Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Problem of Suffering

Our world is a breathtakingly evil place. The only thing that varies in place and time is the degree of evil. Soltzhenitsyn taught me this long ago and the more I have learned the stronger this belief has grown.
Our world, or more properly, the experience of being a conscious being living in our world, can be wonderful, so wonderful that finding out you will soon be leaving the world can be devastating.
The difficulty of course lies in trying to reconcile these two truths, to understand why a gift as wonderful as consciousness comes to us bound up with suffering and death. After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, "Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable. And how or why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness? Why did it produce things like us who can see it and, seeing it, recoil in loathing?"[0.1] To ask why reality contains conscious beings that suffer and die is to ask the most difficult question we can. It is far more difficult than asking, "Does God exist?" It is a common mistake to believe that the problem of suffering is only a problem for those who believe in an omnipotent loving God. Indeed, I think the problem is most difficult for those who deny the existence of God, but I am getting ahead of myself.
Even in the hands of a great writer, the most poignantly held beliefs about suffering can become dry and detached when put down on paper. Accordingly, having no illusions about my own abilities as a writer, I want let you know the perspective from which I write so that you understand there is nothing dry or detached about my thoughts, even if the words I find to express them come out that way.
1. My Perspective
I have thought and read about the problem of suffering for many years, poignantly aware of how easy my life has been when compared with the vast majority of people who have lived. My life has been far from idyllic, while I grew up in a nice little resort town on the Jersey Shore (Ocean City), my father was an alcoholic and my mother worked very hard just to pay the mortgage, utilities, and put food on the table. I am now 49 years old and of course I have been through some difficult times, but I have never suffered, not in the way I understand the word, for I cannot bring myself to use the same word to describe the trials I have been through as is used to describe the awful things so many have endured both in our present day and throughout history.
That is, I have not suffered until now. On January 11th, 2013, I was diagnosed with ALS. To put this awful day into some perspective, permit me to back up a bit. When I was 20 I became a Christian. Not long after becoming a Christian I realized that I could not both grow as a Christian and date, so I decided not to date. After five or six years I felt I had grown enough to be open to dating, but this made little difference as I rarely dated and never beyond a second date. I wanted very much to marry, but I would not marry just to be married. By the time I was in my upper twenties I assumed that I would never marry taking I Cor 7:7-8 as a guide for my life. Thus, it was completely by surprise that I met and fell in love with my wife Karolina. We married when I was 34 and we now have three children, Sophia age 11, Emma age 8, and Zach who is 3. I had given up the hope of ever having a family, and this has made having a family all the more sweet. The 14 years prior to ALS were by far the happiest years of my life.
The summer before I was diagnosed, when we were on vacation, Karolina and I talked about how great the next years would be. Zach would be three next spring, diapers would be behind us, and we could start doing so many more things as a family: day trips, bike rides, lawn games in the back yard, ..., and perhaps Karolina and I could actually start going out on dates again! This all began to change in August 2012 when I developed seemingly innocuous muscle twitching in my right arm. By November, as my symptoms worsened and test results came in, the innocuous causes had been all but ruled out. Two difficult months later we received the diagnosis that it had to be ALS. This was beyond cruel, it seemed spiteful. Why, after having given up all hope of having a family, would I be given a wonderful family only to have to leave them in this way, causing so much suffering to me and to those I most love?
Not only did this awful disease destroy all of our plans, it replaced them with a future which was terrifying to us, and doubly terrifying for what we feared (and still do) our kids would have to endure. The days after the diagnosis were particularly awful. Karolina and I knew we had to eat, but the very thought of food made us nauseous making every meal a torment. We stopped laughing. We took pleasure in nothing. In short, we went through the motions of life but stopped living. Of course, the suffering was not limited to my wife and me. In the block for January 11 on a family calendar, in my daughter's handwriting I found written, "The saddest day of my life." There will be sadder days to come. And the web of sadness extends much further to family, friends, and colleagues.
We have recovered from the initial shock of the diagnosis, from the destruction of the future we had worked so hard to secure. Laughter has returned to our home and we again take pleasure in many things. My life is not a life of despair. Far from it, I am surrounded by those who love me and the kindness and generosity that has, and continues to be shown to our family has brought us to happy tears many times. However, for all the joy I still find in life, it is impossible to forget that my body is dieing at a rate much faster than my children are growing. I started this post two months after my diagnosis, at the time I could no longer put on my own socks and began losing my voice. Back then I was foolish enough to think I could still do my own plumbing and I tried to repace a hose bibb that had been on my todo list for a year. After holding a small propane torch for ten seconds while trying to sweat solder a pipe my right arm was completely spent and I had to ask for help. A year has passed as I finally get ready to post this; my ALS has been busy. I cannot talk, nor eat or drink by mouth because of the devastating effects of ALS on my mouth and throat, for example, when my head is upright, I cannot touch the roof of my mouth with my tongue. I am writing these words and communicate with my eyes using a specialized computer made by Tobii. I am profoundly thankful for this device, but it is no substitute for being able to talk, especially with young children. Moving downward, things are not much better, my neck muscles cannot support my head so my head dangles, I have no use of my hands, my torso is weak and getting weaker, my legs still have some strength, but I cannot walk, even my eyes and/or eyelids are showing signs, which is rare. I could go on, but you get my point. My life is narrow. Most of the things I used to enjoy have, one-by-one, been taken from me. Big things like being able to talk and rough-housing in the den with my kids as we all laugh while my wife smiles and fears for their safety, and small things like replacing my own hose bibb. It is a difficult reality I wake up to each morning.
