Friday, 6 February 2015

God and Suffering

The recent outburst by the actor and comedian Stephen Fry in which he denounced any God who might have created this world as ‘an evil and capricious monster’ has predictably stirred up all sorts of excitement with believers quick to damn him and fellow atheists eagerly cheering him on. But, setting aside the extravagant nature of his language, any fair-minded observer would have to concede that he has a point. How could a God that is good have created a world in which there is so much suffering?  Not just the suffering inflicted by human beings on each other, which could reasonably be put down to the result of the gift of free will, but the suffering actually inherent in nature. The sicknesses of children is the usual example given in these cases, and it’s the one used here.  Of course, to use this particular example does rather smack of emotional manipulation, but the point is made.

We should observe first of all that there is nothing new in the accusation.  Why there is evil, why there is suffering, why there is so much imperfection in nature are all questions that have long been asked, and they are ones that anyone who posits a supernatural origin to this world must address.  They can’t just be dismissed as unknowables whose purpose will become clearer later on.  They must be acknowledged and an attempt made to explain them now even if the truth of the matter is that their full significance will probably only become clear after we have left this world. It is just a fact that we are not given all the answers in this life.  Our capacity to respond to the truth that is in inscribed in our hearts is tested as that is the way we develop spiritually and become more identified with the soul and less with the separate self-centred mind/ego. Sometimes we do have to proceed on faith, much as the modern temperament may revolt against that, and we have to do so because attunement to the spiritual world requires an open channel. That doesn’t mean that we should suspend reason or intellect but nor must we close the mind to what is beyond it.

 That is why I think we are better off taking the reality of God as a given and then trying to work out the meaning of suffering in this context rather than just using the fact of suffering as an excuse to dismiss God. This attitude may seem like a cheat but then suffering is not the only ingredient in the mix of this world. There is love, there is beauty, there is the mystery of life and consciousness themselves, and there is the testimony of practically all human beings from all cultures throughout history which cannot just be dismissed as superstitious ignorance. As a matter of fact, I believe that everyone knows in their hearts that there is a God but many of us, for a variety of reasons, deny this in our heads which is where most of us live most of the time. And that is why someone like Stephen Fry can seem to be so angry with God. Why be angry with a non-existent being? Does he suspect God might exist but doesn’t like the implications of this?

However that is speculation on my part. I have no insight into the reasons for his rejection of God and the need he has to make this public. What I would say is that one common reason for the rejection of God is egotism and pride, and another is the dislike people have of being told what to do coupled with the feeling that they might be being judged if they go against the rules. Needless to say, that is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of the divine. There is truth and there is anti-truth but to obey truth means to fulfill our true nature and leads to the highest bliss. It is to conform to what is real. To go against truth is to go against reality and leads not to judgment, as in condemnation and punishment by a dictatorial overlord, but to the same inevitable consequences that follow the letting go of a stone in mid air. The stone will fall. Why rail against the laws of God if you don’t rail against the laws of gravity? What needs to be understood is that these laws are not coercive but lie at the very roots of our being and define what we truly and genuinely are. It is only the ego that rebels against them. In actual fact, to obey them is the only real freedom.

I may seem to have gone off the point a bit here but the active rejection of God is often founded on a psychological maladjustment, and it’s necessary to expose this if we are fully to answer the question of why there is suffering, and see why that question is posed in the first place. You might think that it is posed because there is suffering but, to return to the point made earlier, that is not a sufficient reason to reject the idea of a creator outright, given the many other extraordinary and unexplained characteristics of existence. There is suffering in life but that is by no means all life is or even anywhere near most of what life is. It is an aspect of life and must be seen in an overall context, one in which the positives considerably outweigh the negatives as I'm sure even dyed-in-the-wool atheists would agree. Still the question must be asked. Why is there suffering in life at all if this world is the creation of a perfect and loving God?

There are, in fact, several answers to that question, all of which tie in together to give a full and complete explanation for the imperfect state of our world. To begin with, it is worth considering whether, as some teachings aver, the platform of this world was not created by God, the Causeless Cause or Supreme Being, directly, but by high spiritual beings or angelic powers who were carrying out God's will but on their own level of understanding and ability which may have been far beyond anything we might conceive but was still not perfect.  This is point one and may be regarded as academic, given it certainly does not explain, still less justify, suffering, but it is worth making. 

Point two is more relevant. It introduces the human element.  The world now is not as it was originally intended to be and at one time was. It may have been created perfect, or as perfect as it could be within the limitations mentioned above as well as those imposed by matter itself which inevitably tends to disorder and disintegration (because only spirit is really real and anything less will eventually revert to that), but it is now a fallen world, and it is so because of human beings whose disequilibrium has spread through or infected the whole of nature. Now, whether this is just the result of a necessary temporary focus on self and the separation from oneness that causes, as some believe, or whether it is because of something actually having gone wrong in the distant past, as the book of Genesis implies and as the existence of free will makes possible, is perhaps of secondary importance. This world has fallen away from what it should have been and into corruption because of the activity of human beings. Because, in a certain sense, they (we) rebelled against the divine order. Of course, we are still doing that.

