Making Sense Out of Suffering (Paperback)
“Tell me frankly, I appeal to you—answer me: imagine that it is you yourself who are erecting the edifice of human destiny with the aim of making men happy in the end, of giving them peace and contentment at last, but that to do that it is absolutely necessary, and indeed quite inevitable, to torture to death only one tiny creature, the little girl who beat her breast with her little fist, and to found the edifice on her unavenged tears—would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me and do not lie!” —Ivan Karamazov
By the time you finish reading this book, ten thousand children will starve, four thousand will be brutally beaten by their parents, and one thousand will be raped.
If you took a poll asking who the profoundest thinker of all time was, the man who would probably come out second, after Jesus, is Buddha. Buddha’s entire philosophy centers around his answer to the problem of suffering. Whether that philosophy is true or false, here is a man who descended deep, deep into the mystery of suffering. How can we not hear him out?
His name was Gotama Siddhartha. “Buddha” is not a name but a title, like Messiah or Christ. It means “awakened one.” He was born a prince, and his father the king kept him in the royal palace for years in order to win him over to the idea of being a king. For there had been prophecies at his birth that this child would become either the greatest king in India’s history or the greatest world-denying mystic. Though Gotama’s father did all he could to make kingship attractive, Gotama was a curious youth, and one night he bribed the charioteer to drive him outside the palace walls into the city, which his father had forbidden him to see. There he saw the Four Distressing Sights.
The first sight was a sick man. His father had allowed no sickness into the palace. “Why does that man cough and wheeze? Why is his face red?” “He is sick, O lord Gotama.” “Can anyone get sick?” “Yes, my lord, even you.” “Why do people get sick and suffer so?” “No one knows, O lord Gotama.” “That is terrible! I must read this riddle.” So Gotama spent the night in fruitless meditation and did not read the riddle of suffering.
The second night, the second ride, the Second Distressing Sight: an old man. His father had allowed no old men into the palace. “Why is that man leaning on a cane? Why is his skin all wrinkled? Why is he so weak?” “He is old, O lord Gotama.” “Can anyone get old?” “Yes, my lord, even you will one day be old.” “Why do people get old?” “No one knows, O lord Gotama.” “That is terrible! I must read this riddle.” So Gotama spent a second night in fruitless meditation on two riddles.
The third night, the third ride, the Third Distressing Sight: a dead man. Gotama had never seen such a thing. No motion, no breath, no life. “Why does that man lie so still?” “He is dead, O lord Gotama.” “Will he rise again?” “No, lord Gotama.” “Can anyone become dead?” “Nay, everyone, my lord. Life’s one certainty is that we will all one day die.” “Why? Why do we suffer and get old and die?” “No one knows.” “Terrible! Terrible! The riddle must be read.” But a third night produced no solution to the terrible riddle.
The fourth night, a fourth ride, the Fourth Distressing Sight: a sanyassin, an old Hindu mystic and holy man who had renounced the world and sought to purify his soul and find wisdom. An old man with a robe and a begging bowl. “What is that?” “A sanyassin.” “What is a sanyassin?” “One who has renounced all worldly possessions.” “Why would anyone do that?” “To become wise.” “What is it to be wise?” “To understand the great mysteries.” “What mysteries?” “Why we suffer, and why we get old and die.” “I shall be a sanyassin.” And Gotama renounced his princedom and his palace and became a sanyassin.
But the life of asceticism made him no wiser than the life of worldly indulgence, and after fruitless years of this life, he decided on the Middle Way: just as much food, sleep, and creature comforts as he needed, no more, no less; neither to indulge nor to torture his body. He took a decent meal for the first time in years, thereby alienating all the other sanyassins except five, who stuck around and became his first disciples. Then he sat under a tree, the sacred Bo tree, or Bodhi tree, in full lotus posture, determined not to rise until he had read the great riddle. When he arose, he proclaimed, “I am Buddha,” and enunciated his Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths are the substance of Buddhism. When a disciple demanded Buddha’s answer to other great questions, he reprimanded him; only the Four Noble Truths are needed. They are:
1. That life is suffering (dukkha: the word means a bone or axle out of its socket, broken, alienated from itself). We are born in suffering, we live in suffering, we die in suffering. To have what you wish you hadn’t, and not to have what you wish you had, is suffering.