2. The Great Sea Of Suffering
Solzhenitsyn has had a profound influence on the way I view the world. The Gulag Archipelago is, on one level, a history of the forced labor camps in the Soviet Union from the time of Lenin until Khrushchev, but to me it is more a study of evil and of the depraved state of human nature. After over 400 gut-wrenching pages, Solzhenitsyn writes,
“Thus many were shot--thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands. We divide, we multiply, we sigh, we curse. But still and all these are just numbers. They overwhelm the mind and then are easily forgotten. And if someday the relatives of those who had been shot were to send one publisher photographs of their executed kin, and an album of those photographs were to be published in several volumes, then just by leafing through them and looking into the extinguished eyes we would learn much that would be valuable for the rest of our lives. Such reading, almost without words, would leave a deep mark on our hearts for all eternity.” [2.1]
No such album was published, but Solzhenitsyn did provide six pictures of those who were executed. In my copy of The Gulag Archipelago there is a post-it note on the page where these photographs appear. I have looked at those extinguished eyes many times over the years. Those eyes have become a part of me, and when I think of suffering, I think of them. My suffering is not trivial, but how much greater was their suffering and the suffering of their loved ones!
And what about the suffering caused by the horrors of Nazi Germany? Imperial Japan? Tsarist Russia? China? North Korea? Pol Pot's Cambodia? Cuba? Iran? Of course we cannot leave Western imperialist control of Africa off this list any more than we can leave off the post-imperialist condition of large portions of Africa past and present. With this list I am restricting myself to atrocious regimes of only the 20th century responsible for murder and repression on a massive scale, and yet my list is nowhere near complete. And if my subject is suffering, then even if I listed every atrocious regime throughout history I would only just be getting started. Perhaps I might continue by listing catastrophic natural disasters, awful diseases, violent crimes, injustice, corruption, ... And even then my list would not be complete for we would still have the ubiquitous suffering caused by ordinary vices like selfishness, pride, lust, insensitivity, anger, ignorance, and incompetence. And if someday some blessed creature manages to avoid all of the above, there is always death.
Enough! You don't need me to lecture you about how much suffering there is in the world. My point was not to lecture, rather, it was to try to wrap my mind around the suffering in our world, the suffering of humanity, in an attempt to make some sense of the suffering. My first reaction is to be utterly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of suffering and to be tempted to give up before even starting. After all, how could I begin to get my mind around so much suffering?
As I try to wrap my mind around the suffering of humanity I am reminded of a passage in The Brothers Karamazov when the wise and good elder Zosima told the story of a doctor who said to him,
“The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,' he said, 'I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” [2.2]
Loving humanity is easy because humanity has no objective existence, it is nothing more than a conceptual aggregation existing only within our mind. So, if we love humanity, we are merely loving a mental picture of our own making. Only individual men exist objectively and it is them, one-by-one, whom we must love. The thought occurred to me, is not the same true of human suffering? Humanity does not suffer because humanity does not exist, only individuals suffer because only individual men exist. If we want to understand human suffering, we should not try to add up the suffering of humanity, we should not try to form a mental picture of the suffering of humanity, instead, we should open Solzhenitsyn's album and look at a few of the photographs. C.S. Lewis pointed this out in the Problem of Pain when he wrote:
“There is no such thing as a sum of suffering, for no one suffers it. When we have reached the maximum that a single person can suffer, we have, no doubt, reached something very horrible, but we have reached all the suffering there ever can be in the universe. The addition of a million fellow-sufferers adds no more pain.” [2.3]
This is so obvious, and yet it is easy to miss so it is worth repeating, there is no such thing as the sum of human suffering. While it is common to say that we share someone else's suffering, we do so only in the sense that our knowledge of their suffering causes suffering in us, but we do not literally experience anything like their suffering. The chasm between the suffering we experience when empathizing with the great suffering of another, and the suffering actually experienced by the other, is enormous. Furthermore, the knowledge of 100 more suffering in the same way does not add to our suffering a hundred fold. In short, suffering is not collective nor is it additive, it is experienced by one sufferer at a time.
Looked at in another way, imagine our world without suffering. Imagine everybody to be happy and troubled by nothing. Lastly, imagine that there were one and only one person, a very ordinary person, not particularly better nor worse than everybody else, who suffered horribly. Would the problem of suffering be billions of times easier to answer? If you are tempted to say yes, imagine you were that person.
I wrote at the beginning of this post that to ask why reality contains conscious beings that suffer (i.e. the problem of suffering) is the most difficult question we can ask. While I still maintain it is the most difficult question, understanding the problem turns out to be well within our grasp. We do not need to try to grasp the "suffering of humanity" for such a thing does not exist, we only need to bring to mind specific people who suffered greatly and ask, "Why did they suffer?" This has a profound implication for each one of us, for it means that we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of throwing our hands up in the air claiming that the problem of suffering is so great that it is beyond our comprehension and, in this way, justify our own avoidance of the problem.
3. There Can't Be A God
"How could God exist when there is so much suffering in the world?"
This is an all too common thing to hear in response to suffering, but it is, at best, a foolish way to express, almost as an unthinking interjection, an otherwise noble disgust at the sight of suffering. Unfortunately, it is often far worse. It is often simply a gratuitous, spiteful, and self-righteous invective directed against believers as if the faith of believers were responsible for suffering. However, let us ignore the many different ways this is said and take it at face value. Does it make sense to reject the existence of God because there is great suffering in our world?
