Sunday 30 June 2019

Deliver Us To And Not From The Suffering In Our World: The Theodicy Dilemma

In the last "Blogspot" I explored Universalism in its many varied, dare I say universal, forms. When asked what kind of a Universalist I was? I said I was a Universalist, Universalist, Universalist. The service, that the "Blogspot" was based on, was delivered at three congregations that day. By the time I got to third I could almost have done so without notes. I had all kinds of interesting responses to the service, many folk seemed to identify strongly. Later that day, exhausted, I returned home and published this “blogspot” based upon it. Whoever read the post actually received what I had intended to deliver, where as those who heard it received versions as they manifested in the time and space. Again I got some very interesting responses, to the published version. At the time I did not have the energy to respond but thankfully others did. One stayed with me and and this "blogspot" has grown from it. The post read “ The thing is I worry about how much input a God of love is having, in that so many are hurt, killed, homeless, hungry etc”

It is a good question. If we look at the world, at the suffering within the world, it is reasonable to ask in what sense could a God of love be involved in all of this? Of course the response of many is that none at all, for there is no God. Or others will say that God is not all loving. Others may say well it’s all a mystery and we cannot understand how God’s love operates. Then still others will suggest that we look at the helpers and that this love manifests in their actions. Are any of these answers adequate? It is certainly something to ponder.

Now suffering and a God of Love is a question that has troubled theologians, philosophers and plain ordinary people for centuries. The question has been asked and continues to be asked as to what causes suffering and can it be overcome? Now in some quarters it has been suggested that the root cause of suffering is “evil”. Which has led to the question that if evil exists then how can God be all powerful, ever present and all loving? In theological circles this question has become known as “The Theodicy Dilemma”

Theodicy from the Greek words "theos" (God) and "dike" (justice)

“The Theodicy Dilemma” may be summed up by the following question, about God, asked by the eighteenth century philosopher David Hume:

“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil.”

This question encapsulates the whole Theodicy debate.

The debate is also captured in the following poem by Czeslaw Milosz "Theodicy”

“Theodicy” by Czeslaw Milosz

No, it won’t do, my sweet theologians.
Desire will not save the morality of God.
If he created beings able to choose between good and evil,
And they chose, and the world lies in iniquity,
Nevertheless, there is pain, and the undeserved torture of creatures,
Which would find its explanation only by assuming
The existence of an archetypal Paradise
And a pre-human downfall so grave
That the world of matter received its shape from diabolic power.

The poem is even more hard hitting, I would suggest, than Hume’s questions. This from Milosz a Nobel Prize winning Poet who was a Polish Catholic, who spent much of his life wrestling with his own faith.

I remember exploring “Theodicy”, in depth, while training for the ministry. I probably spent more time on the piece I wrote on the subject than any other, which showed in my final marks. I struggled and I wrestled, as so many have no doubt done. Looking back I can see how important it was for me to do so.- By the way I struggled once again while trying to put the service together, that this "Blogspot" is taken from.- I am grateful for the struggle as I have learnt, in my time as a minister, that a large part of the work is to be with others in their suffering, often seemingly senseless suffering by the way. It is of course suffering that brought me into ministry in the first place.

I remember wrestling for hours, in the library and walking in the park, with the theodicy question, I continue to do so by the way. I found my own unsettled faith in it and as a result a greater purpose has emerged. If I have learned anything from suffering, it is that I cannot take away the suffering of anyone else, but I can be with them in it. I have learned that in so doing the God of my limited understanding comes into being once more.

The Christian tradition has wrestled for centuries with the Theodicy question. One strand, beginning with Augustine of Hippo concluded that evil was the absence of good in a person’s life and was the consequence of God given free will. He believed that God was aware of the potential misuse of free will but allowed it, as to deny it would be worse than to allow the evil that could stem from it. He believed that the fall of Adam, his original sin, had permanently corrupted humanity and compelled people, through destructive behaviour, to develop habitual wickedness. He believed that the root of our troubles was our inability to accept our creation and all that it entails, therefore we do not submit to God and instead submit to habitual evil which creates suffering for all.

