Tuesday, September 27, 2005

An old essay on human suffering

David Allen White's response to Hugh Hewitt's question about human suffering struck a deep chord with me, on two levels. I should say, he raised two themes that I think are critically important and that I've written on at length myself, years ago.

First, there was his observation that "the most obsessive idea in the Modern Age is the avoidance of suffering," which is one of the most important things anybody who wants to understand modern (especially Baby Boomer) American religion absolutely must grasp. I'll talk about that in a later post.

But second, he points to the way the Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection revolutionizes our understanding of human suffering. I can't tell you how delighted I am to hear somebody else besides myself -- in particular, somebody who, unlike myself, has influence and an audience -- addressing that point. And it reminded me of a column I wrote long ago...probably ten years ago, back in the mid-nineties...for the newsletter for tiny St. James Episcopal Church in Taylor, Texas. Here's that essay.


At this time of year [Christmas and Epiphany], it’s often said that Jesus "wasn’t born the way we would expect God to be born," meaning that we would expect God to be born in a palace, as befits his rank. It seems to me, however, that in at least one sense Jesus’ miserable birth, in a stable at midwinter to impoverished, politically oppressed, socially despised parents was exactly what we should have expected. ...continue reading...

Different men reject Christ for different reasons. In this column we’re interested in those people who refuse to be a Christian because they don’t like the way God has chosen to do things; they have a grievance against God. Of these, the most noble are those who complain, not of how God has treated them personally, but of how God has treated others — those, in other words, who hold that since evil and suffering exist, God does not.

Now this argument against God actually has two parts. One part is rational; it consists of the arguments that claim to prove that God and evil are incompossible. (To steal Ambrose Bierce’s definition of incompossible: "Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man." I consider this the most amusing of all attempts to disprove God’s existence by appeal to human suffering.) If God is to win the soul of the atheist, He must refute these arguments, and that is why He created people like St. Thomas and C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.

But the rational arguments are not what really matters. The complaint against God does not begin with logic. The caring atheist does not look at a suffering child and calmly deduce that he should be outraged. No, he looks at the suffering child, feels outraged, and shapes his outrage into the form of logical arguments. The idea, "No caring God would allow this," is not something we figure out by thinking rationally. It is an instinct, or, to use technical language, a direct judgment. And no matter how clearly you show the holes in his arguments, the compassionate atheist will continue to believe that no caring God would allow such suffering. For he believes it, not because his logic demonstrates it, but because his indignation demands it. The logic trots along behind the indignation, not the other way around.

Now the indignation comes, not from a belief that God is powerless (if He were, who could blame Him for allowing suffering?), but because He "doesn’t care." And I think that the image behind that is something like this: "God’s in His heaven, even though all’s wrong with the world." We want to know what kind of smug Being would sit comfortably on a celestial throne and gaze unconcernedly on the misery of an innocent child. If He cared, wouldn’t He be driven to act? Wouldn’t He be driven to end the suffering?

Now the cure for this feeling of outrage only begins when we recognize a curious fact. A person can help end the suffering of another without caring about him at all; if, for example, God wanted to show off His nobility, He could end suffering and congratulate Himself on His "compassion," even if He didn’t care tuppence about us. It’s perfectly true that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes; we must not forget the new heaven and new earth that await us. But first God did something even more compassionate than ending our suffering. Before He ended it, He stooped down and shared it.

The atheist’s true answer is the life of Christ. Is it outrageous to see an infant born into extreme poverty? You bet. And what is God’s answer? "She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger." Is it obscene that a child should suffer degradation because his parents are thought to have sinned? Absolutely; think, for example, of what it meant for a Jewish boy to be referred to as "Jesus, son of Mary (since we don’t know who his father is, heh, heh)." Are we sickened by political oppression — such as the Roman oppression of the Jews? Or by brutal physical and mental torture, such as ripping the flesh off a man’s back and spitting in his face and hurling insults in his broken teeth? Or, most of all, by the murder of an innocent man? From Calvary come the words of the dying thief: "This man has done nothing wrong."

The atheist will never be convinced until his moral outrage has been appeased. And I know of no way to appease it except by the observation of Dorothy Sayers, that though the reasons that God’s rules allow sufferings are beyond our understanding, still "God plays by His own rules." For the eyes of every suffering child are the eyes of Christ, who two thousand years ago was born in a stable, "because there was no room in the inn."

UPDATE: Welcome, Hugh Hewitt and company. I'm afraid the quality of my posting is wildly erratic. In case you're wondering, we did successfully manage to get our last two girls adopted, though it was a tremendous struggle, and they're still in Kazakhstan pending immigration approval (and our ability to come up with money for the airfare home). The whole saga is blogged at length in a series of posts; there's a master post that walks you through the whole story one post a time, but if you just want to read the most important post in the saga, that would be Two stories. I'd also be very grateful if you could read Zhenya's story.

Oh, and one more thing: any post of mine whose title ends in "...Dept.," is silliness of some sort.


At 8:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another who has written on this topic--at considerable length--is Pope John Paul II.

See his encyclical letter of 1984, "On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering" (Salvifici Doloris). The document is available online here:

Br. Francis de Sales, OP

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