A chain like the one in the Siyah Chal
My recent post on the plight of Ramin Zibaei, as well as the recent executions by IS, called to mind my various attempts to grapple with the problem of the existence of intense suffering in a world created, as I believe, by an all-powerful and all-loving God. This entails factoring in natural disasters, the Ebola outbreak being perhaps the most significant recent example, as well as human atrocity, the latter being also something I have attempted to understand.
I felt it might be timely to republish some of my earlier posts on the issue of suffering. For reasons I explain in the second of this first sequence of posts, they are not meant to convince a sceptic that God exists, but may help to persuade him that believing in God is not completely irrational in spite of all the pain there is in the world.
The first post of the first sequence was published in 2011 on the morning of the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith.
At the end of the previous post on this topic there is the following challenging quote from Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:
51. O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.
No one can argue convincingly that Bahá’u’lláh did not know what suffering was like. That alone would give His words tremendous credibility. He was incarcerated in the Siyah Chal, a traumatic ordeal. His experience there was special in an altogether different and more positive way as well:
In the middle of the 19th century, one of the most notorious dungeons in the Near East was Tehran’s “Black Pit.” Once the underground reservoir for a public bath, its only outlet was a single passage down three steep flights of stone steps. Prisoners huddled in their own bodily wastes, languishing in the pit’s inky gloom, subterranean cold and stench-ridden atmosphere.
In this grim setting, the rarest and most cherished of religious events was once again played out: a mortal man, outwardly human in other respects, was summoned by God to bring to humanity a new religious revelation.
The year was 1852, and the man was a Persian nobleman, known today as Bahá’u’lláh. During His imprisonment, as He sat with his feet in stocks and a 100-pound iron chain around his neck, Bahá’u’lláh received a vision of God’s will for humanity.
For Bahá’ís therefore His words have an authority over and above the credence everyone would undoubtedly agree His sufferings accorded Him. I recognise that many do not see His Words as originating with God so it is necessary to pursue this exploration of the meaning of suffering much further and in more prosaic terms.
The Siyah Chal was not the end of His sufferings. Exile and further imprisonment followed, and in the prison in Acre he lost His youngest son, Mirza Mihdi:
He was pacing the roof of the barracks in the twilight, one evening, wrapped in his customary devotions, when he fell through the unguarded skylight onto a wooden crate, standing on the floor beneath, which pierced his ribs, and caused, twenty-two hours later, his death, on . . . . June 23, 1870.
(God Passes By: page 188)
So, He clearly knew from close personal experience what he was talking about. Also, if we have accepted that the improbability of the universe entails the existence of a God capable of creating it, and now that we have begun to comprehend the vastness, wonder and complexity of the universe, with its quantum foam and simultaneous interactions over vast distances that light would need decades to traverse, the idea of the spiritual reality of which He speaks begins to seem a little less preposterous.
This is fortunate because, as we have already seen in the previous post on this subject, there is no way we can get out of the impasse without making a further extrapolation from the existence of a God to the existence of a reality beyond the one accessible to our senses.
Eric Reitan, in his exemplary treatment of the whole question of the existence of God, takes a long look at the questions we are scrutinising now. His discussion is thorough and complex and I can only include the bare bones of it here. His concern in the passages I quote is the problem of evil, but it is easy to see how his comments apply to the closely related issue of suffering. On pages 196-197 he writes:
For any and all of these evils, the question of why God would permit them requires us to suppose that there are vistas of reality that transcend our understanding – vistas that may not just put evil into perspective but also the fact that it can seem so overwhelming. . . . .
If, within His vast ocean of understanding, God discerns a justifying reason for allowing evil to exist, the probability that this reason would also fall within our puddle of understanding is very low.
So, we can neither know the mind of God nor grasp the full nature of the spiritual reality which surrounds us, though it surely exists in some form. He draws on the cosmological argument, a variation of which I have already referred to briefly in the earlier post and mention again above, to conclude that (page 197) ‘it is reasonable to believe in a transcendent and essentially mysterious reality.’
It is perhaps important to mention that Reitan is not seeking to provide conclusive proof that would persuade everyone that God exists. That would be impossible for reasons I have explored elsewhere. He is simply demonstrating that it is as reasonable to believe in God as not, a truth that Darwinian reductionists find hard to swallow. (See Olinga Tahzib’s Ch4 broadcast for a clear explanation of the Baha’i viewpoint.)
Once you accept the possibility of a transcendent realm, aspects of that mysterious reality can be seen to have, potentially at least, a massively compensating function that provides a radically different context against which to measure both evil and suffering, a context which would make it possible to accept that the pain entailed in making moral choices, for example, and the agony incurred in unforeseen calamities are not inordinate and maybe even serve some higher purpose. Reitan himself points towards this very clearly (page 189):
Not long ago, the distracted negligence of a home daycare provider combined with plain bad luck to take the life of my friend’s 18-month-old son, a gentle boy fiercely loved by his parents. In the face of this tragedy, my friend and his wife have been sustained by a religious faith which promises that everything good and beautiful about their child has been embraced by the deepest reality in the universe.
