Outrageous or Meaningless?

Two Views of Suffering

One argument against Christianity begins with suffering: a good and all-powerful God would never allow the suffering of the innocent. There is an understanding of goodness and of power here that should be challenged, but first it must be said that suffering has meaning in an argument against belief in God only if suffering has meaning at all. Its presence means nothing if one takes a thoroughly materialistic point of view. It has meaning that can be used in a moral argument against belief only if we know or sense that it should not exist. But from the point of view of a serious and consistent nonbeliever, suffering is simply there: we hurt, suffer loss and pain, have pain inflicted on us by others or by nature, and it has no deep, or even shallow, moral or ontological significance. On this view any sense that suffering and death are wrong, that they are violations of something important to our being, is simply mistaken.

If suffering exists and is wrong, something about the universe, intrinsic or extrinsic, makes it wrong. Some sort of deep presence or divinity is responsible, one that is malign or culpably indifferent. The sense that even some atheists have that our suffering is a wrong done to us is interesting. It seems to stem from anger at God for not existing, or for not exercising power as they believe a good God should exercise power.

I remember the late, odd comedian Brother Theodore—not a believer—whose prayer was, “God, if you exist, help me. And if you don’t exist, help me anyway.” The natural human impulse to question the suffering of an innocent child or the untimely death of a loved one is not found only among believers. We experience our suffering as outrageous: the world should not be this way.

This could be dismissed as a simple mistake, the childish reaction of an ego that believes its pleasure should be the center of the universe. Or it can be seen as an appropriate perception: the world is not now as it is meant to be.

The nonbeliever objects to the idea that the world is meant to be anything. For the believer the simple fact of existence points beyond itself, or to something deep in itself, something real that cannot be circumscribed or put into words. Wittgenstein wrote, “It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists.... There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.” One could say that nonbelief is a kind of tone-deafness to this aspect of being and our consciousness of being.

That said, believers have to see that their own tendency in this argument is to move away from what cannot be put into words—away from mystery, from a presence that requires silence and silent witness—and to rely more upon dogmatic definition and moral declaration. We have a tendency to want to know more than we can know, and to be in possession of that knowledge. The great problem here is that “faith seeking understanding” can push us too far. It can obscure both the element of mystery—what simply cannot be known because in our present state we are incapable of such knowledge—and the fact that, for the Christian, faith is ultimately about our relationship to a person. This can’t be reduced to a set of rules and propositions.

This is where revelation changes the way we encounter God. Moses is confronted with the bush that burns and is not consumed by the divine fire, and a God who says, “I will be what I will be.” Jesus shows us the Father in his praise of John the Baptist, in his gentle joking with the woman at the well, in his compassion for the father who cries, “Lord, I believe—help my unbelief!” That the God who made the universe from nothing would praise one of us, joke with us, heal us in our doubting state—this is shattering and, from a certain point of view, ridiculous. How could the God who is present on all the moons of Saturn and in the heart of every black hole and the digestive track of every seahorse sing the praises of a troubler of Herod’s peace in the ancient Middle East?

This is the scandal of Christianity. This is no way for a god—or God—to act. This good news is too good—it touches our suffering where we want it to be touched. We can see how someone might say that we are finding what we are looking for because it suits us to think that we are cared for, that God looks out for us as he does for all those sparrows.

But the one who reveals the Father suffers a terrible death, one that is shameful in its cultural context. The world hates and kills the one who loves the world. This really can’t be called the message we wanted to hear, because we would avoid it completely if we could. We are drawn by this encounter into something different from what we would wish, and we are taken there with enough reason to hope, and at the same time to be afraid, like the myrrh-bearing women at the end of Mark’s Gospel. We see that Jesus goes before us into Galilee, that this is our hope, and that in the long run none of what this means is up to us. Thank God.

Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: 

John Garvey is an Orthodox priest and columnist for Commonweal. His most recent book is Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions.

Also by this author
Politics or idolatry

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections