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So here we are again, trying to make sense out of senseless tragedy, tragedy made even more horrific by the fact that most of the victims were small children. And the news media, doing what they’re paid to do, have been analyzing the Newtown, Conn., massacre from every conceivable point of view – mental illness, gun control versus teachers carrying weapons, psychiatric help for the surviving children – in an effort to shed light on last Friday’s killings.
Often, however, we tend to overanalyze events and make them more complicated than they really are. Whether it’s serial murderers like John Wayne Gacey, Jeffrey Dahmer, or Son of Sam, school massacres like Columbine, Virginia Tech, or Newtown, or just an average murder-spree weekend in Chicago, the single most obvious, albeit disconcerting, conclusion we are forced to draw is: Bad things happen. It’s an inescapable reality of life.
We can lock down every school in America, post guards at the schools’ front doors and arm teachers with guns, but life is not foolproof. Just being born is a risky adventure, and, no matter how charmed some lives may seem to be, no one’s journey from dust to dust is untouched by the vicissitudes of life.
Even so, events like Newtown always raise the age-old spiritual and philosophical question: Why does God allow “evil” and injustice to exist in the first place? Why does He allow bad things to happen to good people – or even people who are nothing more than innocent bystanders?
Of course, a fatalist, be he an atheist or religionist, would tend to believe that injustice is predetermined. A religionist would believe that it is part of God’s plan, while an atheist would believe that an injustice represents nothing more than a random event.
In his landmark book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Rabbi Harold Kushner, forced to reconcile his belief in God with his son’s tragic death from the incurable, rapid-aging disease progeria, arrived at the interesting conclusion that God is all-loving but not omnipotent.
Admittedly, I have never been in Rabbi Kushner’s shoes, but it seems to me that it’s spiritual fudging to take the position that God is a good guy, but impotent. Either God is all-knowing and all-powerful, or He is not God.
On the other hand, in George Smith’s book “Atheism: The Case Against God,” he states what he perceives to be the problem with the existence of a Higher Being when he says:
Briefly, the problem of evil is this: If God does not know there is evil, he is not omniscient. If God knows there is evil but cannot prevent it, he is not omnipotent. If God knows there is evil and can prevent it but desires not to, he is not omnibenevolent. If … God is all-knowing and all-powerful, we must conclude that God is not all-good. The existence of evil in the universe excludes this possibility.
To Smith’s persuasive list, however, I would add one other possibility: God knows there is evil in the world, but does not choose to stop it for reasons that are beyond our understanding. In other words, God alone knows why He does what He does. If God exists, He is unknowable and undefinable by human standards. That, after all, is precisely what makes him God.
As an article in Time magazine stated some years ago, “Perhaps man is to God as the animals of the earth are to man. … Can it be that God visits evils upon the world not out of perversity or a desire to harm, but because our suffering is a byproduct of His needs?”
To extend this analogy and look at it in a slightly different light, consider the possibility that man is to God as a dog is to man, and a dog is to man as a flea is to a dog; i.e., the man, the dog and the flea, who are merely tagging along for the ride, have neither the faintest idea as to why their masters do what they do nor the means to ever understand why.
The question then becomes: Is God indifferent to us, as the dog is to the flea, or does He allow us to suffer for reasons we do not understand? When someone takes his dog to the veterinarian, the dog has no idea why his master allows pain to be inflicted on him. In the same way, perhaps God doesn’t always give us what we want, but what He knows we need.
One could even take the position that it’s the height of arrogance to suggest that we should be able to understand evil and suffering, let alone make judgments about the actions of a Supreme Power. If there is a God, surely He operates in a completely different dimension than we do, thus He alone knows His purpose.
Therefore, George Smith’s logic is rendered irrelevant if God does, in fact, exist; i.e., his logic is valid only in a secular dimension. A Supreme Power would, by definition, transcend secular knowledge, just as man transcends a dog’s capacity to understand human reasoning.
But whatever our spiritual beliefs may be, the bottom line is that life can, indeed, be unjust, as the deaths of 26 people, most of them young children, in Newtown once again remind us.
Does this mean we should just give up and accept predestination as all-controlling? My instinct tells me no. The challenge, I believe, is to understand which things are within our control and which things are not.
As 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr put it in his oft-quoted Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
May God bless the victims and their families in Newtown, Conn.