IS GOD GOOD?
Why do humans fight?
Why all the copious blood?
Can letting blood be right,
since hubris makes it flow in the mud?
Came to think of the Swedish vaudeville writer Emil Norlander´s poignant tune from 1915 and have been humming it after I a week ago began to sense that the year is drawing to an end and that I soon, like Mayakovsky, reluctantly once again would experience how:
turned its back on the windows
and plunged into grim night, scowling
Gloominess threatens many of us, especially if we feel that not everything turns out according to our wishful thinking. Even if we do not like to admit it, we might even wonder why God has not favoured us more than he has done. A shabby query, especially when it comes from a privileged man like me. Someone who has so much to be thankful for. Such a complaint is both pathetic and shameful if contrasted with the torment of all those who suffered/suffer so much more than I have ever done. The hopeless, raw agony in solitary confinement and death camps, the despair in out-bombed cities, among disease, starvation and abandonment.
While I wrote this, Trump won the election in the US. Unfortunately I had suspected such an outcome, but how could it even be possible? I feel numb, nauseated. The election of that man is likely to turn out to be a disaster, no matter what political views you might have. Some people assume Trump won in accordance with God's will. A few days ago I was through the TV confronted with an elderly American lady who told us:
- Every morning and evening I go down on my knees and pray to God that Donald Trump will win.
Did God comply with the old lady´s prayer? Is there really such a thing as divine justice? Several of my friends have been stricken by cancer, with all it implies of fear of death and excruciating pain. And what is worse, given our sense of justice - they have all been and are benevolent, vibrant and beautiful women, who have given much to their fellow human beings, especially me. They are and were much better persons than I ever will be. I who so far have been spared any major ailments.
The ancient theodicy problem - the so far unanswered question why evil, stupidity and suffering subsist everywhere, and at all times. The cold and merciless violence. How can someone under such circumstances explain the faith in the existence of a caring and loving God?
Already in the early 300's, a certain Lactantius wrote a well-formulated text about God's anger. Lactantius was a well-read and erudite advisor to Constantine the Great. His views and crisp explanations of the Christian faith have had a great importance for posterity. In his writings Lactantius took up the issue of the presence of evil in God's creation. To give relief to his opinions, he quoted a variety of ancient philosophers, among them Epicurus.
There are only fragments left of Epicurus's writings, but these are interesting and his followers praised him as a wise, modest and friendly man. During his last years Epicurus was stricken by a painful disease. In a letter to a friend he noted: "I have been attacked by a painful inability to urinate, and also dysentery, so violent that nothing can be added to the violence of my sufferings." Nevertheless, he claimed that he was going to die satisfied: "the cheerfulness of my mind, which comes from the recollection of all my philosophical contemplation, counterbalances all these afflictions."
Much of Epicurus teachings were collected by Diogenes Laertius hundreds of years after the great philosopher´s death and furthermore excellently depicted in Lucretius´s (99 – 55 BC) poem On the Nature of Things.
Several of Epicurus thoughts revolved around the question of how it was possible that almighty gods could accept evil and suffering. Epicurus, who lived 300 BC, believed that "gods" existed, but to him they were a personifications of impersonal forces that control and keep the Universe united. To imagine a God as a being with human characteristics would, according to Epicurus cause painful doubts. Thoughtlessly submitting to the belief in a benevolent God would be tantamount to denying our human intellect and obliterate the joys brought about by curiosity. If we believed that all natural phenomena were controlled by a benevolent God who took care of everything – why bother to study natural phenomena, why try to improve anything?
Lactantius description of Epicurus's doubts about the existence of a merciful becomes an excellent summary of the theodicy problem:
God, he says [Epicurus], either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able, or He is both willing and able. If He is willing and is unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God; if He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God; if He is neither willing or able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God; if He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils or why does He not remove them? I know that many of the philosophers, who defend providence, are accustomed to be disturbed by this argument, and are almost driven against their will to admit that God takes no interest in anything, which Epicurus especially aims at.
