I have been thinking about faith and divine intervention this week. I have seen calls for prayer from friends, from newscasters, even from the President. I have also seen people denounce God as uncaring and cruel. Evil exists and God does not stop it. How can this be? If we pray to God and are good people, shouldn't only good things happen to us? Does it mean we have failed as human beings if something bad happens? It is tempting to think so, but that argument falls to pieces when confronted with the reality of a tragedy like that of September 11th, 2001.
I pray every night before I go to sleep, asking God for protection. I ask that my family and loved ones be kept safe and secure. I feel confident in my prayer. When I feel a connection to God, I know God will heed my words. But I also know it is a false sense of safety. Perhaps in the same way that most Americans feel about their now-discarded feeling of security they had from living in the United States. Bad things can happen at any time. There is no absolute protection.
If prayer can not protect us, should we still pray? If God allows terrible things to happen, does that mean God is unable to intervene when we need it? It is easy to give a quick answer: have faith and respect God's will; or, God is useless or doesn't exist. It is harder to look at what it means to pray, what it means to have a relationship with God, and to ask what exactly is evil and how does it coexist with God and good?
It is tempting to believe that everything that happens is God's will and God's plan for us. Perhaps what seems like a bad turn in life will turn out to be better for us down the road. I hear people say this to those who ask why it happened that they prayed but lost their job, or found out their child has a disability, or they lost somebody dear. I don't believe God intervenes in our lives to this degree. Although I think some happenings we may not understand are the work of God, I think, for the most part, we live our lives and make our own choices.
No matter how hard I try to wrap my brain around it, I can't imagine that God worked out ahead of time that every person on those 4 airplanes, every person on the west side of the Pentagon building, every person above the 80th or so floor of the World Trade Center towers was meant to die that day. If an individual asks, why did my mother have to die? why did that child end up on that plane? there really is no answer. This tragedy was so broad, so massive, that I don't know how we can assign divine intervention to each life lost or each life saved. We have to step back and look at it from a larger perspective. Why did this horrific thing happen? Why did so many die?
Over the last few years, I've been reading stories of people's relationships to prayer and I have realized that my conception of God is not the same as that of most Christians or most Jews either. I consider myself a religious Jew, though I am not Orthodox and not observant in traditional ways. I fit best with Jewish Renewal and with mystical Judaism. I have also studied with Buddhists/Taoists, whose view of the divine is more in line with mysticism (a belief system that can be a part of any religion). I find it impossible to answer the questions I raised above, without first deciding what God is.
When I was growing up, the only option of God offered to me was that of a divine being. Whether Father or Mother, God was personified as a being with an independent mind, a will, and choices about how to run the world. Prayer in this context is similar to a child appealing to a parent. God knows best and decides whether or not to grant the request. Something never felt right for me with this idea of God. I believe it was this that kept me from religion until I was in my mid-20's.
Through learning from both Pagan and Buddhist/Taoist friends, I began to see another option. God not as a divine being but as what I first called "a layer of magic." I knew there was something "out there" that was divine and that religion was what brought us closer to that something and allowed us to make use of it. As my connection grew, I realized my conception was wrong. God isn't "out there"; God is everywhere. In Taoist terms, the universe is made up of chi (loosely translated as energy, but meaning much more). There is fluid chi and there is solid chi, and degrees inbetween. Our bodies are solid, though the chi in them also moves. I practiced Chi Gong, a type of movement meditation, whose goal is to bring us in touch with the chi of the universe, the same chi that flows through our bodies and determines if we are alive or dead, healthy or ill.
I discovered very quickly after connecting with this chi that what I called the chi of the universe and what I was trying to call God were one and the same. I don't pretend that everyone agrees with me. I know people who practiced Chi Gong and worshiped God but considered them separate. And there are many people who do see God as a being (perhaps most practitioners of Western religions do). My conception of God is not as a being but as divinity itself. God is simply the name we give to it.
