Science, the existence of suffering, and God

by Patty Fawkner


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Terrorism in Paris, flooding in Bangladesh, Ebola in Africa, family violence everywhere. The suffering in our world is of such magnitude that each of us must find a way of dealing with it or accommodating it within our meaning-making scheme. Some people look for someone to blame and often that someone is God.

This was brought home to me earlier this year when I viewed an episode from an Irish series called "The Meaning of Life." In it, interviewer Gay Byrne asked his guest, British comedian, actor and writer Stephen Fry, what he would say to God if he, Fry, were to make it to heaven.

Avowed atheist Fry needed no time to think. "I'll say, 'Bone cancer in children? What's that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault.'" He continued, "Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?"

Fry's outrage caused a subsequent outrage on social media. Responding to his critics Fry said that he was not saying anything new. "I was merely saying things that many finer heads than mine have said for hundreds of years, as far back as the Greeks."

He is correct. For centuries believers and non-believers alike have struggled with theodicy — the problem of evil. How can an almighty and all-powerful God allow bad things to happen to good people? The question endures not only because evil and suffering endure but because any adequate answer proves to be implacably elusive.

It doesn't provide me with neat answers — far from it. But a burgeoning interest in cosmology, the science of the origin and evolution of the universe, gives me a different "take" on suffering and evil as well as new insights into the mystery of God and our place in the universe.

The dialogue between science and religion is flourishing. In recent years both Cambridge and Oxford universities have established chairs in science and theology. Standing on the shoulders of Teilhard de Chardin, a growing number of Christian scholars are exploring the relationship between religion and science. North American authors Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Elizabeth Johnson, Sally McFague, Judy Cannato, John F. Haught, Ilia Delio, Australian Denis Edwards and many more, agree with Thomas Aquinas' 700-year-old warning that, "If we get creation wrong we get God wrong." They believe that new insights into creation will help us delve more deeply into the mystery of God.

Our biblical tradition has gotten many scientific facts wrong. The world was not made in seven days, the sun does not rotate around the Earth, and the first humans did not live in a Middle Eastern paradise. A literal reading of Genesis sees the world as static and unchanging, hierarchically ordered and centred on humanity, and it explains pain and suffering as a punishment for human sin.

Isaac Newton and his Enlightenment colleagues had a more advanced cosmology. They believed that universal laws of motion governed the universe resulting in an ordered universe that was determinate and explicable. Within this mechanistic framework, a believer readily casts God in the role of a divine clock-maker, winding up creation at the dawn of time, and then, job complete, withdrawing to contemplate his (sic) creation. Such a God then intervenes arbitrarily and miraculously by causing Earthquakes here, floods there, disease elsewhere. A belief in a disengaged, capricious God dispensing blessings and curses upon humanity as reward or punishment, a God who fails to respect the laws of nature, lingers in the human psyche.

We are blessed to live in a post-Galileo, -Darwin and -Einstein world. We marvel and wonder at the images from the Hubble telescope and the mysteries of quantum physics. Contemporary science reveals to us a very non-mechanistic world — one that is, in Elizabeth Johnson's words, "surprisingly dynamic, organic, self-organising, indeterminate, chancy, boundless and open to the mystery of reality."

Scientists agree that the universe first came into existence with an initial cosmic inflation or "Big Bang" about 13.7 billion years ago. It has been expanding and dynamically evolving ever since. Life on Earth in the form of simple single cell organisms began about 3.7 billion years ago, and modern humans emerged, not from Eden, but from an African savannah about 180,000 years ago — in cosmic terms a relatively recent event.

Death and destruction have been there from the very beginning — long before the arrival of humans. All the elements in our world, including those in the iron in our blood and the calcium in our bones, were created in violent stellar nuclear explosions. All life has come about because of the death of a star. Death and suffering is intrinsic to life and evolution. Mammals — hence we humans — were able to flourish mainly because of the mass extinction of the dinosaurs, in all likelihood caused by a huge asteroid hitting planet Earth about 65 million years ago. Evolution only proceeds through death and suffering. Without death there is no new life.

The God whom Stephen Fry rejects is not related to the God revealed to us by Jesus Christ. Jesus' God is an intimate, compassionate, forgiving and affectionately caring God who dreams of "fullness of life" for all (John 10:10), especially the lost, the least and the last. Jesus embraces and heals those bewildered by suffering — the poor and disempowered, the abandoned and misjudged, the grief-stricken and broken.

Interestingly, Jesus never explains nor makes sense of suffering. But neither does he shirk it. "In the cross of Jesus," Denis Edwards says, "God enters into, and embraces, the suffering of a suffering world." Communion with God does not give Jesus a free pass from suffering. Jesus fully enters into the fragility of human experience so that something new may be born. The pattern of Jesus' life, death and resurrection repeats the ancient pattern of cosmic life. Death is not the end but a transformative process giving way to new life. Just as the star dies giving birth to new, more complex and beautiful life, so Jesus becomes human, dies and is raised the first-born from the dead.

"In the resurrection of the crucified one," Edwards says, "Christians see an unbreakable promise of God that God will bring the whole creation to new life." God in Jesus, and so too in us, can turn the pain from the throes of death into the pangs of birth and new life. "God will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain." (Revelation 21:4).

But now there is death, sorrow, crying and pain, and even when we acknowledge that pain and death are givens in the process of evolutionary life, we are still confounded by the question: "Why? Why suffering?" Denis Edwards tells us that "theology does not have any kind of full, rational answer as to why God created in an evolutionary and emergent way. Our question stands before a God of incomprehensible mystery."

It is important that we do not collapse the mystery of suffering by trivialising it with familiar platitudes: God tests those God loves; this trial is God's will; the suffering will make you stronger; God never sends us more than we can bear; or "offer it up." Jesus never trivialises suffering, nor should we.

I cannot plumb the mystery of God nor the mystery of evil and suffering. Yes, I believe that God is incomprehensible mystery, but God is Gracious Mystery. I am comforted by contemporary cosmology which tells me that dynamic energy is the heartbeat of the universe, and I am reassured by my Christian faith which tells me that this energy is divine and it is love. God is love. God creates the universe out of love and God lovingly gives God's very self to this creation in Jesus.

Why do bad things happen to good people? It is not because of a whimsical, manipulative, yet disengaged God. Nor is it, as we are tempted to think, punishment for our own or others' misdeeds. God does not cause suffering. It is woven into the very being of the cosmos.

The real question is not why the suffering, but where is God in the suffering. A loving God does not, could not, desire our suffering. Rather, God is not remote from us, especially in our pain, indeed says Jürgen Moltmann and many contemporary theologians: God suffers with us.

Stephen Fry is right to reject his "capricious, mean-minded, stupid God" who creates a world replete with so much heartache, injustice and excruciating pain. I also reject this God, for this God does not exist.

This column was adapted from "On suffering and God: a response to Stephen Fry,"  originally published in The Good Oil, the e-magazine of the Good Samaritan Sisters of Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Kiribati.

[Patty Fawkner is an Australian Sister of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator. Her interest is exploring the wisdom of the Christian tradition for contemporary life and communicating this in accessible language. Her formal tertiary qualifications are in arts, education, theology and spirituality.]