I am writing this shortly after two major hurricanes have ripped through both my adopted state of North Carolina as well as Florida and Georgia. These hurricanes have flooded or destroyed homes in North Carolina and flattened entire towns in coastal Florida. As always, there were personal stories of both people who either dodged tragedy or who were injured or killed unmercifully. As always, I was struck by how God was to be understood as “He who saved us,” but never “He who let some of us die.” We are often afraid to allow God to let bad things happen to good (or bad) people, because we are afraid it might mean that He does not truly love and care about us.
Examples of weather disasters or, more commonly, illnesses such as cancer, perplex those who do (and don’t) believe in God because it seems that He is either disinterested in our personal welfare or somehow doesn’t bother to intervene when he “clearly should.” When there is a welcomed medical recovery or someone survives a hurricane, we can be quick to praise God’s mercy, when it can be merely fortuitous. If my house remains intact and my neighbour’s house gets damaged or destroyed in a tornado, should I praise God while (s)he curses Him? Such examples and many others point to that old nagging question for anyone of any faith: (How) does God intervene in our lives in ways that we can know it is Him, and not either luck or “fate?” God’s miracles are obvious.
I want to try to answer this and corollary questions because it is as old as the ancient Israelites, who impatiently yearned for their Messiah in the century before Jesus was born, asking God to be relieved of persecution and poverty, which had dogged them from the beginning. The Genesis story, for me, is the Jewish effort to make sense of God as both Creator and intervener as well as to understand our human frailty and sinfulness. The Adam and Eve story immediately exposes the gap between God and ourselves, between the human and the divine, and how to make any sense of His importance for us. It is always tempting to take up the deist position: that God created the world and will spend the rest of time reading, watching television or, worse, sleeping. Atheists shout that the universe is a random assortment of events, crises and deaths with no discernable patterns or reasons for anything that occurs, whether useful or terrible. It is also tempting to adopt this position because, ironically, it lets God off the hook: what is His real involvement with us, anyway? I do sense that He is always watching everything, and so is not asleep. To even suppose that God sleeps at all is merely human in the first place.
I am more than ambivalent about theology because of its tendency to allow our human speculations about God to harden into many sorts of doctrine, as though this actually makes any greater sense. Ascribing “God’s hand” to the above circumstances might not seem like theology, but it often is—it is “layman’s theology” to try to make sense of what happens to us. In the above example, it is unlikely that God both exerts His influence to save my house but to allow my neighbour’s house to be ruined. Any such sentiments are speculative because there is no clearly discernable “proof” that God affects either of our houses. To be silly, if my neighbour’s house was destroyed and was then mysteriously rebuilt during the night, we would all call that God’s miraculous work and praise Him accordingly. We would know that God had “stepped in to right things.”
So I start with the most basic of questions: How do we know when God (in)directly influences our lives beyond speculation or coincidence? How do we know when it is really Him and not something else more explicable? I will necessarily reject John Calvin’s (16th Century Reformation theologian who broke with Catholicism) notion of God as “worldly micro-manager,” who resisted our having any viable free will, and who doubted that most of us could be accepted by God because of our inherent human “depravity.” Calvin took Augustine’s notion of original sin to the nearly the extreme, and generally also objected to chance or coincidence, believing that God controlled (nearly) everything. Rather, I will argue the opposite: that God allows for much to happen in our world without His (in)direct influence, to the point that could, in atheistic hands, push God so far to the periphery that He nearly ceases to matter. How does God truly matter?
I want to take the opposite approach from theology, not so much guessing, and look at God from His perspective instead. If theology is only human speculation, what does God’s influence look like for us? I will posit that not only is there free will, but there may be too much of it, meaning that we allow or control so much of what goes on in our world, and the rest may well no longer function under God’s immediate, day-to-day influence. If we say that God created the means for the evolution of the species after the Earth cooled and formed its early readiness for such life, that, of course, belongs to God. We could not create the world on our own, nor is it randomly created. There are many variables which have to line up quite closely for life as we understand it to exist at all—having a moon, for example. So God made the process by which weather occurs, the ocean tides, the four Natural elements, gravity, photosynthesis and so on. I don’t know that He actively controls this even on a seasonal basis, but, as Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller argues, God set all of this in motion “in the beginning.” That is the real Genesis story. I do not believe that He controls the daily temperatures where we live, whether it rains (sorry) or whether there are storms or droughts, because, unlike both Jewish and certain Christian thought, I do not believe that God intentionally punishes us, even for our worst sins. I don’t know that He created the world with us fully in mind at all—which is unanswerable—even for those who accept the Trinity. We came along very late, and probably not without at least some hesitation on God’s part, being who and what we are.