The statement above is a simple way to express a more complex argument questioning the goodness, omnipotence, and ultimately the existence of an omnipotent loving God. Rather than state the argument in detail and attempt to refute it, let us grant the conclusion that God does not exist and examine the consequences.
If God does not exist, what must we make of suffering? If God does not exist, if there is no Creator, then our universe is just an arrangement of physical stuff which, by a freak of time and chance, produced Earth where consciousness festered into existence in the form of man, and with him came conscious suffering.
If God does not exist, do we have any grounds for speaking about human history in a fundamentally different way than we speak about the rest of natural history? Specifically, does our indignation at the suffering of men make any sense? A comet slams into Jupiter to the delight of scientists. An earthquake strikes in the Indian Ocean which spawns a tidal wave killing over 100,000. A flower blooms in the warm spring air. An EF5 tornado rips through a town causing massive destruction and wiping out whole families. A family enjoys a crisp fall day spent jumping in leaves. A child dies of cancer. The brutal reality is that if the physical world is all there is then to speak of any of these things as "good" or "evil" is subjective foolishness. It would be like me insisting that the smell of honeysuckle is evil. Perhaps I personally do not like the smell of honeysuckle (I don't), but it would of course be foolish nonsense for me to declare the smell evil and be indignant that honeysuckle smells the way it does merely because I myself do not like the smell. If the physical world is all there is, then everything just exists and no absolute judgments can be made declaring this as good or that as evil. Declaring that a child dying of cancer is evil, which our indignation implies, would be as absurd as declaring that the smell of honeysuckle is evil. Speaking more generally, just as the arrangement of atoms in our sun is neither good nor evil, so neither is the arrangement of atoms on Earth, even the arrangement of atoms in a child dying of cancer. It would be absurd for the atheist to argue that any arrangement of matter is evil because this would be equivalent to arguing that it is evil that matter obeyed the physical laws which led it to be arranged in such a way.
In the end, if I reject the existence of God, the most I could say about human suffering is that it is evil in my opinion, when viewed from my perspective. If another person were to sincerely claim that they think human suffering is good--or an alien being, if you have trouble imagining another person saying such a thing--we could say nothing in reply any more than I could refute my wife's assertion that honeysuckle actually smells good (incredibly, she thinks so).
I recently started reading a book that has literally been on my bookshelf for 20 years, Journey To The End of the Night by Celine[3.1]. I have picked it up many times over the years, but I never quite had the stomach for it. I almost put it down again thinking that perhaps reading it when one is dying of a crippling terminal illness might not be such a great idea. But then I thought, "What better time to read Celine?" The novel opens with the main character, Bardamu, enlisting in the French army at the outbreak of WW I after sardonically mocking the war a minute before. Celine's writing is disconcertingly compelling. I feel I should not be drawn in by it, but I am. It reminds me of Augustine when he found himself in a stadium watching gladiators, he knew it should disgust him, but one peek and he was hooked.[3.2] Bardamu's disgust at the insanity called WW I provokes a feeling of respect, if not for him, at least for his profound disgust of the war. However, as the novel proceeds there is little left to respect in Bardamu except for his savage hatred of other people, the world, and, I think most of all, for the absurd part he is condemned to play in it. I respect this because I respect a person who insists on facing the truth wherever it leads. Some dismiss Bardamu as a mere misanthrope, but they are wrong, his view of the world is far darker, the object of his scorn is not men, but man. If the physical world is all that exists, then Bardamu is right, our existence is absurd and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what we do with our life. Devote our life to serving others? Try to live a quiet life loving God, raising a family, being good to our neighbors, bouncing a grandchild or two on our knees, and then dying a painless peaceful death surrounded by our loved ones? Live a life of debauchery and selfishness only to die alone and afraid? The physical world could not care less which life we live, and when our sun blows up, what difference would it make in the end? If there is no God, then every trace of human existence is certain to eventually be lost, every human being, everything we ever built, every account of great acts of kindness and heroism, every work of art, every scientific discovery, absolutely everything. It may happen in a thousand years or a trillion years, but once every trace is gone, will it make any difference how long we lasted or how we lived our lives?
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear people who do not believe in God wax eloquently about how wonderful our universe is. What!? Are they out of their minds? If they are right and God does not exist, what a preposterously bad joke it is to bring conscious beings into existence only so they can become fully aware of their own suffering and the futility of their lives! So they can become fully aware of the fact that whatever happiness they may manage to eke out of life as a conscious being will promptly be snuffed out of them after a few moments of life! And then, adding insult to injury, to think that all of this was just a freak accident. Oops! I do not like Bardamu, but I do have some respect for him. At least he faced the logical consequences of his belief with open eyes cursing with his life the absurdity of his own existence.
If we look at the suffering in the world and for this reason we reject the existence of God, we must then hold that our indignation at human suffering is no more justified than indignation at the smell of honeysuckle. Furthermore, there is no escaping that if we follow atheism to its logical conclusion, it leads to nihilism. It is intellectually dishonest to reject God but then continue to think in terms of objectively real moral categories only possible if He does exist. I will return to this, but first I want to consider another view of human suffering.