Can a Father of the Church really present such a blatant challenge to the omnipotence of God, even if he hides behind a pagan philosopher? Eventually, Lactantius made an attempt to rescue the belief in the goodness of God by claiming that if evil did not exist, we would not be able to know what goodness was. We would be like animals, completely unaware of the presence of God in his creation. Without evil we would not have any reason to seek God´s protection and support. He wants to be loved and to love and humans must thus be endowed with free will. Without a personal choices love cannot exist.
That there are no choices without evil is an argument that often has been used in Christianity and then with reference to Genesis, in which the first humans by eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge were challenged by the choice to love themselves and thus rely on their own abilities, or instead rely on God's power and benevolence. By presenting humans with a choice the serpent in Eden´s Garden was actually a servant of God:
Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
Lactantius added urgency to this argument by arguing that the Final Judgment would soon come. Accordingly, Christians had no time to squabble whether God was good or evil. Their only chance for salvation would be an unconditional belief in God´s omnipotence. As Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
Jesus was also asked why God did not wipe out evil from his creation and like Lactantius he replied that all we could do was to wait for the Last Judgement:
Because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'" (Mat 13: 29-30).
Perhaps Jesus' words reflected a perception common among Jews at the time - brooding about evil´s presence could not affect God's omnipotence. In Judaism and Islam, theories about the presence of evil in God's creation do generally speaking not occupy much space. If a believer accepts the all-powerfulness of God, it is quite enough to lead a righteous life according to religious practices and regulations. Of course, there are quite a lot exceptions from such a claim. Within the folds of both Judaism and Islam we find several writers and theologians who have pondered about evil and suffering. Among the Muslims, Sufis have been particularly occupied with the theodicy problem.
al-Qurʾān mentions Iblis, the Devil, as an opponent of God. Nevertheless, he is subordinate to Him. Iblis is the epitome of arrogance, megalomania based on self-assertion. An excessive appreciation of one´s own power and ability. The name Iblis is generally interpreted as "he who causes despair." Believing oneself to be better than other creatures, or even equal to God, leads to isolation and loneliness. A power-hungry man isolates himself from others, from the creation and human community.
Iblis is "whispering into the hearts" and make us doubt everything, except our own righteousness. Iblis is the voice of egoism, an exaggerated belief in our own superiority. When God ordered all creatures to kneel before Adam, Iblis refused to do it. He saw only the clay God had used to create man and could not perceive the divine breath that had given him life. Similarly, egoists cannot distinguish the divine soul life they share with other people. They only value what they can acquire from their fellow-beings.
Sufism can be considered as a systematic exercise to gain to self-knowledge, both through practical training and teaching from a wali, a custodian. The Sufis wanted to look beyond the material world and find what they called the Ultimate Reality. Like many other Sufis, Abu Hamed Al-Ghazzali (1058 -1111 AD) searched for a method to unify the pious soul with God. In his book The Alchemy of Happiness, in Farsi - Kimiya-yi Sa'ādat, Al-Ghazzali explained why devout Muslims must adhere to Islam's commandments and regulations, if they do so they become capable to seek God within their inner self and eventually encounter a love beyond good and evil . By purifying our mind and come to realize that love is God's true essence, we enable ourselves to open up our consciousness. Al-Ghazzali´s message appears to be reminiscent of the words of Jesus: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17). The ´Sufi poet Rumi (1207-1273) compared the realization of God's omnipotence with the search for love:
The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
How blind that was.
Lovers don´t finally meet somewhere.
They´re in each other all along.
To translate Al-Ghazzali´s text as Alchemy of Happiness may be misleading, Science of Happiness might be closer to its actual meaning. For Al-Ghazzali "alchemy" was synonymous with awareness of Cosmos as a manifestation of God - that nothing can exist outside of God. The word al-kīmiyā orginates from the Greek χημία a name for Egypt, from the Egyptian word khmi, meaning "black soil". Kīmiyā thus has to do with life, with plants sprouting from the black, fertile soil.
