Saturday, 7 February 2015

My understanding of the existence of suffering

Last Saturday, the ubiquitous Stephen Fry was asked in an interview what he would say to God if he came before him when he died.  His answer was passionate and completely understandable.  The questions he asks are completely reasonable, and have been asked by many others before him.  It will not surprise you, however, to learn that I disagree with the answers he comes up with, and I would like to try and outline my own understanding of what Mr. Fry is asking about.

He asks why bad things happen, why God should have created a world in which harm can come to us through no fault of our own, why he allows evil, why he would permit parasitic creatures that cause blindness in children, why he would permit diseases like cancer.  His answer is that God is evil and/or insane.

He asks, “How dare you?  How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault.  It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.  Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain.  We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that?  It’s perfectly apparent that he is monstrous. Utterly monstrous and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner, more worth living in my opinion.”

I’ve written before on this subject, and many others have written far more effectively than myself but I think it’s worth revisiting, since it’s such a massive question, and so important to so many people.  The following may or may not be vaguely coherent or sensical, and is being written as much for my benefit as for yours, if there is any benefit to be had.

There are a number of different answers, all of which are true.

We talk about pain and suffering as being evil, but pain exists for a practical reason, and that is to tell us that something is wrong, that something needs to be done.  If I stick my hand into a fire, my body immediately begins sending me very unpleasant signals that tell me that my hand is suffering damage and that I need to remove it instantly.  It is a protective mechanism that forces us to take action to remove ourselves from harm, and that is as true for mental and emotional pain as it is for physical pain.  Misery tells us that something needs to be done, and the misery of others tells us this just as much as our own.  It tells us that the hungry need to be fed, the naked clothed, the cold sheltered.

Next, the very possibility of having anything that is necessary to us includes that possibility of its lack.  If there is such a thing as food, then it must be possible to have no food.  If I can be warm, it is only because I can be cold as well.  I can have happiness, but I must therefore also be able to lack it.  It’s also our way of experiencing the universe.  We define all things by their contrasts to all other things.  I know I am cold, because I have felt warm.  I know I am happy because I have been unhappy.  I know I am full because I have known hunger.  I know the joy of being loved, because I have been lonely.  Without the lacks, we cannot enjoy the presences.  We have evolved in a ludicrously complex macro- and micro-ecosystem that works, and works well.  Bacteria cause decay, stopping us from drowning in a sea of detritus.  They allow us to digest out food.  They can also cause diseases and poisoning.

Thirdly, there is the existence of virtue, made possible only as a reaction to wrong.  How can I help others if they don’t need help?  How can I be brave if there’s no such thing as fear?  How can I endure if there is no hardship?  How can I forgive if I am never wronged?  How can I hope if things have never seemed bleak?  Without evil, there cannot be the positive force of good.  There is the story (sorry, I’m not sure of the original source) of the man who died and found himself standing before the throne of God.  God looked down and said to the man, “Before you are judged, do you have anything you want to ask me?”  The man replied, “Yes.  The world is so full of pain, of hunger, of suffering, of grief, of disease.  Why did you not do something?”  God looked down at the man for a moment, and then said, “That’s funny.  I was just about to ask you the very same question.”

Now of course, you could point out that God could have created a world in which virtue is not necessary, a world in which we could experience pleasure and joy without ever having experienced pain or suffering.  He could; of course He could, but then this world would be very different indeed, and we would be very different beings.  That would be absolutely fine if we ever assume that this world has been placed here for our benefit and enjoyment, but I want to propose a radical theory.  What if it isn’t?  What if the purpose of the world isn’t our pleasure or enjoyment?  What (I know, bear with me) if we are not the point and pinnacle of the entire universe.  What if there are things even more important than whether or not we’re having fun?

Does God love us?  Yes, I believe so.  I believe that He loves us enough to suffer and die for us, but does that mean that we can never be allowed to suffer?  From the ages of 4 through until 16 I hated school.  At times it was because I was being bullied, at times it was because the lessons were hard and unpleasant, the teachers horrible.  A lot of the time it was my fundamental laziness and anti-sociability.  In reality, it was probably exactly as good and bad as everybody else’s school experience, and actually probably a lot better than many, but I hated it.  However, I accepted that it was necessary, and of course my parents were there to make sure I went (not that I ever played truant of course).  It never occurred to me that my parents were evil or insane for making me go to school, despite the fact that I loathed and dreaded it.  I never assumed that they didn’t love me, despite the fact that I was made to go, day in and day out.  I knew that I went to learn, to grow, to become more than I currently was.

This might sound horribly callous when applied to worldwide suffering.  “Starving and diseased?  Man up, it’s character building!”, but I believe that this world is the schoolyard from which it is possible to graduate to far better and more important things.  We are here to grow, to expand.  We are animals, and all that being animals comes with, but I do believe that we were created to become far more than we were ever born to be.  However, to do that, we must face and overcome challenges, and something isn’t a challenge unless it is hard.

I don’t claim to know the mind of God.  I don’t claim to know why the universe is here, or what purpose we exist for, but I do believe that there is a purpose, and that that purpose will be, possibly only as a very tiny part, for our ultimate good.  I offer no clever rationales for this; it is a point of faith, but we are being challenged so that we can grow, and we are being encouraged to grow because God wants the best for us.  It’s just that not everything that helps us become better than we are is enjoyable.  Sometimes it hurts, very much, but we will emerge stronger and better than we ever were before.

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