4. Things Indifferent & Learning To Fall
There is another perspective on suffering which comes to us in many different forms. I will begin by writing about the form I know best, Stoicism. While I don't know how to confirm this, I think it is safe to say that the most widely read work by a Stoic philosopher is Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. Early in the work he writes:
“Neither want of power nor want of skill could have led Nature into the error of allowing good and evil to be visited indiscriminately on the virtuous and the sinful alike. Yet living and dying, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, riches and poverty, and so forth are equally the lot of good men and bad. Things like these neither elevate nor degrade; and therefore they are no more good than they are evil.” [4.1]
Stocism is a pantheistic philosophy/religion. Accordingly, it is important to understand that by "Nature" Aurelius means pantheistic god, not the modern idea of mechanistic nature.
In this passage Aurelius looks at the world around him full of things commonly understood as good and evil being indiscriminately visited upon men without regard to each man's moral worth and he concludes that, since it is absurd to say that this seeming injustice is due to God not having enough power or skill, it must be that these things are neither good nor evil. As we read on we learn he calls all such things, pain and pleasure, sickness and health, living and dying, etc. "things indifferent."
To the Stoic, all that matters is what we make of such things and virtue is the only good. To live according to virtue is happiness and thus our happiness depends solely upon ourselves, not upon the circumstances, the "things indifferent," of our lives. Put another way, it is not what happens to us that is important, it is what we make of it that matters. Or as Aurelius put it, "The whole universe is change, and life itself is but what you deem it."[4.2]
One of the lesser known side effects of ALS is that a sizable number of sufferers feel an almost irresistible urge to write, especially about modern taboo topics such as religion, suffering, and death. Every now and then someone who actually has some ability to write gets this awful disease and the result is a wonderfully written book like Learning to Fall by Philip Simmons. Simmons's book is a series of essays about life in general and suffering in particular. From his essays emerges a view of suffering, while different from Aurelius's in some important respects, is alike in fundamental ways.
In his first essay Simmons asks, "Is not falling, as much as climbing, our birthright? ... We have no choice but to fall, and little to say as to the time or the means. Perhaps, however, we do have some say in the manner of our falling."[4.3] Simmons's essays offer wonderful glimpses into New Hampshire life, and more importantly, into the mind of a very decent person; they are worthy of your time. They also defy a simple summary, but the following passages give a good taste of Simmons's answer to the question which provides the theme for his book, "How should we fall?"
“Fact is, animals are neither innocent nor guilty, neither pure nor corrupt, for these are strictly human categories. Indeed, if we’re to envy animals, it’s precisely because they live outside such categories. And here we come to the heart of the matter. For what would it mean to experience our own actions in such a way that the terms “good” and “bad” don’t apply? It would mean living, like animals, without doubt as to our life’s purpose. It would mean living in such perfect alignment with that purpose that our every act flowed effortlessly from what was highest and truest within us. It would mean rising each day to forage or feed, to shelter and care for our young, to laze or labor, fight or frolic without distraction, without self-judgment, without taking one step off life’s true path. And even in the face of misery and terror, even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even as the sleet freezes our hides or the hawk descends upon us, it would mean living in the faith that this, too, is the way. Imagine living in such fashion and you begin to imagine what I mean by becoming a wild thing.” [4.4]
He picks up the same thought several essays later:
“I imagine living more nearly as animals do, without either the blessing or the burden of self-awareness. What music we could make! I imagine us as frogs in our pool in the woods. Unburdened of self, we have just crawled from the muck and for one purpose only: to announce our amorous intent, our collective call to love.” [4.5]
I warned you that Simmons's thoughts defy simple summarization. Simmons is certainly not claiming that we simply need to go "back to nature." This is far too simplistic and he knows that it is impossible. He is saying that we should "live like animals" right where we are, in our current lives. His view of suffering is essentially pantheistic with all its complexities and noble mysticism.
Meditations and Learning to Fall are very different books, and while Simmons references Aurelius approvingly, I doubt this respect would be reciprocated. Nonetheless, I do think, in two fundamental ways, their approach to human suffering is the same. First, and this they share with every other noble philosophy and religion, they emphasize our response to the circumstances of our lives over the circumstances themselves. The best life is not the one full of the most pleasures (even noble pleasures), it is the one lived in the best way, even if it is a life filled with suffering.
It is the second thing they have in common that links them and sets them apart. They both agree that to think about the circumstances of life in terms of "good" and "evil" is to go astray. This is true even though their reasoning for doing so is quite different on the surface. Aurelius simply denies the circumstances of life are good or evil, whereas Simmons takes an Eastern view of good and evil. He writes that we must "choose" the world. How do we do this?
“We begin by recognizing that the world is not separate from ourselves. Honoring the world in all its complexity, all its light and shadow, means honoring myself most fully, and recognizing that the world and I have a common source. When I hold the berry in my hand, and when in contemplation of that bit of sacredness I begin to vanish, there’s a sense in which the berry, too, vanishes, as though we were but two drops returned to the well of Being. To see the world in this way, as Thomas Merton writes, “means not the rejection of a reality, but the unmasking of an illusion. The world as pure object is something that is not there. It is not a reality outside us for which we exist. . . . We and our world interpenetrate.” [4.6]
In the end, does it really matter if you reject outright the idea that the circumstances of our lives can be good or evil as Aurelius does, or you take the more nuanced Eastern approach which attributes our perception of good and evil to our illusion of individuality? I think they end up in the same place; namely, denying that the circumstances of men's lives which lead to suffering are evil in any objective sense.
