Ridván Garden

This is just a quick alert to draw attention to a splendid BBC web piece that was posted today in honour of the Birthday of the Báb. Below is a very brief extract. For the full posting see link.

A young faith

Bahá’ís accept all the great world religions as having true and valid origins. Their central idea is that people of all beliefs and cultures should unite together for the common benefit of humanity.

This message had radical implications.

'Newton' by William Blake

‘Newton’ by William Blake

I am very late indeed in getting round to reviewing this thought-provoking book. I read it a number of years ago but was reminded of it recently when I spotted and re-blogged an article on near death experiences (NDEs) by Mario Beauregard, who, along with Denyse O’Leary, wrote The Spiritual Brain. I probably neglected to review the book originally because I was posting so many articles reviewing so many other books on overlapping themes: it looks as though I thought one more would be too much.

Once reminded, I thought that the least I could do is provide a brief heads up and pointer to its value.

His book is comprehensive and thorough. It seems best to tackle it in three parts on three consecutive days, focusing in turn on:

(1) his critique of materialism (today);
(2) his treatment of consciousness (tomorrow); and
(3) his assessment of the costs of missing the spiritual point (Wednesday).

There is a coda which draws powerfully on his own direct mystical experience.

Critique of Materialism

His book is a response to the default position of materialism as he sees it: he describes ‘an important tenet of materialism: materialist ideology trumps evidence.’ (Kindle Reference: 129)

In his book he addresses three issues that call that assumption seriously into question in his view (and mine). These are the psi effect, which I have tackled before on this blog and will be coming back to again soon, near death experiences (NDEs), also well-aired here, and the placebo effect, which I have only mentioned once at any length. As a result of the work of researchers such as Pim van Lommel, Sam Parnia, Peter Fenwick, and Bruce Greyson, there is a growing base of information about NDEs, for instance, as well as similar bodies of evidence from other workers in other fields. As these are topics I have covered already on this blog I won’t dwell on them now.

I’ll focus instead on his general case against materialism, which in itself will take quite some time. He illustrates its basic crass assumption with a telling quote from a proponent (277):

The whole materialist creed . . . . hangs off one little word, “Since”—“Since consciousness and thought are entirely physical products of your brain and nervous system…” In other words, neuroscientists have not discovered that there is no you in you; they start their work with that assumption.

He looks at a deep crack through what is perhaps the key stone in the central arch of the materialistic thought-cathedral – evolution (421):

We are driven to the conclusion that if the theory of evolution is to include or explain the facts of artistic and spiritual experience—and it cannot be accepted by any serious thinker if these great tracts of consciousness remain outside its range—it must be rebuilt on a mental rather than a physical basis.

He doesn’t hold out much hope for that rebuilding process, at least for now. He is dismissive of evolutionary arguments to explain away religion (1075):

Alper’s evolutionary argument requires him to describe religion in universal terms but his ideas about religion are strictly Western, monotheistic and personal; and his representation of religious worldviews is exclusively dualistic…. This argument is a clay pigeon, and could be blown away from any number of angles. The word “Asia” should suffice.

His final verdict on science is beautifully borrowed from a Mulla Nasrudin parable (1254):

Science is wonderful at explaining what science is wonderful at explaining, but beyond that it tends to look for its car keys where the light is good.

Redressing the Imbalance 

He then provides his own far richer description of spiritual or religious experience (1281):

For the purposes of this book, “religious” experiences are experiences that arise from following a religious tradition. Spirituality means any experience that is thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine (in other words, not just any experience that feels meaningful). Mysticism generally means pursuit of an altered state of consciousness that enables the mystic to become aware of cosmic realities that cannot be grasped during normal states of consciousness.

He hits another long nail firmly in the coffin of scientism (1878):

The culture of popular science is one of unidirectional skepticism—that is, the skepticism runs only in one direction. It is skeptical of any idea that spirituality corresponds to something outside ourselves, but surprisingly gullible about any reductionist explanation for it.

Michael Persinger (for source of image see link)

Michael Persinger (for source of image see link)

And then goes on to dispose of the God-helmet theory about spiritual experience – the one that interprets the evidence as saying that the brain creates mystical experiences purely out of its own activity, not in response to a spiritual dimension, making them by definition hallucinatory (1955):

A research team at Uppsala University in Sweden, headed by Pehr Granqvist, mirrored Persinger’s experiment by testing eighty-nine undergraduate students, some of whom were exposed to the magnetic field and some of whom were not. Using Persinger’s equipment, the Swedish researchers could not reproduce his key results. They attributed their findings to the fact that they “ensured that neither the participants nor the experimenters interacting with them had any idea who was being exposed to the magnetic fields, a ‘double-blind’ protocol.”

