Monday, November 10, 2008

God on Trial

PBS aired this program last night on Masterpiece. I'm struck with the universal themes this revisits, another turn of the wheel on the questions of suffering, good, evil, and how a merciful God can permit it.

The scene is Auschwitz, a present-day memorial, visited by a tour group. As the guide takes them through, she tells them that as new prisoners were brought, others were killed to make room for them. There is a rumor that one such group put God on trial.

As the program begins we are taken to an Auschwitz sometime before the end of World War II. A cell block of men, stripped naked, are paraded before a (presumably) dr who is evaluating them. Some are grouped to the right, some to the left, all given numbers. Half of them will be killed, but they don't know which half.

Returned to their cell block, not knowing who is to die the next morning, they are interrupted when a group of new prisoners, still in the clothing they'd been taken in, still unshaven, are thrust into the barracks. The prisoner in charge of the inmates tells them bitterly that because of the 'efficiency' of the German rails, the prisoners have arrived a day early and will be sharing the already cramped quarters with them that night.

Bitter feelings are expressed toward God, which are denounced by one man, Kuhn, as 'blasphemy'. It's clear that this is personal for him, a macrocosm of his conflict with his son Mordechai who he feels has wandered far from the faith. The rabbi Schmidt states that there is precedent in struggle with God, citing Job and the story of Jacob who was renamed "Israel" after striving with God all night . He gives support to setting up a rabbinical court with himself as Court Father. A German who was a professor of law agrees to be Head of the court and Mordecai insists on being the Dayan, or the Questioner.

First they must come up with a charge, and they decide upon murder, and breach of Covenant: God made a Covenant with the Jewish people, that they were His Chosen People...that God's favor would be upon them and He would "smite" their enemies.

Kuhn insists that Jews have strayed from the teachings of the Torah, have drifted from God and what they are experiencing is the consequence of this. He cites ancient Jewish history when the Jews have 'forsaken' God and been punished; this is the reason for the situation they're in.

Mordechai calls one of the newcomers, a member of a tiny Polish village. He asks if this man's village loved God and stayed true to the Torah. In great sincerity the man said that they did: "In our poverty the Torah was the palace in which we lived in splendor." Yet the Nazis came, killed his mother before him, forced him and the other survivors to bury their dead; forced them to take the rings from their parents' bodies and give them to the Nazis.

Another witness is called who says that God's punishments are not surgical, frequently not proportionate, citing the Flood. He suggests their ordeal is a part of a purification, a sacrifice, where only the best are sacrificed. This brings comfort to the man who had buried his mother.

Another, a Jewish scholar who was among the newcomers, adds that God's actions are not personally directed...that the conditions they find themselves in are not God punishing them personally, that His movements are vast and impersonal in scope. "We may hate the surgeon's knife, the the surgeon's act is an act of love."

"What use is an impersonal god?" asks one. Another retorts, "God is to be of use to us, then?"

At one point the proceedings are interrupted as prison guards flood in and remove the newcomers. They are stripped of their clothing, forcibly shorn, given prison garb and returned to the cell.

The dynamic is very different now. While these man had had the clothes on their back, their spectacles and their fillings, there had still been an illusion they could cling to of some sort of self-determination. There was silence, and then one of the newcomers spoke up and said he would like the trial to continue to conclusion.

Why didn't God intervene on behalf of His people? One man answers that it is on account of God having given humans Free Will. In a rage one prisoner demands that another tell his story of when he was taken, what happened to him. At first the prisoner demurs, but when the angry man says he will tell it regardless, the prisoner says if anyone is to tell his story, it will be him.

He says the children, among them his three sons, the oldest seven, were put on a truck. As it was driving away he ran after it, shouting for it to stop, to give him his sons. The driver did stop, and asked who were his. He said he'd thought the soldier was going to give them to him, and so he identified them. And the soldier told him to choose one. The children heard this, all of them crying, begging him to choose them. Where was his choice? Where was his free will, he asks. (The Head of the Court asked him if he knows what became of his sons. He said that two of his sons were twins, and he'd heard they'd gone to Mengele. He took comfort in this, saying he'd heard that Mengele 'likes' twins...)

I've been sympathetic to the argument of free will. It makes a kind of sense to me that when people exercise their free will and choose evil that this may have consequences for others who do not have might on their side. And God, having resolved that we should have the freedom to choose, is unable to intervene without violating our free will.