2. That the cause of suffering (and here Buddha finally reads his riddle) is desire (tanha: greed, craving, selfishness). Desire creates a gap between itself and satisfaction; that gap is suffering.
3. That the way to end suffering is to end desire. Nirvana (extinction) is that state. Remove the cause and you remove the effect. The world tries to close the gap between desire and satisfaction by increasing satisfaction, and never succeeds. Buddha takes the opposite road: decrease desire to zero.
4. That the way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path of ego-reduction. Life is divided into eight aspects, and in each of them the disciple practices a gradual releasement, simplification, and purification. It is a total, lifelong task; everything is brought into the service of desire-reduction for the sake of Nirvana, the elimination of suffering.
I am not a Buddhist. I cannot help viewing Nirvana as spiritual euthanasia, killing the patient (the self, the I, the ego) to cure the disease (egotism, selfishness). Buddhism eliminates the I that hates and suffers, yes; but that is also the I that loves. Compassion (karuna) is one of the great Buddhist virtues, but not love (agape). Buddha seems to be simply unaware of the possibility of unselfish love, unselfish will, unselfish passion, an unselfish self.
Nevertheless, I cannot help standing in awe of Buddha’s own passion to read his great riddle, and equally in awe of his program: nothing less than the transformation of human nature. No one but Jesus ever had a more radical program. And Jesus too placed himself squarely in the middle of the real problem of suffering and gave a radically different solution. Here is an excerpt from a paper by a student in one of my philosophy classes at Boston College. She titles it simply “Help!”
My twenty-seven-year-old friend can’t lift her hand to scratch her nose. She can’t move anything but her eyes, mouth and head . . . sort of.
It’s been over two years since she started walking into walls. After a while she had to lift her legs by hand in order to position them properly in her car, a flashy black TransAm she loved. Then came the crutches, but the atrophying of her right hand led to the use of a walker. The next thing she knew, she couldn’t get around with the walker and her hand became useless. She started using a wheelchair; the car went into storage. Then her other hand started to go, and then her whole body went, and she became bedridden. I can’t remember for sure how long this process took, probably because I don’t want to remember, but it seems it took about nine months for Elaine to go from bad to worse to hell. Finally the doctors gave in and diagnosed multiple sclerosis.
I, her family, friends, and co-workers watched our friend change from a vibrant, generous, loving young woman to a lump of flesh totally without control, will, or desire. In the beginning I would cry frequently, and dreams of her walking and talking—the old Elaine— constantly haunted my nights. My torment was over the why of her condition: for what is she being made to suffer?
I shall never forget reading about the boy in the bubble. I think he was an only child. He had a rare disease (how common rare diseases seem to be!) that necessitated his living his whole life in a sterile plastic bubble. Any touch, a single germ, could kill him. All communication, recreation, education, everything was through the bubble. Finally he was dying. Since he was doomed anyway, he asked to touch his father’s hand— his father, who had loved him and stayed with him all his life. What unspeakable love and pain was in that one touch! I wonder . . . did it feel hot and burning like iron, or soft like a womb?
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen to Good People because he had to understand the tragedy in his life: his only son Aaron had another rare disease. He aged prematurely, looked like an old man by the time he was a teenager, and died in his teens. Why? I am about to severely criticize the rabbi’s reasoning in answer to that question later in this book, but I have nothing but awe at his sufferings and nothing but admiration for his endurance. More importantly for this book, I take his question so seriously that I had to write this book to try to answer it. Here is the rabbi’s question:
I believed that I was following God’s ways and doing his work. How could this be happening to my family? If God existed, if he was minimally fair, let alone loving and forgiving, how could he do this to me? And even if I could persuade myself that I deserved this punishment for some sin of neglect or pride that I was not aware of, on what grounds did Aaron have to suffer?