Ancient Greeks associated emerging life to Egyptians' assumed ability to create life by using heka, a concept meaning “to activate the life force”, like the energy that makes organic plants sprout from the dead soil. The Greek χημία was originally a term for the study of the properties of water as a source for growth; a life-giving power. Only later did the term come to mean magic, in the sense of using supernatural forces for practical purposes. Since the word was linked to "the black", χημία soon came to mean magic used for evil purposes - "black magic".
By using the word alchemy Al-Ghazzali presumably indicated that through knowledge of the world's true nature, i.e. its absolute conformity with God, you may attain communion with the divine. Sufis based their teaching on a notion that practice and teaching were means to seek God in your interior. For example, they could use the Quranic text about the conflict between the sons of Adam - Cain and Abel. Blinded by his jealousy Cain could not realize that both he and his brother were endowed with God's spirit. An ignorance that made Cain bring evil into God's creation. Both Cain and Abel worshiped God, but Cain had the perception that God favoured his brother more than him. This suspicion about God's injustice nurtured Cain's hatred:
Recite to them the true story of the two sons of Adam, when they offered a sacrifice and it was accepted from one of them but not from the other. He said: "I will slay you!" The other replied: "God only accepts from the devout. Were you to stretch forward your hand to kill me, I shall not stretch forth my hand to kill you, for I fear God, Lord of the worlds. I want you to bear my sin and yours, and thus become a denizen of the Fire, for this is the reward of wrongdoers." […] It is for this reason that We decreed to the Children of Israel that he who kills a soul neither in revenge for another, nor to prevent to prevent corruption on earth, it is as if he killed the whole mankind; whereas he who saves a soul, it is as if he had saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them bearing clear proofs, but many of them thereafter were disobedient on earth (The Qur´an 5:27 – 32).
According to The Qur´an, we have every right to defend ourselves against injustice and violence, but Abel chose not to defend himself from the fury of his nefarious brother. Consequently, Abel did not rebel againsGod´s design for a perfect world. By allowing Cain´s sin to punish itself, Abel abided to high morals. According to the Sufis, Abel´s refusal to defend himself was an acknowledgement of God´s divine will. By not using force Abel left it to God to pass judgement on his brother, thus subjecting himself to God´s superior command. By disciplining themselves by following what they believed to be the rules of God, which also are the rules of the Universe, the Sufis are adapting themselves to a behaviour they believe is pleasing to God. An inability to quench anger and endure evil is accordingly a sign of a flawed belief in God's omnipotence.
That the world is an integral part of God is also an important ingredient in the mystical direction of Judaism called Kabbalah, “receiving/tradition”. Like the Sufis, Kabbalists devote themselves to an intensive study of the world around them, at the same as they pursue a union with God. Both faiths are confronting the problem of the presence of evil in God´s creation. However, Kabbalists claim even stronger than the Sufis the importance of free will.
According to Kabbalists, God has hidden himself from his creation, though we may seek Him through the Sefirot, evidences of Eyn Sof, Infinity, one of God´s manifestations. Sefirot means "radiance" or "outflow" and may be considered as some kind of "sparks" of the Divine. If combined into a unity the Sefirot may bring us closer to God. Among the ten Seifirot, we find concepts like wisdom, compassion, beauty and understanding. By applying them to our own existence we may approach God. Kabbalah and Sufism both require discipline and love.
Perhaps the most complex Kabbalah tradition, but also a sophisticated description of the origin of evil is found in Isac Luria´s (1534 - 1572) theories. Since Luria lived and worked in Tzfat in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire, it is not impossible that he developed his ideas with awareness of the Sufi system.
In the beginning, according to Luria, God encompassed everything. Like the Brahma of the Hindus "he rested in himself." However, he was endowed with a desire to create, an act that requires movement. Empty/open space is a prerequisite for mobility and to that end God, Ein Sof, had to tighten/narrow himself and the emptiness that thus was created is called Khalal Hapanu a kind of abyss inhabited by us humans.
