In my last blog, I was sharing my interest in how religion and philsophy shapes world views. I rather boldly stated that "I love a respectful debate with anyone who wants to challenge the teachings of Biblical Christianity. I always learn something from what you have to share with me". No sooner had I finished writing this (with regard to a respectful debate I had with a friend who has a worldview influenced by Buddhism and Interbeing) then I was faced with another interesting challenge, one having to do with the issue of suffering.
Any religion must face the problem of suffering - if there is a God, why does he allow terrible things to happen? Innocent children starving to death? or being cruelly abused? (which is not just suffering but also a problem of evil).
The "interesting challenge" came in the form of The Sparrow, a book by Mary Doria Russell. In the reading guide at the back of the book, one reviewer says the Sparrow's theme is "the problem of evil and how it may stand in the path of a person's deepest need to believe."
This is a science fiction book, set in the near future when a scientist on earth hears radio signals coming from another planet - singing - and a team is sent to make first contact with an alien species. At first there is great "success" in meeting and communicating with the aliens. But then things go terribly wrong. All but one person from Earth is killed by the aliens. The survivor manages to get back to earth, but he is physically and mentally and spiritually devastated by what happened on the alien planet. This man is a priest, who had believed that God had called him to go to this distant planet to meet these alien singers. Then to witness the death of his companions and many other horrific things - he feels betrayed by God.
I couldn't put this book down. It's extremely well-written, and has equal parts of mystery, humor, great characters, amazing settings, and wonderful ideas. This review by Science Fiction Weekly is a good summary: "Russell's debut novel... focuses on her characters, and it hs here that the work truly shines. An entertaining infusion of humor keeps the book from becoming too dark, although some of the characters are so clever that they sometimes seem contrived. Reader who dislike an emphasis on moral dilemmas or spiritual quests may be turned off, but those who enjoy science fiction because it can create these things are in for a real treat."
But I also found it to be a very disturbing story. Almost like the author was determined to write the most shocking story she could possibly think of. Innocent children brutally murdered. Rape. Other things I don't even want to describe. But perhaps what troubled me most of all was a believer whose faith was shattered.
When he returned to earth, the lone survivor, the priest, was questioned about the terrible things that had happened. He says: "If I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God's will, too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all of this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn't it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances... is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God."
According to the story, in the face of heartbreaking suffering and cruelty, a person who believes in God has these three choices: 1) to be bitter, because suffering and evil are part of God's will just as much beauty and love 2) assume there is no God 3) to assume God is vicious, and therefore hate him (I believe there is a fourth choice... read on).
Here is what the others, who have heard the priest's story, say about his crisis of faith - why God did nothing to intervene: "He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.... Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it (Matt 10:29). But the sparrow still falls."
From the reading guide at the back of the book, the author (who is actually a former Catholic, and now a convert to Judaism) says: "The risks [with religion] have to do with believing that God micromanages the world, and with seeing that what may be simply coincidence as significant and indicative of divine providence. It's very easy then to go out on a limb spiritually, expect more from God than you have a right to expect, and set yourself up for bitter disappointment in his silence and lack of action."
Bitter disappointment that when God sees the sparrow fall - or us - He lets us fall. He "weeps. He observes... and gives meaning to it [our fall] by caring passionately about us, and remembering." But he doesn't actively do anything about it or express His purpose for it.
Actually, that's not what the Bible says God does, at all. There is a very similiar story of suffering and cruelty in the Bible - when God let Job suffer the death of all his children, the loss of all his possessions, terrible physical pain, and the special torture of having three of his friends accuse him and say everything that had happened was really his own fault because he'd sinned in some way.
So yes, God did let His sparrow fall, and for a while - perhaps quite a long time - God was silent and did nothing. But then He did do something. He showed Himself to Job in all His glory and majesty, and revealed the purpose for the suffering. Satan had said "Job will lose faith in You." Job struggled with his faith, but he never completely gave into any of the three possibilities described above (bitterness, atheism, or hatred). And God rewarded Job for clinging to his faith - he restored all that Job had lost many times over - but perhaps the most important consequence of what Job went through was that He saw the majesty and glory of God.
God doesn't just observe our pain and suffering silently from a distance, or even lean down and whisper to us, "I can't help you other than to tell you, I still care passionately about you". What a meaningless statement that is! Like the good Samaritan going to the injured man and saying "I care passionately that you've been hurt, but I'm in no position to help you."
God does allow Satan to afflict terrible suffering. For a time. But as Job realized, "when I have been tested I shall come forth as gold." (23:10). Refinement. Gold does not shine until it has gone through the fire; a gem does not glitter until it has been cut and shaped and polished against stone.
But you might ask what about those that die in the process, what about the innocent children? I answer, again from the Bible, do they not shine in heaven even more brightly than they would have on earth? Death is not a loss, but a gain. It's those of us who haven't reached death yet who are still limping along trying to figure things out.
So I contend that the author of the Sparrow missed the mark when it comes to understanding true Biblical faith. The truth is all throughout the Bible, from Abraham being tested with the requirement to sacrifice his son Isaac, to Martha and Mary being tested with the death of their beloved brother Lazarus. And God did not make Himself immune to suffering, either. I thought it interesting that with all the Jesuit priests in this story, even with all its religious themes, not once was the name of Christ Jesus mentioned (other than once or twice as an expletive). If anyone tries to tackle "Christian" themes without bringing Christ into the story, that's a major oversight.
I didn't plan on blogging about this book, because so far all the books I've blogged about have been inspirational in some respect (some of them spiritually, some of them just inspirational from a writer's point of view). But the Sparrow did make me think - it did make me go back to the Bible to search for answers - specifically for that fourth answer to the question of suffering, because I knew that the three options the author offered were not enough. I welcome any debate to the fourth.... challenge me again! (Even I don't get any response, I still have plenty of material for another blog "Worldviews Part 3, more on suffering").
Here are some other challenges I've made. I love hearing responses and I'm always open to discussion.
Worldviews part 1: the truth is we need help
Why tolerance isn't enough
Some thoughts on Avatar and why it is so appealing