For the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas evil resulted from the absence of God, the lack of a positive substance, in the same way that blindness is the absence of sight. He suggested that there is no such thing as pure evil, just that something created good has become defective.

One of the leading figures of the Reformation Jean Calvin believed in God’s “Divine Plan” or Predestination. He believed that nothing took place by chance and that God was involved in every aspect of life. Like Augustine he believed that evil was caused by man’s fall and that we are enslaved by this ‘original sin’.

During the Twentieth century theologians have attempted, from a variety of stand points, to understand the nature of evil, suffering and God. John Hick offered a view very different to that followed by Augustine, Aquinus and Calvin and traces his thinking back to Iraneas. He saw the world as a vale of soul making where people are shaped by God, who desires all creatures to grow into relationship with him. Therefore, suffering is essential for this to take place. He claimed that God is, in some sense, hidden within creation and that coming to terms with suffering is part of this process. This leads to salvation which occurs when humans enjoy this perfect relationship with God. Richard Swinburn’s “Natural Law Theodicy” follows a similar line claiming that natural evil has to exist if humans are to make the correct choices that will prevent human evil.

Dorothee Soellee critiqued Hick’s position claiming that suffering, caused by God, cannot be justified. “No heaven can rectify Auschwitz” She was critical of this Christian Masochism and its concomitant Theological Sadism, claiming that human beings have become powerless masochistic accomplices to the sadistic God. She believed that to truly know God is to see Him as the God who suffers with humanity. The key question for Soelle was, who are the victims and who are the oppressors? For her God suffers with the victim, that God is present there within the suffering. Her position was powerfully illustrated in the following, told by Eli Wiesel, of two men and a small boy being hung by SS guards, from his seminal work “The Night”. Wiesel recalls:

“Where is God? Where is He? Someone behind me asked...but the third rope was still moving, being so light, the child was still alive. For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face...Behind me I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is he? Here He is hanging here on the gallows.”

Process theology and those influenced by it have offered other explanations as to why suffering occurs. It sees all entities as self creative and therefore free. This includes the smallest particles, which like humans are capable of responding to God. Therefore they can reject God’s purpose and it is this that creates the suffering in the world.

Process theology does not see humanity as corrupt in nature instead it claims that often we fail to live up to our potential. It recognises God as being infinite but also relative, both imminent and transcendent.It offers an explanation for both human and natural suffering. It is suggested that as man has emerged from the natural world human feeling and emotions must be present in all of creation. In essence it suggests life can respond to the Lure of Divine Love, but does not always do so and thus suffering result.

I’m not sure any of the attempts to reconcile suffering with an all powerful loving God are adequate and all resort to some extent to mystery. None give a clear picture of all loving and powerful God, who never changes.

Does this mean that "God is Dead?" as Nietzsche suggested in "The Gay Science" and many others have since.

And what do I believe, you may well ask. Well I for one do respond to the idea of a God of Love, as my experiences and observations of life suggest this. I also experience this love coming to life as I am present with those who suffer and do all I can to be with them in their pain, but I cannot prove that beyond any doubt. Like the great and lesser theolgians, I too resort to mystery. I am sorry if this answer is inadequate, but it is my honest view. No doubt this inadequate response would lead to some to reject the whole idea of God. I cannot reject the whole God concept though, for I do know and experience the lure of Divine Love. This comes alive in mine and others response to suffering, it comes to life as I turn to rather than turn away from life itself.

My growing sense of Universalism helps me to live faithfully, in love, in a world in which there is so much beauty but also suffering. I accept that no matter how loving I and others live, that horrific, dare I say evil, things will happen both personally and universally. It is the God of love, that is so great and ever compelling to me, that allows one to overcome even the most horrific situations, with a response grown from a sacred reverence for life itself. This is the God of Love that I worship, that is beyond my understanding.

