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A Plea for Humility in the Face of the Universe

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag we move away from the academic study of the New Testament to much broader and more important questions of relevance to us all, involving how we relate to others and live in the world.  The question is about attitudes and responses to suffering.  The question came in a comment about an earlier post I had done.

 

QUESTION:

You said ‘My ultimate view is that even if suffering may lead us away from a belief in God, as it did for me, it should at the same time lead us toward humility in the face of the universe and toward a more caring, loving attitude toward those who suffer.’    I guess I didn’t see in your article a clear explanation for why suffering should lead towards the things you mention. I do not think you are wrong, but it would be good to have it rationed out, as I think this is the only place you make a claim without any evidence.

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, I can see how my conclusion may well not make sense when the logic / thinking in my head doesn’t get written down on the page!   As it turns out, I don’t have any “evidence” for my view.  It’s just my view, a view that seems to follow from my position.  Or at least I should say it seems to follow  for *me*.  I repeatedly notice (not just by reading the daily news, though that’s a blazingly obvious place to start) that my view —  that we should be more humble in the face of the universe and more loving toward those who suffer —  is not shared by large masses of people, including privileged people, who, because of their privilege, which in most cases is handed to them at birth (I myself: born a white male in mid-century America in very comfortable circumstances.  Which of that did I *deserve* or *earn* exactly??) are far more interested in advancing their privilege and growing it at the expense of others, not giving a damn for those they hurt in the process.  Hence our daily headlines.  But, well, I try not to despair.  There are masses of good folk out there as well.  Take the members of this blog for instance!

So, briefly, to explain my view of suffering.  This will be just a brief statement: I’ve talked about it all at length on the blog before (just look up “suffering” in a word search) and in my book God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer.  The basic line: even though raised as a Christian and for many years a seriously committed evangelical, I eventually left the faith, not because of my biblical scholarship and the attendant realization that the Bible is not a completely reliable book handed down by God, but because I was no longer satisfied with the “answers” to why there is so much pain and misery in the world if there was a God who was in charge of it, who interceded for those in need, and who answered prayer.

I had thought about the issue for many years; I had read about it; talked about it; taught about it; pondered the various answers people have given: regular ole folk, philosophers, theologians, etc.   At one point I finally decided, I just don’t believe it any more.  If everyone suffered about like *I* do, I could probably live with it.  But not in a world where five people die of malaria every minute, something like 1500 every hour from not having clean water, something like 20,000 children every day of starvation.  Yes, I know we can work to solve these problems, and if we don’t, it’s our fault.  But some problems we won’t solve – 300,000 people killed in a tsumani, e.g.  And more important, it’s only been within the last century that we have had the wherewithal even to *think* about ending poverty and hunger and … so on.  If God were active in helping us do that now, finally, where was he for, say, the past 30,000 years?

In any event, I am not saying you should agree with me.  Not at *all*.  I’m saying that this is what led me to lose my faith in the existence of God.  If everyone had roughly my life, yeah, I’d still believe in a loving God who was in control.  Absolutely.  But it’s hard to tell an eight-year old girl in Ethiopia, emaciated from starvation and soon to die, that God loves her and is doing the best for her.  And for me, a well-fed American, to tell her that it’s all OK because she’ll wake up in heaven is – again, for me – a grotesque abomination.

So I left my faith.  Others have as well.  The question being asked is: why should that make us more humble in the face of the universe and more caring for others?

Humility.  My view is that the universe we inhabit is not caring and it is not conscious.  It does not want the best for us.  But it is almost  infinitely powerful.  We are not going to overpower it.  We may *think* that we can control it: but all we are merely controlling part of the tiny bubble we happen to live in.  The laws of physics will have their way, and there’s no way to stop them.  You may control entropy for a brief while, but in the end, the material universe will disperse.

That means we are not the most important of all things in existence.  For one thing, we have not been here long.  Many of us on the blog are “historically minded,” and for most of us that means we are obsessed with the events that have transpired at certain (small) points over the past 2000 years, or possibly, for some of us 3000 years, or, possibly, a bit more.   But what is 2000 years in relation to 13.8 billion (i.e., since the universe has been around).  Not even the blink of an eye.  And what is 13.8 billion to the trillions that lie ahead?   Not even the blink of an eye.

