A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan quoted Einstein. The quote begins with some statements that could be taken as an endorsement of religion. But it continues with this:
The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in the concept of a personal God. … In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.
One of Sullivan’s readers has responded with an anecdote:
The trouble is, what does Einstein mean by “personal God”? If, by this, he means the interventionist Santa Claus figure to whom we dutifully give a list of wants and demands every time we pray, then I am totally with him and think Christianity should have abandoned this God long ago. But if, by “give up the personal God” he means abandon a God who relates to each individual on a spiritually intimate level, then I can’t go that far.
I myself suffer from a somewhat crippling anxiety disorder, and there have been several times when I have called on God for help and felt something indescribable comforting me. I didn’t receive a magic-cure-all that made everything better again. I did, however, receive a spiritual companionship to help me endure the worst the illness had to offer.
If atheists accuse me of being weak, I say to them “you’re exactly right, I can’t fight this illness by myself.” Fate is going to throw everyone some pretty unsavory curve balls sooner or later. Christianity is unique in that it tells us we don’t have to face those curve balls alone.
Meanwhile, over on Jewish Atheist’s blog, there has been a rather compelling argument against God’s existence grounded in the problem of evil. (An aside to JA: you should have left out the bit about acts of charity, which only deflected your argument away from its main point.)
Yes, the problem of evil is so familiar as to constitute a somewhat trite argument against Christianity. But the problem is real and intractable: and many Christians respond mostly by looking the other way.
Sullivan’s reader doesn’t address the problem of evil. He’s responding to a different sort of challenge. But I would like to add two interpretive glosses.
First, everything we know about life and the cosmos traces back to our subjective experiences. Here’s an interesting statement of the concept from the Tao Te Ching:
What a man desires to know is that [i.e. the external world]. But his means of knowing is this [i.e. himself].1
I thought this was a modern (even post-modern) insight: it’s all the rage in the university climate. So I was a little surprised to see it expressed so deftly in such an ancient source (c. 3rd century B.C.E.)
All knowledge is ultimately subjective. I emphasize the point because I know sceptics will respond by saying, That’s anecdotal evidence, and therefore worthless.
There’s no reason you should be convinced by someone else’s experience, of course. But the experience is real to him (her?) and it is not, in fact, worthless. Don’t make the naive mistake of assuming that you’re somehow different: that your worldview is objective, scientific, and non-anecdotal!
Second, I offer the anecdote as an important part of the Christian response to the problem of evil. Yes, there is suffering in this world. And no, we don’t have an adequate explanation of how such suffering can be reconciled with the existence of a personal, omnipotent (sovereign), loving God.
But let’s look at the countervailing data. Literally millions of people have had experiences similar to the one recounted above. We suffer, but God visits us in our suffering to offer extraordinary comfort. This has been one of the hallmarks of Christianity from its inception — that is, from the time of Christ’s own suffering:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction…. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2Co. 1:3-5)
It takes faith to believe in God despite the reality of human misery. Christians are not unaware of the problem: it has confronted Christianity since Christ’s crucifixion.
The experience described above — of sublime comfort in the very teeth of suffering — is commonplace among Christians, and not to be dismissed reflexively.
1Translated, including the interpretive remarks in square brackets, by Arthur Waley in The Way and Its Power: A Study of the Tao Te Ching and Its Place In Chinese Thought, p. 47. For a little more of the quote, see my sidebar.