Annie Dillard writes of a burn patient she read about in the newspaper. The case so haunted her that she stuck the clipping up on her mirror. The prognosis was unrelievable, agonizing pain all over the patient’s face for the rest of her life. Worse, it happened twice. Just as the effects of the first accident were wearing away, a second came which was far worse, in fact, incurable. It was not her fault. She was a good person. Why do such very bad things happen to good people? God could have arranged the accident for some Mafia chief instead. Why didn’t he?
There is a man in Chicago who has loved one woman deeply, truly, and totally all his life. He is a true romantic and a deeply pious Christian. The woman is his wife, or rather was his wife. For one day she dropped on him the most devastating news a man can ever hear: she did not love him and she was leaving him forever.
For years and years after this, he continued to court her. Every day he came to her apartment building and walked around it. She would not let him in. He never gave up. Finally, she gave in, tried coming back to him, then walked out again. He loves her still. That man has suffered so deeply and continually that everyone who knows him says he is the most powerful healer and comforter they ever met. He has healed countless other hurts, but he cannot heal his own. He knows what his suffering is good for, but that does not justify it. Why couldn’t God heal all those other people without hurting him so?
Julia was the most loving, friendly, cooperative wife you could imagine. She was also a committed Christian with deep faith and trust in God. Her husband Barry seemed a likeable chap, though with some deep hurts and mix-ups. His parents were divorced, his father used to beat him, and he had learned to distrust the world and God—until he met Julia. Julia was the world to him—a new world. She taught him to trust again, to trust God too. They were deeply in love. Both knew that their marriage would have its problems because of Barry’s background, but both were willing to risk it and work at it.
Now, twenty years later, after many ups and downs, Barry has left Julia and has become an alcoholic. Because one summer night a police officer came to their door with the unbelievable news. Their teenaged son, the apple of their eye, who was planning to enter college in the fall, had been killed in an auto accident.
Barry simply collapsed. He refused to talk to Julia, blamed everything on her, and drank himself into oblivion. Julia was left with her teenaged daughter Jill. Jill saw the sufferings her father put her mother through and vowed a war on men for the rest of her life. She became a hard, hating person, hating God above all, the God she had trusted for fifteen years and who had let her down so horribly and unendurably. If God were real, she thought, he would have seen her breaking point and not brought her past it.
As for Julia, her doom was less spectacular but the worst of all. She retreated into a shell of dullness and depression. She never smiled any more. She looked twenty years older. She moved away from family and friends whose attempts to cheer her up and help her she found unendurable. Now she lies in bed at a mental hospital most of the time and stares blankly at nothing—the nothing her life has become. Her only passion is that she hates God.
Julia’s case is fictional. But cases like it are factual. If even one case like Julia’s exists, it seems to disprove God, a God who supposedly knows and loves and provides for each one of his children. An omnipotent God could have stopped that auto accident and saved four lives, one body and three souls. He didn’t. Therefore either he doesn’t care, and then he is not all good; or he doesn’t know, and then he is not all wise; or he isn’t able to, and then he is not all powerful. In any case, the God of Christianity, the God of the Bible, the God millions believe in, is a myth. The facts of life prove that. Don’t they?
Here is the most powerful argument for atheism I have ever seen anywhere in the literature or philosophy of the world. Surprisingly, it was written by a great Christian, Dostoyevski. It is Ivan Karamazov’s challenge to his believing brother Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan is reciting horror stories of the suffering of innocent children:
This poor child of five was subjected to every possible torture by those cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then they went to greater refinements of cruelty—shut her up all night in the cold and frost in a privy, and because she didn’t ask to be taken up at night (as though a child of five sleeping its angelic, sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask), they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. And it was her mother, her mother did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child’s groans! Can you understand why a little creature who can’t even understand what’s done to her should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice? Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?