5. Unsatisfying Answers
The problem with both atheism and pantheism (in all its myriad forms) is not that they lead to conclusions that I find unpleasant, nor that they make claims that are beyond my ability to grasp, the problem is that they directly contradict my intuitive knowledge of the world.
I have written about what I mean by "intuition" at length in previous posts[5.1], but it is so important and so easily misunderstood that I must briefly repeat myself here. Intuitive knowledge is our most fundamental knowledge. It is knowledge we clearly and directly possess. Descartes' famous "I think, therefore I am."[5.2] is an example of intuitive knowledge. I exist, I know this without the shadow of a doubt, and I know it directly, without having to reason. Indeed, the validity of reason itself rests on an intuitive belief; namely, the belief that reason is a valid method of seeking truth. Thus, intuitive knowledge must be more certain than even knowledge gained by reason because reason itself depends on it. After all, it would be absurd to try to use reason to prove that reason can be trusted.
But which beliefs are worthy of calling intuitive? There's the rub of course. There is no way to convince another that a belief is intuitive, nor could there be. The very nature of intuitive truths precludes any discussion. You either agree or you disagree; you either clearly and directly see the truth of a proposition or you don't. If you were to claim that you do not agree that "I think, therefore I am." is true, what could I say? I could make sure you understood the statement in the same way as me, but assuming this, there is nothing I could say to convince you. I could not use reason to convince you, because it is not reason which shows me it is true.
And so we come to an intuitive belief of mine. I believe that a child dying of cancer is evil. I believe that the death of conscious beings is evil. More generally, I hold as an intuitive belief that the current state of man in which so many endure so much suffering and all are condemned to death is evil. Furthermore, I believe this is true in an absolute and objective sense that transcends my own existence. Even if everyone around me claimed the opposite, even if I were to have never existed, I still believe this would be true. Were I to doubt this belief, I would have to doubt every other belief of mine because I would have to doubt my intuitive faculty upon which all of my beliefs rest.
Let's return to the atheist's predicament. As I wrote earlier in this post, with his rejection of the existence of God he must reject all universally objective value judgments. The atheist can certainly say that to him a child dying of cancer is evil or bad, but he cannot get beyond this merely subjective statement. He must maintain that the only objective reality is the physical world and that everything else, even our thoughts, must be reducible to a physical arrangement of matter. If all that exists is the physical world, how could any particular physical arrangement of matter be bad? The physical world just is, it just exists.
As I wrote earlier, this view of the world leads not only to having to deny that human suffering is bad in any absolute sense, if followed to its logical conclusion, it leads to nihilism. To avoid nihilism the atheist must either make an irrational leap of faith to believe that his life has meaning despite all the evidence to the contrary, or, more commonly, as Pascal put it, "Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things."[5.3]
Of course, just because a proposition leads to an awful conclusion does not make it false, but it also does not make it true! I think our human tendency to believe the awful is every bit as strong--and probably stronger--as our tendency to believe the pleasant. Whether we find a proposition to be awful or pleasant is completely irrelevant to its truth.
The fundamental problem with claiming that the existence of human suffering proves that an omnipotent loving God does not exist is that if God does not exist, it is absurd for us to be indignant at human suffering. Such indignation stems from our intuitive belief that there is something genuinely and objectively wrong with our world. But only in a world in which God exists does such indignation at human suffering make any sense. You cannot have one without the other. You either have to deny that human suffering is evil in any significant sense (i.e. that it is more than just a subjective belief, such as the belief that honeysuckle smells bad) or accept the existence of God. As hard as it is to understand why God created a world in which conscious beings suffer, this is nothing compared to trying to accept that a child dying of cancer is not evil, that human suffering is not evil, that death is not evil. I cannot deny the intuitive belief that these things are evil for to do so would destroy the foundation of intuitive belief upon which everything else I believe rests.
Now let us return to stoicism and pantheism. While there is much we can learn from the Stoic and the pantheist, ultimately I have to reject their answer to the problem of suffering for much the same reason as I rejected the atheist's. Looking at my own life, I cannot view the fact that my wife will lose her husband and my kids will grow up without their father, after first having to watch me slowly die, as a "thing indifferent." I also cannot accept, much less embrace, this as part of the natural order as the pantheist would have me do. I cannot accept these approaches to suffering either when I think of my own suffering or of the suffering of others. It is not anger that prevents me, nor is it inability to accept my fate that prevents me. Indeed, there is much I find alluring in Stoicism and pantheism. When faced with my inevitable fate every waking moment for month after month, and now even in my dreams, the desire to not only give into my fate, but to positively embrace it is very strong. But I cannot. I cannot because my intuitive sense refuses to allow me to accept that my getting ALS is anything short of genuinely evil.
As attractive as it is to view all things beyond our control as a "thing indifferent," this contradicts my intuitive knowledge of many things beyond our control. One's child dying is not a "thing indifferent." The Holocaust was not a "thing indifferent." Stoicism of any type, ancient or modern, is not an acceptable answer to the problem of suffering.
It is also not acceptable to answer the problem of suffering by rejecting human categories of good and evil. As I mentioned earlier, one common pantheistic belief is that such categories are the result of the illusion of individuality. If we could see the world not as an individual, but as the Whole, then categories like good and evil would cease to have meaning. But once again my intuition gets in the way. The rejection of good and evil and of individuality contradicts my intuitive knowledge of myself and of the world so I cannot accept it as the answer to the problem of suffering. Now, if you were to tell me that in mystical moments (I do not say this deprecatingly), you perceive that individuality and the categories of good and evil are an illusion, I cannot argue with you, I can only tell you that despite trying, this has not been my experience. I can however say that one of us must be mistaken. Reason demands this and I would not accept any equivocation on this point.