The author of Ecclesastes had no idea of Big Bangs, Entropy, Black Holes, or anything else connected with the universe’s past or future.  But he realized that life is short, like the mist of the field you see when you first get up, but is gone by breakfast.

If all this doesn’t make us humble in the face of reality, then, well, OK.  Lfe is short — so go ahead and refuse to be humbled!  J

 

Caring.  And why should the realities of our existence make us more caring for others?  Basic answer (for me):   We are all in this together, and there is no one else out there to help us.

We are all related to one another, biologically, socially, culturally, humanly.  Being human means having the ability to be aware of ourselves and others (we are endowed with one of the universe’s most amazing miracles: consciousness).  We recognize not just what we ourselves need and want, but what others need and want.  That enables us to care.

I used to think that God was the ultimate care-giver: if things are bad now, he will make them better later.  Now I no longer think so.  That means if someone is going to be helped, I have to help them.  They are my brother or sister.  I want to help them.  I better help them.  If I don’t, there is no other source of help.  Why should I?  I’m a human, not a rock or a thorn bush or a slug.  I have feelings and a natural tendency to care for others (virtually all humans do: at least to care for *some* others).  Developing the caring nature is better than thwarting it.  Better for others and better for me, the one who is endowed with that nature.

And so that’s why I think loss of faith should not only make us more humble in the face of the universe, but more giving of ourselves to others.

I don’t think for a second I can convince people of this.  It is easy to find arguments against it.  The arguments against it are in our face, every day, in what we read, hear, and see.  Many, many people are interested in asserting their power and privilege as much as they can, others be damned.  Since life is short, in this view, and I’m going to screw whomever I need to make life better for myself.

I don’t want to be like that.  I don’t want to turn my back on others who are less privileged than I am, and who are suffering, many of them suffering horribly, because of the accidents of their birth and/or the accidents of their life.  It is not because God loves me and I want to imitate his love to others – though I am deeply and profoundly impressed and motivated by people who have this view and act on it.  For me it is because I am human, and being human means caring for those who are here with me in a harsh universe where there is no source of good above us who is in control.  Caring makes me more human.  And it provides a sense of meaning and purpose in this blink-of-an-eye life I have to live.

 


Why Is This Happening To Us?
Did the Gospel Writers Invent Barabbas? Readers’ Mailbag

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Christian David  June 19, 2020

    Thank you, Bart. This was a fantastic post. I enjoyed reading it. Ironically I was meditating on this subject yesterday. I go back and forth between being something like a secular Protestant and an agnostic. For whatever reason, there is no consistency whatsoever in my worldview. However, whenever I’m leaning more towards agnosticism, I notice how my behavior changes. I become less humble, less caring, and more selfish and prideful. So my experience is the exact opposite of yours. So I think certain religions like Christianity have the potential to modify or improve behavior, so in that sense, they are beneficial for society.

  2. Avatar
    Todd  June 19, 2020

    Today’s blog is outstanding and timely especially to what is happening right now. I agree with you. Suffering is not something that a god chooses to impose on us or take away…suffering will always be with us and it is up to us to step in and help ease its pain…not to seek divine magical intervention. I personally appreciate your thoughts on this today. Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    blclaassen  June 19, 2020

    Well said. We, as animals evolved over countless years, possess a brain that includes a genetic capacity for altruism. It has helped us survive in the wild by looking out for each other and it can help us now in the modern age even more. Denying this compulsion to help the less fortunate cannot be mentally healthy and, like you said, denies our humanity – makes us less human. There is literally no one else to do it for us.

    • Avatar
      doug  June 21, 2020

      Very well put. Thank you.

    • Avatar
      JeffreyFavot  June 21, 2020

      I thought this was a history blog. If you’re being consistent, “what evidence do you have of all this in history?

  4. Avatar
    randal  June 19, 2020

    Dr. Herman, I just had a conversation yesterday with a very fundamentalist coworker about how one can be a moral person without being a Christian. So perfect timing. I find myself being a much more caring person after leaving fundamentalism and religious belief many years ago. That’s such a unbelievable statement to religious folks but it’s true. As a great admirer of Darwin, it’s a humbling feeling to know and realize that we as humans are in this great struggle for existence like all life on earth. Thanks for posting.

