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.