In other words, when the participants did not know what they were supposed to experience as a result of electro-magnetic brain stimulation, they didn’t experience anything.  He added (1978):

Granqvist and colleagues also noted that they had found it difficult to evaluate the reliability of Persinger’s findings, “because no information on experimental randomization or blindness was provided,” which left his results open to the possibility that psychological suggestion was the best explanation.

I have skated over his detailed discussions of evolution, brain function and brain pathology, in order to cut to the chase of my favourite topic: consciousness – which is the topic for tomorrow. This is not to imply that his examination of those areas is not careful, compelling and immensely valuable. There simply isn’t space in a brief blog review to do it justice.

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

For someone like me, who is trying to grasp as fully as possible all the implications of the distinction made by the Bahá’í World Centre between the West as it sees itself (‘developed’) and the West as it really is (merely industrialised), a recent Guardian article by  provided much food for thought. The Bahá’í document reads (page 5):

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance — in the final analysis, the very patterns of life — prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided.

Mishra has much to say that probes these issues and their origins quite deeply. In some ways it took me back to Amy Chua‘s excellent book, World on Fire and also links with John Ehrenfeld’s insightful co-authored bookFlourishingHis analysis covers somewhat different areas than theirs though, especially in terms of the complex history of these problems.  Below is the first section and a bit: for the detailed exposition of his thought as a whole see link.

The Western Model is Broken

“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions. It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.

Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.

The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.

A world in flames

One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.

The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco

Where all the Ladders Start v2

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)

Mirza Mihdi

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-Bahá169)

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.

Yesterday a crucially important piece was posted on the website International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. I am taking the unusual step of copying the entire post below. The reasons for my doing so will hopefully be obvious. For the full post on its own site see link.

Impact Iran Coalition and International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran draw attention to Iran’s upcoming human rights review

October 14, 2014  – Impact Iran, a coalition of human rights organizations, in partnership with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, today launched a new video, “Promises Made, Promises Broken.” The video is part of a series aimed at drawing attention to Iran’s second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council on October 31, 2014. A new video will be released each week leading up to the review.

The first video features nine persecuted Iranians who powerfully tell their stories of repression, harassment, detainment and torture in their own words. While these activists, bloggers, lawyers and students put a face to Iran’s human rights abuses, their stories are shared by many Iranians whose rights are violated every day.

“’Promises Made, Promises Broken’ tells the story of Iran’s human rights abuses through the compelling personal accounts of those who have experienced firsthand what it is like to live with this level of repression,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “These individuals were targeted because of their religious beliefs, their peaceful rights advocacy, their sexual orientation, and their ethnicity, which goes against all of Iran’s human rights commitments.”

Despite the fact that Iran accepted 126 recommendations from UN Human Rights Council member countries at its last UPR in 2010, it has not honored the majority of these commitments, and violations continue to occur. For example, Iran agreed to improve protections against torture and ill treatment of detainees. However, several of the Iranians featured in “Promises Made, Promises Broken” report being victims of physical and psychological torture during their unjust detainments. The video calls on viewers throughout the international community to raise their voices and hold Iran accountable for its track record on human rights.

An analysis of Iran’s UPR commitments is available at www.ImpactIran.org and www.UPRIran.org.

“As Iran’s second UPR approaches, it has never been more important that we take measures to ensure the Iranian government keeps its human rights promises,” said Mani Mostofi, Director of Impact Iran. “This video series puts human faces to each of Iran’s repressive practices and urges viewers to raise their voices in solidarity with these persecuted Iranians to hold Iran accountable.”

* To learn more visit www.ImpactIran.org and follow @ImpactIran for updates.Visit the Campaign’s website at www.iranhumanrights.org and follow @ICHRI for latest human rights development in Iran.
Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahji

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.

It’s nearly 4 a.m. On this day at about this time 119 years ago, after four decades in prison and in exile, Bahá’u’lláh died near Acre, then an outpost of the Ottoman Empire, now a city in Israel. So on this holy day it seems fitting to begin some reflections upon the meaning of suffering, not just upon His sorrows but upon those of all who fall victim to what Shakespeare’s Hamlet described as the ‘thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.’

On 11 March this year, in the middle of the Bahá’í Fast which, in my experience at least, sensitises us more than usual to the sufferings of others, the BBC posted the following news bulletin:

Japan’s most powerful earthquake since records began has struck the north-east coast, triggering a massive tsunami. Cars, ships and buildings were swept away by a wall of water after the 8.9-magnitude tremor, which struck about 400km (250 miles) north-east of Tokyo. A state of emergency has been declared at a nuclear power plant, where pressure has exceeded normal levels.

Officials say 350 people are dead and about 500 missing, but it is feared the final death toll will be much higher. In one ward alone in Sendai, a port city in Miyagi prefecture, 200 to 300 bodies were found. In the centre of Tokyo many people are spending the night in their offices. But thousands, perhaps millions, chose to walk home. Train services were suspended.

