Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Issue of Suffering

CRAIGVILLE, MA hosted 80 religious leaders from at least five denomination sin a week-long theological conference (called the Craigville Coliloquy) to discuss issues facing the faith community. This year, the topic was the issue of suffering. Many people of faith want to know why a benevolent god allows innocents to suffer, and they aren't happy with the answers from their churches.
"The explanation for suffering has become a thorn in the side of many 21st-century congregations, and pastors acknowledge the challenge. "We chose this topic because this [struggle to explain suffering] is a reason why people are leaving our churches," says the Rev. Llewellyn Smith, one of the colloquy organizers."
There is no real answer to the question that still fits in with the christian view of god, and people are trying to come to grips with an answer.
"When discussing human suffering and God's relation to it, stakes are high for church leaders and laity alike. They must decide whether to say a tragic event is a) God's doing, b) something God could have stopped but didn't, c) beyond God's realm of power, or d) unknown to God.
It's a serious question, and one that I am sure bothers a lot of believers. Non-believers don't waste a lot of time worrying about it, except to note that the presence of innocent suffering in the world generates a logical contradiction with the concept of the christian god. All good, all knowing, benevolent, and caring don't mesh well with people dying of common diseases, floods that kill thousands, plane crashes, school shootings. But if you do accept that there is a god, there seems to be disconnect here. I can understand how it would disillusion churchgoers to be told that they simply don't understand that they are supposed to suffer as part of the plan, and that despite these actions, that god is still good and cares about them.

If you believe, could you stay in a church that said it was god's will that thousands of people died in a flood? Or that students died in the regent Virginia school shooting? Many people can't. It's become a difficult issue for religious leaders when faced with this sort of question from their congregations. I'm not particularly impressed with some of the proposed answers:
For some, it was occasion to be daring. Asked why someone should believe in an almighty and loving God amid evidence of suffering, Magill backed off traditional doctrine. "I give up the 'almighty' part," she answered. "God is as powerful as those who believe in Him or Her and who let God guide them.... But we don't always do that, so God becomes less powerful.
This is a perfect tautology, by the way. "God is only as powerful as you believe him to be, and if you don't believe enough that god is powerful, then he isn't." I don't quite think that's going to be the official position of many christian churches, although it's certainly a concept familiar with atheists: god exists because people want him/her/it to exist, because god serves an important personal and social need.

Interesting article, and an interesting conundrum in the realm of the faithful.

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