I have come to believe that it is our holy duty to respond to the suffering of others, to stand in solidarity with them and act in holy compassion and never to declare the other as somehow less than human.

In my prayers I ask this Universal Love to help me feel a deep connection to all life and to bring some healing to the world in which I live and the world beyond my being.

It is I believe our holy duty to begin to bring healing to our world, to wipe the tears that flow from our humanity and to repair the tears in the fabric of the world, to bring compassion and love to those in fear, to bind up the broken and bring wholeness to those who feel separated from the love in life. This is the call of love from the God of my limited understanding.

It is a call that asks my senses to be opened to the world and instead of being delivered from evil, it is a call from an ever-loving God to be delivered to the suffering in this world.

I’m sorry if it does not answer why a God of love would allow suffering. I am sorry if that is not good enough. I am sorry.

All I can offer is a loving purpose that comes to life in this beautiful and at times suffering world.

I’m going to end this little chip of a "blogspot" with a poem by Billy Collins titled “See No Evil”

“See No Evil” by Billy Collins

No one expected all three of them
to sit there on their tree stumps forever,
their sense covered with their sinuous paws
so as to shut out the vile, nefarious world.

As it happened,
it was the one on the left
who was the first to desert his post,
uncupping his ears,
then loping off into the orbit of rumors and lies,
but also into the realm of symphonies,
the sound of water tumbling over rocks
and wind stirring the leafy domes of trees.

Then the monkey on the right lowered his hands
from his wide mouth and slipped away
in search of someone to talk to,
some news he could spread,
maybe something to curse or shout about.

And that left the monkey in the middle
alone with his silent vigil.
shielding his eyes from depravity’s spectacle,
blind to the man whipping his horse,
the woman shaking her baby in the air,
but also unable to see
the russet sun on a rough shelf of rock
and apples in the grass at the base of a tree.

Sometimes, he wonders about the other two,
listens for the faint sounds of their breathing
up there on the mantel alongside the clock and candlesticks.

And some nights in the quiet house
he wishes he could break the silence with a question,
but he knows the one on his right
would not be able to hear,
and the one to his left,
according to their sacred oath-
the one they all took with one paw raised-
is forbidden forever to speak, even in reply.

Sunday 16 June 2019

I'm a Universalist, Universalist; I Believe in Universal Universalism

Just as I had completed writing the sermon, from which this "blogspot" is based and was about to print it off I thought I’d take a look at Facebook to see what folk were talking about. The first thing I saw was the following Meme published by the Unitarian Publicity Officer Rory Castle-Jones. So I thought I’d add it as way of introduction.

We love Jesus.
We love Buddha too.
And Muhammad and Krishna and Moses and Guru Nanak and Julian of Norwich. And lots of other folks.
We find that when you look for it,
you find spiritual wisdom in lots of places.
And why should wisdom only come from one place?
Why should God only care about one religion?
What if God's love is bigger than any one religion?
What if God speaks in a thousand different voices?
Shouldn't we listen?
We believe that truth is bigger than any one religion.
We believe that love is bigger than any one belief.

We are Unitarians.

...Seemed like a perfect introduction to this piece, so thank you for that Universal Spirit of Life...

I was talking with someone the other day. It’s the kind of conversation I often find myself in when people discover who I am and more importantly what I do. Assumptions are made, some of those by me by the way. The person was struggling with life in many ways and they told me that nothing I could do or say would help. I believed them, I could see I could not help them. So I did the best thing I could do, I listened. They described how nothing is real and that life is merely an illusion and that we need to truly embrace and experience this nothingness. That there is no self. I listened and tried to identify. I even shared about transcendent moments of my own, ones I have heard others attempt to describe, moments when I have experienced what it is to melt into the ground of all being, to know the oneness of everything to feel held in the loving embrace of what I would call God.  The person looked at me as if I was mad and I sensed powerfully that they felt utterly disconnected from everything in that moment. Oh how I wished I could have helped, maybe I did in some small way. As I left then I remembered moments in my life when I had felt utterly disconnected from everything and everyone, much like the prodigal son. The only difference being that the person I was listening to felt that there was no one and nothing to return to, that life is merely an illusion. Thankfully I see clearly that this is not the case. I have found a place to return to. I have found a home in life, in reality. Life is many things, but an illusion it is not.