God exists, we are surrounded by him. He is infinite, but He has consigned us to emptiness so we may seek him in it. Our quest is what makes us human. We are lost in the void and need to find a way out, the solution is found in love and care for others. Compassion fills the void, it creates togetherness. For guidance, we have the Sefirot, the sparks of divine presence we find in the Holy Scriptures and within ourselves and others.
The Kabbalist calls wisdom Naham D'kissufa, Bread of Shame, an awareness of our own shortcomings and sins makes us attentive to the needs and gifts of others. God´s absence makes us aware of our own inadequacy. To move out of emptiness, out of Khalal Hapanu, we need the support of others and faith in God. Love and compassion guide us out of desolation and lead us to the warmth of God. It is our will, faith and pursuit of the good that saves us. Evil abides in emptiness, love is found in community. As the last words in Dante´s Divina Commedia assure us - l'amor che move i sole e l'altre stele, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.
In his fantastic tale The Snow Queen H. C. Andersen turned around Kabbalah´s world view. The brilliant shards that had been spread out in the world turn by Andersen into reflections of evil, contrary to the Sefirot, which emanate goodness.
H.C. Andersen begins his tale by telling how a goblin, "one of the worst; he was the Devil” one day, when he was in a really good mood, made himself a mirror:
that had the power to make everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it shrink to almost nothing, while whatever that was worthless and loathsome would stand out clearly and looked even worse. In the mirror the loveliest landscape looked like boiled spinach, and the best people turned beastly or stood on their heads with no stomachs. Their faces became so distorted that they were beyond recognition, and if you had a freckle, you could be sure it would spread over your nose and mouth. That was excellent fun, said the Devil. If a good, pious thought passed through someone´s mind, a smirk would appear in the mirror, and the troll demon would have to laugh at his ingenious invention.
Together with the small devils, who went to the Devil´s "troll school", he went around the world and made people reflect themselves and their surroundings in the evil, magic mirror, so they received a distorted view of everything and became unable to agree on anything. They began fighting and arguing, something the Devil found terribly funny.
The Evil One got the brilliant idea that he and his little devils could fly up to heaven to have God and His angels reflect themselves in it. Then everything would turn to chaos, something the Devil always strived for. However, on the way up there the mirror began to tremble in the hands of the devils. They dropped it and when it fell to earth it split" into a hundred million billion pieces and more."
Some shards were smaller than grains of sand, and whirled around in the air. If such a minuscule glass grain ended up in the eye of someone, her/his sight became distorted and the victims could only percieve disgust and misery. Some mirror pieces were so large that they were as window glass, especially among wealthy people and in places where judgement was passed, like castles and courtrooms. Other sheets of glass were used for eyeglasses. Each glass fragment retained its capacity to distort, pervert and make reality worse. The vilest thing that could happen was if a small grain of magical mirror glass sneaked into your body and reached the heart, because the heart was then turned into an icicle.
While reading H.C. Andersen´s tale I came to think of Benedict Spinoza (1632 - 1677), who earned his living by grinding optical glass, which led to a premature death from consumption. The quartz dust was stored in Spinoza's lungs, which could not get rid of it but instead had to encapsulate it in scar tissue, until nodules and inflammation killed him. That glass killed Spinoza may perhaps be considered as a symbol of his philosophy. The optical glass he cut did, unlike Andersen's magic glass, enable people to see better. Spinoza was undeniably very perceptive and he looked at life in a different manner than most of his fellow beings. The glass became part of Spinoza body and may thus be related to his thoughts. Spinoza saw no distinction between dead matter, body and soul, they were just different aspects of the same reality.
Spinoza argued that everything that exists, the whole universe, is controlled by an eternally defined set of rules. God and nature are just two names for the same reality. Creation consists of smaller units that find themselves in different, constantly changing positions, driven by cause and effect. Everything is part of an indivisible whole. God exists and all matter are parts of God, something that is reminiscent of basic ideas within Islam and Judaism.
Since everything is connected, any explanation is limited to smaller entities and relationships within an incomprehensibly large and all-inclusive system - God/Universe. Politics and science are concerned with external acts and circumstances, while religion cannot be explained, not circumscribed by dogmatic thinking and regulations. What really matters is love, righteousness and devotion to God, i.e. the things we experience through our emotions.