So, if we could not have created our world, God does not intentionally punish us and there may be too much human free will, where does that leave us in terms of more clearly recognizing the will of God in our world? In the Adam and Eve story, they succumb to temptation and God banishes them from paradise, but what is this “tree of knowledge?” It defines the gap between the human and the divine, it defines how easily we are “relieved” of God to follow our own ways, and, yes, they were naked. Is sex part of the “tree of knowledge?” Yes it is. This Jewish mythological story’s impetus is to define the price we pay for disobeying God by exercising our God-given free human will to disobey Him. None of the other creatures in the animal kingdom have this “problem,” as God has biologically “programmed” them to avoid straying into sin, coupled with a lack of sufficient abstract reasoning. Thus, we are “stuck” with our “intelligent” free will as humans, I don’t think God has ever punished us for it (since He gave it to us, just like sexual orgasm), and so what He really wants is for us to keep returning to the garden, which is to find Him again and again until He is pulled inside us enough to affect (some of) what we say and do, what Freud called introjection. All of which is to say that what God mostly does with us is to watch, listen and wait for if and when He wants to intervene in our lives. This, of course, frustrates us to no end, since He “should want to intervene in our live all the time, each and every day.” That’s His job, right? Well, yes.
I have written previously about how God could have stopped with the other animals and never created we humans, and saved Himself a lot of anguish. God has suffered far more anguish from all of us than in poor Job’s story, and it all really happens, every day. God has daily bouts of anguish, likely has doubts about creating us in the first place, yet He remains perpetually patient for our finding Him again. He never sleeps and He is forever patient. As I wrote in a poem several years ago, God’s patience is our constellation. So I begin to answer the question with what is obvious: since each of us has free will, collectively God does nothing to intervene against our will, because He gave it to us permissibly. Just like the weather, He does not attempt to control us at all. Rather, He waits for when to intervene, which, for us, is far too seldom. This is not Deism, however. As I believe in miracles, there can be no Deism, since God is not reading or watching television, rather He surgically presents Himself at the necessary time and place, performs His miracles, and we all know it for what they are. Surgeons in particular have described how some operations turn out well despite what seems like the certain death of the patient, and people recover miraculously. People have heart attacks and are clinically dead for most of one hour or more and survive, without brain damage. Almost any physician will tell you they know when God intervenes with their patients, it is inexplicable otherwise. They are saying Don’t tell us there is no God, we know better. So, there is free human will and there are Godly miracles—the human and divine, not directly linked yet acutely and situationally inseparable.
Secondly, I want to take up the old question of why God lets us suffer. Adam and Eve “suffer” through banishment from Eden in provoking God’s wrath at their sinful temptation. I don’t believe in God’s wrath, however, as, beyond Old Testament stories, I see no evidence for it. The notion of the wrath of God is a human one, not His. The same is true for Hell, I don’t see much evidence for it beyond the occasional story. People have repeatedly visited Heaven for centuries, and find only His Fatherly love there. But yes, God will let us suffer, whether medically, psychologically or even Spiritually.
Lately, I have been reading about the early Christian martyrs. Although scholars generally now think that the sheer amount of persecution by the Romans was probably exaggerated, there is no question that during what is known as “the Great Persecution” (303-313 CE) that Christians died in significant numbers from barbarously ill treatment. Some of them literally “died for God” in refusing to recant their Christian faith by performing sacrifices for the Romans’ pagan gods, as had become decreed by their emperor. While these martyrs probably expected to go to Heaven, this is still quite an example of introjection and suffering. God never told them to die for Him, that was their necessity, and some martyrs became cherished by the early Catholic church.
Why does God let tragedies and calamities happen, and why does He let us suffer? Because He allows the world to happen as it does, which includes joy as well as suffering. Suffering is the price of our being alive, this is what some of the early theologians said, based on Jesus’ crucifixion and these martyrs. By being alive, we can receive the best and worst, and everything else in between. Sometimes or perhaps many times, God does not answer our prayers about our situations because (I think) He sees this as what necessarily occurs in life. He does not spare us anymore than He spared Jesus, His only Son, on the Cross. Jesus, in reciting the beginning of Psalm 22, felt abandoned by God, and, after such calamities as cancer or hurricanes, so can we. We hurt when God does not spare us, and often, He does not. For those who are familiar with near-death experiences (NDEs), it is God who decides to perform medical miracles in usually emergency situations, often in response to intense familial petitions of prayer. He can let us suffer or He can miraculously heal us, it is always His choice. Most of the time, God lets us suffer. The English physicist Stephen Hawking died earlier this year with the atheistic sentiment that there is no God. He contracted ALS, a neuro-muscular disease, at age 21 and died at age 76 (the longest-known surviving ALS patient), spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to speak. It is understandable that he would not believe in God, but that does not mean God does not exist. There is the ripe beauty of the Natural world, the holy temple of the human body, sexual orgasm and love, and there is sickness and death. It is a package deal. Even people who have made suicide attempts have had NDEs. God’s “mysterious ways” are indeed that—His and His alone.
All of this likely feels depressing, and it is when illness or tragedy affects any or all of us. It can feel random and lacerating, this life of ours. It is also righteously joyous, and sometimes we at least glimpse semblances of the divine. God makes no promises to anyone of us beyond giving us the chance to be alive. Since we didn’t create ourselves, that must be enough. It doesn’t make Him unnecessary or irrelevant. No one sees God, I try to remember, yet He hovers, waits, anguishes and intervenes, just like we do. One day, Heaven awaits most or all of us in some “fourth dimension” of space and time where everyone is alive again, so say those who have visited there. I hope so. For some or many of us, the relief will prove immeasurable. God always awaits us, everlastingly patient.