Saturday, April 4, 2015


We've been talking in the comments lately about the problem of suffering.  But it occurred to me, a great number of religions and philosophies don't find suffering a "problem."  It makes perfect sense.

Don't know what I mean?  Let's go through the possibilities:

*If there is no God, suffering is not a problem.  Death and pain are necessary agents of evolution.

*If there is a God, but he doesn't care about or involve himself with humans, suffering is not a problem.  Just the side effect of happening to exist.

*If there are many gods, none of them all-powerful, and they fight with each other constantly, suffering would be a result of your god not having the power to win out over the other gods.

*In the gnostic view, suffering is caused by matter, and matter is created by the devil or a lesser being.  God cares about people, but he can't reach us as long as we are tangled up in matter.  

*Suffering is punishment for sin, or to encourage us to stop sinning.  The Old Testament holds this view a lot, and so does ancient Roman history.  Your army lost?  You must have lost divine favor because someone among you is breaking a divine command.  The Romans killed the Christians for the same reason the Israelites killed the Amalekites -- because they thought having impious people in their midst was triggering divine wrath.

*Christianity .... has no answer.  It insists on a God who loves every individual person infinitely, and is also all-powerful.  Why would an all-powerful person not prevent the people he loved from suffering?

Well, there are theories.  You could point out that some suffering is the result of human choices, which some certainly is, and talk about how God respects our free will enough to let us hurt each other.  Now I'm a parent and I don't let my kids hurt each other, even though I respect their free will, but perhaps God is different.  But still, that leaves suffering that isn't a result of human choices.

Or you could say that before the Fall there was no suffering at all.  This is what I understood growing up, that there were no earthquakes, floods, diseases, or whatever before the Fall.  Science can show us that's not the case, that these things have been around longer than people, but I revised the theory awhile back .... suggesting that, before the Fall, humans had the capacity to solve or avoid all that stuff.  We could cure our own bodies of sickness (in fact, we can now, only not predictably -- that placebo effect is awfully powerful) and predict coming natural disasters, like animals can.  So you can still blame all that on the Fall.  (I tell people this and they call it theological speculation, like that was a bad thing!)

You could say, as Belfry Bat said the other day, that suffering is good for our souls -- that we are made perfect and ready for heaven by it.  Certainly in some cases that is so -- I think of my grandfather's deathbed conversion, which perhaps from his perspective made the immense suffering of his final illness worthwhile.  In others, I'm not so sure; suffering seems to pull people farther from God and goodness. 

Another theological speculation of mine is that God bound himself in a promise to hand over all authority over creation to men -- that he isn't actually all-powerful in the created world, because of his statement to Adam and Eve that they were to have dominion.  He meant, literally, they were in charge, and God isn't able to take back his promises.  The Fall damaged our ability to exercise that power, but if we were perfect, we ourselves could do miracles.  And sure enough, all miracles that I can think of have happened through the agency of a human being.  That also says something very intriguing about why God would have had to come as a man.  But in any event, since God has promised not to rule the world, and we are not able to do it competently, the world is in a state of chaos and disorder which God never intended.  (This theory, which I otherwise like, runs into a lot of problems with Scripture, and also raises the question why God set things up like that, foreknowing of course that we would fall.)

There's the time-traveler theory, as I like to call it.  You know how some people say we can't go back in time to kill Hitler because (theoretically) if we did, something worse would happen?  God, knowing all possible scenarios, has picked this one because it is the best possible -- accounting of course for all the free will choices he knows we'll make.  So he could snap his fingers and give me the gift of faith, but that would stop me from writing these inspiring blog posts (for instance) and that would prevent him from saving some other soul who's getting a lot out of them.  Or whatever.  This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but from God's perspective, it is -- because it results in the maximum number of souls saved.  From this, we draw the possibility that he might allow some to be damned in order to save a greater number, which I don't much like.  But other than that, it's possible -- non-disprovable, in fact, because we don't know how many people God has saved, or how many he could have saved if he did things slightly differently.

