Newtown, Connecticut. Every family held some kind of religious service – Catholic, Congregational, Methodist, Jewish, Mormon. President Obama’s eulogy was essentially a sermon quoting 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. Society turned visibly to faith and God to communally face tragedy. Where were the humanists? Some argue that religion offers loving, supportive relationships in community. But it also provides theology, a larger life story that helps make sense of suffering and finding meaning in pain. This is where secularism simply falls short. It obviously cannot provide a theology, but it is hard to see how it can offer community as well. Religious communities share worship, annual observances, relationship grounded in sacred text, rites of passage for birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death. Secularism has to borrow these from religion. But ultimately, community results from sharing something more important than one’s own interests. When the individual is the final arbiter of meaning and determining right and wrong, community is eroded, if not impossible.
According to Susan Jacoby, the atheist is free of the questions about why an all-powerful, all-good God allows evil and suffering. They do not have this burden and are thus freed to care for the victims and change things so it doesn’t happen again. Quoting Robert Green Ingersoll, she notes that “death…is only perfect rest…The dead do not suffer.” Therefore the rational position that there is no existence after death can be used to comfort the grieving. But there are problems with this view. First, it is an exaggeration to say that all people of faith must struggle with the problem. Second, to claim that atheists are freed to advocate for social causes is historically and philosophically naive. Religion encourages social justice. Most social movements were religious in nature. How can atheism claim a better source for social justice when there is little historical evidence of atheistic influences on such causes. Philosophically, religion provides a clear basis for definitions of justice, human flourishing, right and wrong. These definitions are not self-evident. Defining moral and just behavior is enormously difficult. On what do you base your standards such that they are not purely arbitrary? Even David Hume concluded that we cannot base morality on science and reason since they only tell us how things are, not how they ought to be. Finally, to say that the dead do not suffer is simply too brutal to be honest. Is it right to tell someone they are not to fear a state in which all love and meaning are gone? Further to claim that the dead do not suffer, in contrast to the resurrection, is defended by claiming that resurrection simply isn’t true. But the Christian can make the same claim of the secular belief.
Contemporary people think life is all about the pursuit of happiness. We decide what will make us happy and work to achieve it. But when suffering comes along, it takes away the conditions of our happiness which then destroys our reason for living. “You can have meaning only when there is something in life more important than your own personal freedom and happiness, something for which you are glad to sacrifice your happiness.”
When describing the shock and response of those who discover a new born child is not like them, the child is deaf, a dwarf or Down’s Syndrome most families find themselves grateful for the experience they would have done anything to avoid.
The secular view does not work for most in the face of suffering, why?
1) The variety of forms of suffering and their causes. Western culture oversimplifies and reduces it to “victimization as the dominant account.”
2) Western culture is naively optimistic about humanity. The forbidden truth, tacitly admitted by drug use, is that happiness is beyond the reach of most. Life is hard and unhappy. But for the secular, all meaning and happiness are only found in this life. To have any hope, we must believe that sources of unhappiness can be eliminated. But the causes of suffering are infinitely complex and impossible to eliminate.
3) It reveals the thinness of the secular world story. A world story must give us hope and enable society to cohere as a whole. For American’s the big ideas were God, Nation and Self. But in the nineteenth century democracy, expansion and prosperity began to replace God. Now, instant gratification has replaced devotion to God and anything resembling patriotism. There is no “collective vision” left.
Being the legislator of our own meaning and morality gives nothing to die for and nothing to live for when life takes away ones freedom. With no ultimate goal beyond comfort or power and no meaning beyond personal happiness, suffering can quickly lead to suicide.
For modern culture there is no place for suffering in the pursuit of freedom and happiness. But for the Christian, suffering is at the heart of the story. While suffering results from our turning away from God it is the way through which God rescues us through Jesus Christ. How we suffer becomes the means through which we become Christ-like, holy and happy and how we demonstrate the love and glory of Him.
The solution to suffering isn’t a change in public policy, expert psychology or therapy, or technology. One of the great principles of Christianity is that very few grow into greatness or find God without pain and suffering waking us to the blindness of our lives and hearts.
Next week Chapter Four: The Problem of Evil.
Until then, don’t take my word for it, read the book – don’t wait for the movie,
and have a little hope on me,
To learn more about Timothy Keller and his work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, you can check out his personal website, his Facebook page or the church homepage.
Keller, Timothy (2013), Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-525-95245-9