Thursday, March 31, 2011

God and The Cancer

"I am grumpy because of what the cancer did to Mommy," declared Maya on the sidewalk next to our car as twilight deepened yesterday. "I miss Mommy and I don't like the cancer."

"I miss her, too," I said. "Cancer is bad and evil."

Last week she asked me why God had made Verna die. I said, "God didn't make Mommy die. She died because she had cancer, and sometimes cancer makes you die."

A week or so before Verna's funeral, I met with Father Paul, the Catholic priest Verna personally asked to officiate at the ceremony. He is active in social justice issues in the community, especially in the Latino neighborhoods. Somehow the issue of death and God and the unfairness of it all came up.

"I hate it when people say 'God wanted her more'," Father Paul admitted as we sat across from one another. "God didn't want her more. She died because she was too sick."

"Yes," I agreed, as I contemplated hugging him, "the cancer won out this time."

Father Paul's theological view of death was comforting to me. See, I don't blame God for Verna's death. I don't even hold God responsible for the Holocaust. If we have real free will then I understand why God has pulled back from the world, though I wouldn't mind a little intervention now and then. Some good old fashioned Biblical fire and brimstone to smote the real, real bad people. Rwanda. Darfur. Just to name two for starters.

Father Paul's words soothed me because I am agnostic, but it was nice to know he and I were on the same cosmological page.

I've been an agnostic since I was 19. I was an undergrad at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was in a Sociology of Deviance class and the professor was talking about crime and moral relativism and it suddenly struck me that, maybe, there wasn't any God. I'd never had any proof of God's existence, so why believe in a Deity that is quite possibly fictional?

My mother freaked out when I told her I wasn't sure there was a God.

"Maybe you should talk to someone," she pleaded.

So I made an appointment with Rabbi Neil Gilman, then the dean of the Seminary's rabbinical school, who'd also been my freshman Jewish philosophy professor a year earlier. I confirmed everything with his secretary.

On the day of the appointment, I felt as if were entering a lower realm on the way to Heaven, my insides shaky and roiling. Gilman was a scholar who made me nervous. He knew so much and I basically ignored most of his class for I was a lazy undergrad for the first five years of college.

He ushered me into his office, lined with books and books and books. He asked me why I was there.

"I already told your secretary," I said meekly, looking down at my sneakers.

"I know, I just want to hear it from you," he intoned.

"I don't think I believe in God anymore," I said.

He got up from his black leather swivel chair and extended his hand towards me. "Welcome to the club," he said with a grin.

Over the next few weeks, we read different philosophers and Gilman expounded on his view that belief in God exists on a continuum. At various stages of one's life he or she is on the more believing side; and at other stages he or she believes less.

That made sense to me, but over the years I haven't budged from my proud agnosticism. But I was never ready to take the leap into full blown atheism, because atheism always seemed too absolute. I am a doubter, not a disbeliever.

A few months later I watched a bus filled with members of the local Jewish youth group, including my younger brother (and only sibling), pull away from the synagogue enroute to some weekend retreat. I told my mother as we walked to the car that I prayed to God for Scott to be safe.

She started crying. Joyfully.

But even for all my agnostic bluster, I have had experiences, still, that cause me to wonder about the world. Watching the births of both children was a miracle and a mystery that can't help but stir a sense that the world is guided by something.

In early 2009, I wrote a freelance article about the popularity of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition that has gained a fair amount of publicity because Madonna is one of its devotees. One rabbi I interviewed said the essence of Kabbalah is recognizing the Divine spark in everyone and treating everyone as if he or she possesses that celestial shard of light.

His words resonated with me, and I have never forgotten them. I have a few close friends and associates (namely a few elderly women at the retirement community where I work), and family members who are either devout or active in their faiths. Deep, non-judgmental faith impresses me. Always has.

I remember watching my late mother-in-law, Maria, a devout Catholic who lived the best of Jesus' teachings, in 1992 as she retraced her Lord's footsteps at a synagogue where he preached 2000 years ago just north of Tiberias, in Israel's Galilee region. Walking on hallowed ground was the pinnacle of her life.

I will admit I have a hard time understanding when a tragedy occurs and someone says, "God spared us" or "God was good to us." How or why does God protect some people and let others die? Did those who suffered not pray enough?

There were some well-meaning people who said that Verna just needed to pray and think positively when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and later when it returned. But what about all her friends who'd succumbed to the disease before her? Had they not fought or prayed hard enough?

None of this internal struggle means much or will necessarily help me help Maya as she alternates between utter sadness and demonstrable anger over her Mommy's death.

Two of my co-workers, both dedicated Catholics and very sweet people, told me today that I may be an agnostic but I am also very spiritual. I don't feel that way. I feel as if I am just muddling through when it comes to so, so much. And I do desperately want to comfort Maya and Miguel.

Maybe it's time to open my heart. Maybe it's time for some travel on that continuum that Professor Neil Gilman vividly rendered for me more than 30 years ago.

It's my choice. Thank God.

1 comment:

  1. I consider myself an agnostic too - I think. But my doubts lie more with the question of God's existence than with the answer. The problem is a linguistic one: the word God is so vast that it's almost meaningless. I think of that children's song, "Hashem is here, hashem is there, hashem is really everywhere..." If a word stands for everything, how can it still have meaning?

    I think my point is that I have a lot more fun dissecting the question of belief in God than trying to answer it. Does that count as agnosticism?