Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Suffering and the question of suffering is our shared destiny. Today millions are homeless in different parts of the world and are suffering through famine and disease. BBC has estimated that a billion people are suffering from anxiety and depression in our global village.
I have always thought that when tackling the question of suffering one would want to build a paradigm shared by the Western religions, which are the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and the Eastern religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism.
But, the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias, in his recent book about suffering, Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, chooses to ridicule Buddhism and Islam as he presents a case for Jesus on the cross and Original Sin with his coauthor Vince Vitale. I have two words for him and his coauthor: biological evolution!
Biological evolution, not only answers the question of suffering, if not for the human suffering at least for the lower animals, but, at the same time pulls the rug from under the feet of Zacharias by demonstrating that his thesis is not only wrong philosophically, but scientifically absurd.
Let me quote here the concluding paragraph, in the later editions of the legendary book of Charles Darwin, on the Origin of Species that can make one quickly conceptualize the role of suffering in the grand scheme of things:
From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been breathed, by the Creator, into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Once the question about suffering is understood as a tool for evolution, as Charles Darwin suggested, one is ready for a more pragmatic discussion of the question of suffering. Read further on this theme: The Question of Suffering: A Leading Christian and a Celebrated Agnostic Debate, But Miss the Crux of the Matter.
I find no need to vilify Ravi Zacharias. I found listening to his videos in Youtube that he is a very smart and intelligent man and has done a lot of good work for the case of Theism. I hope that he stops throwing stones at Islam while he lives in a glass house, which depends on Adam and Eve being the first human couple, living some 6000 years ago, whose sin became the Original Sin, while biology has shown that humans or human like species existed for several million years.
Biological evolution has displaced the very premise of Christianity and of Ravi Zacharias book that we all are marred by Original Sin of Adam and Eve and therefore, Jesus for love of humanity, had to die for our sins to restore the suffering caused by the Original Sin.
I applaud his CV from his Amazon.com page, which says: “For over thirty-five years, Ravi Zacharias has spoken all over the world in great halls and universities, notably Harvard, Princeton, and numerous universities internationally. He is listed as a Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford university More about Ravi Zacharias.”
But, he needs to give up some of his tactics that he uses for his apologetic work for Christianity and religious polemics.
In his above mentioned book he writes about Buddhism, in his fifth chapter, Other responses on offer: Buddhism, Islam, Naturalism, as he criticizes Buddhism:
The entire corpus of material in Buddhism is summarized in four subheadings.
1. The fact of suffering
2. The cause of suffering
3. The cessation of suffering
4. The path to that cessation
Simply stated, suffering results from past actions and from the reality of desire. We desire things; we desire circumstances; we desire success; we desire wealth; we desire happiness. All these desires make us pursue habits and make decisions that we think will help us get ‘there,’ but that also make us vulnerable to pain and suffering.
And in the end, in this life we never get ‘there.’ Instead, We find ourselves in a state in which our desire only grows. We need to find a ‘there’ where we will no longer desire anything — the state of Nirvana, where we do not will or want anything because the will has been extinguished.
Then he describes his meeting with a Buddhist monk:
Some years ago, I was in Thailand and spent time with the ﬁrst ordained woman monk in that country. Since Thai Buddhism doesn’t ordain women, she had gone to Sri Lanka to be ordained. She also had a PhD degree from a prestigious university in Canada. As we sat across from each other at a table, I offered her some mango pudding that I had brought as a gift for her, though I wasn’t sure she would accept it because I was aware of the strictures upon her as a monk. She did, but she told me that since it was past one o’clock in the afternoon, she couldn’t touch it or any food until the next morning, so if I would kindly put it directly into her bag where she could access it later rather than hand it to her, she would appreciate it.
Smart that Ravi Zacharias is, he traps her into a few difficult questions, first about her family life and then about Dalai Lama and liberation of Tibet:
‘Who would you say best represents that state of no desire at present?’
‘I would say the Dalai Lama.’
‘But he speaks out for the liberation of Tibet. . .isn’t that a desire?’
‘You could say that.’
‘But is that a noble desire?’
‘You will have to ask him.’
‘Why do you think he desires that when he knows it is that very desire that keeps him from attaining the goal of life?’
Pause…pause…pause. ‘Let’s just say it’s because he chooses to.’
‘So the will to liberate Tibet trumps the will to want nothing?’
A tilted shake of the head. ‘May I switch to another question?’
‘If you wish. What do you think brings about all this suffering?’
‘Do we inherit this from our past?’
Then Ravi Zakarias moves to set up another ‘got you,’ trap.
I am not saying that Ravi Zacharias is philosophically wrong when he set up these traps against Buddhism for an unsuspecting monk, even though it was unkind. But, can he get out of the scientific trap that I am setting for him, as pay back?
He may feign ignorance that he fails to see any trap or contradiction between his version of Christianity and biological evolution, but, let me lay out some additional materials for more fair minded Christians and the Buddhists that he has bruised by the above traps: Charles Darwin: An Epiphany for the Muslims, A Catastrophe for the Christians and Biology of Our Human Family: Who are We Related To?
I have put the weight of the whole of the scientific establishment and the last 150 years of biological research since the publication of Charles Darwin’s legendary book on the shoulders of Ravi Zacharias. Can he bear the burden of all this evidence?
May be Dalai Lama will join my way of questioning Ravi Zacharias!
On a more serious note, we as humans, share the question and experience of suffering and we need a more comprehensive and balanced understanding of the issue, not one that is immersed in religious polemics. I believe that Buddhism offers us a good starting point to tackle the question and Judaism, Christianity and Islam can help us push the envelop further, without denying the scientific realities, like the facts put forth by the theory of evolution.
The traps that he has set for Islam will require a much more detailed refutation.
In this pursuit, I am writing a book with an agnostic friend Prof. Eric Dietrich, who is Professor of Philosophy in Binghamton University, in near future. For a glimpse of what the book may cover, let me share here one of my previous posts: Tackling the Ever Present Question of Suffering from Agnostics’ and Atheists’ Works.
As I said before, for the question of suffering, we need an interfaith approach to meet the challenge. We have chosen our Jewish contributor to this issue. He is Harold S. Kushner, with a best selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.
Below is a video with a Christian response to adversity and suffering. If we substitute Jesus with Muhammad and St. Paul with the Muslim heroes, the Biblical quotes with the Quranic quotes, we will have an Islamic version of the question of suffering. Of course, we will also need to substitute main principles of the Christian theology for the Muslim theology. A model of God’s prophets rather than a son of God allegedly dying for sins of others. No one can be put in jail, for example, for crimes of others and we all know it!
However, what Charles Stanley presents below about the suffering and trial in human life is shared by all theists and others.
Similar agnostic, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Sikh versions of this video can be easily constructed, with few substitutions here and there.
Here is a substitution to be made in the above video.
From a Muslim, a Jewish and a universal perspective, we have to put our trust in God the Father, for Jesus was only a man like Muhammad, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, David, John the Baptist, Buddha, Krishna, Ram and Confucius.