CE, there had arisen a culture in the Middle East that looked on the sacrifice of human life as an abomination. They did, however, hold tightly to the sacrifice of blood offerings. This interpretation of divine demand remained through the birth of Christianity. There was still a strong conviction that someone somewhere had to pay the price for all that was not right with the world. One of the problems we seem to face most consistently is what constitutes restitution and what constitutes the natural course of the universe and is there a difference?

This weekend, I decided to re-read a favorite tale I had read many years ago. There are times when I go through stages of hunting down everything by a particular author and read through it all. This remembered stage was a search for C. S. Lewis. He is best known for titles such as the Narnina series, the Space Trilogy and Christian apologetics. The subject of my blog is a bit off the usual track. It is a retelling of the tale of Psyche and Cupid. I found it quite intriguing at the time and deeply thought provoking now. Let’s visit Glome and meet the Queen whose thoughts and actions may touch your dreams and your fears. Perhaps you’ll find a treasure to take back home.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is quite old. We know it best from the Latin novel, Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) written in the 2nd century CE by Apoleius. The tale itself must be quite ancient since depictions of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BCE. The basic story is about a king with three daughters, each quite beautiful but none as beautiful as the youngest. Although the older sisters marry, the youngest finds only worshipers and no lovers. So much is the attention she receives she draws the ire of Venus. Venus sends her son Cupid to end the competition, but Cupid falls in love and takes her away to a hiding place. His only request is that she never tries to discover his identity.

Time passes and the young bride tires of being alone all of the time and begs to see her sisters. The visit is disastrous.  As a result of their jealousy of her new style of living, her sisters coerce her into revealing the identity of her husband. By exposing him, she brings the wrath of Venus upon them both and Psyche is forced to wander in a quest to meet the demands of this very jealous goddess. She wins in the end and is restored to her beloved Cupid.

I don’t want to give you all the story twists of Lewis’ retelling; it’s really a charming read. What I will do is tell you something of what I found within the pages of this rather different interpretation of the tale. You see in this story the elder sister does not see the palace, except through the mist in the middle of the night of betrayal.  She believes her young half-sister to be quite mad. She seeks some way to believe, some way to find an answer from her goddess or her Greek philosophical training and finds only contradiction and doubt. She finally makes the decision to coerce her sister into revealing the identity her new found husband.

The results are disastrous as Orual discovers her sister was quite sane and she is now responsible for sending the young lady into the wilderness to be tested by a jealous goddess.  Princess Orual returns home to become Queen Orual on the death of her father only a few days later.  Shaken to the core, she vows to always wear a veil, so that none can see how homely she is, and to slowly extinguish that part of her that was the caring and loving protector of her beloved little sister. She lives her life in constant fear that the gods will strike her down. And she never allows herself to love again.

Queen Orual is a wise ruler. She reverses the policies of her father and finds ways to protect the country from the vagaries of nature, to build their treasury and to protect their borders. An excellent fighter, she rides with her armies when required. The kingdom finds peace, and yet she suffers. It is by chance that during a casual trip, taken for pleasure, she happens upon a temple, built in honor of her little sister Istra (Psyche in Greek). The tale she hears is nothing like the story she knows and she vows to write her own story, the truth. She vows to seek justice from the gods.

I find the tale compelling because it is a search for a very elusive thing; something that we are so sure we know, and yet we face trials, suffering, and retribution. Like Job, we believe we are doing our best, that we make appropriate decisions based on the knowledge we have, only to discover we didn’t have all the facts. No matter how hard we seek answers, we only see darkly the things in this world. And, like Job, we reach a point where we begin to demand answers. Not because we don’t believe, but because we do.

In the book the Queen muses as she writes, “There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite and our capacity without limit.”

No, not so different from the world we live in. Seeking guidance, following precepts and yet suffering. Seeing a world in pain, and noting that much of what happens is an accident of birth. Is it any wonder that our highly developed, rational minds seek answers? That we reach a point when we stop and demand of the universe, of God, “Why?”

Our Queen sets out her tale in order to challenge the gods, to ask them to tell her what more she could have done with the information she had. In the end she learns that her love for her sister, her suffering throughout her life, brought solace during the years of Istra’s wandering. It provided support during times of trial, and that when the final test came her sister had grown to the point that even her dearest and most loved could not sway her from the task at hand. Istra (Psyche) does, in the end, earn the approval of the gods and win back her place at Cupid’s side.

Orual brings us to the lesson that although we often suffer the consequences of ill informed decisions, we still have a chance to build on our failures and turn them into something productive. We gain “face” if you will by what we do about suffering, how we treat those in pain, how we use the tools we are given to make the world a better place, however small that improvement may be. It is when we strive in this way that we earn the right, the obligation to stand, “gird our loins like a [rational being]” so that when we are asked we can inform.  That search for understanding can never end; else why are we given these incredible gifts of a rational mind, a spirit of wonder, and a will to seek truth?

 “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

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Answering the Ultimate Paradox

Book Review ~ God’s Problem by Bart D. Ehrman, Available for under $15.00

problemAlthough I write because I have read, I also read in order to write better.  Consequently, even with pages and pages of notes collected through the years regarding my own developing interpretation of the Book of Job, I still seek more information.  Some of that is technical.  Meaning I seek out the people who are working on the language of the Old Testament.  People who know something about the structure of the oldest version of the text before us.  People who know something about the archaeology and anthropology of the time periods involved.  This is where I start.