I believe in everything and that little bit more than everything that is at the core of it all, connecting it all. I believe utterly in this Universal Love.

A little later that day I found myself in another conversation with someone who has recently awoken spiritually. They are fascinated by spiritual matters. Again I found myself mainly listening to them and remembering similar experiences. And then it happened, they came out with the ultimate cliché, one I have said myself over the years. Again they knew what I do for a living and began telling me all that is wrong with religion. They said “Religion is for people who are afraid to go to Hell where as spirituality is for people who have already been there.” We talked for some time and I spoke of my own Unitarian tradition and tried to explain that what they say of religion is not true of all forms of religion. I spoke a little of the need for community and how this enhances ones personal spirituality and that this can be achieved without dogma. I spoke specifically about Universalism and how they were even known as “The No Hellers”. They were not in the least bit interested. So we left and went about our business.

It got me thinking about the free religious tradition I am a part of and also my feelings of faith etc, how I identify my own beliefs. For I know that those who I congregate with do not all believe and disbelieve the same. Now within our free religious tradition each congregation is linked through a wider denomination named “The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches”. There is no ruling body and no one has authority over anyone else. Each congregation is self governing and each member of the congregation is free to believe as their conscience dictates. We are closely connected to other similar denominations throughout the world. In America the denomination is called Unitarian Universalists. Which is essentially two denominations that came together as one in the early 1960’s. They each have their own history. I have over the years read much by many Unitarians and Universalist and have found that I actually seem to connect, spiritually at least, more with Universalist than the Unitarians. So much so that a few years ago I declared myself as a Universalist. A Unitarian friend asked me “What kind of Universalist I was?” I paused and thought for a moment and then I answered “I am a Universalist, Universalist”. They were another who looked at me as if I was mad and so I explained that I was a Universalist in the old sense. I do not believe in hell and damnation. That the God of my limited understanding would never condemn anyone to an eternity in Hell; I do not believe that some are saved and others are unsaved. I believe that God has an intimate love for all, that if there is a hell it is a state of being that can be experienced within life. I talked about the "Prodigal Son" parable and I also spoke of my belief that this love is always there waiting for us. I also said that I was a universalist in a more modern understanding too in that I see truth in so many other traditions. That none can reveal the whole truth, that they are windows that let some of the light through. I also talked of a belief in the interconnectedness of all life and that all that happens and does not happen matters. That divinity is present within everything, a kind of Universal Love I suppose.

I remember a few years ago hearing a joke about the difference between the nineteenth century Unitarians and the Universalist. It is said that the Unitarians believed that humanity was too good to be rejected by God where as the Universalists believed that God was too good to ever reject humanity.

I am definitely a Universalist. In fact I am a "Universalist, Universalist, Universalist!"

I believe in and experience a God of Love who accepts all and rejects none; is present in all life and yet is greater than the entirety of it all. I also believe that there are many ways to understand and experience this Universal Love; it makes no sense to me to think that there can be only one way. Universalism has given me a code of hopefulness that I can live by. It sustains me through the vicissitudes of life and it connects me to the whole of reality. I have come to believe in what I have come to call Universalist Universalism.

Universalism speaks to my head, my heart and above all my soul. It has enabled me to observe and  fully participate in life, to bare witness to what we do to each other and ourselves. It helps me come to terms with my past and my present and look forward to the future. It helps me connect to the people I have and currently share my life with. It enables to live fully alive.

Universalism is a hope filled faith, but that does not make it an easy path. It is not about sitting back and waiting to be rescued by the God of love it promotes. Instead it declares that salvation, in this life, can only be achieved by facing up to the suffering present in all our lives and dealing directly with the despair that accompanies it. It's also about bringing hope to those in despair and to truly singing the joy of living.

