Thursday, March 5, 2015

Unexceptional Suffering and Extravagance

Here is the difficulty that I have with usual the usual arguments that come up in (religious) people’s efforts to justify suffering in the world in the light of a good God. They tend to act as if suffering were the exception—a funny glitch in an otherwise calm and collected world—when it seems like suffering is the rule (at least to me). I cannot treat the reality of suffering as an outlier in the normal range of human experience. Yes, it is true that much suffering is caused by human mistakes; yes, it is true that a great deal of pain is also caused by natural and other events that God does not simply “cause.” But I believe in an omnipotent, omniscient God. And while I understand the distinction between a God who causes such things and one who simply allows them, that distinction is not so very great in my personal experience and reasoning. My omniscient God could choose to alleviate that suffering, and he does not. My God could change the pattern of the seas and of depressed people’s brainwaves, but he does not.  Perhaps most significantly, my God could have chosen to redeem the world through any means he wanted (he is God!) and the way he chose was by having his human son live 33 years on earth before suffering unimaginable torments and being brutally executed before rising again. This was the way he wanted things. That God—my God—may be a God I struggle to understand, but the evidence suggests that suffering is mysteriously essential to his plan. Avoiding that fact is to miss something central to the structure of the universe he created, and therefore prevents my understanding and knowing him better. 

I don’t mean that God’s a glutton for punishment. He also made a world that is undeniably, heart-breakingly beautiful and surprising, full of deep pleasures and enduring attractions. I have a (scientist) friend who once referred to the natural world as exhibiting signs of God’s extravagance. When I consider the varieties of things and people in the world—the sheer number of plants and animals (often of the same species!) it suggests to me that God really is extravagant; he made a world full of dramatically different kinds of things, because he likes it that way. Did we really need so many different colors and sounds and tastes and sights in the world? So many powerfully beautiful places?
Apparently, he thought we did, anyway, just as he and we (somehow) also need to suffer in order to rise again. This is the paradox that God-made-man recalls me to. A paradox that I ignore at my own peril, and whose truth is strangely, movingly, satisfying. Because suffering opens me to an experience of love---both giving and receiving—that somehow, I cannot have without it. The more I live, the more I begin (tentatively, in baby steps) to recognize the possibility of loving that way as something satisfying in itself. 

As the character, “El Gallo” says in The Fantasticks (an off, off-Broadway musical I grew up with),
There is a curious paradox that no one can explain. / Who understands the secrets of the reaping of the grain? / Who understands why spring is born out of winter's laboring pain? / Or why we all must die a bit before we grow again? / I do not know the answer / I merely know it's true / I hurt them for that reason / And myself a little bit, too.

I leave you with the musical’s most beautiful song, “They Were You.” The lead couple sing it to each other at the conclusion, but it's more. Like the incarnation, it's much more than a metaphor could ever, ever be. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Tender Mercies and Necessary Suffering

So....back to theodicy and making sense of God’s ways. One of the best known examples of the problem of suffering is that of Job. The book of Job is a rather exceptional case in the Hebrew tradition, because a good man is not rewarded for his goodness. Most of the books of what Christians call the Old Testament show people who are rewarded for following faithfully. Job, instead, is tested. He suffers—for no obvious reason—he’s clearly not being punished for any wrongdoing. He is, and was a very good man. After a scene late in the book where he rails against God, God challenges Job in a famous passage (Job 38):

Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
 I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This can be seen as God putting Job in his place…which I suppose it is. But it’s also a reminder to Job that there are a great deal more things in heaven and earth than in his philosophy; there is so much more than his own suffering that is beyond his ability to understand. When Stephen Fry makes bitter statements about God and God’s injustice, he does so from a certain set of expectations (formed almost certainly by the Judeo-Christian tradition which underpins Western Civilization). The idea that God is good may be intuitive, but it isn’t inevitable. It is an idea which comes down to us most vigorously through a specific tradition. Nature, on the other hand, always seems both good and bad; rains come to both replenish and to flood; the wind is powerful in ways we appreciate and in ways we don’t. We would never complain that nature ‘wasn’t fair’ in the same (angry) way we say it about God—we don’t expect true goodness from Nature. Why? Not all people have believed in good gods either. Many people have had gods who were powerful; whom you needed to appease, but how you did so was not always easy to understand, or through “moral” ways. But we moderns—believers or not—expect our God to be up to our standards of goodness. We expect him to understand what we mean by right and wrong, and live up to our standards. But do *we* understand right and wrong?

