Book Review: How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

How Can I Believe When I Live In A World Like This?

Author: Reginald Stackhouse

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

147 pages, Hardcover

Questions, questions, questions. Human beings are curious creatures; curiosity often leads to asking questions; and questions can and do result in growth, learning and more meaningful living even when questions are not answered satisfactorily. In Jesus’ public ministry, he would teach by employing questions.

At the time of writing this volume, Dr. Reginald Stackhouse was a minister and professor at Toronto School of Theology, and formerly a Canadian Member of Parliament. In addition to the book’s title in question form, all seven chapters are also titled with a question: Chapter One: Why is This Happening to Me? Chapter Two: If You Could Be God for a Day, What Would You Do with a World Like This? Chapter Three: What Kind of World is This When the Innocent Suffer and the Evil are Rewarded? Chapter Four: Must We Just Suffer or Can it Make Us Better People? Chapter Five: Is This World a Fair Place if One Has to Pay the Price for Everyone Else? Chapter Six: Must Suffering and Death Have the Last Word? Chapter Seven: How Can a Person Make it Through a World Like This Successfully?

Dr. Stackhouse writes in a very accessible way, which engages the reader. He cites example after example of the wide array of situations that happen to humans and explanations of how they might be understood.

In chapter one, he states that the problem of evil and suffering haunted him as a pastor, professor and politician. One example is a parishioner who was given two months to live after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer. He cites Plato and Augustine, Leibniz and Voltaire, and then turns to the Book of Job, where he identifies six theodicies, that do not provide a definitive answer.

In chapter two, Dr. Stackhouse wrestles with questions like: What kind of God can allow the crib death of a newborn baby, and a bicycle rider on a country road to be run over by a careless driver? On the other hand, believing in nothing is not much better. In attempting to answer such questions, Dr. Stackhouse cites Justin an early Christian philosopher and martyr who found truth in the Bible as well as in the philosophy of the Greek Stoics. Their answer to suffering and evil was to “Trust nature,” and trust in providence. God ordained everything in life. By so doing, if we were God for a day, we could not do any better than God. Life events come together—in ways we sometimes shall never know—to find some kind of harmony and balance. Professor Stackhouse also turns to the cross of Jesus for an answer. “The message of the cross of Jesus can be applied to all innocent sufferers.” (p.52)

In chapter three, Dr. Stackhouse addresses the suffering of the innocent and the rewarding of the evil. Suffering does not always mean sin—nor does success always mean righteousness. One example of this given is his brother Benjamin, who suffered from multiple sclerosis and went on to live a full, meaningful life right up to the end. Professor Stackhouse also provides a thoughtful discussion of technological evil, institutional evil, and the evil of nature causing natural disasters. As people of faith, we believe in a God who suffers with us and shares our pain—that is the message of Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross.

In chapter four, Dr. Stackhouse describes how a bed-ridden parishioner cheered him up when he went to give him Holy Communion. Since evil is as prevalent in the world as is goodness, it is better that we try to learn from our suffering. He explains that a couple of ways to learn are what he refers to as “the law of compensations” and “the law of prospects.” A couple of biblical examples of these were the apostle Paul and Moses. A couple of political figures are also cited—Nelson Mandela and John A. MacDonald. The former released from prison and leading South Africa out of apartheid. The latter immigrating from Scotland poverty-stricken and becoming a Canadian Prime Minister. Jesus taught (Luke 9:23-25), that those who lose their life for his sake will save it.

In chapter five, Dr. Stackhouse unpacks the significance of the Latin word vicarius. He believes that: “Vicariousness runs through the Bible.” (p. 110) According to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, there is no greater love than to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. Human beings also need to realize their corporate identity to make sense of life. In sharing our common humanity, we are more compassionate toward others and more willing to make sacrifices and serve others.

In chapter six, violent examples like Tiananmen Square, the killing of Roman Catholics and Protestants in northern Ireland, and Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, raise the question of whether suffering and death have the last word. Dr. Stackhouse agrees with philosopher Immanuel Kant who believed that human life is too short to gain justice in this world. Hence, for Kant a life beyond this one was necessary to right the wrongs suffered in this world if God is just. This, of course, is a problem for those who do not believe in a world beyond this one. However, citing philosopher Blaise Pascal’s “Wager Argument,” Dr. Stackhouse makes the case for believing in an afterlife. His conviction that there is was confirmed when he made a pastoral call on a couple who lost their thirty-year-old son who died in an accident. The father, in tears, said to Dr. Stackhouse: “There has to be something.” (p. 128) What we believe about death has a significant influence on how we live our life in this world.

In chapter seven, Dr. Stackhouse speaks of how much his parents’ beliefs gave shape to his own. His parents’ faith helped them stay together as a family and cope with the hardships of the Great Depression. “Although they [his parents] never used the term “mystery” to refer to God, I can see now that was how they understood him.” (p. 139) What happened in life was also a mystery and human beings, created in God’s image are a mystery as attested to in Psalm 139, we are: “fearfully and wonderfully made.” His parents, like Sören Kierkegaard knew that to be a human being means that there will be suffering. They taught Dr. Stackhouse that one cannot expect life without troubles—rather, one can trust that God will help us to cope with them.

This volume shall be helpful for clergy, laity and academics, I highly recommend it.