Something else has helped me come to terms with even uninvited suffering, and helped me also get a more immediate sense of how the idea of a spiritual reality, over and above the purely physical world our senses are restricted to, can be of great help. This was the message that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to bereaved parents who had contacted him in their despair, his keen awareness of the pain of their grief perhaps enhanced by the strong light cast by his own feelings from when his brother, Mirza Mihdi, died in the prison citadel of Acre. He uses a very homely and concrete image to embody the intuition Reitan describes, imagery which makes the possibility of a spiritual realm more vivid and brings it that much closer:
The death of that beloved youth and his separation from you have caused the utmost sorrow and grief; for he winged his flight in the flower of his age and the bloom of his youth to the heavenly nest. But he hath been freed from this sorrow-stricken shelter and hath turned his face toward the everlasting nest of the Kingdom, and, being delivered from a dark and narrow world, hath hastened to the sanctified realm of light; therein lieth the consolation of our hearts.
The inscrutable divine wisdom underlieth such heart-rending occurrences. It is as if a kind gardener transferreth a fresh and tender shrub from a confined place to a wide open area. This transfer is not the cause of the withering, the lessening or the destruction of that shrub; nay, on the contrary, it maketh it to grow and thrive, acquire freshness and delicacy, become green and bear fruit. This hidden secret is well known to the gardener, but those souls who are unaware of this bounty suppose that the gardener, in his anger and wrath, hath uprooted the shrub. Yet to those who are aware, this concealed fact is manifest, and this predestined decree is considered a bounty. Do not feel grieved or disconsolate, therefore, at the ascension of that bird of faithfulness; nay, under all circumstances pray for that youth, supplicating for him forgiveness and the elevation of his station.
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: 169)
Even though this loving and lovely metaphor of the gardener contributed to a resolution of my quandary, there was still an aspect that troubled me. All this has not only been ordained by God, but it also requires our acquiescence in some way. Bahá’u’lláh’s own expression of it in the Hidden Words is:
18. O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.
I needed to make sense of this in terms of what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described. Why might it be so important that I content myself with this state of reality?
An obvious partial answer is that, if we can accept the suffering, we will suffer less. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy regards suffering as what we add to the inevitable pain of existence, in part by our resistance to it and also by the language we use to ourselves to describe it. Which is not to say that we should not take practical steps to alleviate our own pain in other ways and to give solace to others, as well as, where possible, making sure that avoidable accidents do not add to the catalogue of human misery.
To go beyond that and probe more deeply into possible ways of learning to accept the apparently unacceptable is something each of us has to do in our own way, by prayer, reading, reflection and ‘right action,’ to use the Buddhist phrase. So, as a way of bringing these reflections to a close, I’d like to share in short hand form my own way of internalising this depiction of reality and of coming to terms with this injunction that we be content with whatever sorrow comes our way.
Heart Safe (for source of image see link)
When we suffer it’s as though we have been robbed of the comforts we have locked away in our hearts to keep them safe, convinced that they were the gold that would buy us our protection from the slings and arrows of ill-fortune, and have been left in their stead with bundles of flimsy paper covered in strange writing.
We simply do not understand the true nature of this paper and rage against our loss, not appreciating that the rage, which is making our heart a furnace, will turn the paper into ashes all too soon, wiping out its incalculable value before we can realise its worth. If we could only come to see our pain and loss as providing us, as a gift, with the currency we will need when we travel, as we all must at some unknown point in the future, to settle in the undiscovered land from whose borders no traveller returns, it would become possible to accept it gratefully rather than resist it pointlessly. We would not then unwittingly destroy it, much to our disadvantage later. Without this currency, when we die we will be like refugees, ill-equipped at first to deal with the challenges of our new homeland. If we were to realise this, not just with our heads but with our hearts as well, we could then do as Bahá’u’lláh advises us and greet calamity with the same peace of mind as we welcome all good fortune. That would be true wisdom and real wealth.
That, of course, is far easier said than done and will take most of us more than a lifetime to accomplish. That should not be a reason to give up, it seems to me. We will, after all, have the whole of eternity to finish off what we have begun locked in time down here, and the better the start we get, the less we’ll have to do later on. Another example of the compensating effect of taking the broader view offered by a spiritual perspective.
Perhaps there is no better way to close this pair of posts than by concluding with the most beautiful piece of music that I know of relating to this theme. (For more about Handel’s Messiah click the link.)
I will be republishing a sequence of posts next week, which will be examining suffering from a different angle.