The goal of every Jew is to develop a personal relationship with God. This is not unique to Judaism but Jews emphasize it strongly. I see it as my spiritual goal to cultivate this relationship. I don't see it in any way similar to a relationship I might cultivate with another person, but more like getting to know myself and connecting with the universe, all rolled up into one. There are countless ways to make this connection and all of them are prayer. To me prayer is not about asking for things (though I often do) or expressing thanks for things (though I do that too) but about connection. If I make that connection to God then my prayer has been successful. If I don't get what I asked for, then it probably wasn't meant to be; but that does not negate the prayer itself. Has prayer improved my life in material ways (tangible ways...I don't mean acquiring wealth here)? Yes, I believe it has. But my main goal is spiritual, to nurture that relationship with God.
So what about when bad things happen? What about evil acts? To answer I have to explore what I mean by "evil." There are almost as many explanations and descriptions of evil as there are of God. I've been grappling for some years with what I think evil is. I find it even harder to decide on my idea of evil than to decide on my idea of God. I think partly that is because almost no one wants to deal with evil, so it gets pushed aside in our consciousness and so we use the words but they have lost much of their meaning.
I believe there are two kinds of evil and that they are distinct: spiritual evil and human evil. I've found these very hard to talk about. Most Jews do not recognize spiritual evil (I had a rabbi recommend psychotherapy when I tried to discuss it with him) and claim it is a Christian invention (it is not; there are several Jewish sects, notably the Chasidim, who include it in their theology). Many Christians are unsure of how to treat spiritual evil as well and a good number of Christians can talk of little else. I have been searching in vain for a Jewish conception of spiritual evil that I can use in my everyday life. In the meantime, I have spoken at length with Christian friends, read Chasidic folktales, and come to my own conclusions.
To those who believe in both spiritual evil and a God who is a divine being, evil is also a being. I am not sure what spiritual evil is and how it relates to my conception of God, but I know its form will be similar to God's: part of the chi, the living spirit, of the universe. Some people call upon spiritual evil and harness its power for their own reasons. I don't think spiritual evil seeks out "idle hands" or people who aren't religious in the "right way," though I do believe it is possible for innocents to be used. In general though, when a person commits an evil act with the assistance of a spiritual presence, it is done deliberately. Most evil acts do not, in my opinion, involve spiritual evil.
There is another kind of evil, one whose origin is purely human. I hesitate to call people evil without knowing their hearts, but I have no such reluctance to label their acts (murder, rape, child abuse, concentration camps) as the evil they are (whether done in the name of God or not). Every evil act involves victims. I became one as a child. At times in my life I wondered if I deserved it. Not because of anything I did then but because of my soul. I'm not sure how much of reincarnation I believe but the questions haunt me. If someone suffers in this life does it mean they hurt others in a previous life? Does that make their suffering just? I have to say no. No child deserves pain, no matter what the theology. Is suffering part of God's plan? Did I suffer so I could learn a lesson, help others in need, or gain understanding? No. I can take all those positive things from the experience, but I do not believe God chose for me to have it. When a person chooses evil, those close to them are the most likely targets. When a person chooses evil, they plan the details of the acts out of their own needs and desires.
Were the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon evil? without a doubt. But were the perpetrators evil? That is a harder question. Were the pilots who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki evil? What about the politicians and scientists who planned the attacks? Or the soldiers and citizens who cheered them on? Or were they caught up in an ideology that justified such acts? Those who planned and executed September 11th's attacks committed vile and horrible acts. Nothing excuses such carnage. I can't go inside their minds but I have heard some of the philosophies behind their decisions. Sometimes people commit evil for a reason that goes beyond wanting to hurt people. I can only assume that, in their own minds, the perpetrators believed they were bettering humanity or advancing a moral cause.
So when we ask how can God allow such evil, I have to answer: God didn't allow evil; God allowed human beings to make bad decisions. God didn't cause terrible things to happen to thousands of people; God watched as human beings committed evil acts and as thousands of innocents got caught in the way. I will continue to pray to God because my relationship with God is intact. The human world has forever changed but God has not, and God has not deserted us.