For my write-up today on David Marshall’s Jesus and the Religions of Man, I’ll blog about Chapter 10, “Miracles”. I’ll use as my starting-point something that Marshall says on page 226:
“Christians are often asked, ‘Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why do some starve when the rains cease to fall?’ Christianity arose not through an effort on the part of philosophers to find a solution to such problems, as did Buddhism. The Bible never pretends to provide an all-embracing theory, class warfare, racial oppression or karma, by which to explain all suffering. I think it suggests, on the contrary, that only those who need an answer and look for an answer, will find one, and that for their own suffering, not the suffering of others.”
This chapter is about miracles. I appreciated Marshall’s discussion of his past skepticism regarding miracles, as well as his encounter with Christians who claim to have experienced them, and who usually are humble, low-key, and reticent when talking about them, showing that they’re not making stuff up to draw attention to themselves. I also enjoyed Marshall’s story about how he was a struggling missionary in Taiwan, and God provided him with meals when his money was running out. I myself believe that there are miracles in the world, and that God can and sometimes does answer prayers for help.
But a discussion of the problem of suffering naturally accompanies a discussion about miracles, for people wonder: If God is intervening in the affairs of the world and is healing and providing for people, then why are there so many people who suffer and die as a result of disease, starvation, and malnutrition?
One of my favorite blogs is that of Respectful Atheist. I like his blog because, well, he’s a respectful atheist, unlike a lot of prominent atheists I know, who are far from being respectful towards others. Respectful Atheist just lays out his case, and, as far as I can tell, he does not put people down or demonstrate a smug sense of superiority. But back to my topic. Respectful Atheist had a post a while back entitled “His Eye Is On the Sparrow”. In that post, Respectful Atheist talks about a question that deeply perplexed him: Why doesn’t God just send rain to places that are plagued by drought, drought that is taking the lives of so many people, including children? This problem really hit him like a ton of bricks when he got an e-mail from his church that said, “Thank you for your prayers and praise God for holding off the rain, yesterday, during the church’s annual ‘outreach BBQ’!” So God is willing to intervene and to control the weather so that a church in the prosperous United States can have its outreach barbeque, but he’s not willing to intervene and to provide rain to save people’s lives in an area that is plagued by drought? For this, and for other reasons, the person who became Respectful Atheist doubted that there even was a God.
Marshall would address this problem in a variety of ways. He says that we don’t really know why God allows other people to suffer. In another place of his book, he says that we should channel our energies into helping the suffering (as Jesus did) rather than fretting over why God allows people to suffer. I think that there’s something to that (the part about helping the suffering, that is). Rather than fretting over why God permits drought in areas (as good of a question as that is), why not support the efforts of Christians and other humanitarians to bring clean water to those regions? I’m saying this to myself, too, for there are seasons in which I give to charity, and seasons in which I do not.
I’m going to shift now to Marshall’s point that the Bible does not pretend to provide an all-encompassing answer to the problem of suffering, as Buddhism does. If Marshall’s point is that we can know that the Bible is divinely-inspired because it does not try to answer certain questions that people have (i.e., suffering), whereas obviously human-made religions do, then I would take issue with that claim. I think that a number of biblical authors actually do seek to explain why people suffer. The story of the Fall may be one such attempt. The view in Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History, Psalms, and Proverbs that God rewards or saves the righteous and punishes the wicked is another attempt. And then there is the view that we find in the writings of Paul and Peter (or “Peter”, for liberal New Testament scholars) that suffering produces character in Christians. But there are some biblical authors who are not satisfied with such solutions, for they feel that these solutions collapse against the brick wall of reality, in which the innocent suffer for no apparent good reason. Thus, we have the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes. It does not take divine-inspiration to realize that certain attempted solutions are inadequate, or that there are many things that we simply do not know.
Moreover, I will note that even some religions that Marshall would consider human-made express agnosticism on certain issues. Marshall probably knows more about Buddhism than I do, from his experience and also his reading. But, in a class on Eastern religion that I took a while back, and also in my reading, I have learned that the Buddha himself said that he did not know how the universe came to exist. A Buddhist tale says that such a question is not even relevant to the human predicament. It’s like speculating when one has a poison arrow in one’s chest, when one should be trying to remove the arrow! I remember my professor in my class saying that, and a smug evangelical was snickering, as if Buddhism were inferior to Christianity for saying “I don’t know”, even though Christians are huge fans of the “We don’t know why God works this way” spiel when it suits them. I guess my point is that all religions are attempts to answer questions (i.e., why people suffer), and yet some of their practitioners and thinkers may recognize that there are adequate and inadequate solutions, and that there are things that we do not know.