Anticipating and rejecting one of the great traditional answers to the problem of evil, the notion of solidarity in sin (original sin) and in salvation (vicarious atonement), Ivan argues further:
Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they too furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? I understand solidarity in sin among men. I understand solidarity in retribution too; but there can be no such solidarity with children. And if it is really true that they must share responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, such a truth is not of this world and is beyond my comprehension.
And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return the ticket. Tell me, yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.
The case against God can be quite simply put like this: How can a mother trust and love a God who let her baby die?
The examples I have mentioned are special. But the strongest case against God comes not from them but from the billions of normal lives that are full of apparently pointless suffering. It is not just that the suffering is not deserved; it is that it seems random and pointless, distributed according to no rhyme or reason but mere chance, and working no good, no end. For every one who becomes a hero and a saint through suffering, there are ten who seem to become dehumanized, depressed, or despairing. And the universality of it—there’s the rub. Your neighbor, your best friend, your doctor, your auto mechanic all have deep and hidden hurts that you don’t know about, just as you have some that they don’t know about. Everybody out there is hurting. And if you don’t know that, you’re either very naive and believe in people’s facades, or so thick-skinned that you don’t hurt yourself and don’t feel other people’s hurts either.
I don’t mean to insult anyone; we all do a lot of cover-ups. It’s our animal instinct to cover up our wounds so that they don’t get hurt more. Just as animals do this to their bodies’ wounds, we do it to our souls’ wounds. We are all involved in a universal cover-up.
One part of this wounding that everyone is involved in is the family. Everyone is born into a family, and most people go on to make new families. The family is the first and closest source of the I-Thou relationship. But this source of our deepest loves is also the source of our deepest hurts. If you are part of a family, whether it is a home broken by divorce or alcoholism or resentment, or whether it is unbroken, you know how those closest to you hurt you the most, whether deliberately or not. And if you are not part of a family, you know the even deeper hurt of loneliness.
Look at people on the street. Look at faces. Really look. Especially on a big city street. They’re not only busy and rushing—that’s not so terrible; Jesus was busy and rushing around much of the time too—but they’re hurting. Look at the facial lines, the muscles, the hardness, the tautness, the set of the eyes, the suspicion, the dullness. “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” wrote Thoreau.
People hurt less physically in this century, especially this generation, than ever before, largely due to the progress of medicine. There are anesthetics, one of the greatest inventions of all time. There are cures for more and more diseases. Industrial society gives most people a comfortable life, a life only the wealthy few used to have. Most people go through seventy or eighty years with less than half a dozen occasions of really agonizing, unendurable physical pain. A hundred years ago you were lucky to get through a single year without pain that we would today call terrible. Think of a world without anesthetics. Think. When was the last time you felt the equivalent of a sword through your arm?
Yet people are hurting far more psychologically and spiritually today than ever before. Suicides are up. Depression is up. Mindless violence is up. Boredom is up. (In fact, the very word boredom does not exist in any pre-modern language!) Loneliness is up. Drug escapism is up.
But the barbarians are no longer at the gates. The Huns and the Norsemen have long gone. What are we escaping from? Why can’t we stand to be alone with ourselves? Solitude, the thing which ancient sages longed for as the greatest gift, is the very thing we give to our most desperate criminals as the greatest punishment we can imagine. Why have we destroyed silence in our lives?
We are escaping from ourselves (or trying to, since yourself is the one thing other than God that you can never escape from) because we all hurt, deep down. Usually it is not an unusual, spectacular, tragic kind of hurt but a general greyness that settles like dust over our lives, a drabness, a dullness, a dreariness, an ugliness, an ordinariness of everything. We go around like robots, obedient to our social programming, never raising the great questions. Our very passions are sleepy. We stumble into bed obedient to sexy advertisements, and out of bed obedient to alarm clocks. We have almost no reason to get out of bed and almost any reason to get in.
This is more tragic, not less, than past sufferings. Deep, passionate sufferings are at least deep and passionate; and if there are very low valleys, there are also very high mountains.