6. In The Shadow Of The Cross
So now we come to what I believe. I think the problem of suffering boils down to two questions. The first is, who or what is responsible for suffering? The second is, why did God choose to create a world which contains so much suffering?
I believe that the disobedience of man is the cause of our suffering. This is of course the Christian doctrine of The Fall of Man. In my favorite literary work Paradise Lost, Milton describes our situation. Raphael, sent by God before the fall, admonishes Adam about obedience:
To whom the Angel. Son of Heav'n and Earth,
Attend: That thou art happy, owe to God;
That thou continu'st such, owe to thyself,
That is, to thy obedience; therein stand.
This was that caution giv'n thee; be advis'd.
God made thee perfet, not immutable;
And good he made thee, but to persevere
He left it in thy power, ordain'd thy will
By nature free, not over-rul'd by Fate
Inextricable, or strict necessity;
Our voluntary service he requires,
Not our necessitated, such with him
Finds no acceptance, nor can find, for how
Can hearts, not free, be tri'd whether they serve
Willing or no, who will but what they must
By Destiny, and can no other choose?
Myself and all th' Angelic Host that stand
In sight of God enthron'd, our happy state
Hold, as you yours, while our obedience holds;
On other surety none; freely we serve,
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall:
And some are fall'n, to disobedience fall'n,
And so from Heav'n to deepest Hell; O fall
From what high state of bliss into what woe!

John Milton
Paradise Lost V 519-543
[6.1]
I am not going to review the doctrine of The Fall here nor am I going to defend it because I cannot improve upon the wealth of what has already been written, and because I think the second question is the far more difficult one. However, there is one misconception I want to address. When others talk about The Fall I have often heard the relationship between God and man compared to that of parent to child. A parent gives a child the freedom to disobey, but with this freedom comes the consequences of disobedience. While there is value to this analogy, I don't like it because I think it can be harmfully misleading. It can lead one to think, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” I’ll grant, but are the floggings really necessary? Is God just a mercilessly strict parent? But to think in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between disobedience to God and suffering. To disobey God is to suffer because to disobey God is to turn our backs on the ultimate source of all that is good, so to ask why disobedience has to result in suffering is like hiding from the sun by descending into a cave and then asking why it is so dark. Now, all analogies that attempt to make sense of our relationship to God fall woefully short, and mine is no exception for it minimizes the judgment of God. We are wrong to turn from God, and the darkness we experience as we (and with us our world) travel deeper and deeper into the cave is a divine judgment against us, but it is a judgment that can only be avoided by turning back to the light for it is the very nature of a cave to be dark.
Now I turn to my second and profoundly difficult question. I understand and accept that God is not the source of our suffering, we are. Our turning from God has resulted in the awful state in which we find ourselves. If any one of us were obedient to God it would be hard to understand why we seem to have inherited the suffering of our disobedient ancestors, but we are all disobedient so such a question is purely academic, and I suspect that it is beyond our understanding. That we are all disobedient is manifestly true even were we to judge ourselves merely by our own moral standards, let alone God's standards. Again, I get all this, but what I don't get is why did God create a world in which men would turn from Him and suffer terribly as a result?
It is no good pretending that God set everything up good in the beginning and then things just went sour. This is absurd. God does not see the world through the lens of time, after all, He created time! When He created our world He created all of it, including all of time. There is no getting around the fact that God chose to create this world with full knowledge of all its disobedience and suffering. Why? This is horribly difficult to understand.
In Learning to Fall, writing about those who try to make sense of suffering, Simmons wrote:
“Rhyme and reason, after all, are human values, not divine ones. Wanting human suffering to fit some divine plan is like wanting to fly an airplane above tornado wreckage and see that it spells out song lyrics or a cure for acne. At some point in life, in the face of illness, violence, accident, or injustice, each of us confronts the possibility that rhyme and reason may not be on God’s agenda. This, of course, leads many people to dispense with God and religion altogether.” [6.2]
Suffering is like a tornado in that it is maddeningly arbitrary. There is no rhyme or reason to its path. It misses an empty house, destroys a neighboring house killing the family inside, and then it ropes out yards before hitting a preschool full of kids. Job complained bitterly that the evil often prosper and the righteous often suffer while his accusers argued that Job's suffering must be the result of Job's own unrighteousness. What did God say? He rebuked Job's accusers and praised Job's faithfulness. But we don't need the Bible to teach us that suffering is maddeningly arbitrary. A single glance at the world proves this beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Some try to explain suffering by pointing to the good that suffering often inspires. If you have attended a Protestant church for any length of time you have undoubtedly heard the story of Horatio Spafford who wrote the great hymn It Is Well With My Soul after a series of personal calamities culminating in the death of his four young daughters when their ship sank. It is a great hymn and a poignantly inspirational story which is appropriately told as an example to Christians dealing with great suffering, but who in their right mind would claim that the hymn and the story are worth the lives of Spafford's four young daughters? When a tornado strikes it is often followed by acts of great kindness and generosity, but are these good things worth the devastation caused by and the lives of those taken by the tornado? Since my diagnosis of ALS we have been the recipients of extraordinary kindness and generosity, but is this good worth forcing my wife and children to watch me die in excruciatingly slow motion and then to be widowed and fatherless? And, speaking selfishly, is it worth my dying such a death? Ratcheting things up a bit, was the good that came out of World War II really worth the 60+ million lives it took and the monstrous suffering it caused?[6.3] I could of course go on ad infinitum. Simmons is right to this extent, from our perspective as disobedient finite creatures, trying to justify suffering based upon the good that it inspires is as absurd as trying to justify a tornado by looking for a pleasant pattern in its wreckage.
