Many years ago, I’d traveled to Jakarta to write a business story about Garuda Indonesia, the national airline that had been on an impressive economic climb. An hour into my first interview with one of the top executives, I asked if he made business decisions purely on the basis of data analysis, or if gut feeling factored into it. He misheard me (it happens: English isn’t my mother tongue, nor was it his). Yes, he confirmed enthusiastically: God feeling had a lot to do with it. He frequently asked God for guidance, and God was nice enough to give advice. Should the airline split its stock? God had the answer! Should Garuda expand further into the Chinese market? God knew — and apparently He told the top brass.
Some time later, the company went on a precipitous decline. Then, in 2004, CEO Indra Setiawan and his deputy Rohainil Aini hatched a successful plot to fatally poison human-rights activist Munir Said Thalib on a Garuda flight to Amsterdam. Both were convicted of murder.
Perhaps the Garuda execs were neither as devout nor as privy to God’s plans as they’d imagined.
I was reminded of my visit with the future killers when I read this piece by John Pavlovitz in the Milwaukee Independent. Pavlovitz says he’s been around a lot of people who profess to know precisely what’s on God’s mind. They believe with staggering certainty and specificity that they’ve divined (ha) the Almighty’s “motives, methods, and intentions.”
Pavlovitz should know: he was one of them.
I used to toss words around lazily, ascribing purpose to the terrible seasons and painful circumstances people pass through. It wasn’t done with malice or with an intent to mislead people, I’d just convinced myself that I could make sense of senseless things — because, Jesus.
Every national disaster, every personal loss, every dire circumstance was space to reiterate my steadfast assurance that god was in control, hoping to inspire awe and encourage faithfulness — yet never realizing that this line of thinking also implied that god was causing these traumas to begin with.
Exactly. This was one of my big three reasons to doubt the existence of God when I first began considering Christians’ claims around age 13. (Not that I was terribly precocious. I just had the advantage of not having been raised in a particular faith tradition; and with a mind free from indoctrination, I could tentatively evaluate religious precepts without fearing for my soul.) These three interrelated building blocks of the Abrahamic faith soon came crashing down under a bit of scrutiny:
• God is benevolent and kind (but He appears either powerless or indifferent in the face of suffering and evil);
• God has an amazing plan for everyone (but not so much for, say, millions of kids who literally starve to death); and
• God is great ’cause he cured X’s cancer (but if He’s an all-powerful orchestrator, he must also have inflicted the tumor in the first place).
Recently, I read the social media post of a well-known Christian musician, assuring us that the pandemic the planet has been decimated by is, “all part of god’s plan.” He was prescribing optimism, by saying that the Almighty is engineering these days as a way of bringing humanity closer to him. …
I don’t believe “god’s plan” is for 2.3 million people to be sick, 161, 330 people dead, for tens of millions of Americans to lose their jobs, and hundreds of millions to be at the brink of financial and emotional collapse. I don’t believe “god’s plan” is distraught human beings having to say goodbye to their parents and spouses and best friends via phone screens or pressed up against the cold glass of an ICU window, or to have to postpone grieving together with those they love for months.
I don’t believe “god’s plan” is a massive isolation that is driving so many to depression and despondency, or bitter national enmity over whether to work and get sick or stay home and go broke. … I still can’t bring myself to declare that any god who is worthy of being god would need to wield a pandemic in order to reach humanity. That feels punitive and excessive, and unloving.
Yeah. No kidding.
In days when we are gripped so fiercely by fear and worry, experiencing such lack and loneliness, and encountering such oppressive and prevalent grief, all people (but especially people of faith) look for evidence that something else is happening, that there is some purpose to our pain. Religion often wants this purpose to be “god’s plan.” It doesn’t offer any reasons, and it generally creates more questions than it answers, but in a brief moment it feels sufficient.
To assume this is god’s doing, is to declare that though god could work in infinite ways to show us our commonalities and inspire us to faithfulness and allow us to tap into our reservoirs of empathy and courage — he or she chooses to make millions of people very ill and kill many others to do that.
Well stated. But where is Pavlovitz headed? Nowhere particularly realistic, I’m afraid.
I am still a person of faith…
Oof. So close!
… though that faith is much messier than it used to be. I still believe in something greater that began the beginning and that holds this all together, but I try not to decode the intricate puzzle of the excruciating whys of this life in order to discover god. I don’t try to make sense of senseless things.
If Pavlovitz sees plagues and calamities as “senseless things” — and I agree — that must mean that his god-belief is without merit. I mean, either the Celestial Watchmaker with the unmatched superpowers is in charge, or He is a figment of our imagination. Which is more likely?
Maybe Pavlovitz drifted from theism into deism. But if he has, I suspect that’s just a way station en route to something else, considering his next words:
I look for god in the way that human beings respond when senseless things happen: when people die too young, when natural disasters come, when pervasive sickness spreads. Instead of spending too much time interpreting the reason such things happen, I watch for the better angels here on the ground: the helpers and the healers and the caregivers and the embracers — and I find meaning there.
It goes on like that for a few more paragraphs. But read that first sentence again — the one about seeing the divine in the kindness of others — and substitute god for good. What do we have? Looks like humanism to me.
The best guess I have right now is that this season of suffering … is the sacred space for we who claim faith to live what we believe: to persevere and to give and to heal — and above all, to love.
I like it, but we can appreciate each other’s humanity and frailty, and act on our natural empathy, without needing to credit deities of any kind. That’s exactly how most atheists I know live their lives.
It seems to me that Pavlovitz has already done 80 percent of the mental lifting. I hope one day he finishes the job.
(Image via Shutterstock)