So either you feel great tragedy and ask why, or you don’t, and then you are living an even greater tragedy and have even more need to ask why.
Modern man does not have an answer to the question of why. Our society is the first one that simply does not give us any answer to the problem of suffering except a thousand means of avoiding it.
Meanwhile, where is God? He seems part of the problem, not part of the solution. C.S. Lewis found that out when his wife died. He wrote in A Grief Observed:
When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him . . . you will be—or so it feels—welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face.
How easy, how inevitable for the spiritual descendants of Job to look up with the big, betrayed eyes of a hurt child into the face of the Father, now apparently far away, and begin to resent him, or even to hate him.
I will now tell you my most terrible secret.
I get very mad at God sometimes, especially when he lets me get hurt. In fact, I will let a million cats out of the bag. I will tell all the doubters and unbelievers who are reading this a terrible secret most Christians do not tell: I think almost every believing Christian, and probably almost every believing Jew and Moslem too, gets mad at God sometimes. This is a pretty well-kept secret, especially among evangelicals and fundamentalists. I confess it not to cause scandal or to help the cause of unbelief but simply because it is true, and I believe that we always need truth just as we always need love, because those are two of the attributes of God.
We Christians are pretty ordinary people, subject to the same feelings, failings, and flailings that unbelievers have. One of these is resentment against God when things don’t go our way, when life starts kicking us in the pants. We are all little children (there are no grown-ups!), and we all reach a tantrum point when things get bad—some sooner, some later. Sometimes it is passionate anger, sometimes it is dull depression or despair. Psychologists call these the active-aggressive and the passive-aggressive responses. But unless we are puppets, vegetables, or computers, we hit lows in our lives when we simply cannot say to God “I love you” or “Thy will be done” from our hearts.
I will tell you another secret too, because this other secret is also a deep clue to the problem of suffering. This second secret is the subject of a whole book I wrote called Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing. It is that every single one of us is unhappy on a deep level. Even when our lives are filled, they are empty. Only when we are empty are we full.
I am tempted to explain my paradox, but instead I shall tease you with it and go on to tell you more secrets. One is that our faith is often a largely intellectual thing. We talk a good game of God, but really God makes a pretty unspectacular and non-total difference to our lives most of the time. We don’t really practice the presence of God much; we don’t really do all to the glory of God. In fact, most of us don’t even pray regularly!
Still another secret, less well-kept, is that we have the same moral problems everyone else has, with a better track record only in some areas like drug addiction, murder, and suicide. But there are almost as many gluttons, gossips, adulterers, and misers among us as among anyone else, and as for the two worst sins of all, pride and hypocrisy, we set the world’s record.
The Bible, the most honest book in the world, paints a terrible picture of the moral and spiritual failures of God’s chosen people, the Jews, throughout their history; and Christians are their successors.
I have in mind not primarily the church’s spectacular crimes like witch hunts, the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Medici popes but the things that keep going on right now in the average Christian home and heart. Chesterton said once that there is only one unanswerable argument against Christianity: Christians. And he showed who he was thinking of first of all when he wrote the following letter to the London Times. The Times had asked a number of writers for essays on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?” Chesterton’s reply is the shortest and most to the point in history:
How does all this confession address the problem of suffering? I am about to say in this book some things that will sound high and exalted and idealistic. I say them for the only reason anyone should ever say anything: because they are true. But when I compare my own life, full of these wide, enormous plains that have yet to feel the footstep of the invading and conquering Lord, with the high mountains of truth that I spy from afar in my dry and dusty flatland, I am impelled by honesty to say what C.S. Lewis said in the preface to his book on the problem, The Problem of Pain (which, by the way, is a masterpiece):
When Mr. Ashley Sampson suggested to me the writing of this book, I asked leave to write it anonymously, since, if I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them. Anonymity was rejected as inconsistent with the series; but Mr. Sampson pointed out that I could write a preface explaining that I did not live up to my own principles! This exhilarating programme I am now carrying out.
