The New Yorker (of all magazines) gave a good number of pages early last month to a quite brilliant book reviewer, James Wood, for a long essay on why he could no longer be a Christian. Stories like his are widespread. They usually cite the natural evils that too often crash upon humans — in China a stupefying earthquake, in Burma a cyclone, elsewhere tsunami, or tornado, disease, flood, or cruel slow-working famine. They then add the evils that humans inflict upon other humans. Virtually every family in America has suffered from painful evils, often bitterly and almost overpoweringly so: A promising young nephew in a major university killed in an auto crash; a wife, husband, or sister wasted slowly and painfully by cancer or some other affliction — drug or alcohol addiction; the Alzheimer's disease of an unrecognizing spouse; nightmares from brutalities suffered under distant dictatorial regimes.
One of the oldest accusations against God in the Bible and in every generation since has been that there is too much evil in this world for there to be a good God. The pain is so intense. The irrationality and seeming cruelty at times seem unendurable.
Of course, ceasing to be a Jew or a Christian does not wipe these evils away. They continue. They roar on. The rejection of God does not diminish evil in the world by a whit. In fact, the turn of Russia and Germany from more or less Christian regimes to boastfully atheist regimes did not lessen, but increased, the number of humans who have horribly suffered, by nearly 100 million. Even under atheist interpretations of science, the vast suffering under ferocious competition for survival, for a vastly longer era than was known, far exceeds the evils earlier generations knew.
An unusually religious friend of my daughter volunteered for a year's work among the poor of Haiti. Within weeks, she was so dismayed by the inexplicable suffering of the poor, and their defenselessness, that she abandoned her faith. It demanded too much of her.
This noble young woman's loss of faith did not lessen the poverty and pain of those she worked with. Besides, the reasons for the overwhelming poverty she encountered were not God-made but man-made. (After all, Haiti is by nature a very rich nation.) The secrets of how humans can create wealth have raised up the poor of many countries; somehow, the secrets passed Haiti by. One remedy the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did add, moreover, is to touch the heart of this compassionate young woman and many others like her, to bring remedial help and, in some cases, knowledge of how to produce economic transformation.
Faith for those who suffer
However that might be, those who suffer most from injustice and oppression seem to find more consolation and dignity in the Jewish/Christian faith than in any other worldview (even socialism). Judaism and Christianity seem very good religions for those who suffer because they bestow on them justice and dignity. The realistic point of Judaism and Christianity is that suffering is a normal part of every human life. Lamentations are a native language. But evil does not mean that God loves us less, or that all is lost, or that good does not win out in the end.
In fact, the poor also delight in the beauties of God's creation. On balance, even with their acute suffering, the poor also feel blessed. They sense the rapture of sunlight flashing across lake or ocean, and soft breezes at sunset, and the great starry sky.
For Christianity, the interpretive key to this world is the cross — the cross on which the Son of God died. For Judaism, it is the long, long exile and pain of the Jewish people. If God has so treated his only son, and also his own people, why should anyone else expect Easy Street? Suffering seeks everybody out. Death certainly does, Christian or not, atheist or not.
Worse, the world seen by evolutionary biology alone is even more rife with suffering, yet rather more merciless. That world is characterized by raw chance, accident and the death of about 90% of all species that have ever lived. Perhaps earthquakes, tsunami, tornado, disease and famine derive from chance, and signify nothing.
Nonetheless, the most disturbing evils are the ones deliberately created by free human beings — the sadistic guards at Dachau, Germany, who took pleasure in humiliating, clubbing and shoving to the earth those they bullied; and, last month, those two pitiable women in Compton, Calif. — a mother and her lover — who were recently found torturing the 5-year-old son of one of them by hanging him up with wires over the door, stabbing into his young body lit cigarettes, and starving him and beating him for months.
These shocking brutalities rock the shallow faith of those whose beliefs are rooted in sentiment and inheritance, rather than in reasoned argument. Many Christians are poorly educated in their religion; their formal schooling teaches them nothing about it. Some seem to think that the point of prayer is to be given everything one asks — or at least the important things. Such an expectation would turn God into a servant of their will.
When Jesus said: "Ask and you shall receive," he did not mean you will get what you pray for, any more than he did that night in the garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed that God would spare him from the agony of the flogging and the crucifixion he would suffer the next day. Jesus meant you will be kept above raging waters by the will of God, and given enough light and strength to transmute the evil you experience into good.
A world of chance?
Rebellion against a suffering world and the God whose great work of art it is is very common. When very sorely tried, many Jews and Christians such as the Psalmist (who again and again lamented the long exile and humiliations endured by his people) and Job (whose faith God tested by adding one affliction after another) have also wanted to throw off God, but a counter-question kept nagging them: Would a conviction that our sufferings are meaningless, and due to blind chance, ease the pain of the poor and the unjustly tortured? Raging against the night seems to be an evasion of reality.
Sustained public conversation about these matters — long, intelligent conversation — can help to diminish mutual misconceptions about the terms of this argument. That conversation could be critical for the future of liberty on this planet. Whether our lives are meaningless, or not, is not a trivial question.
Michael Novak's newest book, No One Sees God, will be published in August. He is also author of The Experience of Nothingness, Belief and Unbelief, and The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism.
Published in The New Yorker July 21, 2008