I have a good friend who I’ve known for about 25 years who died the other day after losing a long bout with cancer. He won the early rounds, but ultimately his opponent wore him down and bested him. I’ll be attending his service later today, and I know it will be a mixed-emotion day, with lots of tears and lots of laughter – tears of grief and the laughter of remembrance. He was not much older than me, which at my age means that he died far too young. But he has a large and loving coterie of family and friends, incredibly supportive of each other, all who will ensure that his wife and children come away with far more positive than negative emotions. They are not having a religious service, but if they did, and they had asked me to give the sermon, here is what I would have said:
Clearly, god does make “mistakes”. It is evident in everything we see around us. From the tsunamis that killed hundreds of thousands of Thais and Japanese, to the earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that wreak death and destruction on the world; from the rain prayed for by Christians to end the drought in Texas, but instead dumped on the East Coast, to the Republicans he put in Congress and the White House; from the human appendix to male nipples; from Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin and George W. Bush; from Down Syndrome to HIV; from my daughter’s congenital heart defects to the cancer that killed my friend Jim. Clearly in a universe created by a perfect god, or even an imperfect one, none of these things would exist. But they do.
It may be comforting to some to believe that “god has a plan” that we are not privy to, or that “god works in mysterious ways”. There was a time in human existence when that was all we had to allow us to understand the horrible things nature inflicted on us, like droughts, hunger, starvation, pestilence and war. But we are smarter than that now. We have evolved and we have brains. Some might say “God given”. We have intellect, and reason, and the shoulders of giants like Newton and Darwin and Einstein that we can stand upon to see reality, the way life works, and the reasons why life ends.
For me and many others, it’s more comforting to understand the processes that nature follows to move from day to day, week through week, year to year, epoch through epoch. It may sound too clinical to those that need comfort, rather than truth, to understand that with cancer, the body’s cells simply start reproducing in a way they were not “designed” for, in a wild and uncontrollable manner that wreaks havoc on the orderly processes of the body, feeding on itself until it consumes its host. But that’s the truth. I find the truth far more comforting than a lie like “he’s now in a better place”. He’s not! A better place would be with his family. A better place would be here, working and living and laughing and crying like the rest of us.
It’s insulting to the human intellect to relegate death to a mystery. It’s insulting to the people who lose their family and friends to cancer, and AIDS, and heart attacks and strokes and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to stop trying to understand why. If we had continued thinking that way through history, we would not have modern medicine; cancer research, and Xrays and anesthesia and laser surgery and polio vaccines. We wouldn’t know about the role of germs and sanitation in disease, we wouldn’t understand the genetic basis for life, nor the ability to prevent disease through vaccination, or that rats transmitted the Bubonic Plague. We would have no organ transplants, or blood transfusions, or penicillin. We would have cholera outbreaks (we still do, by the way) and life expectancies of 35, and influenza pandemics (still a problem, but not so much), and children in iron lungs, and far more mentally ill wandering the streets, homeless. We wouldn’t have so many cancer survivors either. Those things are what happens when you stop believing god has a plan and you roll up your sleeves and change the plan. That’s what science and medicine do. That emphatically is NOT what religion does.
Miracles are not supernatural. They are either natural or man made. Praying for them won’t create them. They either occur naturally as statistical anomolies because we are evolving, or they are created by the intervention of human knowledge. Those are the only miracles that we can rely on – and the latter far more than the former. It’s too late for my friend for us to discover the cure for cancer, but incrementally the knowledge we glean not just from his experiences but the millions of others who came before him, and who will come after, will eventually coalesce to give us that cure. And many others. Prayer will not.
And I find that comforting.
Goodbye, Jim. I’m glad I knew you.