Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sermon: "Bible, Brueghel, and Buddha: The Question of Suffering" (Delivered 10-23-11)

The reading this morning comes from the book God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Basic Question – Why We Suffer by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman, a native of Kansas, is a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where he specializes in New Testament studies. In addition to this book, he has written a series of popularly successful and accessible books on the Bible and early Christianity. In God's Problem, Ehrman writes,
Over the years I've talked with a lot of people about issues pertaining to suffering, and I am struck by the kinds of reactions I get. A lot of people, frankly, just don't want to talk about it. For them, talking about suffering is kind of like talking about toilet habits. They're there and can't be avoided, but it's not really something you want to bring up at a cocktail party. There are other people – again, a lot of people – who have simple and pat answers for the problem and really don't see why there's such a problem... When I go on about all the suffering in the world, they're tempted to write me an e-mail to explain it all to me. They tell me that suffering exists because of free will, or that suffering is meant to make us stronger, or that God sometimes puts us to the test. Other people – including some of my brilliant friends – realize why it's a religious problem for me but don't see it as a problem for themselves. In its most nuanced form… this view is that religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems.

I respect this view and some days I wish I share it. But I don't. The God that I once believed in was a God who was active in the world. He saved the Israelites from slavery; he sent Jesus for the salvation of the world; he answered prayer; he intervened on behalf of his people when they were in desperate need; he was actively involved in my life. But I can't believe in that God anymore, because from what I now see around the world, he doesn't intervene.


In this famous 1558 painting, popularly credited to the Belgian master Pieter Brueghel though we don’t actually think he painted it, you see a landscape in which the land meets the sea. In the foreground three men go about their business. One man ploughs the field; another man watches his flock of sheep; a third is casts a fishing line. In the middle ground a pair of large sailing vessels head out to sea towards the sun hanging low in the sky as it prepares to set in the West. Look closely. What do you see in the lower right quadrant of the painting? Why, it is a pair of legs sticking out of the sea.

Brueghel’s famous painting is entitled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. It is a reference to the story of Icarus in Greek mythology. The story goes that the youth Icarus and his father, an extraordinary inventor, were imprisoned on an island by an evil king. Icarus’ father constructed two pairs of wings and they secured the wings to their bodies with wax and used the wings to fly towards freedom and safety. But Icarus, the heedless young man, disregarded the father’s warning and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted. The wings fell away. The youth fell into the sea and was drowned.

Brueghel’s painting has been interpreted as saying something significant about suffering. Namely, it says that there is a human tendency to turn a blind eye to suffering. The farmer and fisher go on with life. The shepherd and sailor go on with life. How many museum goers pass by Brueghel’s piece without even noticing Icarus’ legs sticking up from the sea? W. H. Auden, in his poem about Brueghel’s painting, puts it this way,
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along
One of the world’s greatest religious stories talks about opening our eyes to suffering. According to legend, Siddhartha Guatama was born a prince in Nepal. His father, the king, had received a prophecy saying that his son would abandon him. In response, the king arranged for his son to live in a pleasure garden inside the palace walls. He never wanted for anything. He was provided with delicious food, education, and entertainment. He even had a marriage arranged for him. But, the story tells us that Siddhartha Guatama grew restless and decided to venture outside the walls of the palace. On his first sojourn, he encountered an elderly man who walked with a cane. Siddhartha Guatama had never encountered anyone like this and he learned about the natural processes of aging, how bodies in time grow weak and infirm, and how this would be his fate. On later journeys he encountered a man who suffered from illness and whose body was wracked with disease. He had never encountered anyone like this before and he learned about the reality of illness and that one day he too would face sickness.

Finally, he encountered a funeral procession bearing a dead body. Having had his eyes opened to the reality and universality of aging, sickness, and death, Siddartha Guatama decided to leave the palace life and become a traveling ascetic monk. He gave up every worldly possession and privilege, thinking that such renunciation would rescue him from suffering. Finally, he went to meditate under the Bodhi tree, and, after a considerable time passed, he attained enlightenment and became the Buddha.

The Buddha’s enlightenment is inextricably linked to concepts of suffering. In fact, in Buddhism the dukkha, or first noble truth, is that suffering exists. “This is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering; aging is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering.”

To say that suffering is a fundamental part of life is to say something that is pathetically obvious. Well, duh! But, Buddha and Brueghel each seem to say that suffering is something that we not only try to avoid for ourselves, which is understandable, but maybe it is also something that we try to avoid acknowledging as an existential reality that surrounds us. Suffering is a part of existence. But part of being awake and alive and enlightened is that we must face into suffering.

Indeed, there is no shortage of suffering to go around. When the Buddha spoke of suffering, he did not only mean the realities of warfare, torture, and famine. He did not only mean the sickening and senseless stories that lead off so many of news broadcasts. Suffering, as I believe the Buddha understood it, was a part of our existential reality, not just a result of certain awful circumstances. But, it is also true that suffering is not evenly distributed.

