Saturday, September 28, 2013

Now the Suffering Part (Part II)

The thing I use to love about Francis Schaeffer lectures, was his ability to simplify complex concepts. In my simpleton undergrad days, I saw the man as an intellectual giant.  But now, I don't think that was his fortitude.  His gift was taking typical philosophical concepts, those discussed in any community college level philosophy class, and translate them into a language that the lay person could understand. Sort of like chewing up a little steak for the evangelical community,  which was only use to intellectual Sweet-tarts.  He would often say something to the effect of, "When things are said and done, there are really only a few people left standing in the room."  I think his style appealed to me because he too suffered from dyslexia and had a great challenge in organizing not only letters within a word, but words within a concept. So for his own sake he had to structure things in an orderly way.
Red Square: Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions
      There really are only two basic questions of life, the metaphysical and the moral.  Within the metaphysical question rest the universal problem of existence . . .  why are we (or why anything is here for that  matter)?  You can't escape the question. The fact that you exist begs that question and creates a real dilemma that is hard to answer.  What I mean by "why" in this context isn't the purpose of life, but more basic. How did we get here and does that existence have a meaning?  As I've said before, there are NO easy answers.  So the real answer must have great difficulties.  Those atheists who claim that they are the only ones who don't put their brains in neutral and take the most logical approach are as much fools as the evangelicals who think that their answers are the only logical ones.
But  now that I've wasted so much time on the introduction, I want to think about the question of morals and (related) the problem of evil.  Again, this is the very basic question of morals, not discussing ethics in detail, but the big question of why is there evil . . . or suffering?  So the film, Blue Like Jazz, started me thinking about this . . . you know, the confessional booth scene.
With the problem of evil there are only a few people in the room . . . actually four.  They are like the four corners of a box, like in Malevich's painting above.
In the first corner are the pure atheists, those who take atheism seriously and not like the claims on a middle school playground of pop-culture atheism. These are mature atheists who have taken their belief to the full meaning.  In this corner, the problem of evil and suffering, like everything in their world, is meaningless.  I say this factually and not as an accusation. It is irrational (and middle-schoolish) to inject meaning where non can possibly and rational exist, except in a Star Trek or Cosmos episode. 
If the universes, with its physical laws and idiosyncrasies, happened purely by chance with a spontaneous (absolutely spontaneous) explosion of something out of nothing, then all within the sphere of existence has no meaning . . . by definition.  So, the fetus that gets terminal cancer in utero and is born and lives a tortuous week and dies a terrible death is no different than the gifted genius who lives a perfectly healthy life until he/she is 110 and dies peacefully in their sleep, after changing the world in a profound way.  In the same thought, there can be no difference between Mother Theresa and Hitler. The two are interchangeable, and balance the equation when they rest on each side of the "=" sign. Living or dying is indifferent.  Those middle school atheists, such as Carl Sagan, know that they cannot live that way, so they cheat and inject meaning . . . "The Universe wants . . . "  Or the sociologist would say, "What is best for the herd is what is good."  No. If all life forms disappeared today, it would have no meaning.  If the entire universe would implode into nothing the same way it exploded out of it . . . would have no meaning.  We are all, absolutely ( and infinitely) insignificant in the model. This is the corner of pure nilism and that is the only real choice of atheism, unless you take an irrational detour into existentialism meaning.
Within the second corner, I will combine the animists and polytheists.  Within this framework, the gods and spirits are as much victims of evil as we are.  Bad spirits or bad gods can ruin your day and your life, in the same way they might ruin the life of the weaker good god.
