How does an all powerful God allow terrible tragedy to happen?

Reverend Tom Honey has been a priest in the Church of England for over 20 years. In 2004 he had to address his flock on a Sunday shortly after the tragic Indian Ocean tsunamis. Unspeakable suffering -- but how can you explain God's role? Countless tragedy and unimaginable suffering over eons.

How can an all-powerful God allow this to happen? It has long been a deep-seated theological and philosophical question in my mind. Is God a puppet-master, or some medieval tyrant? If so, then he is either not benevolent or not ominipotent.

Rev. Honey explains that perhaps this is the wrong frame. That maybe we're pretending to know God better than we possibly could know him. That he might not be an agent in the way we think of human beings as agents. That he does not, but is. The reverend goes on goes on:

To have faith in this God would be more like trusting an essential goodness and benevolence in the universe, and less like believing a system of doctrinal statements. Isn’t it ironic that Christians who claim to believe in an infinite, unknowable being, then tie God down in closed systems and rigid doctrines? Faith in God demands the huge step of saying, “despite all appearances to the contrary, I trust that there is a loving presence, but I will live without knowing.”

And that resonates with me. I accept that there is pain and suffering in this world. I would go further -- that we are called to recognize the divine within others and to serve and love and bring happiness to them.

I've been studying other traditions in my spare time of late, particularly the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Bhagavad Gita. And I'm struck by the common chord between them. Life is a tremendous gift, and it is so short. So we must try to live it in service to those of our tribe, be it our friends and family, our nation, humanity, or all life in the Universe.

Society and civilization are made possible by empathy, through the magic of Mirror Neurons


Profound revelation: All humans are WIRED to experience that which they see happen to others, as if they are having the experience themselves.

Dustin Curtis first told me about this concept on a bus ride from Boston to New York two years ago. I was despondent over how mechanistic and selfish neurobiology seems to paint human beings. Survival of the fittest and all of that. From an economic perspective, we all seek our own rational self-interest above that of others. What prevents us all from becoming infinitely bloodthirsty selfish pirates, anyway?

Dustin replied -- well, there's this thing called mirror neurons. He recently wrote about it in his blogazine. Our brains are wired to experience things that we see happening to others. Ultimately that is what empathy is -- being able to feel what others experience. And it comes built in to every one of us, thankfully.

As Jeremy Rifkin explains in the video above, the arrow of human history is really one about ever-increasing levels of empathy. Before we only had empathy for a our family group, then your tribe, onwards to a whole nation state, and so on. Recent developments in the state-of-the-art in empathy has now extended empathy to all human beings who live, and now even the whole Earth and all its creatures. Through this empathy, we are moving forward human capability, creation, love, and ultimately goodness in the world. 

I'm certain we were put on this earth to make other people's experiences and lives better. So by giving into empathy, we can truly feel the same experiences as others and thereby improve them. This affects your life right now, no matter what you do. If you're creating something, anything, you probably want it to be good. You want to solve problems for your customers. You want their experience to be better. That's good for you, but even better for others. And making things better for others is what it's really all about.

This concept of mirror neurons as an underpinning of empathy and society fills me with great hope. We've got a shot, guys!

Moral psychology: The 5 key tenets of morality underpin whether one is liberal or conservative (TED)

Really amazing and fascinating TED talk by Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology and creator of In a nutshell, morality can be described as: caring about harm against the defenseless, fairness, loyalty, respect of authority, and overall purity. Conservatives consistently rank all 5 at about equal weight, whereas liberals rank harm against the defenseless and fairness far above the others.

Liberals value fairness and helping the weak above others for the sheer fact that in a society, the other 3 perpetuate and hold down the weak, defenseless, helpless and the victims of discrimination. Respect of authority is maligned because it is authority that traditionally perpetuates the systems of oppression.

Yet as Haidt points out, these 5 tenets of morality exist to create self-organizing society. Without all five, we would have never been able to create tribes and governments. Perhaps there would still only be anarchy. This stability sustains normal life and underpins the welfare of all.

I wonder in a historical context what red state vs blue state will really mean in the long run. Is 1960's era blue state liberal ideology a temporary and necessary concept in order to bring fairness and civil rights for all? Or is red state conservative ideology an anachronism now in the time of a fully multicultural, interconnected, global, modern society?

PS, TED is using Posterous. Subscribe to the TED Blog Posterous and welcome them to the neighborhood. =)