So, twenty two children dead in a horrific coach crash in Switzerland. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives altered for those left behind. Abyssal grief, hand wringing; and empty spaces that can never be filled.
I am a father to two beautiful daughters. The thought of losing them is the thing I fear most. I cannot imagine what the parents of those lost children must be feeling right now.
Funny, but I find myself thinking about my own worldview at this point, and specifically my lack of religious convictions. To me when terrible things happen they do not come with some deeper, eternal meaning. They are simply terrible, and that is all that can be said. I do not believe that the universe owes me an explanation for such misfortune; it doesn't seem to care. The suffering of vast swathes of humanity is met only by indifference from a mute and empty void.
If, however, you have a faith it occurs to me that you have to make several rather uneasy concessions. If you grant the existence of a loving God I think legitimate questions can and should be asked about events that take the lives of twenty two children. A typical Christian response may take the following forms; 1. God loves us so much that he allows us free will to make decisions both good and bad, which explains why we have suffering. 2. God always has morally sufficient reasons for allowing terrible things to happen, It's just that from our perspective we cannot hope to understand them.
I have big problems with both explanations. The free will defence is on rocky ground because it now appears that free will itself is an illusion. It has been demonstrated that our our brains make choices sometimes long before we consciously become aware of them. Functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques have been used to show this, which is a fact I find more than a bit creepy. That last sentence I wrote; my brain had chosen its composition before I became consciously aware of it. What does this mean? How do we live in the light of this new knowledge?
Moving to the question of God having morally sufficient reasons, this to me seems a perfect abdication of any attempt to understand the problem of human suffering. We humans operate in the here and now; we're wired to seek understanding and explanation now, and when I hear well meaning Christians claim that there are some things we just cannot understand I regard it as a failure to engage with the real world.
And it gets worse for the believer. Those very same people who play the divine mystery card in one sentence will confidently proclaim direct divine intervention the next. Those children you longed for are suddenly a gift from heaven, or that job, or relationship, or car park space. This is the absurd double standard. When the good times roll the Creator of the universe is steering the ship, yet when the same ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean the Captain is mysteriously absent, strangely mute, oddly unresponsive.
Ask yourself simply what is the more likely reality here; that God is a fickle cherry picker answering some prayers whilst ignoring terrible disasters, or that the events we behold are simply natural phenomena in a natural world?
It seems to me plain that option two is the more sensible. Not necessarily the most comforting, and perhaps not even the reality we would choose. But at the end of the day pain and anguish and suffering have always been with us, and it's for us as a species to stand beside each other and offer the support and the love and practical support to those stricken with suffering and loss.
Today my thoughts are with the parents, siblings, and extended family of those lost twenty two dear children. I weep for them. My heart aches for them. This is a dark and terrible day.