In the third corner is the escapism of pantheism.  Here evil (as defined by The Buddha) is the manifestation of desire or wanting. If we transcend this world and suppress the personal wanting then evil goes away.  While on the surface, the American translation of pantheism is appealing ( all religions lead to the same sea so us all hold hands and get along in peace and harmony), on the deeper levels it presents some real problems with evil.  In its definition ("Pan" = everything) then within the bosom of the god-force must rest everything, the wonderful and peaceful people as well as the most hideous evil. The worst racism in the world is practiced by pantheists, who suppress and abuse people based on skin color (being justified by the notion that they deserve it for doing bad things in a previous life). 
In the final or fourth corner rest the monotheists, but that corner actually has at least two, very different slopes. On one side is what I would call the Moslem + colloquial  Christianity + orthodox Judaism.  What I mean by "colloquial" here, is the common beliefs of Christians in the street, not true, theological Christian positions.  In this framework, God is seen as the infinite-micro-manager.  Nothing happens without, not only, God's stamp of approval, but His intention.  So then evil becomes part of God's plan, often as either a punishment for personal shortcomings or as a test to improve one's character (or to guide someone in a certain direction in the same way a cowboy uses a cattle prod). Less often evil is seen as the devil who sneaks in while God is not watching (the Why Bad Things Happen to Good People scenario), to ruin your day. But most of the time, the fault resides in you and your personal sin. 
In the second slope of the final corner is the "Biblical" Christian view. Now I use the term "Biblical" with great hesitation because that word is mostly used to manipulate people into a very precise and ego-stroking theology. But what I mean, is the basic Christian theology that most Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants would agree with, even if they don't practice it in their own homes and daily living.  Now that I've reached my corner, you would expect me to smile and say that this corner is a no-brainer, and the only logical place to be. But it isn't that easy.  The Biblical Christian corner has its own problems . . . and they are not benign.
In this corner's slope, we see this world as created by a perfect God with the intention of being perfect. But then evil (an inferior-to-God evil) was allowed to enter into the world.  This evil (for reasons that no one knows and is just one of many difficult parts of Christianity) became congenital.  So, in the Christian story, if a human was born and lived a perfect life, he/she would still suffer the consequences of evil as a punishment for the sins of the fathers. At this point Christianity appears unjust.
But part of some confusing plan, God allowed evil (even though He had the clear power, unlike the polytheistic gods, to smash it) to penetrate the world and making it only a shadow if its intended perfect self. Then of course, God took the punishment for the sins of man and will one day restore the universe to the intended perfection. But the logical questions, which we often surpass in our junior high Sunday school classes) is why did it have to happen that way?  Why did God allow evil?  Why did he set up this strange plan where He had to become a man and die a human death to take the punishment away from us and then one day recreate a perfect world?  There are a thousand legitimate questions being begged in this story . . . all of which we have no logical answer here, but a hope that beyond our intellectual ability there are answers.
I don't think the choices are equal as I do subscribe to the last . . . but it is no a slam dunk.  Most who subscribe to the last are under the false impressions (just like those in all the other corners are) that there way is the only logical way.
With this said, I come back to my original intent on suffering.  We "Biblical" Christians believe that evil entered the world and much of it was not caused by us . . . although some of it was.  So, there is a place for the evil to seek forgiveness of the sufferer.  It would not be appropriate for God to ask for this forgiveness as this was not a mistake, at least not His mistake.  Yes, like in the movie, some of the suffering was caused by the Church, and as part of the Church, I can ask for forgiveness from those who have been harmed by her. However, much of the suffering was not caused by the Church or any entity that I'm personally associated with.  Maybe it is Satan that should be the one asking for forgiveness for these things . . . but don't hold your breath.  So, in a fictional exercise of the soul, imagine that I am the perpetrator and I set up my booth where you come in, not to confess, but to hear a confession. So here goes.
We knowledge that God loves us and intends for us to have a perfect life of fulfillment, so anything less than that is wrong and you do deserve perfection, because that is how God intended things to be..
