IN SCHOOL, I studied with an Imam, several Catholic Priests and Friars, several Protestant Ministers, and practicing Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, all with a spread of degrees in the academic study of their own faith. I have no proof to produce for this, but it certainly felt as though I had one of the most well-rounded religious educations that someone could hope to get out of one institution.

My relationship with these professors was not limited to the classroom. I also had a work study position as an assistant in their offices. I say with some shame—but no regret—that I spent very little of my work-time over those four years “assisting” with anything. I vaguely remember photocopying a handful of quizzes and readings. That one cumulative hour of honest work over my entire college career aside, I spent the rest of my paid time pestering these professors with questions. Not once did I leave disappointed from a conversation that followed.

I suspect that very few of you young doubters reading this have ever confronted a religious leader directly with your doubts. And why would you have? Even if you’d had the chance, what could be more intimidating? Having now lived on both sides of belief, however, it’s something that I would recommend. Even if you don’t find the answer you’re looking for, I can promise that it’ll at least lead to some surprising stories.

I’ve sat through quite a few of these stories, and I have a favorite.

While I haunted these offices, I became good friends with an on-and-off Protestant minister. Over the course of his adult life, he had flirted with a few different denominations, moving from church to church. More than once, he had been booted from congregations for holding views that they considered heretical. Admirably, he had never lost his ability to draw the distinction between religion and its rotten fruits, and, with a few hiccups along the road, had held fast in his search for a spiritual niche.

By the time I’d found him, he had succeeded. He had acquired a PhD in Theology, he had a career in writing, and he was the most electric, ecstatic lecturer on Christianity at the institution. He was deceptively youthful in appearance, he was tolerant and kind, and he could draw from his audience any reaction for which he had a hankering, using only words.

He was cool. He was, and is, a hero of mine.

Out of my respect for him, there grew in me a hope. By this point in my education, I had had most of my reservations about religion answered. I had learned that science and religion could coexist—and in fact, for most of history, they had; I had learned that religion was not innately stifling of free thought, and had only ever advanced because of it; I had learned that it was not religion that made people evil, but the other way around.

But even after all this learning, there was a holdout.

The lingering doubt that I had was this: how could a God of boundless love and mercy allow such evil to leak into the creation? If God were truly full of compassion and power, how could even one person suffer unduly?

On my next shift, like a good worker, I clocked in and immediately went to this professor’s office. He offered me a caramel, as he always did, and invited me to sit. I can only imagine that I was holding him up from doing some important work, but even if I had been, he never would have told me.

I asked him my question. He reacted as though he had been waiting for it. Smirking, he informed me that he was going to tell me a story.

He had once, as a pastor, been perusing the news online. He had come across a story about a child in Palestine who had been buried under the wreckage of his home in a barrage. There had been video to accompany the article, showing a mob of dust-chalked civilians pulling the limp-but-living child from the rubble while onlookers shouted “Allâhu Akbar!”

The article had gone on to inform the reader that the boy had had two brothers, neither of whom had had the fortune to escape with their lives.

My professor fixated on these two other boys. He imagined them wedged painfully under the pummeled masonry, maybe coughing, maybe calling for help, completely blind, unsure whether they would be saved.

He had felt completely useless. He had felt an itch to stand, to move some wreckage, to call into the hole that someone knew they were still down there. But it was done. The boys had been eventually pulled from the hole, but not while they were still living.

Naturally, as a man of faith, he had fallen to his knees, and spoken to God. But he didn’t ask for anything. He gave no praise.

“I hope You understand,” he said to God, “why I’m angry at You.”

This was the end of his story. He hadn’t crossed his legs and listed off a dozen theologians and all of their positions on the subject, as he had always done with my other questions. I wasn’t immediately sure what to make of his words.

With some distance now, I think I have an idea of what he was trying to tell me.

