Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

1. Why does God allow suffering?
Once upon a time an angry young man hurried up to Jesus and said, "Listen here! You go around preaching that God loves us all. But if that's true, why does God allow people to suffer."

Jesus replied, "We know from our forefathers that God made the world. God doesn't make bad things. Have I got it right?"

"Yes," said the young man.

"Well," continued Jesus, "our forefathers also observed that suffering isn't compatible with a loving God"

"That's what I'm saying," said the youth in an irritable tone. "Get to the point!"

"Hang on!" said Jesus. "I'm getting there!" He took a copy of the Scriptures and turned to the Book of Genesis.

"Everyone knows that Adam and Eve rebelled against God," he continued. "The tale makes the point that everyone, innocents and wicked alike, are being punished for that rebellion."

"Well!" said the young man. " If that's the case, then God's not a very nice person."

"I take your point," responded Jesus. "But I tell you truly that one day we'll find out how God made living things. We'll realise that the story of the Fall was intended to make us feel better about God's creation. We can, as it were, blame it on the snake."

The young man smiled. "You're making sense at last!" he said. "What you're implying is that we've got to start with the world as it is, as God actually made it."

"That's right!" exclaimed Jesus. "I tell you truly that God deliberately made our world the way it is. So there's no point in asking why God allows suffering. The only question is what we are to do in and with this wonderful world. We're part of nature. We have to work out how to make the best of it, including the suffering which comes to all of us in illness and old age - not to mention the trials and tribulations of surviving from day-to-day. That just the way it is! God is good and knows best. Our task is to trust in God."

The young man looked sceptical. "I suppose I can swallow that," he said. "But you've deliberately missed out the most important part."

"Oh! Have I?" replied Jesus. "Tell me more."

"Yes. You've missed out all the suffering human beings bring through greed or lust for power or plain ill-will."

"I have indeed," replied Jesus, looking grave. "But you can't blame that on God. Surely we make that kind of suffering ourselves. God plainly allows us a degree of choice. So if we won't love each other, we have to bear the negative results, don�t we?"

"I suppose so," said the young man. He looked faintly disappointed.

"If you think carefully," said Jesus, "you'll discover that I'm right. Now go and try your best to love others!"

The young man went away, somewhat put out, for he was a stubborn and self-centred person.

Most if not all people suffer at one time or other. The degree of suffering may range from trivial to cataclysmic. Toleration for suffering depends on the capacity, either constitutive or acquired, of the individual to endure pain.

In order to better understand suffering it is appropriate to attempt to define and analyze its nature. Suffering is not a single entity or faculty that can be easily excised from the human psyche or experience. It is a complex state of mind that derives from at least three factors. 

First, it all begins with a conscious human being. 

Second, there is a source of pain, either psychic or physical, that impinges on the conscious person who is then aware of the personal focus of that pain. 

Third, the pain continues over a relatively prolonged time, requiring endurance.

The presence of suffering in the world has often been cited as evidence against a loving and caring creator. How can anyone allow a loved one to suffer? Even mere human beings are generally adverse to causing suffering and history is full of examples of efforts to alleviate suffering. 

Of course, history is equally rife with suffering deliberately perpetrated by human against human. But how can a benevolent creator be so callus as to allow suffering in the first place?

If one believes, as I do, that the material universe is the creation of God and that that creation is perfect, suffering becomes more understandable. In the context of this creation, all material reality adheres to universal laws instigated by God. God gave us our bodies that follow these established principles. 

The greatest human gift of creation is that of consciousness. It distinguishes us from all other animate beings and enables human dominion over the material world. In order for humankind to be relieved of suffering, we would have to relinquish our consciousness. If consciousness were taken from us, we would be reduced to the state of insentient animals and life would cease to have significance or meaning. 

Potential sources of pain would remain in abundance but if no consciousness existed to give that pain a personal reference there could be no suffering.

Thus, I see no way to avoid suffering. The capacity for suffering is inherent in our being conscious human beings. A creator, having finished his work, does not dabble with it continuously. He does not change his creation just to respond to complaints, either trivial or profound.

Although the physical world cannot be changed in its essential nature, I think it is possible for God to intervene in suffering by speaking to the hearts of men and women. God can inspire these earthly agents to effect change using the tools of the material world available to them.

Though no one wants to suffer, there are positive effects as iterated by the Paul in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 5: "... we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope ..."

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