So what meaning can be found looking at the aftermath of a tornado? The only meaning I can find is that a tornado just struck, period. Likewise, what meaning can we find in human suffering? The most obvious and certain conclusion we should draw is that there is something profoundly and horribly wrong with our world, but this doesn't get us any closer to the question at hand; namely, why did God choose to create this world?
Dostoevsky's lessons about suffering are not lost on me. I know that even a man who has spent the entirety of a long life, in Augustine's words,"licking the dust of the earth,"[6.4] can be prompted by great suffering to put his tongue back in his mouth and look skyward, question his life, and perhaps turn to God. While true, again, this does not explain why God would create such a world as this. It also does not answer Job's question, for why doesn't everyone suffer until they turn to God? In other words, why don't we all suffer almost constantly, and in some proportion to our disobedience?
I know the Bible well so of course I am aware of verses like Romans 8:18 and 8:28 [NASB] "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us... And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Paul clearly has the next world in mind when writing these verses for they would make no sense restricted solely to this world, especially when considering the times in which Paul lived.[6.5] But it is not the next world I want to understand, it is this world. I understand why God would create heaven, but why did He create Earth? Why not just skip this world? I am not being in the least bit flippant. If it is possible for us to freely love God in heaven, then why was this world necessary? Saying that God will wipe away our tears misses the essential point of why the tears were necessary in the first place.
I can discern no divine plan in the anarchic suffering ubiquitous in our world. When I look at the world I see an anarchy of disobedience to God and a corresponding anarchy of suffering. There is of course a great deal of good in our world which moderates this anarchy of evil, but the battle is tragically one-sided. Does this mean God is not in control? No. Just as it is His will to allow men the freedom to disobey, it must also be His will to allow the anarchy of disobedience and resultant anarchy of suffering. There is no order to human disobedience and thus there is no order to human suffering making it all the more evil and difficult to bear.
But I cannot give up, for I do not accept Simmon’s conclusion that “Rhyme and reason, after all, are human values, not divine ones.” The world that I can understand is an ordered world with physical laws which govern the physical world and moral laws written into our intuitive sense that govern our behavior. Rhyme and reason most certainly do appear to be divine values. So again, I persist in trying to make sense of why God created this world, but all of my attempts come up short...
Is this world some sort of divine proving ground? But does God really need a proving ground to test His creatures? This idea strikes me as absurd.
I think the idea that God created this world to show us something is getting closer to the truth. It is we who lack understanding, not God. In many of the world's religions, philosophies, and myths there is the idea that the knowledge of good and evil are somehow intertwined. Would we truly appreciate warmth if we never experienced the absence of warmth, if we were never cold? Likewise, do we need to experience evil, the absence of good, in order to appreciate good? I do think at least a shadow of the truth is reflected in this idea, but it too has to be woefully lacking in some fundamental ways. For example, if disobeying God enables us to better appreciate God's love, is it then somehow good to disobey God? This too strikes me as absurd.
Still trying to understand the existence of anarchic suffering I turn again to Job. The most striking thing about the book of Job is that at the end of the book God seems to duck Job's fundamental question! God responds to Job saying:
Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?

Now gird up your loins like a man,
And I will ask you, and you instruct Me!

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding,

(Job 38:2-4 NASB)
Is it wrong to want an answer to Job's question, to the problem of suffering? Unsatisfied, my thoughts turn from the disobedience and suffering of the world back to my own suffering, back to palpable reality. Having difficulty accepting God's response to Job as the final word I pray again for understanding. I ask "Why?" Nothing. Silence. I go to the Bible again and again and its promises seem to mock me. Finally, I come to the suffering of Christ, to the cross. But not to the story of the cross, not to the symbolism of the cross, to the literal cross made out of wood upon which a real man bled real blood, experienced real suffering, and died a real death. Metaphors won’t do. My ALS is not a metaphor, it is real, relentlessly real. It will eventually rob me of my ability to breathe, but that is only the final stroke. Before that it will, among many other things, take away my voice, my ability to eat or drink by mouth, and of course, my ability to move. But none of these strokes come quickly. Every week brings something else I can no longer do. It is a death of a thousand cuts, and every one stings. After 10 minutes of struggling, I finally accept the obvious fact that I need help, and so I open the bathroom door to call for my wife. Sitting in the den I watch my kids playing tag, Emma tags Zach and then three year old Zach runs up to me, tags me, and playfully screams, “Tag! You’re it daddy.” I forget myself for a moment and try to jump up, but reality slaps me in the face as the unsteadiness in my legs rebukes me.”You fool!” it screams, “What are you thinking? Sit back down, you could fall on them!” I obey as I must, look at Zach and say, “I can’t little buddy, my legs are sick.” He looks at me puzzled for a moment or two, and then he runs off laughing to tag his grandfather. He doesn't tag me again. Later, sitting in that same spot, I see a news story about a young girl, Sophia's age, with cystic fibrosis who will die if she does not soon get a lung transplant. At least it is me sitting on the couch. No, metaphors just won’t do.