Goodness is what we perceive as well-intentioned and joyful, that which benefits laetitia, joy and contentment, while its opposite, tristitia, sorrow and evil, reduces the soul´s vitality. What Spinoza calls ethics is our common quest for what we feel is best both for ourselves and others, and not least the nature that surrounds us and which we all depend upon. Everything is connected – the material, organic and spiritual spheres are not separated.
Of course the tolerant and perceptive Spinoza came under fierce attack from all quarters; from Jews and Christians, theologians, politicians and scientists. Nevertheless, he was proposed a professorship at the University of Heidelberg, but did not accept the offer since he believed that it would circumscribe his possibilities to express his thoughts in an “unbridled” manner.
Spinoza's writings were placed on the Catholic Church's index of prohibited and harmful books. Already at the age of 23, before he had published anything, Spinoza was placed in cherem, meaning he was cursed by the Council of Elders of the Jewish community in Amsterdam and expelled from the congregation. The cherem is preserved, but not any documents describing the court proceedings that resulted in a curse. It is however clear that the Elders found him guilty of questioning the divine origin of the Laws given to Moses. In addition, Spinoza regarded God as an abstraction and not as an individual, redemptive entity. The formulation of the cherem was relentless:
Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down, and cursed be he when he rises up; cursed be he when he goes out, and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him; the anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in this book, and the Lord will blot out his name from under heaven, and the Lord will separate him to his injury from all the tribes of Israel with all the curses of the covenant, which are written in the Book of the Law. But you who cleave unto the Lord God are all alive this day. We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or within four ells [2 metres] of him, or read anything composed or written by him.
Spinoza was condemned trough a Beth Din, a Hebrew word meaning “Judgment House”. From the beginning, it was an actual abode where rabbis met to pass judgement on those who had violated religious laws and regulations. Over time Beth Din turned into a concept, a kind of legal discussion between the theologians, who presented arguments for or against an accusation. Elie Wiesel wrote a play about a Beth Din where the accused is no less than God Himself - The Trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod).
The play is written as a Purimschpil, a kind of comedy, almost like a Commedia dell´Arte, which during Purim celebrations was performed by traveling theatre groups in Yiddish speaking villages of Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Purim is a cheerful feast celebrated in memory of the Jewish heroine Esther who saved her people from being massacred by the evil king, Haman. I have read somewhere that Wiesel's piece is not regarded as a major masterpiece, but when I got hold of it, I found it was a quite interesting drama - fast-paced and vibrant. I find it surprising that it is not performed more often.
The story, in brief, deals with three Purimschpilers, wandering actors, who in the winter of 1649 arrives in a shtetel, a small town in Ukraine, named Shamgorod. They seek out the inn and offers the innkeeper the performance of a Purimschpil in exchange for food, drink and shelter. The innkeeper becomes angry and upset. How can a group of ragged comedians imagine would be proper to perform a farce in a city where only last year Khmelnytsky´s Cossack hordes had slaughtered all the Jews, except the innkeeper and his daughter, who had never returned to her own self after being raped? Nevertheless, the actors insist, they are starved and frozen and the innkeeper gives in to their pleading. He will allow them to perform their comedy, though on the precondition that he choose the theme for the play. The Purimschpilers accept his condition and their host insists that they perform a Beth Din where the accused will be no one less than God himself. The innkeeper, Berish, is going to act as prosecutor, the three actors will be judges, the Christian maid Maria and the host's daughter will bear witness about the cruelties that had been performed in God´s name and sanctioned by Him. An Orthodox priest will be audience, with permission to interrupt the act with his comments.