It's obvious how idiosyncratic we humans are when it comes to ideas of justice. I remember joking with a colleague that the question on student evaluations (of professors) that read “Instructor grades fairly,” actually meant “Instructor did not give me or any close friends a lower grade than I/she/he deserved.” When my children complain that something isn’t fair, that means they wanted more and got less. I am the same way. We don’t judge something as unfair when we get more than we deserve—that is not so troubling. What troubles us is the pain of our longing for more. Is this really only about justice? Or is it an idea of justice that really suggests something greater? In Stephen Fry’s remarks, he spoke about sick children and other “unjust” afflictions--unjust in that they did nothing bad to bring on their suffering.* I am more selfish than Fry when I think about these things—I think about myself, rather than unnamed victims. I have not suffered so very greatly in my life in the global sense—I have not witnessed genocide, I have not been sexually abused, I have not experienced a lifetime deprived of basic necessities—and yet, I feel the suffering of injustice in my own ways, however petty they may be. I want so much more out of life than what I have. My longing is very real. To Fry, this disproportion between human desire and actual experience reality is unacceptable. I get that, believe me: it feels unacceptable. But it’s also, to me, deeply mysterious. Why should we feel this way? Why should we expect so much from the world and life and when it doesn’t seem to deliver? Why can’t we just resign ourselves to our lives being brutish, nasty, and way too short?

Fry’s answer to this suffering is that there must not be a God, because the world is too terrible. A God who wanted a world like this must be too evil a creature to be worth bothering with. But this seems a bit too neat to me. It’s a clean, cold, clinical answer to the rather messy reality that is human life. What would Fry say to any friends whose lives were riddled with unavoidable suffering (from disease, or heartbreak, or terrible depression)? Are their lives worth living? How long do you give suffering before it outweighs the possible future benefits of staying alive? A day? A week? An hour? A year? How much suffering is too much? Is the only answer to help those suffering to off themselves? What’s the point of living when you can’t avoid suffering?

I think, in the end, that Fry assumes way too many things. He assumes (without quite saying it) that he knows what life is for—or at least, that it can’t really be for something he doesn’t understand. In essence, like most of us moderns, he assumes that life is about pleasure and success. Suffering is unacceptable because it is an obstacle to that pleasure and success. But what if I turn the question on its head? What if I say that I don’t know what life is for, really? What if I admit that, like Job, I wasn’t there when the earth’s foundations were laid, and I don’t understand all the motion of the universe. That in my bones, I feel like life must be for a satisfaction that I don’t recognize fully as being a part of my life—but that I don’t really get it? What if I take life’s evidence a step further and say that suffering—however wrong, however “unnatural”—it seems to me, must be (in God’s view) something really important to what life is for, because life is riddled with it? Then what? Is the only option available to conclude that God is a sick old man who wants us to be miserable?

I don’t think so. There is another option. In the words of Léon Bloy (quoted by Graham Greene at the beginning of his novel The End of the Affair), “Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering, in order that they may have existence.”  God knows us, and wants us to live and love in ways in which we are not yet capable. He gives us suffering so that our hearts may expand in ways that our essential to our happiness and our success. A happiness and success that we do not yet fully grasp but that is real. As a Christian, this seems absolutely necessary if we are to make any sense of Christ’s cross and resurrection. Only a God who saw suffering in a very different way than we usually do could give us Jesus as an answer, not as another problem.

I’m not saying I like it—or that I understand it the way I’d like. It’s not a pretty option. But it holds the hope of being a deeply beautiful one. There are moments when I see this; moments when I am suddenly, unexpectedly, able to love my enemies or see someone else change dramatically. Usually, that’s in the depths of terrible suffering—and an even greater love. But that is the God with whom my heart does battle, not the miserable man in whom Fry refuses to believe.

* The suffering of children figures prominently in Ivan Karamazov’s accusations as well in The Grand Inquisitor passage in The Brothers Karamazov. The portrait he paints of innocent and sweet victims is heartbreaking and his monk brother Alyosha has no answer that satisfied. Yet, it is clear from the story that Alyosha’s answer is, in the final sense, truer than Ivan’s. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

The provocation of Stephen Fry: The 21st century's (3- minute) Ivan Karamazov?