There's the author theory, which resonated with me before I actually wrote any books (just like the good-parent theory worked well before I had kids).  In this one, we consider that an author who included no misfortune in his book would be writing a terrible book.  There has to be suffering to make it a good story.  The problem with this is, I don't love the characters in my books.  I like them a lot, but I know they're not real and so I suffer no pricks of conscience when I kill off their loved ones or afflict them with diseases.  If God sees us that way, it's reasonable, but it destroys one of our premises, that God loves us.

Beyond the solid theories, there are comforting additions.  These don't explain anything, but they might help a person feel better.

The first, of course, is that Jesus subjected himself to suffering, and therefore he certainly isn't an impersonal being in the sky who squashes us for fun.  ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," as King Lear says.)  Jesus was willing to take part in the sufferings we are prey to, which is a convincing show of solidarity.  It definitely does make us feel that God is not entirely ignorant or uncaring of what we go through.

The second is the thought that God will make it up to us in heaven -- that any suffering we undergo now is just a teeny tiny fraction of the joy we will experience in heaven, and from that perspective it will be all no big deal.  That is comforting, though hard to grasp from our current perspective.  Those who suffer terribly for years do not see their sufferings as "no big deal," and they struggle to imagine the sort of bliss that would make it up to them.  But I can see wanting to believe this -- especially if you believe, as I do, that a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell who could in any possible scenario, with all the terrible influences on them undone, accept him.

Did I get all the theories?

The point I'm driving at here is that it isn't an actual mystery, in the theological sense.  It isn't a clear formulation that just happens to be impossible to understand.  All of these are possible to understand, even if we're not able to follow all the intricacies of God's knowledge and choices.  And we can work to match these theories to the data -- ruling out any that contradict things God has said in Scripture, for instance (if this is, in fact, possible, seeing how very opposite to one another some of God's statements are), as well as any that don't match the world we know.  "Good people are rewarded on earth and bad people punished" can easily be dismissed, for instance, because we observe differently.  I also rule out "God gives suffering to those who can handle it," because that also contradicts what I observe.  Anyone can handle suffering if they have no choice --- unless, of course, they kill themselves, which some suffering people do.

But I think that it's important to try to work this one out and come up with some clear answers, even if these answers only come down to plausible theories, because believers have to be able to show that their belief system is, at the very least, possible.  Saying "it's a mystery" is not an answer; though of course it might accompany an answer -- "I don't know for sure, because it's a mystery, but here's one possibility."  But it has to be attempted, because it's the second-strongest argument against Christianity.  (The strongest, in my opinion, being the apparently bad things God does in the Old Testament, which all my attempts to resolve keep being labeled "heresy.")

What's your theory?


John Janaro said...

Well, I wrote a book about suffering a few years ago... sort of (you know, the whole "Never Give Up" thing). But that book is not meant to be a book of plausible theories about suffering (though it may ruminate here and there). It's a book that expresses my struggles to understand the meaning of MY suffering, and a few things that I've learned or that keep me going, because I try to keep hanging on to Jesus (that's the "Never Give Up" part). Actually, and this is FAR more important, even if I let go, He is there and He grabs me.

My experience and reflections have been useful for some people. We all suffer. But suffering is also personal. It is always a "someone" who suffers, especially when we consider the deepest part of suffering which is the "WHY?" that comes forth from it.

And yet the most amazing thing about suffering is that we can accompany another person in their suffering, we can "share" it, we can choose to "suffer-with" another person by embracing our own afflictions "with them" OR EVEN choosing, freely, to let ourselves be afflicted with them. That's what we call "compassion." Real compassion is not sentimental or condescending. It is companionship, co-suffering, self giving. It is love... that terribly beat up and overused word, "love."

I'm not "going anywhere" with this in terms of a theory. Life and its pains and frustrations have taught me that compassion is real and that I NEED it. I wouldn't be so disappointed by false or inadequate "compassion" if it weren't for the fact that I need the real thing. But I can also say that real compassion is often misunderstood, unappreciated, or even resisted: it's only later on (sometimes MUCH later on) that I realize how much certain persons have "been there" with me, how much they have endured, how I have been sustained and carried by them.

In fact, we've carried one another... although I don't really understand how that works. I am a "gift" even when I am helpless. That's a mystery.

I want to stress that this is not a THEORY: I am NOT proposing that "God allows us to suffer so that we can have compassion on one another." No, (So often, when we try to "understand" God, we end up contriving an image in our heads of some kind of puppeteer. The images in our heads and the ideas we draw from them are NOT God.)