I was far from the first to ask these questions.  I’m guessing that you, reading this, have probably asked some variation of them. It’s part and parcel of being a feeling human to bear witness to suffering, and to instinctually ask “why?” According to the Hebrew Bible, some of the most significant Abrahamic prophets did it. According to the gospels of Matthew and Mark, even Jesus did it.   [1]    Does this mean that it is right to turn our backs against God at the first sight of evil? I would say no. Clearly, these prophets did not. But perhaps the lesson here is that it is impossible to be a person of faith, no matter how strong that faith may be, and to make it to the tail-end of life without having your heart broken a few times.

Perhaps especially in the modern world, where there is so much access to and so little censorship of real-life examples of grisly death and suffering, is it understandable to feel a little bit of soul-fatigue. How could our loving God wish on us a tsunami? How could our loving God permit famine, or genocide, or senseless, random murder? Why does it feel as though the cosmos is trying to excise us at every turn?

Like my pastor friend, I will not be arrogant or cold enough to pretend I have an answer. I will not speculate, like so many theologians have, on the divine nature, or the nature of the cosmos, in order to explain away or minimize the problem of evil.

What I will say is this: point me to a passage—in any holy book—that claims that life will be easy. Where does God ever promise us that we will have a smooth, pleasant ride straight to the grave?

In fact, the books of religion promise left and right that life will brim with hardship (i.e. John 16:33, Quran 29:2-3). Job, [2]   a prophet shared among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, lived one of the most miserable lives imaginable.

As sour as this may taste, it is a human invention to assume we are entitled in this life to constant comfort and happiness—or, in truth, any of either. As Islamic Caliph Ali ibn Abi Ṭâlib said, “I was not created to be occupied by eating delicious foods like tied up cattle.”

Who are we to insist we should be sheltered from all pain? When did we come up with the idea that our bodies and lives were our property? This notion has even been dismissed by famous atheists of history. In The Discourses, the philosophical stoic Epictetus wrote:

“I must die; if instantly, I will die instantly; if in a short time, I will dine first; and when the hour comes, then I will die. How? As becomes one who restores what is not his own.” [3]

A quick look at the behavior of nature around us should prove to both atheist and theist that our bodies can easily be reclaimed from us at any time. To then act like this, inevitability is an injustice, is childish.

There is, however, one difference between atheists and theists in this regard. For a believer, out of the absurdity of this life comes a promise: Suffering and even death are temporary states. All of our agonies will ultimately have meaning. I have never seen this quite so beautifully put as in the Jewish Writer Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel, Shosha, as his character Elbinger discusses the soul:

“I say this because no matter how many dead people I see in life, they have had the same expression on their faces: Aha, so that’s what it is! If I had only known! What a shame I can’t tell the others about it! Even a dead bird or mouse presents this expression, although not as distinctly as a man.”

Do I believe, like some theologians, that I have discovered the reason why we must carry the heavy burden of a flawed, mortal life? Resoundingly, no. Allâhu Aʿlam—God knows best. But I look forward to someday finding out, God willing.

Does this mean that human beings have license to harm one another—because suffering’s only temporary? Absolutely not. Just as our own life is not our property, neither is another’s.

Am I suggesting that we should feel no pity for our neighbors as they go through their lives’ trials? The opposite. We are partners here. As human beings, we are perhaps in the best position to understand what others of our kind are going through, and we should do everything in our power to limit suffering on others’ behalf, and console them when we cannot limit it any further.

And what about God? Does all of this mean that God is indifferent? That we’re stuck down here, bandaging our wounds with no accountability from above? I don’t believe so. I believe that God knows what we don’t: that someday, it will make sense, or it won’t matter. And to borrow an expression from one of my professors: In the meantime, when we cry, God cries with us.

SubânAllah.

———————————

[1] For Muslim readers, there is obviously some disagreement over the historical details of Jesus’ “crucifixion.” While we cannot accept the literal truth of these Biblical passages, we might still draw a moral lesson from them, should we choose to.

[2] Known in Islam as Ayyub.

[3] From the translation of Elizabeth Carter.

 

James Campbell

James Campbell is a convert to Islam. He has written for Elite Daily, The Young Ummah, and now Aljumuah on the subject of his experience as a Muslim American convert. You can find him at https://twitter.com/TheReelJCamp. He is currently working on his first novel.

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