The following is a personal reflection I wrote and read out at my Unitarian church in March (abridged slightly). Much of it is stuff I have blogged about before, but I hope it might be of interest to some. Comments and criticism are welcome!
As we looked forward to the spring, in planning this service we decided to try to honour both dark and light, summer and winter, day and night, difficulty and ease. I got thinking about these dualities and what honouring the darkness means to me.
We humans have grappled with these dualities for as long as we have existed. Why is there suffering and hardship as well as joy and pleasure? Do these have a common source, or is there an evil power opposing a good god? Goodness, or morality, seems to be based on avoiding harm to oneself and others; how can a harmful world, with natural disasters, disease and death, be created by a good God?
The traditional Christian answer to the problem is that we live in a fallen world. We brought it all on ourselves when we ate that figurative apple in the garden of Eden, and all will be put to rights in some new world in the future… but I just can’t see the world as catastrophically “fallen”, it is exquisitely beautiful at times, and I want to believe the world can be improved through human efforts. I don’t want to be resigned to pinning my hopes on a future age when this life may well be all there is.
The natural world, for all the harm it causes us, also brought us into existence in the first place. We live our fragile lives on a dynamic planet whose crust is continually in flux, giving rise to deadly earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But volcanoes also play a key role in what Iain Stewart calls the “global thermostat” – in pumping out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, volcanoes played an essential role in maintaining a temperature conducive to life developing in the first place. So the same natural processes give rise to life and also take life away. They cannot be the flaws of a fallen world as we wouldn’t be here without them.
Some rationalist Muslims such as Jeffrey Lang believe that the world is perfect as it is, and all the natural causes of suffering are actually good for us in some way that is not immediately obvious. This is a hard idea to swallow when an earthquake kills hundreds or thousands of people and devastates the lives of many others, as happened in Japan this week. All I can say is, my natural human value judgements are evidently not shared by the universe.
It would take a leap of faith to say that all the sorrows and sufferings of this world happen for a reason; that there is always a greater good even if we can’t see it. It would be a comforting thing to believe, and I personally have tried very hard in the past to see it that way in order to defend the creator I believed in. But on the other hand, I have also found it liberating to let go of the need for everything to be good, and more helpful to embrace life with an open mind, trying to look past superficial value judgements of experiences and situations. For me, honouring the darkness means not labelling it as such and pushing it away from me, but seeing what I might be able to gain from it. Wrestling with it, like Jacob in the Bible who wrestled with the angel and wouldn’t let it go until it blessed him.
A lot of what we think of as suffering does have benefits. As a simple example, the ability to feel pain is beneficial. It is an evolved response that protects us by making us recoil from something harmful, such as a flame or a sharp object.
Death, disease, and natural disasters bring us pain and suffering but they also stretch our capacity to deal with adversity, deepen our empathy and compassion for others, and remind us that nothing in this life is permanent. Jeffrey Lang says in his book “Even Angels Ask”, “Whether by chance or grand design, one could not deny that mankind seems eminently well suited for struggle. Our species seems to thrive on it as tragedy and strife has marked and guided our evolution throughout history. Even when hardship is not our lot, we seek it out in the form of self-made challenges and competitions.”
Last year Kevin McCloud visited Dharavi, one of the slums of Mumbai, to make a Channel 4 documentary. The documentary was largely a positive take on a life that most of us in the west would instinctively think of as hopeless and depressing. I found it very inspiring. I was blown away by the strong sense of community, their creative use of resources and the fact that crime is almost non-existent there. Despite the unsanitary conditions, kids were going off to school in pristine uniforms. Being occupied with daily challenges as well as having tight social bonds seemed to keep the residents of Dharavi purposeful and happy – perhaps more so than many of us in the western world. I was left feeling amazed at the resilience of the human spirit. It actually seems like we do well with a bit of hardship sometimes.
Some religions sharply define good and bad and have strict moral codes. Like most Unitarians and liberals I have always found this difficult. Sufis in the 13th century found this difficult too. Reza Aslan says in chapter 8 of his book “No God But God”: “The Sufi knows no dualities, only unity. There is no good and evil, no light and dark; there is only God.”
He goes on to describe how these particular Sufis felt that religious rituals and lifestyle restrictions were dry and soulless, so they went over to the “dark” side and engaged in forbidden practices, hedonistic and sensual experiences, in order to fully comprehend the ecstasy of God. I can certainly relate to the idea that when you try to exclude from your life everything that could be considered bad, you end up feeling rather indifferent and dissatisfied. In my own experience, leaving conservative religions behind has always resulted in suddenly feeling that I could see the world in colour again. I felt as these Sufis did that I needed the fullness of life with all its richness of contrast in order to see God.
It seems to me that “good” and “bad” are just subjective labels we put on things depending on how we feel about them at the time, and while these labels may be an important part of our language, they are not absolutes. If we make them absolutes, we perhaps miss some of the subtlety and beauty of life.
If goodness can be a flexible concept that can be updated as we go along, we are compelled to respect each other’s perspectives on it. What I think is best is only what seems right to me – and this can change. For me, honouring the darkness means bringing an open mind to it. If nothing else, the changing of winter into spring or night into day, is all the sweeter because of the contrast. I may not have faith in a God testing me only as far as I can bear, but I have faith in the strength of people. We have collectively adapted to every environment on this planet, from scorching desert to icy tundra. Our history has honed us into beings that thrive on adversity. I take comfort in this.