I write from the common valley, not from any mountain. I have only the ability to write, certainly not the ability to practice. I think most of my readers, who do not preach what I preach, practice what I preach better than I. And we all know which of the two is the more important.
No one after repeated shocks turns easily to God and smiles. Even Job—whose response to his first great load of tragedy was, “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”—even Job only barely endured the second load. God brought him to the brink, to his breaking point. God’s brinkmanship is terrifying. Our brink, our breaking point, is usually far sooner than Job’s, but God brings us to it just as he brought Job, so that we too, like Job, though with less reason than he, can curse the day of our birth. Even Teresa of Avila, when thrown off her carriage, slammed rudely to the ground, and deposited in a mud puddle, questioned God. He answered her, “This is how I treat all my friends.” Her tart reply was, “Then, Lord, it is not surprising that you have so few.” Even saints do not smile sweetly when God throws them into mud puddles. Only pigs do that.
What good to us, then, is a book written on a level of truth and theology and the ideal rather than simply on the level of feeling and psychology and the actual? Here we sit in our mud puddles. Am I about to prattle about trusting God, like Job’s three friends? They came to Job on his dung heap with nothing but correct theology. Job could not fault their logic a single time. His only criticism of them was that their words were empty and dead, “words of ashes, maxims of clay.” Is that what I offer you?
No. I speak not from the heights but from our shared mud puddle. But from here we can both see the heights. I have just confessed some of my mud to you so that you would get our relationship right straight off. I address you, dear reader, not as a lecturer addresses an audience but as a friend addresses a friend—in fact, as a starving bum who has found some food addresses his fellow bum. Our only qualification for God’s grace is our emptiness, not our fullness; our undeservingness, not our deservingness. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Similarly, on an infinitely lower level, this book is for empty hearts, not full ones. Read it if you are, like me, hungry.
This book is for everyone who has ever wept and wondered. That includes everyone who has ever been born. For these are the two most distinctively human acts of all. They distinguish us from animals and from computers and from angels.
Do animals weep? I don’t know. Perhaps not. Perhaps all animal tears are crocodile tears. But even if animals do weep, they do not wonder. No animal is a philosopher, and wonder is the origin of all philosophy, according to the three greatest philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. When animals suffer, they just suffer. Their song is, “Ours not to reason why, ours but to do and die.”
No computer, or artificial intelligence, either weeps or wonders. Computers do not weep because computers do not hurt. They have no feelings, physical or spiritual. And computers do not wonder, do not question, either. They do only what you program them to do. They do not question their programming, unless you program them to do that, and then they do not question that programming. We too have been programmed by our heredity and environment, but we question our programming. We doubt. Doubt is glorious. Only one who can doubt can believe, just as only one who can despair can hope, and only one who can hate can love.
No angel, spirit, god, or goddess suffers or questions, weeps or wonders. Pure spirits do not have bodies with nerve endings all over them, and pure mind never sang, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” Animals know too little to ask questions and gods know too much.
We alone, we humans, weep and wonder. This book is some wondering about our weeping—wondering why we suffer.
God: How He Comes into It All
I believe in God, the God of the Bible, the all-powerful creator, the all-loving Father. That does not solve my problem of suffering; that makes it worse. Maybe God is going to be part of the solution, but he starts out being part of the problem. For how can an all-powerful and all-loving God allow his innocent babies to suffer?
That is the problem; not just suffering but the scandal of suffering in a God-made and God-ruled universe.
This book is not just about suffering but about God and suffering. It is addressed to:
1. orthodox Christians
3. non-Christian theists (Jews, Moslems, Unitarians)
4. religious persons in general
5. honest, questioning agnostics
6. rational atheists who disbelieve in God because of the problem of evil
7. rebels, atheists like Camus and Ivan Karamazov who refuse a God who allows such atrocities.