The performance obtains a sinister backdrop when the priest, a plump bon viveur who aspire for free food and drinks, discloses that he has heard that the small town is being threatened by a new pogrom. There are anti-Semites waiting to join forces with the Cossacks to assassinate Berish, his daughter and the Christian maid who lives with them. They will certainly also kill the three actors. Berish explains that he has already lost everything he loved and before he dies he wants to accuse God for the cruelty and injustice he has inflicted on his people. The priest is taken aback by Berish´s fierceness. Despite the priest´s intention to save Berish and his daughter he is deep in his heart a convinced anti-Semite who regards all Jews as Christ-killers. Berish suspects that the priest's warnings of an impending massacre may be a trick to have an opportunity to baptize him and his daughter.
Before the performance begins the participants cannot agree about who will defend God. Then Sam appears. A handsome, eloquent stranger with great knowledge of Jewish faith and law. According to Wiesel's stage directions:
SAM, the STRANGER. Intelligent, cynical, extremely courteous. Diabolical. His age? Still young. Neat, almost elegant.
Where does Sam come in? His name stands out from the others on the list of the dramatis personae. It is neither a Jewish, nor a gentile name. He may be a Jew, though he seems to have good contacts with the gentiles. The Christian waitress Maria knows who he is. She has had earlier bad experiences with him, though no other of those present knows Sam. The stranger accepts the role as God´s defender.
Sam explains that since God has given us a free will, we are allowed to question his actions. We can demand explanations and motives from God. However, because He does not answer directly tour questions, we need to seek God in the inner voice we find deep within us. Sam claims that God desires the good. We would all be better off if we helped and loved each other. The presence of evil and cruelty cannot be explained due to our limited understanding. We may blame God, but we cannot deny him, doing so would be to deny the existence of creation. It is a human duty to interpret the divine justice in such a way that it becomes the foundation of kindness and compassion.
Sam concludes his defence by declaring: "Endure. Accept. Say thank you and amen. Our task is to venerate and glorify God. To love him at all costs!" The three actors are deeply moved by Sam's speech and salute him as a performer of miracles, a rabbi, a teacher, one of the 37 Just who according to the Talmud are living on earth, a tzaddik.
However, Bashir's wrath does not diminish. Perhaps he suspects who Sam really is, something that Maria, the maid, knew all along, and which is underlined by Sam's own words:
I am not allowed to reveal myself to you. (In a low voice) And what if I told you that I am God's emissary? I visit His creation and bring stories back to Him. I watch all men. I cannot do all I want, but I can undo all things.
The priest once again warns that the killers are on the way - the actors, Bashir, and his daughter Maria have to flee. Bashir refuses to leave his inn before judgement has been passed on God:
I lived as a Jew, and it as a Jew that I shall die - and it is as Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God! And because the end is near, I shall shout louder. Because the end is near, I´ll tell Him that He´s more guilty than ever!
Sam laughs and reveals who he really is – he is the Devil:
So you took me for a saint, a Just? Me? How could you be that blind? How could you be that stupid? If you only knew.
We should have suspected the truth, even his name indicated it. Sam is a diminutive. In the Jewish tradition Samael is an angel of evil - the Devil. He lifts his arm as to give a sign, the candles are extinguished, darkness all around. We hear a horrifying, deafening roar.
The play is far more complicated than my summary suggests, filled with allusions to the omnipotence of God and man's submission to His will, in accordance with a variety of Jewish notions - especially the fact that Jews have been selected to be "God´s chosen people" and have no other choice than to accept his will, even if such a choice may involve great suffering. Acceptance of God´s omnipotence is not a choice for a Jew, if he denies God´s existence s/he ceases to be a Jew, and there is a risk that God will lack representation on earth. A Jew can thus accuse God for choosing her/him, but cannot deny God because that would mean denying her/his own existence. Wiesel had personally suffered all this agony. In the image below we see him in Auschwitz. It is Wiesel who, together with the emaciated man is not looking towards the photographer.
Elie Wiesel has stated that his play is based on an experience he had as a seventeen year old inmate of Auschwitz, where he witnessed how three Jewish rabbis in one of the camp barracks conducted a Beth Din against God. The Christian theologian Robert McAfee Brown has described the event in a preface to Wiesel's play:
The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which were issued finally in an unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And after what Wiesel described as an “infinity”, the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It´s time for evening prayers,” and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.
