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Divine goodness and human suffering: Julian of Norwich on what God wills, and what he permits

30 January 2015


From Rosemary Lofty

Sir, - I find that I am distressed by the letter from the Revd Professor Alasdair Coles (Letters, 23 January).

I fully appreciate his reasoning that cancers "arise through random genetic mutations, interacting with environmental insults", and that "The same mechanism underlies evolution." Where I part company with Professor Coles's reasoning is his statement that, therefore, "God mandates disease."

It is surely an error to impute an evil to our Almighty God.

My reasoning tells me that disease is an evil; for, were it not so, why did Jesus look with such compassion upon people who were sick? And how could he have healed them if disease was indeed God's will for us? If God - our Father in heaven! - truly "mandates disease", could our Lord have gone against his holy will and healed anyone at all?

Dame Julian of Norwich on the subject of the evils that afflict this world says that God only tolerates evil, and that his toleration is honourable, and that, when we see why evil is tolerated, we shall rejoice. She, significantly, does not say that he is the source of evil, or has provided a mandate for its existence.

Surely, therefore, we are called upon to act against evils as and when they arise. If, as Professor Coles indicates, disease - an evil for all who suffer - is so acceptable to God, then surely all those engaged in the work of healing the sick must be misguided and seen as working against his holy will.

Can it be that those who are drawn to work in our hospitals, clinics, and research centres are mistaken in their calling? And where, indeed, does this urge to relieve suffering come from; for even those who do not worship God would class the alleviation of disease as a "good work"?

The life force that enables "random genetic mutations" is essential to the physical betterment of all that lives. The ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions has been, and is, essential to all living organisms that inhabit this planet. In the past, mutations that did not suit changing environmental patterns were phased out, or perhaps modified over several generations.

Now we seem to have reached a point when we have the ability to alter the environment seriously to suit our purposes, and these purposes are all too often greedy and violent. Just to give only one example: is it not significant that lung cancers and asthma are more prevalent in our cities than in the countryside? Diesel fumes are known carcinogenic agents, but we seem so unwilling to take any action.

I could give other examples; but, while deploring our laissez-faire attitudes, I can also note that every one of us is invited into partnership with God, so that we can help combat those "environmental insults".

It is precisely those "insults" of greed, violence, and disease which we are called to interact against with God's grace, at his instigation and under his guidance. I am, therefore, convinced that in the words of a former Rector of Haughton (in Lichfield diocese) that "Our God is a healing God who longs to bring us all to wholeness."

So, while disease, like other evils, may be tolerated by God, we are called upon to fight against it. Dame Julian says that when we see and understand why God tolerated evil we shall rejoice and be glad in this knowledge for ever.

25 Castle View
Stafford ST18 9NF

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