Friday, August 10, 2007



The usual question around the ‘problem of pain’ comes from an assumption; the assumption is of a certain view of God. The question is usually stated like this, “How can an all powerful, all good God allow a variety of indiscriminate atrocities to strike innocent children and good people?"

What if we are beginning with the wrong question? What if we shift the question to, “Why is it that humans have always turned toward a transcendent concept or personality when pain arrives?"

Perhaps we are approaching the issue ass-backwards by beginning with an assumed definition of God to be defended. Perhaps, instead, we need to begin with the observable fact of the human minds natural propensity to move in an Other-worldly direction when faced with trauma. In other words, it seems that pain moves us from a small version of existence toward the agonizing contemplation of a larger version, which often involves some sort of Higher Power or God. Without the crisis, we would not be forced to expand our awareness, which makes soul at an invisible level, and character at a more visible level.

Let me illustrate:

Most of us, in this age of computers, have had the experience of losing a lengthy email, file or other document over which we toiled mightily. A former girlfriend once accidentally deleted my personal document file containing two years of writing and class notes. Foolishly, I had not backed up anything; or was it so foolish? I ended up beginning each deleted project anew, and watched the resurrection of each idea done in a way which clearly exceeded what had been done before. Without the trauma of deletion, I would have never expanded those ideas as I did.

Traumatic loss has a way of forcing us outside of our saved and ‘completed’ files, outside of our stored-up views of ‘reality.’ Like Job of the Hebrew Bible, our lives, when cracked open, send us scrambling for answers and new places to reside, physically and psychically. When our comfortable homes, taken for granted health, financial security and beloved family members are threatened or lost, we automatically ‘cry out.’ The word ‘out’ is critical. Out means we are forced to leave what we were ‘in’, out of our old secure abodes, out of those tiny but precious psycho-spiritual domiciles where the God-image was neatly defined, categorized and understood. Out...expanding...adventing. When the old security devices disappear, we are literally forced to shift.

The human propensity to create little worlds, and to hang onto our old secure gods helps us understand the story in Genesis where Jacob covertly moves his family from Iraq back to Israel. We read that just before they departed, his wife Rachel “stole her father's household gods.” (Genesis 31:19) Rachel’s father, Laban, discovered the lost family and deleted gods and went a little nuts. He frantically went after the old gods. For Laban the gods symbolized his two sweet daughters and many grandchildren he would probably never see again. Laban does not recover his precious gods, and we can only conjecture what he did to replace them once he got back to his painfully empty tents. But replace them he did, in some fashion. Loss always sends us searching for our old gods, often not finding them, forcing us to refashion, re-invent and re-imagine them.

And why did Rachel steal them? I am guessing it was a last minute decision as she was contemplating her move away from home, the loss of her childhood memories - the scents, scenes and years of routine and stability. Many of us fondly look back upon our childhoods and long for the good ole days when it was simpler. Rachel too was in pain, and her agony sent her to the gods.

Similarly, in the painful death of Jesus, we see the agonizing search for God. From the cross Jesus shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Some see this as an explicit or tacit declaration of the death of the old Hebrew God-image which was going to come and rescue Israel from her political oppressors. It was time to 'know God by another name.' opening the way for a reinvention or re-imagination of the Transcendent Realm. From that moment, there arose various new interpretations of what God was like. Humans were ready to give God a new name, a different identity to match their experiences of the transcendent realm.

We find another such a moment mentioned in the Old Testament with Moses, a felonious fugitive tending sheep near Mount Sinai. Some paint him as a content shepherd in an idyllic pasture filled with prancing sheep and soft blue skies. I see him recalling his days as a prince in Egypt with servants, fine food and wines and luxury on every level of life. Now he is ankle deep in sheep shit, working under a scalding sun, remembering the murder he committed and the rejection by his own Hebrew people who identified him publically as the killer. Moses was in pain, doubting the God of Abraham, forced to search his heart and the heavens. In this situation he sees and appraoches the famous burning bush and hears a new name for God:

“I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” Exodus 6:3

If Moses had been a good Jew, Catholic, Baptist or Muslim, he would have surely walked away from the fiery shrub at Sinai mumbling, “Ha! The old name given to Abraham is the only name. God doesn’t change. Blasphemy! Clearly, some demon has possessed that bush.” Moses came to know that a vibrant, living spirituality involved experiencing the Divine by another name, by new metaphors and dynamically fresh images. His pain sent him into a deeper acquaintance with the Infinite.

This idea scares religious people to death, particularly those we call conservatives or fundamentalists. I used to be one, and I sympathize with their fears. It sounds blasphemous to question, re-imagine or re-name the Almighty. Conservatives see such attempts as ‘mere humans trying to play God.’ They wonder how we would dare to re-define or re-imagine God in our arrogant subjectivity. What they fail to see is that the Infinite Being can never be contained by a stock set of images and cultural metaphors, even when they are in a supposed Holy Book.

Sadly, many of these conservatives began their spiritual lives with a joyful encounter of the Living Presence, bringing them unspeakable joy and infectious enthusiasm; but most of them gradually become lifeless, miserable or apathetic in their defense of an old name for God, in their stale creedal images of the Infinite Source which once shook them to life. It is sad to see people who were once so alive and vibrant become so dull and powerless. Most will continue to pay lip service to the old God, now set on a church altar like Laban’s family idols, often finding a hobby or addiction to absorb their time, energy and money – but there will be those who, like Moses, seek out new experiences, defy conventional theological systems, discovering fresh images and new names for the Infinite, ever expanding Realm where souls thrive once again.

So then, perhaps the role of suffering has nothing to do with any particular theology or religiously concocted God that needs to be reconciled to it. Perhaps suffering does not need to be reconciled with anything. Perhaps suffering is to the Transcendent Realm what hunger and thirst are to the physical realm, impetuses moving us beyond the current boundaries, over the hill, across the water, further out. Perhaps suffering is to the tiny self what an algebra problem is to the tiny brain, an impetus to expand. Math, like God, is unfathomable, bottomless and always calling us into the depths. If the God-image does not fit the phenomena called suffering, then it is time for the image to change, and change, and change...

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