In the traditional denominations, if a person asks a difficult question, it has usually been possible for the priest or minister to state the teachings of their faith and leave it at that. Unitarian ministers, on the other hand, don’t have such a simple opt-out, not having hard and fast answers to fall back on. But we can make suggestions.
One of the most frequently asked questions regards suffering. “Why suffering? What have I done to deserve this? ” The simple, harsh answer can be: “Because that’s the way it is.”
Now few people would find the actual wording of that answer comforting, though it appears to contain a cruel truth. We could put it into gentler language: “That’s life. Just accept it. You’ll be happier for it. Say YES.” Such a response might be acceptable to some people, even to an atheist – perhaps especially to an atheist.
To some religious people it might be suitable to say an equivalent – “It’s God’s will. Put yourself into his hands and trust him. Have faith.” Such an attitude really does help some people, but we don’t all have such rock-hard faith. We might think it old fashioned or unrealistic or simply illogical. Most Unitarians might have more and more questions, each one leading to another, with the timeless philosopher’s problem as a backdrop: How can an all-good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering to happen? Either God is not all good, or he is not all-powerful.
Sometimes, God’s apparent intentions might make us ask some very pointed questions, such as: “When I ask God to do something, he never seems to do it. Why not?” Or: “If I pray for strength, things only get worse.”
The usual answer has been that God always answers prayer. To the first question, it might be said that we don’t always know what’s best for us, or for other people, so suffering is necessary for our spiritual advancement. But some suffering seems beyond such an easy explanation. Some can be absolutely dreadful – unimaginable, even. For the second question, the reply has usually been that if we ask for strength, God gives us more suffering to make us stronger. “But,” we might say, “that is a trick answer, because some people go mad with suffering. The world seems insane. Is there nobody in charge?” All this has proven to me how important it is to have a strong faith.
And if we can’t have faith, at least we need to work out some form of philosophy, and the sooner the better. Faith and a philosophical attitude both need time to settle into our psyche. There are habits of thought to form and areas of the mind – conscious and unconscious – to take into account and train. A few atheists and agnostics I have known have been, by first nature, mentally and emotionally at peace and I have envied them their inner strength, which is sometimes considerable, but few people are naturally at peace. The rest of us have to work at it.
Reading, discussion and knowing good people who are worthy examples to follow are the best way to form a good philosophy of life.
The same applies to developing our faith. There may be much that we can’t accept in religion, so we need to pare away our disbeliefs – cut out all that is negative – until we arrive at rock-bottom – what we can be sure of. It may be faith in God, in the Spirit of Life, in love, in humanity; in beauty, truth and virtue; faith in the survival of the human soul and so on. There is always something that we can be sure of in our heart of hearts, regardless of the doubts that other people may cast on what we believe.
If you believe in our survival of death, that life is more than we can see, I can make a suggestion which may be helpful to some. It is this: the soul is part of God. It is God-in-action – God-down-here – in an imperfect and limited form. If that’s the case, we can’t blame “God-up-there” for anything. One point of view is that the soul, in order to experience life, to which it is by nature attracted, willingly descends into situations in which suffering is a possibility – no pain, no gain. Some people may not be attracted by this answer, but I find it very helpful, and it has been a part of spirituality for a very long time, in one form or another. And God will still be your comfort, your strength, your companion, the recipient of your prayers or your thoughts, and the focus of your meditation.