  5. Avatar
    jscheller  June 19, 2020

    Wow. It really sounds like you are teetering on the same brink of conclusion that many of us Christians have made regarding the exercise of love: “…being human means caring for those who are here with me…”
    YOU: Because of “… a harsh universe where there is no source of good above us who is in control.”
    ME: Because of the Imago Dei
    ” Caring makes me more human. And it provides a sense of meaning and purpose…”
    YOU: Because you live “… in this blink-of-an-eye life I have to live.”
    ME: Because that’s God’s design for perfecting humanity.
    The same motivation for different reasons. I think we have more in common than we don’t. I don’t believe faith is as important as what we are motivated to do with our lives.

  6. Avatar
    Bennett  June 19, 2020

    To quote Carl Sagan, in his book Contact:

    “You’re an interesting species. An interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable, is each other.”

    • Avatar
      webattorney  June 27, 2020

      Others can make us miserable yet bearable. lol

  7. Avatar
    fishician  June 19, 2020

    I think some Christians rationalize suffering by thinking that eternal bliss in heaven will infinitely surpass any suffering on earth, but that overlooks the problem that most people in the world are in situations that are culturally and historically biased against a Christian belief system, and those people, particularly children, are unlikely to come to a “saving faith” in Jesus, however one defines that. And there is not even a majority view of how to be saved among the Christians in the world. I used to be in a significant sect that believed most other “Christians” were apostate and even they were going to end up in hell! So how loving is a system where most people have to suffer here on earth and then suffer even more after death? I prefer the kind of philosophy you describe, thank you.

  8. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 19, 2020

    “Bad times, hard times, this is what people keep saying; but let us live well, and times shall be good. We are the times: Such as we are, such are the times.” – St. Augustine of Hippo

  9. Avatar
    Sabina  June 19, 2020

    About 40 years ago, a man I met only once took my hand in his for a moment and said that I was meant to be a leader, but specifically, that I should feed the hungry. Leadership never really materialized for me (note the passive language used to make that statement…) but feeding others is something ongoing, through donations to food banks both local and national. Your books intrigued me, Bart, but your stated mission got me to sign on to the blog.
    I figure that if my fridge is full, my bills are up to date and my car is not dropping parts along the road on the way to work, I am sufficiently comfortable to contribute to another’s empty cupboard. (or education, or post-disaster home rebuilding, or winter heating fuel, or medical bills.)

    No one handed me my single family home, on a leafy suburban street, nor do I thank god or genetics for the relative paleness of my skin. (The bank still holds the deed. I planted the trees myself. I am Sephardic–
    a Hispanic Jew, 46% “European”, according to my DNA, the rest Native American, Middle Eastern, and a surprising amount of African.) Am I guilty of Privilege?

    • Avatar
      webattorney  June 27, 2020

      According to certain groups, if you don’t look black enough to be discriminated on that basis you do have some privileges. But I don’t see why anyone should feel guilty of their privileges; some are born to riches, some are born to abject poor families. Such are fortunes that fall upon each of us. We have to deal with the hands that we get.

  10. Avatar
    dankoh  June 19, 2020

    I sometimes like to use this analogy for people who have trouble contemplating vast ages: I live in San Francisco, so I use Golden Gate Park, which is about 4 miles long. Think of the length of that park as representing the age of the planet. Now, we have around 5,000 years, give or take, ore recorded human history; compared to Golden Gate Park, that’s the thickness of a postage stamp placed at the very end of the park.

    One other thought: the prisoner’s dilemma provides a mathematically backed argument for why it is better to cooperate rather than compete. Of course, that requires some of that humility that, as you say, we all need.

  11. Avatar
    janmaru  June 19, 2020

    It’s deserving saying that likewise M. Geborand buying a pennyworth of paradise, we should spend in compassion and understanding.
    But there could not be understanding without a clear mind aware of causation and the root of unhappiness and suffering. And compassion cannot happen without undressing of all prejudices, all fictitious lies that have been handled to us.
    One source of suffering is the confusion between the “persona”, the mask, and the personal identity of oneness. Being a white male is not a hindrance, it has nothing to do with looking at the other as a reflection of ourselves, a mirror of our true nature. So again the question of who is your neighbor cannot shade the real question handled by the Greek philosophy: who is thy yourself?
    True knowledge is not inaction. If you want to live with the idea that only cultivating your garden there could be salvation then you must look over the fence of division and separation. Who is the other, why is it worth looking at him?
    As the poet said: if you are not for yourself who will stand for you, but if you are not for the others what is the meaning of life?