I don't need a theory about compassion. I need compassion. I know that by experience.

And I believe that God has entered into the very center and heart of the whole business of suffering and compassion. Not only because He IS Love and Compassion, but because God has accomplished it, in history, as a man. I think I can say that I have begun to experience that fact, to have a taste of it, a hint of it -- enough to know that it's worth it to hang on to Jesus, come what may.

I know this won't cause any miracles of intellectual clarity. These words are what I'm able to give right now, and so... there it is. I may "plagiarize myself" from here on my own blog, because writing is exhausting and I try to get as much use as possible from what I can do.

We should get together sometime (I keep saying). Talking also wipes me out, but I love to do it anyway. If I'm not talking, I'm thinking. So I have no escape! :-)

God bless you. Y'all have a great Easter.

Sheila said...

Those are certainly some beautiful reflections on suffering.

My problems ARE more intellectual, though. I'm not currently suffering particularly, I just wonder why people do. I can't figure out why God would choose to do it that way. I'd much rather believe that either God is too vast and distant to care, or conversely that he doesn't have all that much power and can only do so much. Anything rather than the thought that everyone who suffers *could* be cured and fixed, and God chooses not to do that despite claiming to love them! That, I cannot fathom.

John Janaro said...

I understand these intellectual difficulties. As a Catholic theologian and a human person, I've pondered them, struggled with them, and written about them (not in an adequate way). I may write more on the theoretical level if and when I have something worth saying. I think that our understanding of "reason" needs to broaden, so that we do not become trapped between abstract and analytical reasoning on the one hand and irrational "leaps of faith" that are grounded on emotion or a subjective ideological manipulation that is justified by reference to "the heart." The heart is profoundly reasonable, but it is the kind of reason that engages in interpersonal relationship. We don't "solve" all our theoretical problems this way, but we do find some peace in the reasonable adherence to another person (which is also a loving adherence). The question here is whether it is reasonable to enter into a relationship with God in Jesus Christ, a relationship offered in the Church.

There is much serious philosophical and theological reflection being developed about these things, about the distinctive characteristics of persons and relationship. These points are *not* developed in classical metaphysics which simply locates the person within the "order of being" as a kind of reality. Classical metaphysics explores the similarity in the analogy between persons and "things." It does not enter a real consideration of the distinctive difference that constitutes personhood. This theoretical work is rather new, and its body of reflection and discourse is in the early stages of development. Stuff is often not very clear, but we see enough of the truth to know that its worth hanging in there and continuing to work hard. Intellectual labor requires patience, and never more than in this sphere. But it's so important, so we hang in there and do our best to contribute something.

That's where I see the intellectual task, and the path I am trying to follow however slowly because of my limitations.

Sheila, when you say that you "love being Catholic," I guess I would encourage you to remain with that love. You don't have to "solve" all the theoretical questions. Often we are like Peter after the Eucharistic discourse of John 6. We don't understand, but we can say (*reasonably*), "to whom else shall we go. You have the words of eternal life." We say to Jesus, "This doesn't seem to make sense, but *I want to stay with You.*" This is how interpersonal reason works. This is the kind of reasoning that exists within all of our authentic relationships.

This is also why it is so damaging when deception, abuse of trust, and psychological manipulation warp relationships, causing deep harm to the persons whose sense of trust in others (interpesonal reason) has been deceived. It cuts deep wounds that need to be healed. We all have these wounds, but when they are inflicted systematically within a whole network of relationships over a period of time, it's very hard.

Everyday, I pray for trust in Jesus. I pray to grow in that trust, in the strength of that relationship. I really believe that you love Jesus in the Church, and that He loves you more than you can possibly conceive. That love is personal and real.

I pray for trust in Jesus, for you. I will keep praying especially for you in this. Trust, for you, and for me, and for all of us.

God bless you. Happy Easter!

Sheila said...

Very good point about reasons of the heart. I don't want to put too high a burden of proof on God, but at the same time I don't think it's fair to expect me to believe with none of all. I trust my husband, but it's because he's earned that trust with many clearly observable actions. I think I know him well enough by now, having observed him in so many different situations, to know what he would or wouldn't do.

