Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech: Is God Guilty?

Gavel Photo courtesy of Joe Gratz

I wasn't planning to do this but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed disrespectful to not say something about the massacre at Virginia Tech. What can a person really say though in the face of such senseless violence, the kind that has become all too common in America? I find myself at once attracted and repulsed by the media coverage of this national trauma. Much like the outrage parade that was on full display last week, we're now in the midst of another social ritual, the grief machine. There will be non-stop coverage, the face of the perpetrator and the victims will flash across screens over and over again, experts will go blah, blah, blah about the kind of weapons that were used, the psychological profile of the killer, and the implications of what has happened for our society. And the usual debate about gun control will involve the same old arguments from the usual suspects. I don't really want to talk about any of that though because it will all be talked about until people are out of breath. What I want to talk about is a question that may be being asked both privately and publicly all over the country: "What kind of a God would allow something like this to happen?" I've heard this question repeated in some form whenever terrible things like this take place in the world. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday (depending on your faith community) religious leaders will be trying to offer some kind of response to this question and soothe the souls of their flocks whether they have been directly or indirectly impacted by what took place at Virginia Tech. I do not envy these leaders or anyone else who has to come to grips with a just and fair question about God: Is God guilty of negligent homicide for allowing so many innocents to die?

I cannot pretend that if something like what has happened to the students and families at Virginia Tech happened in my life, that it would not be a severe test of faith. I might very well ask the same kinds of questions about God and experience a roller coaster of emotions. There is a different question that could be asked however, which is this: "Why should God keep these kinds of horrors from happening?"

Here is where I am coming from. All human beings are endowed by God with free will that can be used for good or for evil. This profound and complicated gift is part of what makes us human.
Why should God be obligated to protect us from the cause and effect inherent in the exercise of free will? Why give us free will and not allow us to learn (however painfully) how to use it properly? God is often referred to as being like a "parent" in relationship to humanity. In my line of work, which is in addictions, I sometimes come across parents who have become obsessed with trying to shield their children from the inevitable negative consequences of addictive behavior. They spend tremendous time, energy and wealth in this effort which is rarely successful. Ironically, many of the parents blame themselves for their child's problems and the child usually agrees with them. In addictions counseling, we refer to such relationships as being co-dependent. It seems to me that there are times when people want God to act the way that these co-dependent parents do, to protect them from the consequences of their bad choices or a world full of other people who make bad choices. However, if God really related to humanity in this way, it would only deepen our pathology, much like the parents whose children I try to help to recover from addiction. Ultimately, we have to wrestle with the possibility that what Baha'u'llah has said may actually be true:

Know thou that all men have been created in the nature made by God, the Guardian, the Self-Subsisting. Unto each one hath been prescribed a pre-ordained measure, as decreed in God's mighty and guarded Tablets. All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth...Will ye not bear witness? Men, however, have wittingly broken His law. Is such a behavior to be attributed to God, or to their proper selves? Be fair in your judgment. Every good thing is of God, and every evil thing is from yourselves.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 149)

And further:

They say: 'Where is Paradise, and where is Hell?' Say: 'The one is reunion with Me; the other thine own self...
(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 132)

Clearly my point is not to blame the victims or their families for what has happened to them, but rather to ponder some of the implications of this tragedy and similar ones. I know that it is of little comfort, especially at a time like this, but I feel this is the most useful commentary that I can make. Humanity must accept responsibility for the kind of world that we have created through the operation of our free will. Such acceptance would be the first step on the road to recovery and healing. The tendency of some to blame God rather than accept this responsibility says more about humanity than it does about God. I'll close with these Words of Baha'u'llah:

O My servants! Could ye apprehend with what wonders of My munificence and bounty I have willed to entrust your souls, ye would, of a truth, rid yourselves of attachment to all created things, and would gain a true knowledge of your own selves -- a knowledge which is the same as the comprehension of Mine own Being. Ye would find yourselves independent of all else but Me, and would perceive, with your inner and outer eye, and as manifest as the revelation of My effulgent Name, the seas of My loving-kindness and bounty moving within you. Suffer not your idle fancies, your evil passions, your insincerity and blindness of heart to dim the luster, or stain the sanctity, of so lofty a station.
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 326)