This book is not a neat set of answers for believers to beat unbelievers with. It is a record of a real, honest, personal quest, a lived journey of exploration in life’s darkest cave. I do not ask or expect everyone to agree with me at the beginning of the journey, or at the end, only to come along. For this is life’s deepest journey, deepest cave, deepest question, for each of the seven people listed above. Like Job, I have wrestled with God about suffering, as most people have, though I have not experienced unusual suffering, as Job did. This book is the account of the process as well as the results of that wrestling match. I will tell you at the beginning what the results were: I lost. Like Job. And that is the only possible way to win.
Warrant: How Do You Know?
Reader: How dare you try to solve life’s darkest mystery?
Author: No, I do not claim to solve it, only to explore it.
Reader: But you clearly have some answers up your sleeve as well as questions. Otherwise you wouldn’t have written this book, right?
Author: Right. How clever of you. But I only claim a little light.
Reader: How much?
Author: Enough to live by. Not all the answers. Mystery remains, surrounding all answers and even in all answers.
Reader: But you do have answers?
Author: Yes. Are you suspicious of answers?
Author: But not of questions?
Reader: No. And you?
Author: I love questions too. But what’s the point of questions? What do you quest for? Answers! To ask questions but hate answers is like saying you’re thirsty but refuse to drink.
Reader: I value an open mind above all.
Author: I value an open mind too. But an open mind is useful just as an open mouth is.
Reader: What do you mean?
Author: For chomping shut on something solid.
Reader: You stole that from Chesterton.
Author: And many other things too.
Reader: Let’s get down to brass tacks. What’s the proof, the warrant, the foundation for your answers? Where do you get them from?
Author: From five sources. From experience; and from tradition, which is others’ experience; and from reason, which is thinking about experience; and from imagination, which I believe is a neglected power of seeing truth; and, finally, from faith.
Reader: Aha! I thought so. I’ll bet you believe everything in the Bible, don’t you?
Author: Yes, I do. But, like flint against steel, I rub it up against these other four ways of knowing to make some sparks of light come out. And I don’t presuppose faith. I don’t argue from faith here. The Bible isn’t only for believers.
Reader: But you’re a believer.
Reader: Why should an unbeliever read you?
Author: For the same reason a believer should read an unbeliever. If you know only what you know, you don’t even know that. You understand things only by contrast. Why should men listen to women? Why should a Republican listen to a Democrat? Why should people who disagree dialog with each other?
Reader: But your subject is well worn. Hundreds of books have been written on it. How is yours different?
Author: I don’t know and I don’t care.
Reader: What kind of an answer is that?
Author: An honest one. It’s not a scholarly book, meant to fill some little technical gap that previous experts have left. It’s a book for everyone. The only way I know it’s different is that it’s mine.
Reader: Shouldn’t you at least try to be original?
Author: I don’t think so. I think the people who try the hardest to be original end up being silly or else saying old stuff in camouflaged new ways. But if you simply try to tell the truth honestly, as you see it, you usually end up being original without trying. Originality is like happiness: snatch at it and it disappears. The only way to get it is to forget it.
Reader: Are you saying your book isn’t original then?
Author: I don’t know and I don’t care.
Reader: Well, haven’t you read the other books on the subject?
Author: Some of them, yes. In fact, I do a lot of piggybacking on them.
Author: The medievals had a saying: “We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. We see farther than the ancients not because we are taller than they but because we have their shoulders to stand on.”
Reader: Such traditionalism! You religious folks are all alike.
Author: No, we’re not. And what’s wrong with tradition?
Reader: We know much more than the ancients did.
Author: Yes, and they are what we know.
Reader: Humph! So you use a lot of old books.
Author: Yes. The ones that have stood the test of time and have helped the most people.
Reader: If everybody knows them, why do you repeat them?
Author: Most of them have been forgotten. People used to read classics more. Now, some second-rate philosopher like me has to drag them up again, blow the dust off them, and offer them to the public in a new translation.
Reader: Is that all this book is? A translation of some old philosophers into your own words?
