A Sense of Injustice

One of the features of being in a place of doubt, is that while there are things that I find make it hard for me to believe in the existence of god, there are other things that I find equally hard to rationalise away. Some of these things are harder to define, somewhat more esoteric, perhaps, than specific doctrines, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying to elucidate them a little.

Somewhat related to the last post is the problem of our sense of injustice. As I said in the last post, it seems that a natural and somewhat universal human response to tragedy is to shake our fists at the heavens and shout “WHY?!” We experience a profound sense of injustice to situations of death, sickness and suffering – as if deep down within us somewhere we believe these situations to be fundamentally wrong. The question I have though, is why is this true? Why is this the most common human reaction to tragedy?

If you look at the question in Theistic terms (believing in the existence of god), then it is relatively easy to explain. Either, as discussed in the last post, the tragedy is caused or ‘ordained’ by the deity – in which case there is someone/something to be genuinely angry with. Or it is caused by the consequences of evil or sin in the world – in which case, there is again a force to be angry with, or else a right sense that the world was not meant to be this way, and therefore the situation is genuinely wrong.

It is more difficult trying to explain this sense of injustice from an atheistic (belief that there is no god) standpoint. In fact, I’m struggling now even to frame an argument for this side.

What purpose does a sense of injustice towards tragedy and dire circumstances serve? Does it somehow help us heal from the pain, to be able to have something to blame? Does having an outside cause stop us feeling so tiny, powerless and insignificant in the face of the vastness and complexity of the universe, and hence stop us going insane?

You could perhaps argue that a sense of injustice is simply an inherited characteristic from our more ignorant, superstitious pasts. But that doesn’t help much, because you then have to ask why such a superstition would evolve in the first place? What purpose does it serve? And why is it that, even the most committed atheists and agnostics seem to fall back to pain and anger in the face of personal suffering?

I guess my question is this: is it possible that a sense of injustice is inbuilt, inherent in all of humankind? And if so, how do we explain the existence of this response? It isn’t simply biological, because it isn’t something we see reflected in the animal kingdom – even the most ‘emotional’ animals grieve, and then get up and get on with their lives – they seem more able to accept death than humans are.

Humans are dumbfounded and full of rage and injustice in the face of death – as if we were never meant to die. A Christian will tell you that this is because we never were meant to die. But what explanation can the atheist give? The best I can come up with is that this is an inherited response from a more superstitious age, intended to protect us somehow from… and then I get lost.

In and of itself, this isn’t compelling enough to justify a theistic position for me. But there are other parts of our humanness that I can’t easily explain in evolutionary terms. Hopefully I’ll get on to those here in time.

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Doubt

A friend said to me the other day that they were “99.99% sure [God] exists”. They went on to say that “…i have no peace in that knowledge. not because i don’t think it matters… i just don’t want to have anything to do with him right now.” This is a friend with whom I have spent a good deal of time talking about the existence or lack thereof of god, over the last few months. It heartens me to know that they have come to at least some sense of surety on this, but it emphasises to me just quite how much has changed in my own life over the last few years.

I empathise. You see, I don’t want anything to do with god either. I don’t know how to reconcile all my experiences over the last few years with the understanding of god, of faith, that I developed in my young adulthood. I am left hurt and angry by the failure of my marriage, and the part that faith and organised religion played in that. If the god of my prior understanding exists, then I’m pretty pissed off at him…

But, unlike my friend, I can’t claim any surety on the existence of the Divine. Either way in fact.

When I arrived at l’Abri, back in September, I was simply hurt and angry. In many ways, I still am. But over time that hurt and anger has developed into a profound uncertainty. The question of the existence or non-existence of god is one that is ever-present at l’Abri, in lectures and lunch discussions, and late-night conversations. As my weeks there turned into months, I found myself doubting and questioning things I had never questioned before.

I am not at all sure that god exists. All of my prior faith and certainty has boiled away. The structure of my religion was shaken, and the foundations cracked and brought the whole edifice tumbling down. I find it hard to believe in a loving and present God that you can hear and follow, when hearing and following what I believed to be god led me into such a painful mess. It kinda raises some fundamental questions.

But then, I am not at all convinced that god doesn’t exist. The counter arguments, the explanations to our existence that don’t involve some form of Creator, just don’t seem very satisfying. They seem to leave us purposeless, pointless. A statistical aberration, a cosmic accident. They leave real questions when it comes to questions beauty or thankfulness or morality.

So I find myself stuck in the middle. Lost. The compass I used in the past to help me discern the way forward has shattered. I can claim to be neither a purposed created being following an ordained path, nor an animal following nothing but genetic urges. I have to confess that on that most fundamental of philosophic underpinnings I just don’t know

I am sure many people somehow live their lives without ever considering metaphysics, without ever forming an opinion of the basic question of life: why are we here? For many people I am sure it is simply a matter of ‘I exist; the world exists; I have to live in it’. But I don’t find it so easy to know how to live in the world without some sense of the consequences of actions, and the rationality behind decisions. I still think that what we believe about the nature of existence affects, has to affect, the way we chose to live our lives consciously or unconsciously.