Maariv is the opening word in the shared Jewish evening prayers. Maariv is a verb connected with word erev, evening, and can be translated as "to advance the Night". The prayer is performed standing, with the participants facing Jerusalem, and led by a cantor who sings the Jewish creed Shema Yisreal: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one" and two hymns from the Psalms, one containing the words:
Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath.
The hymns are followed by nineteen blessings proclaiming God's power and protection He bestows upon the people of Israel and then the Maariv ends with an "Amen".
Elie Wiesel's Night dealing with his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald is profound and multifaceted. Wiesel, who died in July this year was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and known for his strong condemnation of massacres of Armenians, Cambodians, Bosnians, Rwandans, Sudanese, Native Americans and many others. However, like the figure of Sam in his play Elie Wiesel personality is difficult to grasp and understand. He was silent about the suffering of people he regarded as a threat to Israel.
Wiesel was member of Irgun, the National Military Organization, a paramilitary Zionist organization that between 1931 and 1948 battled Palestine Arabs and British institutions with terror. Wiesel was also an inveterate defender of Benjamin Netanyahu and his hostile Palestine policy. He criticized his friend Barack Obama for his view that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land ought to be withdrawn immediately. Wiesel furthermore propagated for the settlement organization Elad, which try to force Palestinians to leave Jerusalem. He defended the Israeli attacks on Gaza and as Chairman of the Trustees Council of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum he opposed, until his retirement in 1986, Roma people´s representation within the Museum. Few people are able to live up to their humanitarian ideals, unfortunately this applied to Elie Wiesel as well.
After my exposé of the theodicy problem I probably ought to declare my own faith. Due to my job as a teacher of history of religions I have often been asked whether if I believe in God. My answer is, strangely enough, an unreserved "yes". Does this mean that I can accept a God who permits evil and wrongdoing? To that question I must answer "no". How can I wriggle myself out of such a paradox?
My students tend to dislike my answers. They find them convoluted and elusive. Especially since my faith is far from being pragmatic. I do not at all believe that Joshua convinced God to make the sun stand still at Gibeon and the moon in the valley of Askalon, so he would have time enough to slaughter all of his enemies. Nor that sin entered the world because a woman invited her partner to eat a tasty fruit. I cannot agree with the reasoning that "it has only been one woman in history who gave birth to a child without having sex and that this is the reason for us worshipping her." However, such disbeliefs do not at all prevent me from believing in God and pray to him.
I could perhaps like Kierkegaard answer that belief is a surrender without questioning, a step into the unknown. Credo quia absurdum, I believe because it is absurd. It is true that my faith is incompatible with reason. I am doubtful about a life after death and do not believe in Heaven or Hell. Death does not scare me, at least not yet. I believe in reason and science, but have experienced so many absurdities that I nevertheless am willing to believe in miracles and madness. I have a strong feeling of a presence beyond myself, maybe like in the Beatles song:
What do you see when you turn out the light?
I can't tell you, but I know it's mine.
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends,
Do you need anybody,
I just need somebody to love,
Could it be anybody,
I want somebody to love.
The philosopher Martin Buber described his book I and Thou how we experience a friend's hair, height and weight; a beloved's beauty and fine qualities. However, when we valuate a friend's appearance and behaviour we turn her/him into a thing. A You is something completely different, not a thing among all others. You are a part of my existence, my Self, my Soul. You and I are always together. I can feel Your presence and dialogue with You even if You are not physically present. A relationship between You and I is a symbiosis, far beyond everyday experience, beyond things and phenomena that can be explained.
God is perhaps an illusion, but for me, God is a You. Someone watching over me, helping me. Someone I can talk to. Prayer is probably a prerequisite for faith. Perhaps prayer has probably something to do with what the Swiss theologian Karl Barth suggested when he claimed that if you define God through human reason you just create a projection, an idol. God is something ganz anders, something completely different. God strikes us senkrecht von oben, vertically from above. God exists only if we have a relationship with him. He is a friend, a You and like we do with an absent friend we can establish an inner dialogue with God. We can have a relationship with God.