Taken together these two ideas could reconcile the apparent opposites of a benevolent Creator and the imperfections of this world. We have been expelled from Paradise and now must live in a world in which death and the opposites hold sway. Through our own choice we have rejected the perfection of oneness and sought out the separative life of the ego, and our internal psychological state is reflected in our external environment. However there is more. Let us now consider a question which atheists such as Stephen Fry do not appear to have contemplated. What is this world actually for?

There is an answer to that question and I will give it in a moment, first of all in words that the Masters used and then in my own words. But before I do I will ask another question which has a bearing on the answer to that one. What are we? What is a human being? Are we just the mind and body that are at the forefront of our immediate experience or are these just the outer parts, the sheaths, if you like, that cover what we truly are, being but the expression of that true self enabling it to experience the material realm? I would say that only a mind overly influenced by worldliness can reject the strong probability, supported by most traditional teachings as well as by our deepest intuitions, that we are spiritual beings or souls that are using the mind and body as vehicles. We are no more those things than a car driver is the car he drives. However we identify with them because we are in the material octave and that is the cause of our confusion. It is because those in the materialist camp cannot see beyond their materialism that they cannot understand that this world is not intended to be a perfect environment for the embodied self. It is meant to facilitate that self to transcend its limitations. It is not a holiday camp but a training ground.

So, to quote the Masters, Earth is a school. That is what it is for and we are here to learn. To learn what we are and to become what we truly and fundamentally are through the various tests and experiences we undergo here. This material Earth is an arena for the development of consciousness, and we come here to grow. Growing can be painful, especially if the shell we surround ourselves with has to be broken open in order that we may expand out of our current limitations, but it is liberating and it is what we want whether we know it in our conscious minds or not. As a Master said to me (and this applies to us all so his words are something to hold on to in times of trouble), "I can assure you that you wish this training to take place however difficult it may sometimes seem".

As a platform for growth this Earth must include scope for tests and trials as well as contain opposites, the tension between which can stimulate new growth and help us to avoid stagnation. And is it not the case that it is often only through a degree of suffering that we are jolted out of complacency and self-centredness, and more able to enter compassionately into the sufferings of others? Perhaps it is because Stephen Fry has suffered himself that he feels so strongly that suffering is something we should be concerned about and try to relieve. Of course, not all suffering can be regarded as potentially creative and an impetus to change but some is, and it should be clear that a life without a negative side to it is a life in which growth is much less likely to take place.

As for the suffering that may seem to have no creative purpose we can turn for explanation to the idea of karma. Certainly this requires a belief in the pre-existence of the soul, and so will not be acceptable to the materialistically inclined, but, if we are looking for something that reconciles the apparent contradictions of a benevolent God and an imperfect world, the law that we reap what we sow bridges that gap very well. So the imperfections we meet in this world are frequently the reflections of our own imperfections. That is not to say that the sufferings of the innocent can be blithely dismissed as their own fault. They may well be the result of previous actions but they may also be restrictions accepted by the soul in order for it to grow, or even sacrifices it has volunteered to make to help alleviate world karma or arouse compassion in others.

Let me conclude with a brief summing up.

The purpose of this world is not in and for itself but as a school in which consciousness may grow, moving from an unconscious state to a self-conscious one and then on to god-consciousness. That is why it must be an environment in which work, effort and potential for sacrifice are required. Without these there can be no spiritual growth. The world is not perfect in order that we may become so.

More discussion on this and similar topics can be found here and here.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - A clear and helpful discussion.

I would add that a particular modern problem is being confronted via the mass media with the sufferings of some individual or people whom we only know via the mass media - and being asked (at a moment's notice!) to explain why that particular example of suffering (as described by the mass media) is justifiable in terms of as living God.

I think this common situation is one which can never be answered properly, and which we should not even attempt to answer. My understanding is that God will explain our own suffering to us (even if not instantly, at the first casual request) and those of people whom we know - explain it at least sufficiently if not completely - and there are many possible explanations which may not be mainly to do with the person who is suffering. I also believe that - to a much greater extent than recognized - the degree of actual suffering experienced is not always what it seems - and that some people in some situations require (as as you state have agreed to ) to experience suffering in order that they have the best (or only) chance of learning - and such suffering may seem trivial to other people, but not to the person experiencing it.

But somebody like Mr Fry is setting up an unanswerable question to which the response he requires would seem to be a short and simple answer that nonetheless covers all suffering in the world! Absurd - and indeed dishonest.

William Wildblood said...

Yes, I agree with what you're saying about the demands the media makes for an explanation about how this or that could be justifiable in terms of the existence of God. It's very shallow! I roll my eyes when I hear an earnest cleric saying that such and such an incident must make us question our faith. No, it must make us try to understand our faith a little more deeply. The idea that this Earth is a school would help with that I think.

For a Christian the example of the sufferings of Christ should be more than enough to make us see that suffering has a place in the divine scheme of things.