A Hollow Agnosticism
By Chris Hedges
Evil is not a problem. Evil is a mystery. Bart Ehrman in his book God’s Problem cannot reconcile a belief in God with this mystery and the cold reality of the morally neutral universe we inhabit. He wonders how God could allow the Holocaust to happen and children to starve to death. He wants a God that will make it better. And when God won’t or can’t or isn’t interested, he walks away in a huff. This petulant stance would please Sigmund Freud, who insisted religion was a form of infantile regression, but it is another example of our cultural narcissism and childishness. Ehrman has become, after leaving the faith, a self-avowed agnostic. But he remains trapped within the simpleminded belief that religious faith, to have legitimacy, means there has to be something logical and ultimately just about human existence.
“I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life,” he writes. “In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things.”
There is strong desire on the part of many in the human species to believe that human suffering and deprivation is ultimately meaningful, that it has a purpose, that our lives make sense. Human cultures have long sought to placate the demands of an all-powerful God, or gods, in return for protection from the vicissitudes of fortune. This is the engine that drives the Christian right. This powerful human desire, however, should not be confused with the reality of the transcendent. God answered Moses’ request for revelation with the words: “I am who I am.” This phrase is probably more accurately translated “I will be what I will be.” God is not a being. God is an experience. God is a verb, not a noun. God comes to us in the profound flashes of insight that cut through the darkness, in the hope that permits human beings to cope with inevitable pain, despair, and suffering. God comes in the healing solidarity of love and self-sacrifice. But God and the vagaries of human existence, including suffering, are beyond our capacity to explain or understand.
“What makes mankind tragic is not that they are victims of nature,” Joseph Conrad wrote in a letter in 1897, “it is that they are conscious of it. To be part of the animal kingdom under the conditions of this earth is very well—but as soon as you know of your slavery, the pain, the anger, the strife, the tragedy begins.”
The question is not whether God exists. It is whether we contemplate or are utterly indifferent to the transcendent forces that cannot be measured or quantified, those forces that lie beyond the reach of rational deduction. We all encounter these forces. They are love, beauty, alienation, loneliness, suffering, good, evil, and the reality of death. These unquantifiable forces in human life are the domain of art and religion. All cultures have struggled to give words, through religion and artistic expression, to these mysteries and moments of transcendence. God—and different cultures have given God many names and many attributes—is that which works upon us and through us to find meaning and relevance in a morally neutral universe.
Religion is our finite, flawed, and imperfect expression of the infinite. The experience of transcendence, the struggle to acknowledge the infinite, need not even be attributed to an external being called God. The belief in a personal God can, in fact, be antireligious. Religion is about the human need for the sacred. God is, as Thomas Aquinas writes, the power that allows us to be ourselves. God is a search, a way to frame the questions. God is a call to reverence.
Human beings come engrained with this religious impulse. Buddhists speak of nirvana in words that are nearly identical to those employed by many monotheists to describe God. This impulse asks: What are we? Why are we here? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? What does it all mean?
God is a human concept that arises from this impulse and the reality of the transcendent. Our idea of God includes human prejudice, tribal and national self-exaltation, morally indefensible edicts, naked bigotry, and absurd formulas to get God to work on our behalf. Religious figures have long found it popular and profitable to pander to the forlorn hope that we can placate or control the transcendent. Religious belief systems endow God, depending on which name you give God, with a variety of attributes, some of which are repugnant, especially if you happen to be on the wrong side of Yahweh’s wrath. Ehrman correctly challenges these very imperfect and flawed human descriptions of God and the vain attempts to make sense of suffering. But he mistakes the characteristics human beings have invented for God with the reality of God. Yes, there are writers in the Bible who saw war as a judgment from God for the sins of the people, who insisted that suffering was God’s punishment for misbehavior, who argued that suffering was redemptive, or who, like Paul, believed life was about suffering, much as women must suffer to give birth to new life. Yes, the concept of free will argues that human beings cause suffering, though God sometimes intervenes, and yes, the apocalypticists, like Jesus and Daniel, said suffering came from a cosmic evil that would one day be abolished by the Kingdom of God. These are inadequate attempts by human beings to explain why we suffer. But the inherent flaws in these numerous explanations do not finally invalidate God. They only expose those who write and think about God as human.
In Ecclesiastes, which Ehrman cites with admiration, it is not what we do in life, but what we do with what life gives us. We have few real choices. We will carry our human flaws to the grave. Our attempts to become godlike, to deny the emptiness, rhythms, and cycles of life, is vanity. The best we can do is endure with compassion, wisdom, and humility and accept the mystery and ambiguity of existence. Ehrman supports this idea of suffering as “something that happens on earth, caused by circumstances we can’t control and for reasons we can’t understand.” He goes on to ask what we do about suffering. His answer is revealing. He tells us to “avoid it as much as we can.” He suggests we “try to relieve it in others whenever possible, and we go on with life, enjoying our time here on earth as much as we can, until the time comes for us to expire.”
This vision is one that comes close to hedonism. If we are to avoid suffering, since it makes no ultimate sense, then there is no point in running parishes in inner city ghettos, working in the developing world, running a hospice for the dying, or perhaps even loving deeply, since these are activities that court loss, pain, and suffering.
