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The Question of God

Suffering and Death

Armand Nicholi: How do you equate an omnipotent, all loving being with what we've come to expect and experience in our lives? How do we cope with the problem of suffering?

Frederick Lee: There is no reconciliation. I think the definitive explanation, as far as from the spiritual worldview, is what was said in the book of Job, and this is a book that I cannot understand, and there is no answer to it. There is a wager —

Michael Shermer: But God's a sadist in that —

Frederick Lee: Exactly. There is a wager between God and the devil ...

Margaret Klenck: But we're back into dualism.

Frederick Lee: And the wager is Job only obeys you because you've blessed him, and God says, "Fine, torture him devil, do everything, but you can't kill him." And so he's tortured to the extreme, loses all his children, wealth, gets boils, and at the very end, you know, when his wife is telling him, "Curse God and die," he says, "No, I will remain faithful." Okay, but he still wants an account from God — "Why are you doing this to me? I have not been sinful. I have not committed anything that deserves this."

Jeremy Fraiberg: So why do you believe?

Frederick Lee: Because, as Lewis says, the problem of pain is only a problem because one believes in the spiritual worldview. In other words, faith creates the problem of pain.

Michael Shermer: Right. So just get rid of the faith, and that's it. There is no God —

Frederick Lee: Then there's no problem.

Jeremy Fraiberg: So what theory of the universe makes most sense given the data? Well, if you start with the premise that God is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, and then you run up against the data that bad things are happening to good people for no particular reason, it seems as though you can't reconcile the data to your theory.

Doug Holladay: I don't think I can know what I really believe, unless I'm challenged and face something that's beyond my capacity to deal with. When I've had periods like that, they have in a funny way strengthened me. During the challenging moments, like when friends are going through a divorce or they lose a child, it does matter what you believe. It absolutely matters.

Winifred Gallagher: One of my children got cancer, in perfect health, I just got a call from college one day. And it was such a horrible experience. It's much more horrible than getting it yourself, because there's nothing you can do. And the thing that amazed me about it was that in my worst moments I realized that I still thought that life was beautiful.

Armand Nicholi: That God is ultimately good? Is that what you're concluding?

Winifred Gallagher: That the difference between us and God, the test — I can't think of any other way of expressing it — that Job had, was "are you willing to" — because you have, if you're a person of faith, you have a good experience of God, you've experienced the sacred in some meaningful, positive way, or you wouldn't be on this path to begin with. So for that person, are you still going to believe the positive stuff when some negative stuff happens to you? That's the issue.

Armand Nicholi: Let me just ask one quick question, though. Did you feel, during that experience, like what several people here just said — that God is a sadist?

Winifred Gallagher: No, because my God is not up there and I'm down here. God is right here, right now in some way. God — one thing we know about God is, whatever you think God is, God is not that. God is deeply mysterious, and, and is somehow here right now in everything with us, so that when my son and I were agonizing about what he was going through, God was agonizing with us.

Armand Nicholi: Now, how do we come to terms with what Freud called the painful riddle of death? He makes the interesting observation that our unconscious does not believe in its own death. It behaves as if it were immortal. Perhaps Lewis would say that our minds refuse death because death was not part of the original plan of creation. Does our worldview actually help resolve this problem? How does this work in your life, or the lives of your family and friends?

Jeremy Fraiberg: It absolutely affects your life and the way you deal with death, because if you believe in the life after death, then it's only a temporary goodbye, and not a permanent goodbye. So that's very comforting. So I could see it being incredibly comforting, and that's precisely Freud's argument, that's exactly what we'd wish it to be. And, therefore, it's not surprising that people would come to believe in this sort of thing.

Now, if you believe there is not an afterlife, as I do, it makes death frightening. I mean, I'm afraid of dying. I'm afraid of dying because of the unknown. I don't know what lies next. I also know that, if I die, I won't be able to see other people — I suppose I wouldn't know the difference, but if people around me die, that could be it forever, and that's obviously extremely painful. And I don't have something to latch onto, and say, "Well, you know what, could be a few more years, and I'll join them in a better place." It might be it forever.

Michael Shermer: I don't believe there's an afterlife at all — this is all there is. For example, when my mother was dying, she had these brain tumors. They kept taking them out, they kept coming back. And this went on and on for 10 years. You know, I felt from the moment this started happening, that since I'll never see her again and she's not going anywhere and neither am I, this is it — every single moment I could have with her, everything I could say to her that was loving, all that just to me was incredibly enhanced by the fact that there is nothing else.

Margaret Klenck: I don't look forward to an afterlife. I'm assuming that this energy that I live in, this libido that exists in me, is released into the universe, and continues life. I mean, energy doesn't disappear. And my experience working with dying people over the years in the hospital, is that there is energy that leaves. I've seen it. I've witnessed it. There's energy, it goes somewhere. So my feeling is, I have no idea.

Louis Massiah: I don't use "afterlife." That's not part of my concept. But, but I do believe in a conservation.

Armand Nicholi: But what does that mean, conservation?

Louis Massiah: I think that matter is conserved, energy is conserved. Folks who I have loved who have died, their influence stays with me. I hear their words, I see their work, I see the influence that they've had on so many people, so I realize that it continues.

Michael Shermer: In memory, you mean?

Louis Massiah: More than in memory. It's real. I mean, I think of, you know, writers, people like Toni Cade Bambara. I mean, her words, the way she animated communities as a cultural worker. That stays with me.

Armand Nicholi: Isn't there a difference between memory that goes on, and existence in another —

Louis Massiah: I don't know, but it's the energy, our lives have been changed as a result of people that have gone through it, and to me, that — that's the continuity.

Jeremy Fraiberg: We haven't spoken much about hell here, which I think is actually an obstacle of faith for some people. That is, if God is all good, and all powerful, forget the fact that bad things happen to good people, but what about people like Michael and me who have been struggling with these questions? It would seem kind of unfair if we had to suffer for eternity because we didn't believe after doing the best we could living according to our lights. I find that a very troubling concept.

Frederick Lee: I find it terribly troubling.

Jeremy Fraiberg: But you believe in it.

Frederick Lee: Well, I don't know that — there's not enough description in the scriptures to know, you know, whether there are nine circles, and that, you know, they're ordered in a certain way, I know, I know the New Testament scripture says, uh, there's gnashing of teeth. Sounds pretty bad, but —

Doug Holladay: No, it says fire and burning.

Frederick Lee: Right, he says — Lewis says "Well, it just means separation from God." And that's — during your life, that's what you've tried to do, you've tried to turn away from God and not pay attention to him, and so in your afterlife, that's what you're going to get, and that's all there is." And that's really bad because who wants to be separated for eternity from their creator?

Armand Nicholi: Lewis makes an interesting description of life as being, um, made up of decisions, and that every decision we make either draws us closer to the creator or further away from him, and that we, in one sense, determine our — the direction we end up in, by how we make these decisions, how we live our life.

photos of conversation participants