  12. Avatar
    doug  June 19, 2020

    I agree, the great majority of we humans have empathy or at least a capacity for empathy toward others. For all our imperfections, empathy is part of who we are as humans. Even some species of apes and other animals have been shown to have empathy, with sacrifices to themselves for the sake of other animals or people.

  13. Avatar
    mcmemmo  June 19, 2020

    You sound like a Catholic saint:

    “Christ has no body but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which He looks
    Compassion on this world,
    Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
    Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
    Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
    Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
    Christ has no body now but yours,
    No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
    Yours are the eyes with which he looks
    compassion on this world.
    Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

    — St. Teresa of Ávila (attributed)

    “Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing, and so they give their lives to little or nothing. One life is all we have, and we live it as we believe in living it…and then it’s gone. … But to surrender who you are and to live without belief is more terrible than dying – even more terrible than dying young.”

    ― Joan of Arc

    “Be who you were created to be, and you will set the world on fire.”

    ― St. Catherine of Siena

  14. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 19, 2020

    I think you’re right. We can try to use our logic and rationality to figure out why the universe is the way it is – maybe we’re even “wired” by evolution to do that, but at the end of the day the only responses left to us are humility and our ability to care for others. Working to make the world, or our little piece of it, a better place is something that is always available to us, whoever we are. Anger at the way the world is or at the cards we are dealt in life is a legitimate response, but in the end it doesn’t get us anywhere. The universe is not only stranger and more mysterious than we imagine, but perhaps stranger than we *can* imagine. That’s why our only other logical response is to remain humble in the face of the unknown, as you say.

  15. Avatar
    tadmania  June 19, 2020

    Where is the LOVE IT button on this blog? Right on it, sir!

  16. Avatar
    Smithjacusmc  June 19, 2020

    About six years ago I decided to read the bible through, out loud to my family, cover to cover in a year. The most eye opening undertaking in my life. I’m a bible teacher, and I read controversial books, yours and many others, and I utilize this knowledge, to be real with the bible. With all it’s flaws, we humans have managed, for the most part, in modern times to create a caring, loving religion, that actually can help people become better. Not always, we are still human after all.
    I’m not sure the criteria for interaction, but I have had encounters with a “spirit” world, trying to silence my voice. For me it is real, but I think God does not interact with humanity in the manner of popular theology. So how…
    Love your God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Two things of equal importance, God seems to have left us to work it out ourselves, to deal with the diversity and inequality of life, disparities and fortunes alike. We ARE the responible party, we are the ones who have to change, ourselves first, then those around us.

  17. Avatar
    SamEdwards420  June 19, 2020

    Well said Mr. Ehrman. I’m 47 and have always been a non believer. I grew up a army brat. My family from Waynesville, NC. We lived in Augusta, GA and my dad got stationed to Korea around 1977. So me, my sister, and mom moved to Waynesville where we are from. I remember when my mom was telling me about god and Jesus and how I should believe. I didn’t. I felt like they almost wanted to beat it in me. Not my parents. The rest of my southern Baptist family. They never did but felt like they would turn there back on me if I didn’t. So I pretend to believe to apiece them. I’m a kind person. I will go out of my way to help anyone. My family would not unless it was another Christian family member or a white Christian from there church. I hate there hypocrisy and racist attitudes. You can’t argue with ignorance. Love this blog.

  18. Avatar
    Hngerhman  June 19, 2020

    Both the content and the intent – superb.

  19. Avatar
    SamEdwards420  June 19, 2020

    I could go on a rant how atheists are good people. We’re looking for the greater good in man kind. What’s best for the earth instead of trying to destroy it. Since Christians don’t care about it. They only care about heaven. I wish they would look around instead of hiding in there houses judging everyone. I’m speaking what I see in my own personal experiences. We need change. There beliefs have expired a long time ago. Love life. Love the ones around you. Go out and kill someone with kindness. It’s the best feeling. Love this blog. Peace and happiness.

  20. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  June 20, 2020

    “But it’s hard to tell an eight-year old girl in Ethiopia, emaciated from starvation and soon to die, that God loves her and is doing the best for her.”

    Having traveled a lot, especially to Tanzania where my in-laws live, it was impossible for me to believe in God (at least anything more than what Isaac Newton called a “watchmaker”) after the things I’ve seen there in my visits.

    I intentionally saved God’s Problem as the last of your books I read (okay, not Didymus the Blind) because I knew what an impact that book would have on me.

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