After I have the “setting” of my project I move on to what other people think the lessons might be, or if there is one at all.  This is my method in my current work, Why Me? Come let us Reason with Job.  As I move through my draft I have researched the history of theological and philosophical thought regarding this passage of the Hebrew canon.  Now, I have reached a stage in that research that is leading me through the more modern thinkers, some very well known, some rather obscure.  One of the writers I chose to read is a rather popular author and a James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill.   He is Professor Bart Ehrman and this is not my first experience with his writing. I have always found him informative, easy to read and challenging.  He makes me think and I happen to enjoy thinking.

As mentioned, I have read a number of Professor Ehrman’s books and watched several of his lectures.  As a scholar he is passionate about his subject matter.  Whenever I read or listen to his work I feel like he is taking me on an exploratory journey that will challenge the way I think.  I always learn something, even if I disagree.  And, sometimes I do.

I sincerely believe that a book such as God’s Problem should be read, and studied.  I believe that the questions that Ehrman raises should be confronted and addressed.  In fact, some of the questions he raises are the very reasons I am writing my own rendition of just what went on all those centuries ago when in fact or in literature a man stood and demanded an audience with his Maker.  Let’s talk a bit about what Ehrman has to say.

Beginning with the prophets of the Hebrew bible, we are reintroduced to the things that we don’t really pay much attention to when we are preparing Sunday School lessons.  The Old Testament is a violent and bloody book.  The “bad” guys are not always the ones causing murder and mayhem.  There are many passages that, unless you choose to bend things in uncomfortable angles, the God of Israel takes direct responsibility for the devastation of people, creatures of all sorts, ecologies and whole countries, if not the entire globe.  Too often we write this off as justice (since it came from God) without really considering the innocent lives involved.  Many modern day “prophets” use this scenario as an excuse to blame every disaster on someone’s sin – rarely, if ever their own.

Another answer to suffering analyzed in the book is the apocalyptic view.  This is the view that here on earth there is suffering and travail because evil powers are being allowed to rule the earth for now.  Someday, however, God’s judgment will fall and all evil with be done away with, all suffering will end, and a new world will take form where there is no suffering. In the meantime, it will be hell on earth.

A third interpretation brought out in scripture, and discussed by Ehrman, is that there really isn’t any answer to suffering.  In this case we just have to make the best of what is here because there really is no logical, theological or philosophical reason to support why we should suffer.  At least not for all suffering.  It is certainly reasonable to understand that when we do certain things there is a piper to pay.  If we drink and drive, we can injure ourselves and others.  If we smoke, we may get cancer.  If we choose not to care for our bodies, we will get sick.  This is a cause and effect we can understand.  But in the case of much of the suffering in the world, well, we’re still searching.

Last, but certainly not least, Ehrman explores the answer called redemptive suffering.  This teaching looks at suffering as a temporary evil that prepares us for a greater good.  Or that through one person’s suffering another person finds a greater truth.  This point of view could cause nightmares.  I actually find the author’s journey rather compelling.  He tells how he first became challenged by the simple act of thanking God for his food.  Why, he thought, should I be so special that God would feed me and let millions more die of starvation?  What right do I have to such a special dispensation?  What right do I have to be thankful for something that 850 million people in this world do not have?  Especially when I live in a world where that is not necessary?  In case you’re wondering, he actually does try to do something about it.  If you are interested, his support foundation can be found here.  I think, though, you get the point. A sensitive person may look at his or her relative comfort and feel something more deeply than a simple, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

Now the thing I find interesting is that the interpretation of these teachings of scripture, and they are indeed, what scripture has to say about the matter, are all predicated on one assumption.  That we understand what it is that God “is.”  We base all of our assumptions on an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving Sovereign of the universe and then attempt to figure out how such a being could know everything, and love each and every one of us – and allow suffering.  Therein we find the paradox.  A paradox which arises from our own reasoning.  A paradox that Job faced and just might have solved.

I recently read a book entitled God and the Philosophers.  In an article by David Shatz, an orthodox Jew, there is a quote that goes something like this, God does not follow us around looking at each and every action in order to pass out spankings and lollipops according to our daily performance.  A kindred spirit.  Although I may see this somewhat out of context, I interpret some of Ehrman’s point of view as casting God in a domestic violence case.  Someone who beats up his children for every infraction and sometimes not bothering to tell them what the infraction was or because someone else needed to learn a lesson.  This, of course, is not how I view a Sovereign deity at all.

I firmly believe that at the heart of the matter is our interpretation, our “assumption,” of what God is or does.  I believe if we spend a little time with Job, if we “gird” ourselves and prepare to answer the questions put to us, we just might find some answers.  They may not be the ones we want.  They may, however, give us a better sense of what our place in this vast universe really is.  I can tell you that I don’t believe it is crushed and groveling in the dirt.

I am always open to feedback and love to see your comments.  I will not approve attacks, rude commentary or baseless profanity.   Other than that, I am on a journey, just like you, and I don’t mind being challenged.  Thanks for stopping by.

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