The perennial question of suffering

The editors of Arts & Letters Daily state it bluntly: "If God is God, he's not good. If God is good, he's not God. You can't have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe." Most reporters, however, have realized that theologians have more than that to say about God's role in human suffering. Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided a helpful survey of responses from religious leaders, including these:

Rabbi Efry Spectre, Ahavat Achim Synagogue:

"We as Jews are concerned more with action than with thought. You can't speak for all Jews at any one time, but for the most part we are a people who believe that God created a world that was good and ever-developing, and gave the human being the great gift of free will. It's up to us to be partners with God in bettering the world.

Soumaya Khalifa, executive director of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta, part of the Islamic Network Group:

"The Islamic perspective is that God is the master of the universe. Anything that happens, Muslims look upon it as a test. Muslims also believe that at the day of judgment, the deeds of all people will be looked at. When a test is given such as this, their reaction is what they will be, if you will, graded on. Were they patient and thanking God, or were they thinking, 'Why me? This is unfair.'

Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention:

"Whether a disaster happens when you're on an airliner or in a fire or a hurricane, if your faith and hope is in Jesus Christ you know that should you die, you will live eternally in heaven. That is a tremendous comfort for people who have faith in Christ.

"As to why this kind of thing happens, that's the perennial question. We live in an imperfect world. The issue is not whether disaster will strike us or sadness will come, but are we prepared spiritually for that moment?"

Ed Buckner, southern U.S. director for the Council for Secular Humanism:

"I understand that for some religious people it stirs deep questions for which there are no easy answers. For a secular humanist who doesn't believe in a supernatural explanation for anything, it is easier in some ways to take events like this. We don't ask questions like 'How could God let this happen?' since we don't believe there is a God.

"To people who think we are not compassionate or not moral, we feel great compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering unimaginable agony right now. It's not exclusively a Christian impulse to want to reach out and help."

Jeffrey Weiss of the Dallas Morning News has done a fine job of reporting how Buddhism and Hinduism differ from the three great monotheistic faiths in their understanding of suffering:

Buddhists believe the universe operates on a strict system of karma, moral justice that spans generations. Bad things that happen to a person in this life are the result of bad things the person did in this life -- or in myriad earlier lives. That means there are never "innocent victims."

"What goes around comes around," said the Rev. Prem Suksawat, the Thai-born religious leader for the Dhamma Cetiya Buddhist Vihara in Boston.

. . . Unlike most Western faiths, Hinduism has no universally recognized authorities, texts or doctrines. Rituals and practice change from region to region.

But Hindus generally agree that there is one all-powerful god who manifests in many forms, male and female. And that god can sometimes send messages though natural events.

Sunday's local deepa puja, attended by more than 100 devotees, included a prayer for the dead to that single, highest god:

"The light symbolizes the divine power of God, the brightest and most sacred of all. Similarly, the light that emanates from the departed souls is also powerful and sacred. We pray that these two lights merge, symbolizing the unification of the immortal soul of God."

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