However, an impassioned argument at the end gave me pause. This man took over the questioning and asked the scholar: When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt--why were they in Egypt. "There was a famine..." "and God sent the famine? And when God told Moses to tell the Pharaoh to release the Israelites, what happened when the Pharaoh did not? He turned water to blood! He brought plagues, frogs, locusts, mosquitos, rats, and then boils. Did he bring it on just the Pharaoh? No! He brought it upon the entire Egyptian population, leaders and slave alike, except the Israelites. And then what happened?" The scholar, speaking more softly now replied that God had sent an Angel of Death. "And who did this angel slay?" "The firstborn son of every Egyptian." "From the rulers down to the slaves, every firstborn child was slain. NOT the Pharaoh, but the children, infants!"

"And what happened when the Children of Israel left, following Moses? Did the Pharaoh let them go in peace?" "No, he sent an army after them." "And when Moses and his people had crossed the Red Sea, did God let the sea close behind them immediately? No! He waited until the soldiers were in the very middle of the sea in pursuit and then let the waters close over them and drown them all."

The man went on, example after example. God's people being used as God's instrument to punish, to drive prior inhabitants from their lands. Whom God demanded that no mercy be shown, and when Saul, one of Israel's kings did show mercy God punished him. God's punishment to David for his sin with Bathsheba, not to just take the child they had together, but to cause that child to suffer in pain for 7 days before dying.

Powerful examples of where God had intervened, surgically, and personally, contrasted with where He had not. Why then? Why not now? "God is not good!" this man bellowed, "He is only strong. When he told Abraham to kill his only child, Abraham should have told him 'NOOOOOOOOOOOO!' God should learn mercy and justice--from US. Do you know what was on the belt buckles of the men who rounded us up? 'Gott Mit Uns'! We were powerful, when God was on our side. Now He's on someone else's side. He's made a new Covenant--with someone else!"

The guards burst in to take those who were slated to die. They covered their heads, with their hands, to pray.

All the arguments about God's role in the world, in suffering, in evil--in the crucible of a Holocaust prison. All questions we've had too, in the crucible of our own suffering. We're gifted with the ability to reason, yet this seems beyond reason. I'm struck at how we go around and around turning this wheel, and yet how open-ended the Problem of Suffering remains.


Lori said...

Wow -- that sounds like a terrific program.

I remember once wondering about the notion of an All-Knowing and All-Powerful God, and how that just didn't make sense to me in light of my own crises, much less those on a much larger scale.

The arguments you mention are brilliant.

Mercurious said...

Whoa, you're dealing with some heavy duty stuff here, so much so that I hardly know where to start.

So I'll limit myself to the question you recently posed to me: to give a modern-day Buddhist perspective on the Holocaust, and the question of Good & Evil.

I'm really not sure that I can speak for all modern Buddhists, but here goes for myself.

I define God not as a deity, but a state-of-mind. We're in the presence of God at those moments when we feel genuine unity with our own experience. We fall from grace, we lose God, to the degree that we're alienated from the truth. It is this self-alienation that leads to the problem of evil in the world. It has nothing to do with God-as-deity.

I would argue that a mass horror such as the Holocaust is the result of a collective alienation, where a group of people is so divorced from the knowledge of natural suchness, that they become capable of perpetrating all manner of abomination.

Evil, in this world view, is a result of delusion, not the result of some kind of anti-deity or cosmic darkness. And Good is the inevitable result of clear seeing, knowing things as they truly are.

On very rare occasions, we've all touched this state. It's a state of mind where the normal irritations and temptations of the world seem largely irrelevant. To even contemplate the Judaic/Christian Ten Commandments seems rather pointless at these times, since the perception is that the world is already quite fine just as it is——the natural outcome of prior circumstances—and existing in calm abiding with this suchness, there is no possible reason to covet/steal/kill/etc.

Buddhists would say that this state is the truth of how things actually are, and that the impulses that drive us to greed and rage are the result of mistaken thinking. Evil is a matter of mistaken thinking, just as Good is the result of right view.

I once heard an interview in which the Dalai Lama was asked about the problem of depression and low self-worth among modern people. His answer was as brilliant as it was simple. (I paraphrase, of course.)