I have tried to start series on this blog several times in the past, and to limited success. So, to long-term readers this may seem like another foolish exercise. But I genuinely want to work through some of the questions and uncertainties I have, and these pages seem to be as good a place as any to do so. Time will tell as to whether I am remotely successful at it.

I was going to use the word Agnosticism to head this post, but the mac dictionary defines an agnostic as: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena” and that definitely does not describe me at the moment. Instead, I have used the word Doubt, which the almighty Wikipedia describes as “a status between belief and disbelief”. I remain truly uncertain as to the nature of reality and the existence of a supreme being. But I don’t think that, at this stage, I feel that the truth cannot be known. Or at least, not known in part.

I am going to journey in uncertainty a while, and explore the way-markers of my doubt – on both sides of this issue. I hope that you will humour me in this, and maybe journey with me for a while.

What is church for?

A very good friend and I were having an in depth discussion last night based around the (somewhat ambiguous) question “what is church for?

The pastor of our church had been asked this question and had answered the following:

It’s easier to love God, love each other and love the world in a group, than on our own.
Our shared life helps us to:
– worship God & pray;
– provoke each other to love & good deeds; 
– serve one another including those of us who are poor or suffering;
– work together on behalf of each other & those outside the church
Our church community should be the most attractive thing of all to non-members.
All of these things are partially true for an individual Christian – but only have the possibility of real fruition if we share our lives together.

So, this got us talking. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the above statements, but then I’m not sure if this is the sort of question where you get a ‘right’ answer that you are fully happy with… What is church for?!? What is church? Where does the Christian stop and the church begin? How does our ideal for church relate to the institutions we see around us? 

For my friend, it was the wrong question. The issues and imperfections of the institutions we see round about us mean that we can’t ask this in terms of ‘church’, because surely that is a loaded term that will always draw out the “what should our institution act like?” mindset. For him the root of what we should be is based on individual transformation. As Bonhoeffer said:

“…the Christian life is the participation in the encounter of Christ with the world

Which is totally right, but for me still falls short.

Yes, we have to base our questioning of “what we should be” on a strong understanding of “who we should be”. We should talk in the terms of discipleship and spiritual formation. But even if our understanding of spiritual formation is a more corporate one, there is still a need to move beyond what are inherently individualistic expressions.

I, as an individual Christian, am called to “participate in the encounter of Christ with the world”. But we, not I, are called to be the body of Christ. This is a corporate undertaking, a calling that cannot be fulfilled by individuals, no matter how godly they may be.

Jesus said to His disciples that they (corporately) would be known by how they loved each other. Paul said that “you (plural) are the body of Christ” and “your body (both plural) is a temple of the Holy Spirit”. These are famous quotes that we all know, but do we really take on board the genuinely corporate and cooperative understanding behind them? Or how incredibly challenging they are?

We are the body of Christ. Not the image of the body of Christ, but Christ’s actual body. When we speak to someone on the street it is not just us, it is Jesus; when we feed the poor it is Jesus reaching out and feeding them, not us. When our words or actions towards the world are hostile then the world receives a hostile Christ, because all they see of Him is us.

This is not something we can embody as individuals, because not one of us could live up to the challenge. Where my non-Christian friends know only me as a Christian… well what distorted image of Jesus they must get. It is very deliberate that we are called to be the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, to be church together. Because together we can reveal the love Jesus talked about, together the collective image should burn brighter than the messes of our individual lives…

What is church for?
Church is called to be the body, the hands and feet and face, of Jesus. Not to participate in the encounter of Christ with the world, but to be the encounter of Christ with the world. It is to enact the Mission of God, bring in the Kingdom of God; to reveal God to the world. How should the world know Jesus? They should see Him in our shared life together.

***

Of course, my friend has a point; you can’t talk about church without getting bogged down in institutions at some point. And one thing that is very clear is quite how much of a mess our institutions can be (and what a bad image of Christ they can project).

Let me be clear; there never will be a perfect institution. We can’t pack up our churches, move and create some new, perfect church that will truly be the body of Christ. As individuals we are all ‘cracked eikons’, broken vases, dim reflections of the Glory of God. Our institutions are automatically more fractured than the individuals that make them, too often reflecting human greed, pride and avarice as much as the image of God. The institution cannot be the answer; but that doesn’t mean we can reduce our search to the individual out of despair for the future of the corporate.

Tertullian said:

wherever three are gathered, that is church”.

Visible church; invisible church; true church: that’s not where it’s at. Church is the fellowship of believers, the gathering of individuals Christians around a common goal. It may be nothing so organised as three friends praying in a room, seeking to love and inspire each other and to keep each other accountable. As long as it is plugged in to a greater awareness, a sense of ‘church’ as the body of Christ, fulfilling the mission of Christ, then we’re getting there…

***

You may have guessed, from reading the above, that this is still something I’m bashing out. There will be many more conversations like the one last night, with lots of different friends. This is an internal dialogue of mine that I’m now expanding to as many people as possible, because I really want to get to an answer. It may be, as my friend last night suggested, the result of reading too many emerging church blogs, but it’s a path I’ve gone too far down now.

I hope this post has stirred your thoughts, even as it is helping me work through mine.
Thanks for reading!