1981, 2001, Books, Non-Fiction

When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981, 2001) by Harold S. Kushner

I have been incredibly lucky in my life. I was born into privilege (middle class/upper middle class in one of the safest large cities in the world) and I have been very lucky in terms of personal tragedy: I have suffered few major injuries/illnesses, and my family has been pretty much free of them as well – the only people in my family who have died have died due to “old age” (or died before I was born or when I was too young to care) and my friends’ lives have been mostly free of physical suffering. I mention this because this book is not intended for someone like me. It is intended for someone experiencing a personal tragedy. I suspect that it is very effective for people who believe in God but who are struggling with a tragedy. But I don’t believe in God and I have been extremely fortunate. So I am evaluating it on an intellectual level, not an emotional one, and not as a tool to overcome my grief. (I read it because it tries to answer a question related to a book I am writing.)

This is basically religious existentialism. Kushner attempts to reconcile belief and Judeo-Christian theology with existence, in a less scholarly but more modern manner than someone like Kierkegaard, though it strikes me as a similar project in some ways. The intellectual problem for me is that these things cannot be reconciled because all Abrahamic theology is fundamentally wrong about the nature of existence. Kushner goes about as far as he can without becoming an atheist (or a deist, anyway) but it’s no wonder that some of the groups who have used his book to help their congregations have been very upset by his theology – it abandons one of the central tenets of these religions, that God is omnipotent. (To Kusher’s credit, she just gives up on the irreconcilable debate between an all powerful and totally good and just God, and merely picks a side. That’s not tenable, but either, but it’s better than pretending the two things can be reconciled with reality as most theologians do.)

My problem with the book is that I am completely unconvinced by his argument. My answer to the majority of questions he asks in the book is “There is no God and life is not fair, it just is.” And I believe that answer to be far more close to the truth than anything he says about God. I am not sure that undergoing a personal tragedy would waiver my faith, simply because this is about as deeply held a belief as I have. I do find a lot of what he has to say about grief to be true and I understand why this book is helpful to believers, but there are secular resources out there that give similar consolation without pretending there is a man in the sky who wants you to love him.

If this helps you, that is great. But for those of us who don’t believe, it is entirely unconvincing.

5/10 only because I imagine it is useful for believers, and that is something.

PS There are no “Good People”. This is a lie we tell ourselves to make the universe comprehensible. There are only people we imagine are good, or who are good (some or most of the time) relative to other people.

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