Our society is probably the first in which we agree to keep what matters most to us out of our common discourse, because it could divide us. Combine the secular basis of liberal democracy with capitalism, and you get a society in which civic order and the need for distraction become the most valued commodities.
In traditional societies, one religion usually reigned; members of minority communities were tolerated at best, or they were persecuted or slaughtered. The separation of church and state has at least freed religion from its alliance with coercive power, and where no particular advantage can be gained from religious affiliation, a faith may be chosen cleanly and honestly.
But the price paid for this is that we see religion placed in the realm of the subjective, a matter of taste. The differences involved in religion divide us, and what unites us is considered much more important-but what is that, in our secular society? The marketplace, not only of ideas but of commodities-or rather, ideas become commodities, and the ones we like best are the ones we accept as true. The successful sale of a commodity demands that the thing we are being sold-cars, whiskey, brand-name clothes, bottled water, religion-can satisfy us and make us whole now, and we will not be happy (being happy is all-important) unless we buy, or buy into, what is being offered for sale.
Our culture tells us this at every turn, and the consequences are tragic. The irony is that the tragedy lies in the avoidance of the tragic. If one thing is central to the understanding of all great religious traditions it is that there is something divided and strange, something broken and unhappy about the world we find ourselves in, and if this can be corrected at all (not at all a sure thing) it will be at a cost; it will involve a struggle, even death.
Traditional societies could put the stories that tell us this truth at the center, even while they avoided its implications at every opportunity. Our society turns the ad volume up and asks us to look at anything but the one unavoidable fact: There is, for all of us, a 100-percent mortality rate, and all the fitness centers and laptops and cell-phones and snacks and sneakers will not help us out of that hole.
The first of the Buddha’s four noble truths is that existence is suffering. At the center of the gospel message we find Jesus crucified. To redeem us he had to come to where we are, and the Cross is where humanity is. The Resurrection, which gives us hope, has happened only to him, so that he can judge the rest of us mercifully-but the truth of our world, this side of resurrection, is Golgotha. We have crucified the Lord of glory, torment one another, are tormented. And we have been given the power to forgive and be forgiven, to love, even to die for the sake of another. But none of this has to do with the satisfaction of our immediate desire, and our culture-based as it is in commerce-is established on the creation of new desires and the illusion that they can be satisfied.
So many people find it hard to accept the absolute unavoidability of suffering. You hear it constantly: “Why did she have to suffer? She was such a good person....” As if goodness were a hedge against suffering. The suffering of the just is an ancient mystery, at least as old as Job. It shows us a truer picture of the world than our temporary comfort. Just or unjust, we will all be crucified. God’s mercy falls on the just and unjust alike, and so does suffering.
The greater mystery is that at the base of suffering there is something profoundly moving and even hopeful in a way which is hard to explain, and perhaps it can only be experienced. A young woman asked me to visit her fiancé, a young man who has been in a coma for sixteen months. I have been to see him with her a couple of times, to anoint him and pray with her and with his family. She goes to see him for hours every day after work, in a hospital where there are many like him, a bleak place where there are few visitors. She talks with him, reads to him, prays with him, turns him in his bed to make sure he doesn’t get bedsores. She hopes for a miracle, but her love doesn’t depend on one. She will wait, and nothing may happen. What is constant is her patient love, a love which hopes, but without demanding results, a love which endures without any clear expectation. This is already a miracle. There is something prophetic about this kind of love-it shows us something we need to know about God’s love for us, for all the suffering world.