Living with God in times of suffering: Interfaith Dialogue 2012
“I’d rather be Noah than Job,” said Dr. Donniel Hartman, Rabbi and President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, who was the speaker representing Judaism at this year’s triennial Jewish/Christian/Muslim Interfaith Dialogue Conference: Living with God in a Time of Suffering.
The conference was hosted in the GVSU L.V. Eberhard Center on Tuesday, and sponsored by the Sylvia and Richard Kaufman Interfaith Institute. The conference was the culminating event of the 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding, and was a lively and open series of speeches and discussions about various faiths. Even Buddhism was discussed, at one point.
There were two other speakers; Rev. Dr. Cynthia M. Campbell, who represented the Christian faith, and Dr. Omid Safi, who represented the Islamic faith. Nearly 300 people attended the day-long event, which began with a welcome by Sylvia Kaufman and Mayor George Hartwell, followed by devotional music from Pakistan’s Qawai Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers, a group of musicians from the Islamic faith who shared some of their culture with a song about different peoples coming together in faith, and another praising the prophets. The event ended with a free, open-to-the-public session during which the speakers read passages from their religious traditions and reflected on them, followed by discussion and questions from the audience.
The main portion of the day was broken into three sessions, each led by one of the three speakers, with time set aside for the other two speakers to respond, and then a time for the audience to respond with questions. These questions ranged from ‘where did evil come from?’ to ‘why do innocent babies die?’ to even ‘does God really intervene in life and/or history?’.
Though specific answers were difficult to give in the allotted time, each speaker attempted to address these issues as best they could, often speaking with those who asked the questions later in the day, during breaks between sessions.
Hartman opened the first session with the statement that he would rather be Noah than Job, and explained in brief the stories of these two men: Noah was rescued by God, who had him build a boat in which to ride out the flood that killed every creature on Earth, save the ones on the ark – Noah, his family, and two of every kind of animal; Job, like Noah, did nothing wrong in God’s eyes, but was tested with horrible trials and the loss of everything he cared about.
“Suffering is an inherent part of the human condition,” Hartman said, explaining that any faith has to address that issue as well as all other things that are part of being human. In the end, Hartman said, Job was given everything he had lost, and more, but he had to suffer first, and from that we as human beings can learn how to endure suffering ourselves.
Campbell, the Christian speaker, spoke in depth about the different types of suffering, as she saw them, during her session. These three areas of suffering were: death, and things related to it, such as illness; natural disasters, and things related to them; and the one thing that can truly be called evil, in her eyes – suffering caused by human choices. She then related these types of suffering to the suffering of Jesus Christ, and what we as people can learn from that.
“The suffering of Jesus reminds us that God stands in solidarity with us,” Campbell said, referring to a concept she called ‘redemptive solidarity’, which means that through Christ’s suffering, human beings are ‘redeemed’, or saved from sin. Campbell expressed the belief that through the suffering of Jesus Christ, God walks in solidarity with human beings, understanding our pain and suffering as though they were his own, because they were, through Jesus.
“Any religion worth its salt must be able to grapple with all the elements of humanity,” Safi, the Muslim speaker, said. He spoke about how there may be a kind of suffering that defines us as human beings, that perhaps can’t be changed. From there, he segued into the idea that God cannot be a God who ‘intervenes’ in the present, past, or future, as that would mean He was coming from somewhere ‘other’ into what is our experience. Rather, he says, God is already here, working among us, and so ‘intervening’ is an inept word to describe what He does.
“The question is not ‘why does God allow suffering to go on?’,” Safi said. “The question is ‘why do WE allow it to go on?’.”
Following these three sessions was a reservation-only dinner, that came with sheets that had discussion questions on them for the attendees to read and talk about at their tables. These questions, and others, were later discussed after the reflection time that ended the last evening session.
Though the event was considered to be a great success by those who attended, one person in particular, Debbie Mageed, a Muslim attendee, felt that one area of the community was not being reached enough by the event.
“The 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding is a great project,” she said, “ but it’s basically impacting adults…it’s the young people that I would really like to see it impact.”
For more information about the 2012 Year of Interfaith Understanding, visit the webpage http://www.gvsu.edu/interfaith/2012-year-of-interfaith-understanding-112.htm.