I'm sorry that you were born with imperfect bodies. That you have the tendency to gain weight, are not as tall or handsome as you want to be. God loves us and we deserve (because this is the way that God intended us to be) to look beautiful or handsome. I'm sorry that didn't happen.
I'm sorry that you were born with a genetic defect that interferes with a pain free life of strength and ability.  You deserve the later because God loves you and intended for you to be whole. I am sorry for that.
I am sorry that your parents were not perfect. I'm sorry that they didn't laugh with you, but used you to fill the whole in their own souls.  I'm really sorry that they physical or emotionally abused you. No child deserves that.  All of us deserve (once again because God loves us and intended perfection for us) the perfect parents, who loved us deeply  nurtured and protected us.
I am sorry that you didn't have the right personality or physical gifts to be popular in high school.  I'm sorry for you having emotional baggage, either from genetics or from your upbringing, that made you socially awkward.  You deserved to be the most popular person on the planet because God loves you and wanted perfection for you.  I'm sorry about that.
I am sorry for the physical injury that happened to you, that has left its physical mark on you. That mark may be pain and/or limitations.  You deserve to be whole because God loves you and wanted perfection for you.  I'm sorry for that.
I am sorry that the person you loved intensely, didn't love you back the same way.  That you suffered intense heart ache that seems to never heal.  God loves you and intended perfection for you, meaning that those you loved intensely, love you in return even more. I'm sorry about that.
I am sorry about those you loved being taken away from this planet and from your touch.  You can't hear them, feel them, share the same air with them anymore, and you loved them dearly. You can't show them in a tangential way your love and that is the worst part.  It is not fair that they were taken.  God loves you and intended for you to be side by side with the people you love for all eternity. I'm so sorry for your loss and you didn't deserve this because God loves you and intended perfection for you.
I'm sorry for the way our biology works, that as we age, we loose. We loose our beauty, our strength, our freedom from pain, or ability to think and remember. I'm very sorry for that. God loves you and intends for you to live forever with a healthy and pain-free body.
I'm sorry that you have a terminal illness, even if that illness is simply aging and natural death.  Of course I'm sorry much more if it is an illness that will lead to a pre-mature death, where you will be the one that will leave, missing the pivotal events in the lives of those who you love.  I'm am so sorry about that.
I'm sorry that you had to struggle financially your entire life, even though you are smart and have worked very, very hard.  It is unfair when others have put in much less effort but have done so much better . . . due to chance. That is unfair and I'm so sorry for that. God loves you and intended a perfect justice for you, where your labors would be rewarded appropriately.
I am sorry that you feel unfulfilled.  That you question the paths you have taken in life and now it may be too late to change.  I'm sorry that the information that you based your decisions on were erroneous and deceitful. You deserved a fulfilled life of success and happiness and anything less is not what originally intended.
I am sorry for those who have sinned against you in a variety of ways. Maybe they stole from you. Maybe they mistreated you, lied about you, took rewards intended for you. Maybe they took love that was meant for you.  I'm sorry about that.
I am sorry for the fact that answers to all the questions of life don't come easily.  That you have to struggle to find truth and even if you think you've found it, it is not a slam dunk. I'm sorry that in the state of the fall, truth is not always obvious.
I am sorry for you being hurt by the Church. It could be something as grossly wrong as being sexually abused by a priest or a youth pastor, or it could have been a manipulative pastor. Maybe it was simply the people of the Church who mis-judged you.  I'm part of that Church so I personally do ask for forgiveness.
For all these things, imagine for a moment that I was responsible for all of them, and in a token gesture I tell you again that I'm very, very sorry and I ask for your forgiveness.  I'm sorry we live in an imperfect world, where true evil does exist and bad things do really happen.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate what I think you're trying to do here, Michael. It's honest and good.