Sermon for 2 Easter Yr A

Read my sermon for April 19, 2020 here: 2 Easter Yr A

Sermon for Easter Day Yr A

Read my sermon for April 12, 2020 here: Easter Day Yr A

Brief thoughts on COVID-19, Lent, Holy Week, suffering and more

Introduction

This has been an unpredictably strange Lent and now Holy Week for us Christians. As a faith that places high value in our collective identity—i.e. the communion of saints—we have been either legislated against gathering or strongly discouraged to gather together to worship during much of Lent and now Holy Week. Staying home, social distancing, quarantine and self-isolating have become the universally acceptable protocols.

Without question, the coronavirus—COVID-19—has changed the world for the worse; as well as in some respects for the better. It is a tragedy that COVID-19 has claimed the lives of so many people; and will continue to do so into at least the near future. My heart goes out to those who are suffering with the coronavirus; as well as those families who have lost loved ones.

In times of suffering, the worst in human beings comes out. The New Testament Passion narratives in all four Gospels bear this truth out. Humankind was, and still is way too capable of betrayals, denials, exploiting the weak and most vulnerable, wrongfully scapegoating and unjustly arresting, torturing and killing the innocent.

The media doesn’t always help in this regard. Sometimes they do not have the complete facts; distort and misunderstand and manipulate the facts to create fear among the general public; which can escalate into mass hysteria. For example, it is mass hysteria at work when people buy and horde as much toilet paper and hand sanitizer as possible—creating a shortage for others. Moreover, it is also a coldness of heart and intentional greed on the part of some to sell their surplus of these items for outrageously high prices.

Another example of people at their worst is expressed in antisemitism online—encouraging people with the coronavirus to deliberately go into Jewish synagogues and other places where Jews gather to spread COVID-19. Such actions, once again, confirm that sin and evil are alive among human beings in the world.

Suffering can be redemptive

On the other hand, suffering can be redemptive in that it has the potential to bring out the best in humankind. For instance, there are people like health-care workers, first responders, those in essential services like grocery store workers, truckers, etc., who willingly risk their lives for the common good of everyone. May God continue to bless them in their work!

During Lent and Holy Week, followers of Jesus are hopefully acutely aware of and appreciative for how suffering is redemptive by focussing on the Passion and Resurrection narratives of the Gospels. The suffering and death of Jesus on Good Friday was not the last word. By raising Jesus from the dead on that first Easter Sunday; God has assured us that suffering can be redemptive.

As we experience sufferings from COVID-19 I do not think that we should blame God for it. Rather, I believe that God is in solidarity with us and suffers with us and is even giving us the opportunity to turn to him for help and come to see that he is the Giver of life. By turning to God for help maybe we can learn some important lessons from our sufferings.

Sabbath

I am, in part, seeing this time as a Sabbath in that it affords us to stop; slow our life down; and reflect more deeply about the meaning of life and what is most important in life—i.e. God, faith, relationships, community, loving and serving our neighbours, especially those most needy.

By cultivating our relationships with God, spouse, children and others and slowing down and resting from work can improve our spiritual, mental and physical health. By not being so busy; by slowing down; God’s creation also benefits from Sabbath time. For example, it is being observed that in many of the world’s largest cities there is less air pollution.

Exile and Lament

I also think that this is a time of Exile and Lament. Someone has described this time of exile as similar to being under house arrest. Different countries have different laws in response to COVID-19. Some nations –again perhaps acting out of fear—have complete lockdowns, everyone has to stay home. If they go out, they may face fines or even go to prison. Other nations allow people to go out for walks as long as they remain two meters from each other. People are also allowed to go out for basic necessities such as food and medications.

Even so, it seems like living in exile since social gatherings are either not allowed or strongly discouraged. For those living alone, I think the sense of exile is likely even more pronounced—since we humans are social beings.

This sense of living in exile is closely related to the reality of lament. Those living alone lament for the days before COVID-19; when they were free to come and go and be with others. Many lament because they cannot go to work or may even have lost their jobs. Others lament not being able to be with a love one who is dying in the hospital. Those who are dying may be lamenting that they cannot say their final words in the presence of their loved ones. Those who have lost loved ones lament not being able to have a proper funeral service for their loved ones. Children may lament that they cannot attend school. People of faith lament because they are unable to gather and celebrate important festivals like Passover and Easter. They will have to celebrate at home; and for some, online—yet that is not the same as being physically present with one another.

I believe that exile and lament have the potential to give people of faith a greater appreciation for the Psalter. Many of the Psalms reflect the experiences of exile and lament. In such times once again we have the opportunity to turn to God for help and express all of our thoughts and emotions to him regarding our circumstances. In so doing, hopefully there can be strength to cope with the present situation and hope for the future.

Passover and Easter

Passover and Easter are festivals of hope and freedom. The Israelites celebrate Passover by remembering how God saved them from death and freed them from Egyptian slavery. Against all odds, as they wandered in the wilderness; God chose Moses to lead Israel to the promised land; God also gave them hope in the midst of their hardships in the wilderness that in the future they would live in freedom in the promised land.

Christians celebrate Easter as a festival of hope and freedom too. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross was not the last word. On that first Easter Sunday—against the powers of sin, death and evil—God acted to raise Jesus from the dead. Easter is a celebration of hope in a new, resurrection life in the future. It’s also hope in the small resurrections in the here-and-now wherever faith, love, peace, goodness and justice prevail. Thanks to the saving work of Jesus through his suffering, death and resurrection; we are given a new freedom from the powers of sin, death and evil. That freedom is experienced in part now and permanently in the life to come.

In the case of both Jews and Christians, suffering can never defeat us by the circumstances of life—including the coronavirus. Why? Because we still have the freedom and the hope to respond to such circumstances in ways that are appropriate and life-giving. We can choose, by the grace of God, to love God and love our neighbours.