Does this sound crazy? Sure, it does. But, who can exhaustively explain how our brain functions? It has, for example, been found that the human brain is endowed with an ability to compile different, obviously inconsistent phenomena into coherent stories. Our memories can be extremely fragmented, but when we re-tell them they turn into tales. Our brain creates context and conformity, even it does not exist in reality. A large part of our thinking is based on such "stories", which turn into explanations, motivations and patterns for our actions. Such explanatory “stories” may be ideological, scientific and religious patterns, assumptions and interpretations that often have little foundation in "reality".
It is now considered to be proven that our thinking is controlled by the cooperation between two distinct brain spheres. In most of us, we find the same distribution of specific features of these hemispheres. The left half of the brain contains consciousness, language in the form of both speech and writing, mathematics, logic, analytical ability, storage of events and impressions, as well as future plans. This part of the brain tends to concentrate on one thing at a time. The right half is occupied by intuition, creativity, overall perception, emotion, orientation, sight, sense of form, interpretation of facial expressions and musicality. It can simultaneously work with several different processes.
Experiments have been carried out with people who have a "split brain", often individuals who due to severe epilepsy have had the corpus callosum severed. The corpus callosum acts as a link between the two brain spheres. Individuals who have undergone that kind of surgery generally live "normal" lives and for someone who does not know their condition it may be difficult to discern their handicap.
The lack of communication between the two brain halves has been identified through various experiments. One such test indicates the brain's ability to combine different impressions into a logical context. The subject is confronted with two very different images, like in the illustration below – the claw of a hen and a snowy landscape. The task is to match these pictures with a variety of cards that the subject finds in front of her/him.
A person with normal brain functions places a card with a snow shovel in front of the snow-covered landscape and a picture of a hen in front of the claw. A person suffering from a "split brain" picks only one card, the one that pictures a snow shovel and places it in front of the hen´s claw. Why? Well, the person can see both the snowy landscape and the hen´s claw, but only lifts up the card with the shovel. This is due to the fact the two brain halves are unable to communicate with each other. The left hemisphere that "observes" the image of the winter landscape controls the right hand and picks up the card with a shovel. However, the right hemisphere that controls the left hand does not give any orders to take up a card with a hen. The two hemispheres cannot cooperate with each other, meaning that a person with a “split brain” places the card with a shovel in front of the hen´s claw, instead of in front of the snowy landscape.
If asked why s/he placed the shovel in front of the claw, the expected answer from a person with "split brain" would probably be: "I do not have the slightest idea why I placed a shovel in front of a hen´s claw." However, in all cases, persons with a “split brain” gave similar answers, immediately providing a "logical" explanation for their choice by making up a “story”.
Oh it´s simple, poultry litter in their coop, strutting around in the dirt with their feet. This is the reason to why I chose a shovel. You use it to use it to scoop out the garbage.
The human brain creates stories and contexts by combining different phenomena. Perhaps an explanation to why we have not found any human culture without religion. We need relationships, contexts, explanations, even where they do not seem to exist. In difficult situations we may need mental constructions to cope with them. Camp prisoners like Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl have testified to the fact that prisoners who fared best, proved to be the strongest and was able to surmount the horrific conditions, were those who had a strong faith in God. Viktor Frankl has described this in his book Man´s Search for Meaning.
Why not accept the incomprehensible? That we in our own mind may encounter God's presence? Is it logical? I do not know, but if the brain is structured as it is and at the same time constitutes an integrated part of the Universe, is it then so bad to believe in God´s existence? To converse with him, without knowing why, just as we are unable to explain the presence of evil in Universe. What is evil? I would like to believe that it is a lack of understanding, kindness and compassion. Let us affirm and cultivate such feelings and constantly fight against bitterness, hatred and intolerance.
I do not know if this is an answer to my friends´ torments and doubts. Or even an answer to why I personally believe I am in contact with a loving God, even though the world undeniable is a place of cruelty and suffering. Even in Auschwitz people searched for a response to the question of God's existence and some even managed to pass through hell with their faith intact.
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