Friday, November 14, 2014

Atonement: a thought experiment

I interrupt the regularly unscheduled and a little quixotic programming to introduce a thought experiment based on an idea I was recently given: What if we accept our misfortunes as atonement for our wrongdoing?

I won't argue that God punishes the bad and rewards the good. This would mean that many rich, power, famous and beautiful people have God on their side and the rest of us, well, we've been bad and have gotten what we deserve. That's Calvinist nonsense.

Behind every fortune lies a crime, as Balzac well pointed out, power belongs to the ruthless, fame is a whimsical thing (witness the Kardashians, whose raison d'etre as celebrities totally eludes me) and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So, no, sorry rich, powerful, famous and beautiful people, God loves everyone, not just you.

But consider what things might be like if you and I were to say, when misfortune befalls us: "I have been fortunate beyond what I realistically deserve. I did nothing to be alive and the justification for my existence is iffy. Moreover, I have hurt people and have deserved punishment that I have not received."

Perhaps then misfortune might be a small way to "work off" our wrongs and set the universe a little more in balance. Or, maybe, just to accept what we cannot change in a moral and faithful way.

Of course, there remains the problem of evil. Misfortune is not apportioned proportionately and we don't know why. There surely are people who are poorer, sicker, more in pain than we are, yet there is in most cases little evidence that they have behaved much worse than we have.

For example, although I generally do not agree with the notion of the innocence of children, why are there children with cancer whose worst deed is most likely no more than a minor fib or taking something from a sibling and Wall Street executives are walking freely enjoying millions despite having had a hand in the impoverishment of millions of Americans?

I don't have an answer. One of the reasons to desire finding oneself in the presence of God one day is the possibility of being able to ask her questions like this, face to face, so to speak.

But right now, I like the idea of misfortune, real or imagined, as a kind of atonement. Here is a prayer for it:

Thank you, God, for the opportunity to share in the woe I have contributed to this world. Thank you for the chance to experience the unfairness with which I have treated others. I am humbled in my suffering. Help me to cleanse myself in my suffering, to learn compassion for others in my pain and to radiate your love rather than my discomfort. Amen.

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