You can burn down my church, but I shall be free!
Simon & Garfunkel
A Church Is Burning
Theodicy was one of my many academic wanderings as a graduate student. It is essentially the study of the relationship between the Christian notion of God and pain/suffering/evil in the world. Of course, it could be extended to any of religious reflection on the meaning of the negative aspects of life. There are those who would argue that religion itself was born out of people’s need to explain pain and death in particular. It is compelling to ask why life can suddenly end, and why this type of loss is an essential part of life.
I’ve recently been re-reading Suffering by Dorothee Soelle, as well as a great deal about the Holocaust. Needless to say, evil and suffering have been on my mind. I want to explore several ideas around the idea of suffering. I begin with a look at whether suffering is essential to being human, from a theistic perspective.
There are many elements that define the human being. Our general shape, cognitive awareness, behaviour, and emotional capacity are among them. The concept of both heaven, and heaven on earth (that post judgment day/rapture idea that appears in some eschatological literature) seem to imply a changed condition for people. This could include the physical state, such as the form of spirit or energy, as well as a psychological and emotional well-being that is not found on earth. It can then be suggested that suffering is excluded from this state of being. After all, a heaven composed of a perfect union with God would not include pain of any form. Thus the ideal and perfect form of human exists without suffering. This line of thinking exists in all of the religions I have studied (though not always dependent on a concept of heaven), and perhaps even fits into more secular worldviews, particularly those advocating the pursuit of science and humanitarianism. This is likely because one element of the human condition is a desire to escape suffering, except for those more masochistic people, and even they would like to avoid intense uncontrollable suffering and human depravity.
For Christians, this question is answered in the creation account, where Adam and Eve are punished with the pains of labour for their actions in Eden. People were created without the capacity for suffering, or more accurately there was no such thing as suffering. Heaven is an extension of this suffering-free existence. Yet so very much of life is suffering. People experience many different types of pain. Soelle quotes Simone Weil’s three levels of suffering, physical, psychological, and social. Virtually every day of our lives we will ourselves experience some pain, or we will witness it in another. Failing that we are aware that in the world people are suffering, and it is only a matter of time before we do again. Although we do experience times of joy and happiness, it may not be possible to isolate those incidents to the point that a true notion of suffering free life can be imagined.
A final question can be asked, does essential humanity require suffering? Is there such an idea as being human with suffering? It is difficult to reflect on both sides of this question because the one argument is so hypothetical. The real answer lies in the value and role ascribed to suffering in the human experience. Is it merely an accessory to life, like breathing air, or consuming food, or is it a fundamental aspect of the emotional and psychological course of life? Much like breathing suffering is more or less ever present in life. Our lungs, however, work mostly unnoticed throughout the day. While we are asleep any knowledge of breathing is lost. When we suffer, we must make a conscious effort to ignore the pain, for its presence is announced at all times. It can prevent us from reaching sleep, and often affects our dreams. Suffering becomes an integral part of our lives whenever it occurs. Imagining a life without it, while very attractive seems impossible.
For all these arguments there is one final point. We do not consider suffering to be normal. Pain, torture, illness, depression, and violence are all viewed as abnormal. We have created entire professions to combat it, and to use it as a weapon because it is so powerful. Very few people actively seek pain in their lives, and only the very sick, mentally ill, or in some cases devoutly religious seek death. In some of those cases they want to die to escape overwhelming suffering. Although it is a normal part of life, it is not an essential part of being human. Could we live without pain? Certainly, we could. Those who argue that suffering builds character or shows commitment to a belief system or prepares people for the harsh realities of life, would probably still trade their pain for a suffering-free life.