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. 

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