For those of us in the west, our ideas about suffering live in conversation with ideas about suffering that come to us from the Jewish and Christian traditions. In western monotheism suffering is complicated by the belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God. This is the problem that Bart Ehrman addresses in his provocative book entitled God’s Problem.

Last April and May I offered an adult religious class on Paul’s letters in the New Testament. This was the best attended adult religious education class I’ve ever offered, with some 25 of you attending either all or part of the class. The feedback from that class was that we’d like another class considering the Bible and so I decided to teach a class based on Bart Ehrman’s book on suffering. That class will start on November second so if you feel like going deeper with this topic, I hope you’ll sign up for it.

For Bart Ehrman, God’s problem is that suffering exists. “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 what is best for people (and therefore does not want them to suffer). And yet people suffer. How can that be explained?”

It turns out that the Bible offers numerous explanations for the existence of suffering, but most of these explanations are problematic. And, what we find most troubling in the Biblical literature are explanations of suffering that are unsatisfactory and even indefensible.

Some texts of the Bible, especially some of the oldest books of the Bible, explain suffering as punishment coming from God. In Genesis, for example, we learn that God causes the flood to punish people for their wickedness. Needless to say, this is not a satisfactory explanation for suffering for a whole lot of different reasons. (What exactly are we to make out of the fact that innocents are almost always the ones who bear a disproportionate amount of pain when there is widespread suffering?)

The Bible sometimes, especially in the writings of the prophets, places the blame for suffering on the deeds and misdeeds of other human beings. We cause each other to suffer. There is a certain element of truth to this. People do cause a lot of suffering that we see in the world. Suffering is caused by greed, hate, indifference, anger, rage, and lust.

The Occupy Movement that we see on Wall Street and around the country, in my opinion, is largely focused on calling attention to this kind of suffering and calling for an end to government and corporate practices that cause so many to suffer so much.

But, not all suffering is caused by human beings. It would be possible to dramatically reduce the suffering in the world if people changed their actions and countries changed their policies. This would be a wonderful thing and the world would be a lot better off if this was the case. It would not, however, eliminate suffering. There will always be all kinds of suffering for which there is simply no one to blame. And there will always be questions about the reason for and meaning of suffering.

Finally, in the most interesting part of Bart Ehrman’s book, he spends time discussing biblical literature that responds to the reality of suffering by turning to apocalyptic thought. According to apocalyptic thought, the world exists as a battle ground between the cosmic forces of evil and the cosmic forces of good. Apocalyptic thinkers explain the problems and suffering in the world by concluding that the forces of evil have the upper hand for now. There is suffering because the forces of evil are in charge. But soon, very soon according to apocalyptic thinkers, the tables will turn and the forces of good will rule supreme. And the operative word is “soon.” Any day now. Any moment.

This past Friday was supposed to be the end of the world, according to a bizarre Christian man with a radio program. This past Friday was actually the revised date after the world didn’t actually end last May as originally predicted. People have been making predictions about the imminent end of the world for at least two thousand years. Not a single prediction has come true as far as we know. But, what is interesting about apocalyptic predictions is that the people who make them tend to begin by emphasizing the suffering in the world. Things are so bad now. The end is near. Things are so bad now that the end must be near. Things are so bad now because the end is near.

If you are feeling a bit uneasy, let me just relax you a bit by saying that there is no such thing as apocalyptic Unitarian Universalist theology. But, if you ever run into someone who is pretty sure about the end of the world, you may want to know that the person may not be nuts. They are more likely just scared and feeling overwhelmed by the reality of suffering in the world.

As Unitarian Universalists, though, the fact is that most of us don’t turn to the Bible to try to make sense of suffering. If anything, that insoluble problem of trying to reconcile the idea of an all-powerful, all-loving God with the reality of suffering was probably one of the big reasons why many of us went looking for other answers and other ways of making sense of suffering.

On an absolutely intellectual level, I mostly agree with Ehrman on this point. God is omnipotent, all powerful. God is omnibenevolent, god is all loving. Suffering exists. All three of these statements cannot be true. And, like Bart Ehrman, I think that if any source of Biblical wisdom gets it close to right on the question of suffering, it is probably the book of Ecclesiastes where it says that not all suffering can be explained, that it just is, and that in the midst of such suffering it is best to fashion as productive and joyful and giving lives as we possibly can.

If we return to the Brueghel painting, it may be instructive to imagine ourselves as the characters in the painting. Sometimes we are Icarus. The wings come off. We fall. It can seem as though no one notices or cares, that we are ignored. Oftentimes, we play the role of the ploughman or shepherd or fisherman. We live with blinders on. Is this necessary? Other times we are called to take the fuller view, to stand in the steps of the museum-goer and to behold the whole scene. If we notice and acknowledge and recognize suffering we might be transformed and changed.

Check out this song by the punk band Titus Andronicus that is entitled, "Upon Viewing Bruegel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'"