Even after the most violent earthquake anyone could remember the crowds were orderly and calm. The devastation is further to the north, along the Pacific coast. There a tsunami triggered by the quake reached 10km (six miles) inland in places carrying houses, buildings, boats and cars with it. In the city of Sendai the police found up to 300 bodies in a single ward. Outside the city in a built-up area a fire blazed across several kilometres.

Japan’s ground self-defence forces have been deployed, and the government has asked the US military based in the country for help. The scale of destruction from the biggest quake ever recorded in Japan will become clear only at first light. The quake was the fifth-largest in the world since 1900 and nearly 8,000 times stronger than the one which devastated Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, said scientists.

For anyone who believes that an all-powerful and all-merciful God set up the world this way, such events have to pose a problem. Would it not have been possible to do it differently if God were truly all-powerful? If it were possible to do it differently and eliminate the need for suffering, and He did not, then He is not all-merciful. If He is all-merciful and yet set up the world to contain so much pain, he cannot be all-powerful. There is no fudging the issue and those of us with a belief in God, at some time in our lives, will have to confront it or live in a state of denial.

For a Darwinian materialist, of course, there’s not an issue: ‘This is how the universe works and that’s all there is to say.’

So, why don’t I take that option?

It would end the apparently irresolvable paradox and remove the dissonance at one stroke. This is where I’m going to have to short-hand things because proving the existence of God is not the purpose of this post and in any case cannot be done in a way that would convince everyone for reasons that this blog has already explored countless times (see for instance the comments on Reitan’s book in the post on moral imagination).

I can’t revert to the atheism I used to find so plausible.  The fact that there is both life and consciousness is for me a completely compelling consideration. Even life without consciousness is so utterly improbable that this alone would be enough to convince me, though, in that case, there would be no me to convince. Consciousness clinches it. The conditions to bring that into being are so improbable that I simply cannot persuade myself that they were not created by an intelligence for some purpose.

Once I’m impaled upon the thorns of that conviction, and it does bring all sorts of uncomfortable consequences in its train, I am also on the rack of the dilemma I described. How come there’s suffering?

Evil, in the sense of pain caused by people to other living sentient beings, can be put down to free will, which is a necessary precondition of moral and spiritual development, another complex issue that must get short shrift here as it’s not the main focus for now. Pain that is inherent to the design of the universe, when, as it does, it contains life forms that can feel it, is another issue altogether and the one I turn to now.

It clearly needs a lot more unpacking before I can fairly expect others to accept that disasters, such as the one Japan has so recently confronted, are compatible with the concept of a compassionate creator God. I find it pretty tough to do so myself and I’ve had years of practice now.

Some mileage can be made out of reminding myself that physical pain is a protector. Congenital analgesia ‘is a rare condition in which there is an absence of pain sensation from birth without the loss of other sensations or demonstrable nerve pathology. This can result in the individual unintentionally harming him or herself.’ When our nervous system is intact and our state of mind undisturbed, it is because we feel pain that we do not harm ourselves. This may extend to some degree into the realm of emotional pain. Experience teaches us what social situations hurt us and we learn to avoid them.

Even so, this benign function of pain does not resolve the crucial question for us, because an omnipotent God could, we presume, have made a world where there was no danger of harm and therefore no need for pain as a warning to us about it.

Charles Tart

Charles Tart

Pain as moral developer goes only so far towards resolving this. Clearly, where there is no fear or pain there’d be no need for heroes, and, where no one suffers, none of us would need to sacrifice our comfort to help them. Also pain has been described by Charles Tart as a ‘trance breaker’ that wakes us up to the deeper realities hiding behind matter. Again though, surely, an all-knowing deity could have worked round that one and made a world where moral growth could happen with no uncomfortable choices.

Even if it were possible to accept, for the reasons give, all those kinds of pain as compatible with a merciful creator, what are we to make of all the unavoidable and seemingly pointless ways painful injury and agonising death afflict us? The warning function of pain is of no use to the victim of an avalanche. There is no moral growth entailed for you when you drown in a tsunami. And trances could surely be broken by something less traumatic?

There is no way round the conclusion that the universe is set up the way it is because that’s the way God wants it, even if it makes no sense to us and tests our faith to breaking point. So, where can we go from here? Is there a way of reconciling the seemingly arbitrary pain of the world around us with a merciful creator?

Bahá’u’lláh forces our faith to confront all these issues when He writes in the 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.

When the outward is all we can apparently experience, this statement challenges us to change our frame of reference quite radically. So, we are at the beginning of a journey of understanding which will take us through some difficult terrain. We’re in the territory John Donne describes in Satire III:

On a huge hill,
Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must, and about must go;
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so . . .

As traversing it will take some time, it needs the leisure of another post I fear.


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