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2013 Veritas Forum discusses suffering, God, science

| News Editor

Rahee Nerukar | Student Life

Graham Chapel was the site of the 2013 Veritas Forum, entitled “Making Sense of Suffering: God, Science, and the Human Journey.” The event saw a crowd of over 100 students.

“One of humans’ most important properties is that they can get to know God,” John Lennox, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, said to a crowd of over 100 students at Graham Chapel during a panel discussion Thursday evening called “Making Sense of Suffering: God, Science, and the Human Journey.”

Alongside Lennox at this year’s Veritas Forum was Ursula Goodenough, a Washington University professor of biology. John Inazu, associate professor of law and political science at the University, mediated the discussion.

The annual Veritas Forum was organized by campus interfaith groups and the international Veritas organization and aimed to foster understanding and discussion of spiritual issues and topics on campus.

Lennox said that the science he studies, mathematics, strengthens his belief in God.

“The central thing about human beings I believe that separates them from other beings is that they can do mathematics…I believe that is evidence, actually, that we are made in the image of a personal, rational creator God,” he said.

Goodenough, who identifies herself as a “religious naturalist” and “non-theist,” spoke of the human as a narrative being, each living within a “story,” and cited a capacity for language as a crucial distinguishing feature of human beings.

“The purpose that a story serves is that the person who lives in that story looks to it for interpretations,” she said. “What is the story telling me about me, about the meaning of life?”

On the topic of suffering, Goodenough began by explaining suffering from a biological perspective.

“Every being is set up to have, to approach, a kind of well-being; that is the goal…An organism might well be suited for and looking for a different environment from where it is, and in that situation…the organism tries to fix it. That period in between, when the organism in working on returning to that place [of well being], the organism is suffering,” she said.

“Psychological suffering is kind of independent of others…and that is also, I would say, in part, an effort to try to sort things out,” she added.

When Lennox mentioned the positive and redemptive qualities suffering can have in a person’s life, Inazu followed up by asking about those instances in which suffering does not lead to redemption but rather to death or disaster.

Lennox cited the presence or absence of life after death as key to resolving the question. His hope, he said, comes from his notion of God, his presence in human suffering and his promise of life after death.

“The God I believe in, ladies and gentlemen, is a suffering God,” he said. “If that is God, it means at the very least that he has become part of the problem of suffering rather than distancing himself from it.”

Goodenough spoke of the hope she has in the story of nature without a belief in life after death. Suffering is hopeful because if the end of suffering is death, suffering implies life.

“For me, [suffering is] kind of part of the deal, part of what life entails and not something to blame life for. You have to work to get your life to go right, and that work is sometimes painful,” she said. “A religious naturalist takes nature to heart. For me, the most exciting thing is the continuation of life,” she said.

On the question of evil, Lennox said that the beauty of life and love cannot exist without its counterpart.

“It seems to me that the possibility of moral evil is contained in the very possibility of having love. God took a risk, yes he did,” Lennox said. “Why do it then? Because there are things of tremendous value at the other end. There is love.”

Goodenough said that instances of unexplainable evil, such as genocide and recent tragedies in the United States, are attributable to mental dysfunction.

Others who commit evil, she said, have been pushed to the edge of hopelessness and desperation within their circumstances.

“I don’t think we humans are inherently evil—I just don’t.”

Lennox addressed the matter of justice as evidence of a higher power, authority and source of morality and also as a source of hope.

“If death is the end, the vast majority of people will never see justice…and yet every one of them has a sense that there must be justice somewhere,” he said. “There is a moral governor of this universe. God is not going to forever allow evil to destroy all that is human and lovely and beautiful.”

Goodenough acknowledged a sense of justice observable in other beings, such as apes.

“I think that that is a basic core part of our genetic makeup and that we have a sense that things should be fair, that there should be punishment…I think we come equipped with a need for justice, a need for respect, a sense of reverence that I think is inherent in their being…and a sense of love…We get that, we come with that,” she said.

Many students were interested and encouraged by the forum.

“I personally am a theist, but I have never heard someone eloquently express their thoughts about naturalism, and I didn’t even know what a religious naturalist was. I thought she laid out her worldview in a clear and understandable manner, so that was interesting,” senior Lucy Yan said.

Sophomore Charlie Beard said the event gave him valuable food for thought.

“I’m just very inspired by what Lennox said at the end, which was, you know, dialogue is the key. We can’t be closed down or have one doctrine that works, but talking about it is very much the future of religion and philosophy and science. And I love that this event really put that all together for me,” he added.

He also said that the event inspired him to pursue a religious studies minor.

“I think [having this] new context really is going to help me shape how I view the world and explain how I view the world to other people. But to say that it changed my metaphysical understanding—not really,” he said.

Sophomores and student organizers of the forum, Kristen O’Neal and Laura Watkins, are members of the University’s branch of Campus Crusade for Christ.

Watkins said she hopes the event will help to foster more open spiritual conversation on campus.

“Just in general, I think students should be encouraged to keep talking about these things because I think we have this idea in our culture that we don’t want to offend anybody, and if we disagree with something, it’s easier just to not say anything,” she said. “But I think what they showed us last night was that they really approached it from a perspective like, yeah, we can respect each other. And they found similarities.”