Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work; there is now no smooth road into the future; but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.
-D. H. Lawrence
Sometimes I wonder if our whole world suffers from a kind of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We’re inundated with information about the kinds of events that occupy only our most horrific nightmares. My own knowledge of recent World History, and I would guess that of many of my generation, begins in earnest with the Holocaust, traveling quickly from there to the horrors of Vietnam and then hurtling into a litany of genocides, school shootings, terrorist attacks and natural disasters whose collective casualty count reaches numbers far beyond the comprehension of any but the mathematicians among us.
Jack Johnson asked why the newscasters don’t cry when they read about people who die. The only answer he could come up with was that the stories are just make-believe, like lullabies – you can’t believe everything you see.
I think he’s right – you can’t.
Not because the stories aren’t true, but because, at this point in history, you really can’t believe everything you see. It’s all very true and real, of course, but to believe it, to really understand and process it all, to let the reality of it sink into your soul, would break you.
So instead of believing the news, we punctuate story after story with the phrase, “in other news…” a phrase which, as Neil Postman has so eloquently pointed out in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, has become a trigger, allowing us to switch from one topic to another and then to another without connecting ourselves with any of them.
We know more than we ever have. In fact, I heard not long ago that collective human knowledge – the sum total of all that we know as a species – is now doubling approximately every five years.
But we believe very little. Believing costs us quite dearly these days.
And I think that’s why we’ve developed such a tenacious ability to know that things are true and not believe them. Because if we believe things – really believe them – then we know we’ll have to do something. Because believing – the actual submission of our minds to an idea – always results in action.
I find it interesting that, today more than ever, every belief system must find a way to deal with this problem. Some versions of Eastern Mysticism deny suffering, claiming that the world itself is an illusion, and that only by intentional dissociation can we escape it. If the world is simply an illusion and the only true “reality” is in our minds, then suffering loses its force. Evil is no longer a legitimate category.
Karma, on the other hand, claims that somewhere, somehow, all things will balance out. If we could ever achieve a truly broad view, then we would see that the universe is ultimately oriented toward evenness. Eventually, every evil will be counterbalanced with an equivalent good, and all things will finally be at rest. Striving will finally cease. Thus, the evil we see is only the counterweight of an equivalent good, a yin opposite its yang.
Islam and some ultra-fundamentalist or hyper-Calvinist strains of Christianity claim that God does as He chooses, and for us to question His purposes only evidences our finitude. God’s sovereignty is absolute – who are we to question Him?
And finally, naturalism, that is, the belief that no spiritual or supernatural world exists at all and that we can only know what nature and reason can teach us, claims that our desire for any different kind of world, our desire for justice, purpose, and meaning, is ultimately misplaced. Knowledge (which is limited strictly to scientific knowledge) can inform me of what is, but meaning is wholly constructed. I do not discover meaning; I create it.
I don’t intend to examine or evaluate these differing responses to our shared distress. To do so would take quite a thorough study. But I find it interesting that each falls short of giving any sort of justification for our shared hope. They cannot explain why our distress bothers us so deeply, nor can they explain our deep passion to fix it.
Maybe you noticed the similarity between all four of the responses to suffering above. All of them claim that nothing is actually wrong.
In my mind, the vigor of the biblical response to the problem of evil and suffering rests in large measure in the Bible’s unflinching commitment to the fact that the brokenness of our world, and the suffering we all experience as a result of that brokenness, never should have been. In the beginning, God had other plans for us.
Christianity asserts with violent force that the world is broken, and until we are able to see the brokenness, hope is impossible, for hope in a show built of smoke and mirrors is no hope at all. Such hope can only disappoint (see Rom. 5:1-5).
Kabayashi Issa was a Buddhist monk in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. After losing two of his children still in their infancy, Issa wrote the following Haiku:
The world of dew –
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet…
Issa held the first of the four views described above. He believed that the world is nothing more than dew – it will be here for a time, and soon it will be gone. All is dust and shadow.
But he could not convince his heart that this was true. And the transience of human existence gave him no solace in the wake of losing his children. He had a longing that I would almost call hope, but his beliefs could not justify that longing.
The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is… that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.
But Nietzsche’s entire philosophical system funneled him to the conclusion that life was not worth living. His philosophy, despite the undeniable brilliance of his mind, could not justify his observation.
And again, we see Dylan Thomas, in his famous poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” urging us to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But why? Why fight death if life is only dust and dew? Why “burn and rave” if the good man, the wild man, and the grave man all end up in the same ground anyway?
Finally, we see the author of Ecclesiastes, having barred himself from appealing to the spiritual to explain the physical by committing to examine life “under the sun,” calling out that all things are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Yet he cannot avoid the truth that some find legitimate joy, vibrant hope, and tenacious meaning in this life. And seeing such joy, hope, and meaning causes him to punctuate his despair with glimpses of a broader perspective – a perspective that comes from “over the sun.”
Science may be able to tell us what happens to us when we suffer. Buddhism may be able to teach us to deny our suffering. Hinduism may convince us that our suffering will somehow be worthwhile in the end. And religious fatalism may justify our suffering by telling us that God wants us to suffer.
But none of them can explain why we still have joy.
None can tell us why even the weakest among us scramble over the obstacles when the sky falls down around us.
Our beliefs, whatever they are, must look the world in the face, in all its ugliness.
But they must also explain to us how we even know what “ugly” is.