As one of the founding fathers of Universalism, John Murray, so beautifully put it in the eighteenth century

“You may possess only a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not Hell, but hope and courage. Do not push them deeper into their theological despair, but preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.”

John Murray

Whenever I feel despair both with myself or with the rest of humanity, which I do from time to time, I try to remember these words by the Universalist preacher John Murray. I feel a deep connection and purpose in life and through life. In so doing I experience the truth that everything matters, every thought, every feeling, every word and every deed. For love is both eternal and universal.

As we live our lives in this our shared world it is important to remember to widen our views and deepen our experiences, increasing our awareness that all life touches way beyond our horizons, not just directly those that we come into contact with, but with so many others also, often indirectly. In so doing we can welcome the wanderer to find their way back home and we will begin to repair the fragmentations of life and develop deeper intimacy. In so doing may we find our place among the family of things. May we all find ourselves safe and in love and here at home.

Sunday 9 June 2019

To Life: I could do with a bit more Zeal

There are times when I become aware of just how British I can be, it makes me chuckle and occasionally cringe.  A classic example would have been the day of my proposal to Sue at the water’s edge of Capernaum, looking out on the Sea of Galilee. Now this is not what exposed my Britishness,  that was an unexpectedly romantic moment, I surprised myself that day. No it was what followed that showed up my Britishness. The first example was a couple of hours later as we ate in a famous fish restaurant in a local kibbutz. Sue and myself were the only people there and as we were chatting with the waiter, I discovered that we shared an unexpected passion, a love for Leeds United. Because of this I decided that he should be the first person to know our news. Well he went crazy with excitement as did all the other staff working in the restaurant, with cries of “Mazel Tov”. There were other such reactions over the next few days including several young people picking up Jewish horns, in the shop where we went to buy the engagement ring. On hearing our news they ran around the shop, danced and celebrated in joy. Complete strangers just sharing in the joy of the occasion and wishing us well. It was wonderful, but a bit overwhelming and it made me realise just how British I actually am. This would not have happened back home.

Don’t get me wrong I am not a shrinking violet, but my passion is not displayed so publicly. Mine had been displayed in the search for the perfect spot, I had been on, as we reached the Sea of Galilee. I had stuck steadfast to the task, spurred on by passion and not satisfied until I had found the perfect place and moment. I also have a growing passion for life, as folk have heard me say many times. I “Choose Life” in all its blessings and curses. I sing the joy of living in all of its mystery.

I have noticed that within my own spirituality there are some Jewish flavours. Now while I am tee-totaler I do toast life..“To life” is a toast within the Jewish tradition. It is powerful representation of the faith, which at its core is about how to live more than just what to believe; at its core it conveys an optimistic attitude toward life, investing energy in living rather than in worrying about dying. It promotes the pleasures of life rather than focusing on all that is wrong. The emphasis is on this world rather than pinning our hopes on finding satisfaction in some world to come. The toast "to life" emphasises the original blessing that is life that God has given and seen as good. Think of Genesis I and its emphasis on the goodness of creation rather than what followed and the fall of Genesis II. As the sages teach 'in time to come, everyone will have to account for all the good things God created which he refused to enjoy.'

So it is no surprise that all the people we met following the proposal wanted to dance and sing and join in the celebration. It also showed me just how British I am. Oh how I wish I could release a little bit more of that zeal that I know is within me. Maybe we need to rescue British Zeal and not just British Steel.

Now “Zeal” is one of those words that is given a bit of a bad press. Too much passion in spiritual circles can be mistrusted. Also no one would want to be called a Zealot. I heard a lot about the Zealots as I learnt more about Jewish history particularly at the time of the destruction of the “Second Temple”. During the first century “The Zealots” were a political movement who sought to incite the people of the Judea Province to rise up against their Roman rulers. The word Zealot meant one who is zealous on behalf of God.

In the New Testament you see an example of Jesus acting in such a manner. This in the Temple when he turns over the tables and chases out the money changers who are trading in the Temple that was destroyed just a few decades later. Accounts of which were all written after the destruction of the “Second Temple”, may years after Jesus' death.