You are mistaken, but only because you have not, to my knowledge, investigated what the Orthodox take is. Lumping it with Catholic and Protestant is only minimally justified, from where I stand. So I would like to reframe what you wrote in Orthodox terms. It will be simply a sketch, just as what you wrote is a sketch.

The world was created by a loving, personal God-in-Trinity with the intention of the union of all creation with him, through the humans wisely bringing creation to its fulfillment as the image of God set up in his temple, the earth, summing up the worship of God of all creation. Because love and union cannot be forced, humans were endowed with the capacity to move toward or away from this union. In choosing to move away from the this love and union as the source of life, humans launched themselves on the road to death, and were enslaved to the fear of death and the sin which feeds death. Evil was introduced by means of the envy of the devil, and of humans as well in their desire to find their source of life within themselves.

So we find ourselves in the condition of death, spiraling toward non-existence and hastening our descent by means of whatever ways we seek to preserve our own life at the expense of others. If a human was born and lived a perfect life, s/he would still be subject to death and corruption/dissolution because of the consequences of the choice of the first humans. God doesn't need to punish us; nothing can change his love for us - not what we do, nor anything about his own attributes (supposed insult to his holiness, etc.). From the very beginning, he set out to rescue us.

God united himself to humanity in the Incarnation, as he had intended from the start, and then as the GodMan he displayed his forgiveness and entered into the very depths of our exile and estrangement, death itself; in this abject humility is where and how he became King of All. And then in the Resurrection he destroyed the power of death and inaugurated the New Creation, the dawn of the fullness of the Kingdom to Come. He was exalted to a place of rulership as the only human worthy of such - think of it - a human being is seated on the throne with the Father! And he has sent his Spirit to enable us to experience and life the Life of the Age to Come even now.

Why did it have to happen that way? Because God is actually good, and took into himself all the rottenness, because he doesn't need to punish. Because Jesus -especially in his cross and resurrection- is the apex, the pinnacle, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, the New Adam, the fully human human being as well as God.

We knowledge that God loves us and intends for us to be delivered from the fear of death, and to be healed to be able to love and have a life in union with him and with all other humans, on a renewed, restored earth from which death and sin and evil will have been forever banished.

Anonymous said...

part 2

There certainly are a lot of questions. You are right about the ultimate questions: Why are we here? How shall we live?

EO would answer, we are here because God created beings in his image with whom he intended union, because that's the direction love always moves. And he intended that as beings created in the image of Christ, we would love one another the way God loves, with self-giving, forgiving, non-judgmental, sacrificial love, and that that love would also include the rest of creation. The fullness of that life is entered into as humans are baptized into Christ, and in that baptism we not only share in the life of God, but also in the life of every other human, because of the Incarnation. We humans are delivered and healed (the meaning of the word "saved" in Greek) together. We are nourished as we actually encounter Christ by means of the Spirit in the sacramental life of the church, most fully in the Eucharist. As we pursue humility and honesty, we become simultaneously the human beings we were meant to be and conformed ever more to the image of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God. That's the ultimate morality. As N.T. Wright said, "Love is not a duty - it is our destiny."

We also acknowledge that, while we can point to the church and say that healing and training in humility and honesty and love is what the church offers (even though we certainly don't always practice it in our own homes and daily living), we also know that God can deliver and heal through Jesus Christ anyone who turns to him, wherever they are. The salvation of everyone else is God's business; I need to tend to the rooting out of my own sin. But we do surely hope in God's good gift of life, which he will not take away, and that he has made it possible to be partakers of his divine life both now and forever.

We can't know the why for every bad thing happens to us. We can know that it's not because God is punishing us, or needs to "teach us a lesson," or is offended, because the God revealed in Jesus Christ is not like that. He may allow our trust in him to be tested, but not to sabotage us; rather, he knows that, like infants and toddlers getting ready to walk, we need some resistance in order for our muscles to get stronger. Because we have seen God in Jesus Christ, we can trust that All shall be well, and All manner of things shall be well.

Hope you have a restful, restorative weekend.


j. Michael Jones said...

Dana, that is well written. Did you write that yourself? I'm not trying to be argumentative but to understand better. How is the Orthodox Church different from the major teachings of Christianity when it comes to evil? I mean, what you write is beautiful but sounds the same that I've heard all my life, first as a Baptist, then as a Evangelical and now as a . . . not sure what . . . post-evangelical?

