This last weekend, 02/27/2010, some of us friends got together in my basement. We watched a video of Dr. Jeffrey Lang delivering a lecture on the topic of ‘Purpose of Life’ (full version available here). This stimulating lecture was followed by a passionate and intellectual discussion. In the lines that follow, I’ll try to summarize what we learned and discussed, interlaced with some of my own conclusions, comments and relevant material from other sources. As always, please feel free to jump in and share your thoughts on this online forum.
The question can simply be stated like this: Why are we here? Or, in other words, given an all-loving, all-powerful God, which we believe exists, why are human beings suffering on this rotten planet, instead of being somewhere else, like, for example, in heaven? And not only that we suffer; we have intellect to understand the reasons and raise questions about our suffering. Giving us the intelligence of this degree and then allowing us to suffer is like operating on a patient without Morphine. We see animals suffer on this planet too, but without the human intellect, animals at least are not so acutely conscious of it. Undoubtedly, it’s this awareness that is most painful. If God loved us, why would He put us here, where we can experience terrible pain and agony, disappointments and broken hearts, horrible diseases and earthquakes, murders and rapes and other ingenious methods of torture that some humans are capable of inventing and executing on other fellow beings. The simplistic answer, ‘we are here as a test’ does not really cut it. The purpose of a test is for the examiner to know better about the worth of the test-taker. In this case, the Examiner already knows everything there is to know, because He’s all-knowing. Logically speaking, there’s nothing we can do that can increase God’s knowledge. So why put us through this painful drama? Some people will tell you that this test is not for increasing God’s knowledge but yours. And further, that everything that had to happen has already happened; we are living this life now only to understand our choices. The science-fiction movie Matrix is a case in point. I, personally, don’t find it convincing at all – all this elaborate and agonizing drama to give me knowledge? – I don’t think so. There could be easier, and certainly less painful, ways for God to grant me that knowledge. In our meeting, we discussed the case of termites – the amazing engineering skills and the wonderful buildings this blind creature erects with that skill and knowledge. We discussed the remarkable fact that all this knowledge is bestowed to this creature right from the birth. If it was only knowledge I needed, why couldn’t God grant me such knowledge in a way similar to that?
Dr. Lang points out that in order for a relationship to develop, the two parties must have some common ground. Greater the common ground, stronger will be the resulting bond and relationship. Describing different levels of relationship, he offers the example of his own relationship with his goldfish, his dog and his daughter. With increasing common ground at each higher level, the bond gets stronger. Because we are more intellectual than physical beings, the best companionship develops with convergence of ideas and common personality characteristics. The only possibility of such common ground, between humans and God, lies in the moral dimension i.e. the adjectival nouns or attributes of God, e.g. mercy, truth, care, compassion, benevolence, guidance, peace, love, etc (the ~99 most beautiful names of God mentioned in the Qur’an). By cultivating these attributes in our own personalities, we can bring ourselves closer to God. Thus, according to Dr. Lang, we are placed here on earth to grow in our moral dimension. We are not finished products yet, but are rather work-in-progress creatures. In that sense, we can more appropriately be called human-becomings rather than human-beings. Once developed, this moral dimension will be the necessary common ground between God and us, for an eternal relationship of love and friendship. The final product of this process would be the best of the creatures – a friend and vicegerent of God in all universes.
So again, why is it necessary to put us here in the environment of suffering? Dr. Lang points out the three necessary ingredients to the recipe of morality: Intellect, choice and suffering. In other words, the human suffering on this earth is part of the original Divine plan. (on a side note: contrast this approach to the Sufism’s reply to the same question. For example, if you asked Prof. Nasr: why is there evil in this world? His reply would be: as privation of good and distance from God. In other words, God could not create a world, distant from Himself, and yet make it perfect. Clearly that makes evil, and resultant suffering, an imperfection and byproduct of the very process of creation, and certainly not a conscious and intentional Divine plan for some higher purpose. For further detail, see my critique of that approach). Only in the presence of these three necessary ingredients, we have a chance of moral growth. That makes suffering, at least in theory, an opportunity rather than a nuisance. The quantity of suffering one is subjected to, however, depends upon many different factors, not all of which we can understand completely. But like a good teacher, who wants the student to learn and grow, always gives assignments, just above the current caliber of the student – enough to challenge but not too much to frustrate – the extremely difficult lives of the chosen messengers and prophets of God, like Muhammad, Jesus, Abraham, Job, Joseph, etc, makes perfect sense.
Technically speaking, the evil in this world can be divided into two categories: Natural evil and Human evil. Disease, earthquake and tsunami, for example, fall in the first category while murder, rape and theft, in the second. Both result in human suffering. Most thinkers agree that this environment of suffering does bring out, what Prof. Patrick Grim calls, ‘higher order good’ and proffers the example of ‘courage’ that can only exist in an environment of fear. But Prof. Grim does not think that such good things, no matter how high on the scale of morality, can justify human suffering. Besides other examples, Prof. Grim brings up one of the most acclaimed and passionately written piece of literature, i.e. The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. Like Ivan (one of the main characters of this novel), Prof. Grim rejects this world that God has created because of it’s suffering, and thinks it’s not worth it. He actually goes further and says that a moral God won’t do it – won’t make a child suffer for you and me to learn morality.
So, once again the question becomes, as we have often heard: Is this the best of the worlds that God could create? As we discussed in our meeting, this question, stated like this, is incomplete and hides vital detail. We know from our experience that things are not good or bad in an absolute sense but are always relative to a purpose. We discussed the example that a van might be best road transport vehicle, if the purpose is to carry a large family long distance, but the same van might not be the best choice if the purpose is to race on a racetrack. On the other hand, Corvette might be the best vehicle on racetrack, but is not so good a choice for the purposes of a large family transport. The point being that the purpose determines the worth. With this understanding, the above question can be restated as: is this the best of the worlds God could create to its purpose? But what is that purpose? Most people who think that this world is not the best of the worlds that all-loving all-powerful God could create, mistakenly presume that the purpose of this world is for us to be comfortable and have fun. That is confusing earth with heaven – we’re not there yet. But if we understand the purpose of this world to be a learning academy – a place where we can grow, morally and intellectually – then the verdict might be different. For one thing we humans cannot do in this world is to not-learn – we necessarily learn from our experiences, and the choices we make, make this learning positive or negative.
Coming back to Prof. Grim’s question: is the ‘higher good’ that comes out of suffering, worth it? Undoubtedly, it’s an extremely serious and far-reaching question, but before we venture on to answer that question, I think, we should carefully consider two points. One, on a smaller scale, we make similar decisions routinely, and choose temporary suffering for some higher good in the future. For example, we knowingly expose our children to the rigor and hardship of school and college in consideration of their future success and benefit, even though we have a choice not to. Granted that the rigors of four year college is nothing compared to the suffering of this world, but then again, the resulting benefits are also disproportional – a four year college degree to be used for the next forty five years of working life, compared to eternal bliss and friendship with the creator of the heavens and earth. Secondly, many thinkers agree that there are higher realities than what meets the eye in this world. Plato’s ‘shadows in the cave’ and Qur’an’s higher reality of the afterlife (50:22) can be points to be considered. In that higher reality, our earthly existence would seem only part of a day, says the Qur’an (79:46). The suffering of this earthly life feels very much real and heart-wrenching when we’re going through it, but so do our dreams. Who is to say that the death from this life won’t be like waking up into a higher reality from a dream that felt very real?