Today a “Zealot” is understood to be “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.” So not someone you would expect a person of liberal spiritual leanings to be singing the praises of.

I am not of course. What I am talking of is “Zeal”.

I drink a non-alcoholic toast to life each and every single day. I need zeal for life to do so. Zeal is a natural aspect of our humanity. To awaken each day enthused (filled with Divine Spirit) and anticipation, wholeheartedly and with gusto to attend to what is in front of us is an innate human quality. Yet so often that light, that spark can be absent.

The key is to harness this zeal, this enthusiasm, in order to propel our lives with courage to their rightful purpose. Zeal is the toast to life, brought into being in our daily activities. By the way by not harnessing this zeal, and thus acting in life in loving ways, is to deny the greatest gift of all, life itself.  Life is the ultimate free gift, the ultimate Grace. What did we do to deserve it? Well nothng. It is gifted to us freely.

To live with zeal is essentially to be aroused by life itself. This is not a singular cellular experience, but a uniting one. It’s that expression of spontaneous joy even for strangers, as we experienced in Israel. It is to truly feel kinship with other people. In fact one sign that that zeal is not awake is to fail to see this kinship, is to see the other as different from self. A sign that our zeal is aroused is to feel a deep connection with all life. As Anais Nin has said “What everyone forgets is that passion is not merely a heightened sensual fusion but a way of life which produces, as in mystics, as ecstatic awareness of the whole of life.”

To live with zeal is about creating and repairing the fabric of life, beginning with our relationships with each other. It is love in action, which is a powerful and creative force, something we all possess, even if it is latent within us.

To live with zeal is to give of ourselves in loving service. It is the essence of the religious life. It is about doing our little bit for our human family. By the way it begins, and in many ways ends, with the little things. As Helen Keller so beautifully put it “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

It comes in the little things, thus saith the Lord.

This though is far from easy, to live a toast to life, every day, takes real courage. How many times do we get knocked down each and every day? I reckon it’s even harder if you re British, we do not like too much exuberance, too much zeal. It makes us feel a little too uncomfortable and self conscious.

Mark Nepo put it this way...

"In the face of this gritty, mysterious, and ever-changing dynamic we call being alive, it's nothing short of heroic that we are asked to choose life and living, again and again. Not just to put a good face on things while we're here, but because saying yes to life is how the worm inches its way through earth. It's how salmon leap their way upstream. It's how flowers grow out of stone. The word for such flowers, saxifrage, from the Latin, means stone breaker. Saying yes is the way the flower of the soul breaks through the stone of the world.

"But how do we do this? Some deep part of us knows and needs no instruction, while the part of us sore for meaning needs to uncover the practice of saying yes. . . .”

But how do we say yes?

Well it begins and it ends with the little things. With the things and the people in front of us. It is about giving ourselves and our attention to what is simply before us. This requires faith in life itself, despite those oh so many times we have fallen.

It begins by paying attention to the little things in front of us and all around us. This is what the Zen Buddhist would call our “Semu”, our work practice, our work. For as the “Sandokai”, says 'Each thing has its own intrinsic value.' This kind of activity affects other people in positive ways it begins to bring healing, no matter how small the task is. That said it isn’t just what we do it is the spirit in which we do what we do, with love for life, in zeal.

So today I’m going live my life as an offering, a toast to life, in all its mystery. I know I will falter many times. There are no doubt going to many sufferings ahead. I offer a toast to mortality and the original blessing that is life itself. And when my time comes I hope I can offer a good account for all the good things that life has offered for all to enjoy. In so doing I know I will  become a light of the world and in so doing I will begin to bring healing to the many tears in the fabric of this our shared world.

We all belong here.

Come and join in the celebration, come with me and lets sing a toast to life. A toast to the Majesty of mortality.

I’m going to end with this lovely little poem by Dawna Markova “Wide Open”

“Wide Open”

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

By Dawna Markova