"If you don't love yourself, you are simply wrong. It is the result of wrong thinking. The truth is that you are entirely worthy. To think otherwise is a mistake. Don't despair. YOur thinking is not reality."

By the way, I don't think there is anything wrong with establishing a working relationship with the state-of-mind called God. It may be an entirely practical way to pursue the truth. For this reason, Buddhism has no quarrel with Christians who choose to worship the God of Abraham.

As for the right-view, wrong view issue (which creates the genesis of real life good and evil), the Buddhist argument goes something like this: All evil in the world originates with an ontological fear regarding our own existence in the world. On some level, we fear we don't exist at all, and all our neuroses and problems come from attempts to prove to ourselves and to others that we do exist in a concrete way.

All evil is Faustian, in other words, and does not exist at all outside the human ego attempting to prove itself.

We begin recovery, we Buddhists believe, when we begin to relinquish that need for certainty and willfulness, when we let nature/God steer the boat.

Sorry for the long-windedness. But then again, you asked.

excavator said...

Lori--I completely forgot about another perspective offered: "Maybe God is here with us, and He is suffering too."

I kept thinking of Job, and the argument he had with his 2 friends after his series of misfortunes. I forgot that perspective too: that suffering is a Test. I don't know how I could have forgotten that, seeing that I devoted much of my previous post to that idea.

A very moving part of the movie is when the Professor of Law takes the 2 other members of the court aside, to tell them that he is not Jewish but by birth. His Jewish father died when he was 2 and he had never known. His children were in Hitler Youth, and he had scorned Jews along with the other Germans. He learned he was Jewish when the Gestapo came for him. He told the men that as a people the Germans demonized and dehumanized them, in order to absolve what was being done to them. He said, "They do this by taking everything from you. Don't let them take your God too."

Oh, Mercurious, please don't apologize. Thank you for your response, and thank you for coming over to visit.

Do you think on your blog you could do a post on "Suchness"? Perhaps you have already and it predates when I began to read you.

I'm not a Buddhist; beyond my writing I don't even meditate. However I find that some of the insights I've come across in my musings (when I too feel myself to be in the presence of what I think has been personified as God)seem remarkably similar to some of the things you say when you attempt to describe Buddhism.

For example it seems true to me that if the nature of the very elements of the matter we are built from is uncertainty (and if I understand quantum mechanics correctly it seems that is true) then there would be terror at the center of our existence. Reaction to and denial of this terror is the basis of what has followed in human experience.

Again, thank you for coming by and adding your perspective.

Douglas W said...

People have for thousands of years used the notion of "God" to explain things they could not explain otherwise; and to attribute actions to when they wanted to justify their own position; or when they simply wanted to bury their heads in the sand.

The Romans and Greeks and others developed the notion of many gods for many things that happen throughout human existence - war, love, peace, abundant or deficient agriculture, the weather, volcanoes...

The Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition, and others, combines them all into one God - and so if the one God is responsible for love, war, good weather, bad weather, illness and health, and every other opposing situation, then there is sure to be a conflict and confusion.

People can be very selfish in their attribution of things to God. If we suffer from injury, disease, the ravages of war or whatever, then we bemoan the failure of God to have mercy upon us and ask why do bad things happen to good people.

But if these same things happen to our so called enemies we rejoice that God has served out just punishment.

The problem is that both sides in a war see things this way and believe that God is on their side and is punishing the enemy.

Much of what we attribute to God is what we ourselves have decided to take no responsibility for. We ourselves are responsible for doing good or evil.

We live in a world that is subject to the laws of nature as well as its inconsistencies - earthquakes will happen, tsunamis will happen, disease will happen - and both good and bad people will suffer as a result. Nothing to do with God.

We also live in a world where, as you said, we have freedom of choice and free will - we can choose to do good or evil. We can choose to accept the inconsistencies of nature or we can blame somebody or something else. We can choose to use our intelligence, humanity and science, and all the other gifts and talents we have, to create a better world or to make it worse.

When other people do evil things to us; when nature hands out a disaster or a disease that makes us suffer; it is the way in which we respond to it in terms of how we see ourselves, and how we respond to others - both the perpetrators of the evil and the victims - that determines whether we ourselves are 'godly'.

God does not exist somewhere up above the clouds. God exists within ourselves and the attributes we give to god and the way godliness is manifested through our actions is entirely up to us.

excavator said...

Well said, Doug.

Matthew Tripp said...
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