In the second post you explain well the WHY we are here from an intentional and theological view. When I was talking about the question, I mean the very basic, metaphysical question that all humans must contend with. We exist, so that created a huge philosophical problem (don't take me wrong, I'm very glad we are here) of explaining it. We Christians simply take the choice that a personal being has intentionally created us. That is one of the answers. But with each of the answers, there are still problems . . . or maybe mysteries is a better word.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, yes I wrote it. Did you really hear, as a Baptist, that the Incarnation itself, even without the crucifixion and resurrection, had ramifications for all of humanity? My experience was that the meaning of the Incarnation was ignored except for it being the means by which Christ acquired a body, which was really only spoken about at Christmas. EO also doesn't posit "places" denoted as "heaven" and "hell". In EO, the guilt of the first parents' sin is not passed to each person; rather, because we live in a world that carries with it the consequences of humans' rejection of finding the source of our life in God, it's very easy for humans to sin (always relational, and always to do with enslavement to fear of death), and each person is guilty for his/her own sin. We don't have a "sin nature," we have a human nature that is capable of union with God and response to and growth in love, and sin is an aberration, not the norm, for humanity. Those things are really different than what I was taught as a non-sacramental Protestant, and mostly different than what I learned in childhood as RC.

Evil is not really parsed very much. EO believes that the devil is a fallen angel who tries to lead us into sin, but the only reason that can be done is because of what's already inside us, the propensity toward death and seeing others as threats, and in the case of the first humans, also trying to attain what God wanted for them outside of God's "program" in relationship with God. Since death has been overthrown, in Christ's life and love those things inside us can be healed - not usually instantaneously, though.

In terms of the creation narrative, our liturgy says that it was because of the envy of the devil (toward God) that he tempted the first humans. That's about all there is that's dogmatic. There is room in some of the writings for "the devil" to represent a sort of conglomeration of the evil intent of multitudes of people, though this is not discussed as such. The "general rule" about EO theology is that everything is looked at through the Incarnation, Cross and Resurrection, and we don't really speculate about things not specifically revealed in and through Christ and scripture (according to EO interpretation of those - which is very much derived from 1c. Judaism as NT Wright presents it).

Did that answer your question? A very good guide is Fr Thomas Hopko's "The Orthodox Faith" found here: It's quite easy to navigate; if you're pressed for time, it's easy to read a little and later pick up where you left off. If you're going to read it, I'd suggest vol 1, then vol 3, then vol 4, then vol 2.

What exactly do you see as the basic question of existence? I'm not sure I understand.


j. Michael Jones said...

I'm still digesting your comments. I think you are right about the incarnation. In my Protestantism, Christ's venture into human flesh was also for understanding of our struggles. But you've said a lot and it deserves more than a trifle response from me. I have virtually no time to think anymore, but when I do (maybe during my Saturday run tomorrow) I will try to digest this a little more.

What I meant by the "meaning of existence" isn't about the purpose we are hear, but simply the notion we wake up one morning and observe we exist. The begs a huge philosophical question as to how, more than why. Most people in secular society try to ignore the question. But the choices are accidental, a freak of nature, thus no possible meaning. Or created. That is all I'm saying.

j. Michael Jones said...

Oh Dana, I wanted to add, I'm taking a trip to Istanbul in March with my three oldest sons. I find the history of Constantinople-Istanbul fascinating. So I'm starting to read several books on the history and culture of the EOC as it relates to the history of Constantinople, and also the history of the Ottomans that followed. My previous experience with the "Eastern" church was with the Coptics in Egypt, where my neighbors and landlords were Coptics.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I get it. Hope you get some time to think, for your own health in general.

What a great trip that will be! I've read about that a bit, too. It's messy. One thing to remember is that even though there were ties between state and church (the emperor had to approve the choice for the patriarch of Constantinople, e.g. - but only that city, afaik), there was no "state church" the way we understand it. Even Constantine did not meddle as much as people give him credit for. Again, it was different than in the west. Just as messy, but a different kind of mess :)

Jeremy Myers said...

Hey Michael,

I sent you an email to your gmail account about possibly contributing a chapter for a book some other authors and I are putting together.

Not sure if your gmail account is your main email account or not, but I figured I would give you a heads up here as well.

I am a long-time reader, and appreciate so much of what you write. Keep it up!

Pennyyak Harper said...

Istanbul. I don't know if you've been there before, I'd love to go. Have you seen the Hagia Sophia? I think there are two orthodox patriarchs there ... I recall an article from one, stating his church still faced significant persecution despite the "secular" Turkish state.