I am bothered by lazy thinking, regardless of whether it’s coming from an atheist, agnostic, or someone of deep and specific faith. In general, I think if you’re static or comfortable in your belief or unbelief in God, you simply aren’t spending enough time thinking about your faith.1
As this blog unfolds, I may unpack a little more about my own faith, which I am unwilling to tie to one specific tradition. One of the hallmarks of my understanding of God, however, is a strong belief in His holiness and sovereignty. I’ve long been troubled by the prevalence of “bad things,” whether they happen to “good people” or not. I have thought and read a lot on this topic alone. I recently heard an episode of Conversations with Tyler2 that gave me a new perspective.
In this episode,3 Tyler Cowen interviewed Rabbi David Wolpe, who is described as “one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of our time.” I’ve often found the Jewish perspective compelling, and this exchange is no exception.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: OK, this is a general question. When I went on birthright,4 we talked a lot about the idea that everything happens for a reason in the Jewish religion, and so I wanted to know your beliefs and your mindset on when you experience things in life that are really bad, for instance a lot of nice people and good people passing away or just anything bad that happens in life, I guess your belief on that and if you still believe everything happens for a reason.
WOLPE: OK, I’m going to try to make this really as quick as possible, but give me some allowance for the fact that I’m making it very quick. First of all, I don’t believe at all that everything happens for a reason. Not at all. I think there’s a lot of randomness in the world. I think the attempt to say everything happens for a reason can lead you to some moral obscenities like, “Oh, this kid in the Sudan who was born with amoebic dysentery and lived for three years and suffered and died, it happened for a reason.” Yeah, the reason is because the world is unfair. That’s the reason. Now, why the world is unfair, I have a theory about.
But before I get to that, let me just say, the question of life is not why did this happen to you but what will you do with it, given that it happened to you. That’s the question, does God give you the power to make something out of what has happened to you even though…
It’s like when I got cancer. Couple times. I’ve had two brain surgeries and I’ve had chemotherapy, and every time someone would say to me, “Why do you think God did this?” And they were well meant. And my answer was, “I don’t think that God said Wolpe could use some chemo.”
WOLPE: I think, rather, that the question of my life would be, given that this happened, what do you do with it? How do you react to it? How do you feel about it? And I would just say very quickly that my working theory is—and it’s not original with me—is that when people say, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Imagine for a minute that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Everybody would be good all the time. Because who would be bad if you know every time you steal, you’re going to get a disease. Everyone would be good all the time.
The only way it is possible to be good in this world is if you can be good without knowing the consequences. It has to be random or there’s no goodness. So you know you can be the best person in the world, and you can still die young. But at least, if you know that, then your goodness was real goodness. You were doing it because you believe good is important, or you love other people, or being good makes you feel good — something intrinsic and not because you’re being good because you know God’s going to reward you. So that’s what I would say in a nutshell.
The whole episode is well worth a listen. There are several rich veins of thought to mine here, and I return to it often.