Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Suffering and Faith

Here is a short paper that I just wrote for my Growing in the Life of Faith class, on Suffering and Faith. It is mostly a rehashing, in a less rigorous and theological way, some of my objections to theodicy. For those looking for a more philosophic engagement with theodicy, you'll have to wait for that. This paper was written for a group of seminary students learning to be pastors, trying to apply the theology they're learning in school to a congregational setting. That said, I think it is a helpful summary of some of my views, and I hope it is useful:

The problem of the relationship between suffering and/or evil and faith is as old as humanity, and has often been presented as a rational one. This presentation of the problem as a rational one happens both in our philosophies/theologies, and in our personal experiences; in other words, in both the abstract and the concrete. In both cases, I think, the presentations of the problem as a rational one participate in the same error.

The problem is posed rationally in the abstract when it is rightly noted that the fact of suffering – which points, to many, to the existence of evil – is logically incompatible with an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent God. It the concrete it is posed rationally when, in our prayers or our cries of anguish, we turn to God and as Why?!?, as though some coherent, rational, linguistic answer to that question would satisfy us.

In both cases, to try to answer the problem as it is presented, if it is presented rationally, can be pastorally disastrous. While this may be most obvious when the problem is posed concretely, I think that our tendency to make suffering a rational problem with a rational answer comes from trying to apply the abstract, philosophic approaches to the problem to our concrete situations.

A theodicy is an attempt to rationally solve the problem posed to faith by suffering. It is, in other words, an attempt to prove that the impossible is possible, that suffering and evil can be logically reconciled to a traditionally theistic concept of God as all-powerful, all-seeing/all-knowing, and all-loving; a good and perfect God. That theodicy – which must somehow explain away the problem of suffering – is our most common theological response to suffering has pastoral implications, and can render pastoral care impotent in the face of real crises.

There are many forms that theodicy takes, but ultimately the project of theodicy fails, and fails for several important reasons. First, any theodicy fails morally, because rather than addressing suffering compassionately, it seeks to explain suffering away, to turn a bad into a good, or to at least get God off the hook for suffering. This attempt to get God off the hook sets up the second way that theodicy fails: it presents us with a poor concept of God. The God of theodicy is a God who would rather not be blamed for suffering, rather than enter into and engage suffering wherever it arises. Whenever we have a concept of the divine that is more concerned with God’s reputation than with working to alleviate suffering, we have a truly impoverished deity. The project of theodicy also fails logically, as at the end of the day, no matter how nuanced an argument is constructed, it remains the case that a truly omnipotent God would have the power to end suffering, a truly omniscient God would have seen that in creation which would give rise to suffering, and a truly benevolent God would not desire to impose suffering on creation. Suffering is, in fact, truly incompatible with that understanding of God, and so the problem that suffering poses for faith is a real one that will not simply disappear in a puff of logic.

But the biggest failure of theodicy is found at its very heart: it poses the problem of suffering in exactly the wrong way. Yes, logically speaking, the experience of suffering calls into question a particular – and particularly cherished – concept of God. But, ultimately, suffering is not a rational problem. It is an existential one. And no rational answer can satisfactorily solve an existential problem. The biggest problem, in other words, that suffering poses for faith is not found in the rational questions that arise from our reflection on suffering; the biggest problem, instead, comes from the suffering itself. The work of religion, and as such the work of God, should not be to answer the rational questions asked by those suffering, it should be to alleviate suffering, to salve the wounds of the suffering.

Pastorally, this means recognizing that when those in mourning ask why their loved one had to die, they don’t want an answer. They want their loved one back! This means recognizing that when a tennis player has blown out their knee, and asks why God would allow such a lifestyle-threatening event to happen, they don’t want an answer. They want not to have blown out their knee. This means recognizing that when a cancer patient asks why they have stricken with such a dreadful disease, they don’t want an answer. They want to not have cancer! And it means recognizing that if God has anything meaningful at all to offer these people, it is not an explaining away of their suffering, but an entering in to their suffering.

Theologically this means that our attempts to solve the problems posed by suffering should not be an attempt to get God off the hook for suffering, nor should it be an attempt to explain how suffering can be a part of God’s good and perfect will. Rather, we should look for theological concepts that help relieve suffering, and that provide comfort – but not false hope – to those afflicted by suffering. The most powerful such concept is the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Incarnational theology, unlike theodicy, presents us with an image of a God who rather than running from the responsibility of suffering, enters into the world to take on suffering. Incarnational theology – which does not have to be attached to the traditional doctrine of the divine resting alongside the human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – presents us with a God who bind the wounds of those suffering, and even to bears those wounds within God’s self. An Incarnational God is a God who suffers with the suffering, and who, in suffering, understands suffering, and works to alleviate all suffering. This is a God who can comfort the afflicted, rather than making their afflictions worse by baptizing them and calling them good.


PamBG said...

I agree with your position on incarnational theology but I think theodicy is always going to be a pastoral issue.

I suppose that the scandal of the Christian religion is actually its incarnational theology - the idea that God enters into the mess with us rather than "fixing" everything.

Thought-provoking. Thanks.

crystal said...

I guess I do want to know why bad things happen, so that maybe I can stop them from happening again.

But I agree with you, theodicy arguments don't really help anyone but God, so to speak. David Hart wrote that one artcle in the Wall Street journal in part to address the really awful theodicies brought up explain the tsunami.

BTW, I missed saying happy birthday to Sami below ... Happy Birthday! :-)