A little over a week ago, recently-married British comedian Stephen Fry appeared on the Irish program “The Meaning of Life” and spoke with Gay Byrne about his beliefs and what he would say to God should he meet him/her/it at the pearly gates. Fry’s passionate response created quite a buzz on the internet. 

Here is the video:

(I include the full transcript of the exchange at the end of this blog for those who cannot see the video--my thanks to John Cummings' blog for this.)
When the interview first came across my radar last week, I was in a mood to sympathize very strongly with Stephen Fry. Non-religious people sometimes suppose that faithful, practicing religious people like myself simply don’t think about these things, or that the conflict between God’s will and their own is not an issue to them. I cannot speak for all religious people, but I can say that the difficulty—even the anguish—is very real to me. It just so happens that when I first heard of the exchange, I was struggling with some dramatic questions in my own life; places where understanding God’s will was (and in many ways, still is), very painful to me. Fry’s video thus caught me by surprise. Watching Fry explain himself to Byrne, I thought “Yes!,” and then “Yet no, no, no, NO.….”

I want to be very clear about a few things as I attempt to respond to Fry’s critique (which I will do in several installments). First, the limitations of responding “to Fry.” I know very little about Fry the man. As a comedian, he is also a performer. I cannot judge what part of his response is fully felt and what part may be showmanship; his answer certainly seems very prepared.  I know that he has struggled with addiction (so he’s aware of his personal limitations and failings), and that he’s come out the other end. He’s gay and he recently married his boyfriend; he expressed great joy at both this event itself and the support of friends (so he’s not, as far as I can make out, an unhappy man).  But basically, my response is to the man at the other end of this video. I make no claims that he is Stephen Fry in the full sense. I need to explain why and how I disagree with him. But I don’t judge him; I understand where he’s coming from.
Second, I know how difficult it is to deal in theodicy (or justifying the ways of God). Better, smarter, more thorough people have been trying it for centuries. It isn’t easy, and I make no claims to succeeding where they have failed. I hope my attempts won’t be judged as arrogant.

Because, honestly, they don’t come from an arrogant place. They come from a deeply needy place. A place in my mind and heart that needs to make sense of life, even while I recognize the limits of my understanding.  What I do claim, is that –despite my great sense of kinship with Fry in his frustration—I can still dissent from his perspective and conclusions in the final analysis. And do so reasonably. Because the problem isn’t just a logical one; it isn’t just about who’s right. It’s about how you can actually live that way.

Gay Byrne: “Suppose what Oscar believed in when he died, despite your protestations, it’s all true and you walk up to the Pearly Gates and you are confronted by God, what will Stephen Fry say to him, her or it?”

Stephen Fry:
 “I will basically, that is the theodicy I think, I will say ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you, how dare you create a world in which there is such misery it’s not our fault? It’s not right, it’s utterly utterly evil, why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid god who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I’d say.”

“You think you’re going to get in?”
Fry: “No, but I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They’re wrong. Now if I died and it was Pluto, Hades and it were the twelve Greek Gods then I would have more truck with it because the Greeks were, they didn’t pretend not to be human in their appetites and in their capriciousness and in their unreasonableness.
They didn’t present themselves as being all seeing all-wise all-kind all beneficent, because the god who created this universe, if there is a god was quite clearly a maniac, an utter maniac, totally selfish, totally, we have to spend our life on our knees thanking him, what kind of god would do that?.
Yes the world is very splendid but it also has in it insects whose whole life cycle is to burrow into the eyes of children and make them blind, they eat outwards from the eyes, why, why did you do that to us?
You could easily have made a creation in which that didn’t exist, it is simply not acceptable, so you know atheism is not just about not believing there is a god, but on the assumption that there is one what kind of god is it, it’s perfectly apparent he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, he deserves no respect whatsoever, the moment we banish him life becomes simple purer, cleaner, and more worth living in my view.”
Byrne: “That sure is the longest answer to that question that I ever got in this entire series.”
Original Interview: The Meaning of Life with Gay Byrne, aired Sunday February 1, 2015 at 10.30pm