With God, it's hard to figure out *what* he would or wouldn't do, because it's hard to be sure of what he actually did do. I know what a person I consider "a good person" would do, but God does not do those things. And those things he is supposed to have done, I didn't see. The evidence seems a bit weak for those.

It is hard enough to build a trusting relationship with a person I *can* see! You know what I mean?

If I were sure of God's reality, if I had other evidence that he existed and was good, I might be able to take suffering on faith -- "well, You must know best!" But I don't even have that, so all the evidence is on the other side of the scale -- "is this what a universe with a loving God would look like?"

There doesn't seem to be any explanation for this.

Unknown said...

"The Romans killed the Christians for the same reason the Israelites killed the Amalekites -- because they thought having impious people in their midst was triggering divine wrath."

I don't think I ever heard that before. An interesting observation.

I will go with the first theory. It's all part of evolution and it's all unguided by anything other than the laws of nature. There is no purpose for suffering or for anything else. It just is.

Sheila said...

Yes, SH, both the Old Testament and Roman history give that reasoning. Toleration of unbelievers leads to divine punishment.

May I ask how you feel about there being no purpose for anything? Do you feel glad to be free to create your own meaning, or does it leave your life feeling lacking somewhat?

I think people create many complicated explanations that are more meaningful than your account at least in part because your account *feels* unsatisfying. And feelings, even when they are not a guide to reality, make a big difference to us.

Unknown said...

"May I ask how you feel about there being no purpose for anything?"

It doesn't matter how I feel about it. It only matters that it is true. Keep in mind that society has established all kinds of meaning and purpose for us to embrace. We can follow world events, sports, entertainment or we can pursue altruistic activities that make us feel like we make a difference. Just because there is no God to assign meaning and purpose or morality doesn't mean I can't give meaning and purpose to wanting the Red Sox to win another World Series or the Patriots another Super Bowl. The key is to not worry what people think if you focus on things that are meaningless to them.

Sheila said...

Sorry this comment didn't publish right away, SH -- it got caught in moderation and I missed it somehow!

I think you misunderstand my question. I don't mean to imply that you're unhappy if you think there's no higher purpose in the world. I honestly want to know. How do you cope with this reality? Is it freeing to get to decide on your own meaning/purpose, or does it create existential angst?

I want to know because I'm struggling with this reality myself. One minute I'm full of higher purpose and the next I think, "We're all just bugs crawling on the surface of a big wet rock, maybe I should just stay in bed today." Is there a cure for this?

Belfry Bat said...

Bugs on rocks don't suffer angst. Your occasional overwhelmedness is itself a sign that you are more than a bug.

Sheila said...

If what you mean is, "Your intelligence, imagination, emotions, etc., make you superior to/different from a bug on a rock," of course you are right, whether or not I feel it at the moment.

If what you mean is, "The very feeling you want to have more meaning in your life is PROOF that your life has more meaning," I'd like to know where that argument was when I said I *felt* like it was unfair for God to send people to hell. Didn't we all agree that I couldn't be the standard and feelings can be unreliable? If my desires were proof of anything in reality, seems to me we'd be living in a very different world.

Belfry Bat said...

I think I mean the first, but I want to reply to the second, too, because Distinctions.

Yes, no one of us mortals is the standard of Truth and our several feelings may lead us astray in any instance, BUT: what I've pointed out isn't a particular spot where feelings are right, but an example of how to start from the fact of emotion (as known in a particular emotion) and proceed to something transcending them, independent of an accidental or transient condition within one's emotions. This is a slightly-more-useful instance of the Cartesian/Augustinian syllogism "I doubt, therefore I certainly exist".

Admittedly, concluding that you're more than a bug is no great compliment; neither is "you are worth more than many sparrows".

I don't know what similar thing we can conclude from a naive impression (not meant pejorative!) that damnation seems unjust, except that among your emotions is an empathetic desire for justice.

As to the impression itself, and whether it is accurate, we can try to ask the same question from another angle: what can or should happen to someone who persists through the end of his life as an enemy of goodness? Do you want to meet committed enemies of goodness in Heaven? Or we can ask why you felt as you did, which probably includes that you want nobody to be damned, and that's a very very good thing to want.

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