Trying to answer the problem of suffering solely with metaphors and myths is like trying to stop a tornado with a fan. Suffering is too real, too tangible. Everything, and I mean everything, hinges on the literal reality of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. Only in the shadow of the cross can I begin to understand the horrible necessity of suffering. I still do not understand the reason for the necessity, but I understand it must be necessary. Indeed, I have become convinced that we are simply not capable of understanding why God chose to create this world with all of its disobedience and suffering. I think our trying to understand the reason God created this world the way that it is would be like a 3-year old trying to understand modern physics. Isn't this the meaning of God's response to Job? When God answered Job the way He did was He merely rebuking Job for daring to ask a question about His creation? Perhaps there is an element of this in God's response as Job did flirt with criticizing God, but Job never crossed the line. I think God's answer was less a rebuke and more a legitimate answer indicating that the answer to Job's question was beyond Job's ability to understand. God did answer Job's question!
So what do I understand in the shadow of the cross? I understand that, for some reason beyond my understanding, the disobedience and suffering of this world is necessary. When God laid the foundation of the world He knew man would disobey and suffer horribly as a result. He also knew the only way to redeem man would be for Him to humble Himself and become a man in the person of Jesus and suffer and die. If, knowing this, God still chose to create our world the way it is, them our suffering must be necessary.
The longer I have been a Christian the more I have come to understand the significance of the suffering of Christ. I wrote earlier in this post that there is no such thing as the "suffering of humanity" because we can only experience our own personal suffering. But Jesus was God and as God He alone could genuinely know the suffering of others. What if Jesus not only bore our sins on His shoulders, what if He also bore our suffering? What if the suffering He experienced was not confined to His horrible death in the mortal body of a man, what if as God He also experienced the aggregate suffering of all mankind? I am profoundly humbled and awed by even the possibility of this. How great must be God's love for us? How necessary must be our suffering?
In the shadow of the cross I can accept God's answer to Job's question. I still don't know why God chose to create this world with all its disobedience and suffering, but I have lived long enough to know that only fools and fanatics have everything figured out. I hate the fact that I am dying of ALS and I struggle both physically and psychologically dealing with its awful effects. I hate the suffering that fills our world. But, when I stand in the shadow of the cross, I can look beyond the disobedience and suffering of our world, trust God because of what Jesus did for us, and accept the necessity of suffering. It is not well with my body, but it is well with my soul.
 
0.1 ^ Lewis, C. S. (2009-06-02). A Grief Observed (Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis) (p. 20). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
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2.1 ^ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago. Translator Whitney, Thomas P. Harper & Row, 1974. p443. Print.
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2.2 ^Dostoyevsky, Fyodor (2011-06-20). The Brothers Karamazov (Annotated with Critical Essay and Biography) (Kindle Locations 1373-1377). Golgotha Press. Kindle Edition.
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2.3 ^ Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1962. p116. Print.
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3.1 ^ Celine, Louis-Ferdinand. Journey To The End Of The Night. Translator Manheim, Ralph. New Directions, 1983. Print.
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3.2 ^ Augustine. The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translator Ryan, John K. Doubleday, 1960. p? Print.
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4.1 ^ Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translator Staniforth, Maxwell. Dorset Press, 1964. p48. Print.
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4.2 ^ Aurelius, Marcus. Meditations. Translator Staniforth, Maxwell. Dorset Press, 1964. p64. Print.
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4.3 ^ Simmons, Philip (2003-04-29). Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Kindle Location 164). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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4.4 ^ Simmons, Philip (2003-04-29). Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Kindle Locations 849-856). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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4.5 ^ Simmons, Philip (2003-04-29). Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Kindle Locations 1105-1107). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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4.6 ^ Simmons, Philip (2003-04-29). Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Kindle Locations 1370-1375). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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5.1 ^Most extensively in Does Matter Exist.
5.2 ^ In the Second Meditation Descartes never actually writes "I think, therefore I am." because he wanted to avoid the (in my opinion) trifling criticism that "therefore" implies the use of reason. Nonetheless, I reference the Second Meditation because the Meditations are where Descartes most clearly and concisely explains the meaning and significance of "I think, therefore I am."
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5.3 ^ Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. Penguin Classics, 1966. 95. Print.< br/>[View or Purchase]
6.1 ^ Milton, John. Complete Poems and Major Prose. Editor Hughes, Merritt Y. Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1957. 208. Print.
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6.2 ^ Simmons, Philip (2003-04-29). Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life (Kindle Locations 489-492). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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6.3 ^ I am not questioning the necessity of fighting WW II. Not fighting WW II would certainly have resulted in even more suffering. My point is why did God create a world in which WW II had to be fought?
6.4 ^ Sermon 231,4 Phrases like these are why I love Augustine, but I never read sermon 231 until I heard it in an engaging sermon given by Pastor Ken Smith at Princeton Meadow Church in July 2013.
6.5 ^ While it is a little dated, I still think F.F. Bruce's New Testament History provides an excellent overview of the times in which Jesus lived and the New Testament was written.
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1 comment:

British Connection said...

Tommy, I have been reading your blog for quite a while now, trying to understand and digest your well thought out words. You have always been such a thoughtful and brilliant man, even when you were a teenager. You are an inspiration to me and surely to everyone who will read your words.
You are so loved by all who have had the pleasure to know you and I will thank God every day that I can call you my friend.

With love always,

Basia