Detachment without withdrawal, Ecclesiastes wrote, is one of the secrets of wisdom. Death awaits us all. We must give up on the notion that one is rewarded for virtue, that we can save ourselves from our human predicament or that we can morally advance as a species. We remain trapped by human nature. The evil and the good endure the same hardships and blessings. But Ecclesiastes also reminds us that God has put ‘olam into man’s mind. ‘Olam means eternity. It denotes mystery or obscurity. We do not know what this mystery, this eternity, means. And once we recognize it and face it, simplistic answers no longer work. Our vain belief in our own powers, in our reason and perfectibility, in a God who makes sense to us, is exposed as a fraud. Ecclesiastes sees the emptiness around us, the emptiness of those who trust in their own power and live in self-delusion.1 And in his work, which often troubles biblical literalists and those who believe we are moving toward a glorious finale, we find the best of ancient wisdom literature. Ecclesiastes expresses a deeply authentic religious sentiment and a profound understanding of God. I do not know why this is not good enough for Ehrman. He circles back from this wisdom to his petulant complaint that since suffering is incomprehensible to him, God cannot exist.
“If God is all powerful, then he is able to do whatever he wants (and can therefore remove suffering). If he is all loving, then he obviously wants the best for people (and therefore does not want them to suffer). And yet people suffer. How can that be explained?”
Ehrman believes we deserve answers. This belief places us at the center of creation. Ehrman fails to examine, as Primo Levi did in Survival in Auschwitz, the cold reality of our moral degeneration, the fact that not only is suffering meaningless, but those who seek to live a moral life are often defenseless. Levi saw that those who carried out selfless acts of compassion in Auschwitz were the first to perish. He described the psychological death of emaciated and dehumanized victims that preceded death itself. He wrote that inmates who cared for others wasted away faster and died. The few able to carry out isolated acts of kindness were inmates who, through luck, cunning, or bribery, held privileged positions within the camps. They worked in a kitchen or a laboratory. They had the good fortune, on occasion, to be human. To the mass of concentration camp victims, however, human solidarity was a luxury they could not afford. To make morality one’s deepest commitment usually meant death.
It is possible not only to crush millions of human beings, but also our capacity to be human. We can all be reduced to barbarity. We can all forsake what is moral, what makes us human, for what is expedient. We can place our physical survival above moral considerations. Those groups that fared best in the camps, the criminal gangs with their effete male paramours and penchant for theft and murder, or the tight solidarity of clannish communities, such as the Greeks in Auschwitz, endured at the expense of others. They were predators. Those around them were prey. The camps were always dominated by the most brutal inmates. Their savagery reflected the savagery of their guards.
Levi found the true image of humanity clawing for survival in Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish Nazi collaborator and autocratic leader of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz. He was a Jew who sold out his fellow Jews for privilege and power, although he too was finally consumed by the Holocaust. “We are all mirrored in Rumkowski,” Levi wrote. “His ambiguity is ours, it is our second nature, we hybrids molded from clay and spirit. His fever is ours, the fever of Western civilization, that ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums,’ and its miserable adornments are the distorting image of our symbols of social prestige.” We, like Rumkowski, “. . . are so dazzled by power and prestige as to forget our essential fragility. Willingly or not we come to terms with power, forgetting that we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting.”2
Ehrman refuses to plummet to the real horrors of the human condition. He offers, at the end of his book empty, bourgeois platitudes. He urges us to “love and be loved,” to “cultivate friendships, enjoy our intimate relationships,” and “make money and spend money.” “We should,” he tells us, “drive nice cars and have nice homes.” Of course, he adds, we should “work hard to make our world the most pleasing place it can be for others” and “alleviate suffering wherever possible.” But without specifics, especially in an age of globalism, the rise of our corporate state, and preemptive war, these are little more than window dressing to mask a justification for self-absorption. He reinforces the bankrupt ethic of global capitalism.
His are hollow, liberal bromides that never grapple with the dark and seductive human lusts of violence—lusts the biblical writers understood and feared. He fails to grasp that human beings, as Freud wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents, “are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him.”3
It is not about us. It is about our neighbor. And since it is about our neighbor, we must expect to court and accept suffering. We live in a permanent state of war. Homo homini lupus. This state of war can be tamed and governed by social and political institutions, it can be transferred to the ballot box, the law court, or the sporting arena, but the dark urges remain. These urges, when permitted to express themselves without restraint, create a Hobbesian dystopia. This is the most important question facing believers: how to tame the evil within, not why God, who we can never fathom, allows us to suffer. To ask Ehrman’s question is to turn away from the call to the moral life.
Ehrman’s celebration of middle-class comfort and the wasteful consumption in the industrialized zones of safety mock the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq. His call mocks the hundreds of millions of people on the planet who live on less than two dollars a day. His call mocks the Palestinians and Lebanese terrorized and killed with United States–manufactured fighter jets and attack helicopters. His call mocks those locked in our bloated prison system and the children who are trapped in our dysfunctional schools and ghettos. His call mocks those who suffer because of us. The question is not why we suffer. The question is why we permit others to suffer. And if we must accept suffering to relieve the suffering of others we move not away, but toward God.
Ehrman’s refusal to believe in God because God allows human suffering is a thinly veiled defense of our imperial sense of entitlement and unchecked narcissism. It is a way of avoiding real moral introspection. Ehrman encourages us to see ourselves as betrayed by God. But it is we who have betrayed God. We have become a militarized nation of apostates and hedonists. We ignore the evil we commit, from the war in Iraq to the torture we carry out in our offshore penal colonies. We sanctify our own power and wealth as a final good. We turn inward, ignoring our apostasy, and wonder why bad things happen to us. We are not called to avoid suffering. We are not promised a rational world. We are not offered explanations. We are called to act. There is no promise that this will be easy or painless or free us from suffering. In extreme cases, as Levi understood, it does not even mean we as distinct individuals will survive. But the life of faith has a worth and merit that dwarfs a hollow existence devoted to driving big cars, living in nice homes, eating good meals, and being angry at God because God does not adequately take care of us.
Chris Hedges, who received a master of divinity degree from HDS in 1983, was a foreign correspondent for almost two decades for The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is the author of several books, including I Don’t Believe in Atheists, published this spring by Free Press.