PARTING SHOT “HOPEFUL DOUBT” AND THE RETURN TO CHURCH

Of all the bad advice ever given out, the old stricture that said “never talk about politics or religion” has to rank among the worst. I can almost see the prohibition on political discussion, especially in the wake of an odiferous election. But religion? Along with science and art, it’s one of humanity’s fascinating attempts to make sense of the universe and ourselves. It’s hard to imagine any idea or action that doesn’t connect in some way with religion. How not to talk about it?

One recent night, with these thoughts swirling in my head, I was driving somewhere and searching the radio, visiting unknown stations in search of better music and different news, or vice versa. Finding nothing, I switched the radio off without punching back to one of my usual channels.

When I turned the radio on the next morning, gone were my familiar deejays and news analysts. A strange woman’s voice filled the car. Sounding almost giddy with happiness, she was talking about suffering.

Almost two decades ago, it seems, the woman had been paralyzed from the neck down in a swimming accident. She was not bitter about her fate. Far from it. She knew that God would teach her the meaning of her suffering. At one time she had hoped those answers would come quickly, but they had not. There were times when she became impatient with God, and for that she was sorry.

“Only weeds grow overnight,” she reminded her audience, warning that they could never say “time’s up” to God. Perhaps in another two decades, she said, the meaning of her accident and her pain would be revealed.

Was this chance radio encounter a “sign”? I don’t know. But it did remind me of one element of Christianity that has long baffled and angered me: the belief, harking back at least to the self-flagellating penitents of medieval times, that there is something good, almost desirable, about suffering. And worst of all: that pain and suffering are part of some divine plan. We are draftees in a cosmic boot camp. God, the heavenly drill instructor, whips us into shape and issues our stripes if we make the grade.

I don’t argue that some people-by no means all-can learn from adversity and forge new strength out of personal tragedy, though many others are broken or embittered by their ordeals. What staggers me, though, is the willingness of so many people to tolerate pain and horror (especially other people’s pain and horror) in the name of a loving God.

Have you seen the pictures of toddlers with progeria, that ghastly disease that flings children through the life cycle, rushing them from diapers to senility before they are teenagers? There’s something obscene about a belief system that would tell a ten-year-old victim of this disease that his brittle bones and withered skin are necessary to the unfolding of a wondrous plan. The point is not whether we should do something about such tragedies; atheists and Christians alike support the eradication of disease. The point is whether, in light of such evidence, we can subscribe to the belief that pain is a message from a benevolent deity.

This kind of thinking raises once again the ancient problem of evil, as expressed in the old philosopher’s conundrum: if God is loving and omniscient and omnipotent, why does God permit suffering? It’s been put in more sophisticated terms, but the pagan islander Friday in Robinson Crusoe hit it squarely when, following Crusoe’s primer on Christianity, he asked, “Why God not kill Devil?”

The attempts to solve this puzzle over the centuries have brought ingenious answers from gifted thinkers. The Christian answer is artfully summed up by C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, necessary reading for anyone interested in the subject. If you grant Lewis his first premise-the existence of a God at once loving and omnipotent-his explanation of evil is very persuasive.

William James, on the other hand, answered the riddle with the paradoxical notion of a limited God who actually needed man’s help to perfect the universe-a solution that at least takes God off the hook for individual suffering, as do the “evolutionist” ideas of thinkers like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the naturalist and Catholic theologian who held that the earth is evolving, to greatly oversimplify, from a thing to an idea, developing a “noosphere” of rnind and spirit to parallel the biosphere.

Writing about your own religious views, of course, is like building a bicycle while riding it: very much a work in progress. Right now I’d call my position one of hopeful doubt. Because of the objection discussed above, among others, I’ve been slow to join almost all of my friends and acquaintances in the return to religion (or should I say the return to church), though I’ll admit to feeling a bit behind the curve on this one, After all, there’s a denomination out there to suit almost any political or social orientation, and the leftist idea that “the church” is some dangerous, reactionary bastion is several decades out of date. Many churches do loads of good, and more power to them. I even miss the much-maligned Blue Laws, an innocuous blurring of church and state that served as a reminder that money and commerce-mammon, they used to call it-should not consume every day of the week.

I guess it all comes down to what you go to church for. My friends, many of whom shunned churches in the Sixties and Seventies, have returned for myriad good reasons: to give their kids moral instruction, to meet eligible singles, to play softball, to make new friends, to find a babysitter. Some are even seeking answers to the ultimate questions. One friend told me that her church sponsors lively discussions of some of the very matters that have put me off organized religion; another attends because, he says, it’s the only time of the week he can just be quiet and think.

I know what he means. In a world where the clangorous forces of greed and “progress” grow louder every year, a place that’s friendly to quiet contemplation has a powerful drawing card indeed. The way I see it, church membership (rightly) requires some public affirmation of particular beliefs, something I’m not ready to do just now. I’ve got to admit, though, that I’m sorely tempted. Who knows where the search for answers may lead?

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