Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The power of belief

Let me share with you this intimate story about the power of belief. It is not a pleasant story but it is nevertheless true, heartbreaking and life-transforming; at least for those who have gone through the same. Without further ado, let me serve it up to you now.

The protagonist of this story is a well-known Rabbi. His name is Harold S. Kushner. He wrote the bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. He was a heartbroken father who had lost his son, Aaron, to a rare genetic condition called progeria. It is a rapid aging condition whereby “Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would have no hair on his head or body, would look like a little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens.”

Being a God-loving and God-fearing teacher, this was the question that consumed the Rabbi throughout the book, “If God existed, if He was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could He do this to me?” With that heartrending question as his candle in the wind, he embarked on a journey of faith and belief to seek out an answer, if any. The pages of his book showed the tormented Rabbi grappling with many misconceptions about God and His dispensation of fairness.

Most of the answers were less than satisfactory for him. They either bordered on a God who was capricious and arbitrary or one who was strict and stern or one who was completely sovereign and yet too mysterious for his believers to comprehend or one who was no different from a divine royalty, all-knowing and all-powerful, but is too detached from and stoic about human suffering to ever intervene.

In fact, the Rabbi even considered the blind randomness of life and implied that we are all at the mercy of the natural law of causes and effects that are clearly beyond our control. He recounted in the book that a lady once asked him this, “If the bad things that happen to us are the results of bad luck, and not the will of God…what makes bad luck happen?” To which the Rabbi mused, “My instinctive response was that nothing makes bad luck happen; it just happen.” And many things just happen the way they happen without any reason whatsoever because this world was left by God to run on its own course.

Here is what the Rabbi has to say, “Or it may be that God finished His work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us. Residual chaos, chance and mischance, things happening for no reason, will continue to be with us, the kind of evil that Milton Steinberg has called “the still unremoved scaffolding of the edifice of God’s creativity.” In that case, we will simply have to learn to live with it, sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident, like the murder and the robbery, are not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us.”

The main point of the book is that pain is inevitable. Everything that evolves and develops undergo a process of positive and negative transformations that is blind, unfeeling and indiscriminating. Cancer, natural disasters and death happen because of the constant transformations that the earth and everyone in it are undergoing and subjected to. This very much reflects the randomness of genetic mutations. Every cause will therefore have its effect(s) and every effect will become a cause(s) and this goes on and on with no end until the last trace of human consciousness disappears from the face of this earth. And the latter is why only us (and not animals) are perpetually struggling to make sense of the pain and suffering in this world. Our highly complex consciousness and self-awareness are the cause of our inextinguishable existential torture as well as our formidable acts of creativity and inventiveness. It is a double-edged sword that cuts both ways.

After much searching, the book ended with this conclusion, “I believe in God. But I do not believe the same things about Him that I did years ago, when I was growing up or when I was a theological student. I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom. I no longer hold God responsible for illnesses, accidents, and natural disasters, because I realize that I gain little and I lose so much when I blame God for those things. I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason. Some years ago, when the “death of God” theology was a fad, I remember seeing a bumper sticker that read, “ My God is not dead; sorry about yours.” I guess my bumper sticker would read, “My God is not cruel; sorry about yours.

Aaron lived a short life. He died at age 14. He died leaving a legacy behind and it is spelt out in the words of his father, “I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realize how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am not afraid of tomorrow.

I trust that not everyone of us will reach the same conclusion about God as the Rabbi did, that is, “I recognize His limitations. He is limited in what He can do by laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom.” Many will reject any hint that God is limited by his own creation. The idea that God is helpless in the face of natural law and personal freedom grates at our idea of God as omnipotent and omniscience. The sovereignty of God to do as he pleases is therefore inviolable and absolute.

But tragedy changes people, in particular, for people of faith, and this is where those who grow from it are transformed in their own personal way. Their beliefs undergo certain adaptations that some may call compromises. But I always believe that this is their life, their struggles and their coming of age. It is how they see things and deal with their pain. It is how they overcome the torture to a certain extent and move forward with their belief. It is intimate and personal and therefore deserves our quiet respect. 

For the Rabbi, he turned the focus inward and instead of asking “why?, he resolved to move forward with the question, “What now?” In the book, he came up with a rather unconventional idea of the “devil’s martyrs”. This was how he explained it, “Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But they do not necessarily kill life or faith. If the death and suffering of someone we love makes us bitter, jealous, against all religion, and incapable of happiness, we turn the person who died into one of the “devil’s martyrs.””

In the end, after all that he had gone through with Aaron, the Rabbi chose to overcome the pain by focusing on what God had given him rather than on what God is limited by.  His struggles were empowered by prayer for strength instead of demanding answers to the pain and pleading for the miracle of healing. He turned a bubbled idealism of faith in his youth as he saw it then into a practical resolution of perseverance, hope and resilience as he has experienced it now. He saw redemptive suffering as more than just a theological consolation or advice. Rather, he saw it as an invaluable deepening of his faith when belief takes a beating from a painful and sometimes insufferable reality of two irreconcilable propositions: a loving, powerful but noninterventionist God and a tragic, helpless but still purposeful life.

Here is his personal transformation and journey best described in his own words as I close, “People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength, to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have. Where did they get it? I would like to think that their prayers helped them find that strength. Their prayers helped them tap hidden reserves of faith and courage which were not available to them before.”  Cheerz.

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