Author: And poets and prophets. And a guy named Jesus. Yes, that’s all. It’s enough. And it’s also the best I can do. I could give you something else, something less than my best. But my father wouldn’t like that.
Reader: Your father?
Author: Yes. He taught me to always do my best.
Reader: Where do you find these old books?
Author: In the magic kingdom.
Reader: The magic kingdom?
Author: Yes. It’s real. There’s a real place you can go where you can really find magic. You can get into other worlds there, like Alice through the looking glass or the rabbit hole. Like getting into Narnia through the wardrobe. There are thousands of other worlds there, and holes to get into each one.
Reader: How much does this magic kingdom cost?
Author: It’s free.
Reader: Where is it?
Author: In your hometown. It’s called a library.
Reader: I never thought of books as holes before.
Author: That’s because you thought of them only as things, as parts of the world, instead of as doors or windows into other worlds.
Reader: What other worlds? Sounds escapist.
Author: The worlds of other minds. Their authors’ minds. That’s not escapism because those authors look at this world. What we find there is other doors into this world, other eyes on this world. It’s the same world as ours but also a different world because no two people see it in exactly the same way.
Reader: Well, I hope you say some different things about suffering. Because all I’ve ever heard doesn’t satisfy me.
Author: I don’t think I’ll satisfy you. But I think I’ll help you see some things you never saw before, things you never thought of before. Not because I’m so brilliant or original but because you probably didn’t read the right books.
Reader: Even if I did, I’d like to see how you use them.
Author: So read on.
Method: How to Cut the Baloney
I hope the reader will enjoy or at least excuse my lapse into dialog. It is a natural mode of speech to most people, more so than monolog. I only wish more writers were like most people. Plato was. Everything he wrote was in dialogs. I have written five books of dialogs and shall write more, God willing. I offer the reader no guarantee that other sections of this one won’t fall into dialog by a kind of natural gravity (or levity).
We should say something relatively serious and systematic about method.
1. As you have already seen, I will occasionally write and usually think in dialog, since two minds are better than one. Even God is not only one but three.
2. I will try to combine experience, tradition, reason, imagination, and faith. Why neglect any of our tools? Another point of method is simplicity. Short, simple words, sentences, and sections of chapters. I do not believe that simplicity and profundity are enemies, as many scholars do. All the greatest and profoundest thinkers—such as Jesus, Socrates, Buddha, Solomon, Moses, Mohammed, Lao-Tzu, and Confucius—spoke or wrote in simple language. I want to show the reader that profound things are simple and simple things are profound, by saying profound things simply and simple things profoundly.
3. I look for clues more than answers because I do more looking than calculating. Our brain is divided into two hemispheres, and the right hemisphere with its intuitive, direct, and visionary way of thinking is at least as useful and certainly as profound as the left hemisphere with its rational, calculating way of thinking. Neither one alone is sufficient even for itself; each needs the other, like men and women. But most books, especially in philosophy and especially in modern times, are strong on figuring and weak on seeing. Many philosophers even insist that the first and basic act of the mind is not seeing or understanding but judging, discriminating, distinguishing. But before we can judge that A is B or discriminate between A and B, we must know A and we must know B. How? We look with the mind as we look with the eyes.
4. I do not claim to serve up the total answer to this deep and painful problem but to assemble clues, which are only facets of the answer, like the facets of a diamond. No one can see all the facets of a diamond at once; our angle of vision always limits us. But we can see things of light and beauty. Sometimes we see these in the middle of great darkness, as we find diamonds far underground. We can hope to find light in the darkness of suffering too.
5. Furthermore, the book is personal. I use “I” a lot. We are pilgrims, and we can tell each other travellers’ tales as we meet in the noonday heat of our common desert—tales about oases. I am not a preacher or a wise man; I am a thirsty wanderer who has stumbled on some water.
6. The primary place I have found it is where Job found it: in prayer. Everyone in the world wonders about God—who he is, what he is, what his name is. Only one man ever found out God’s true name—Moses—because only he was simple-minded enough to ask God (see Exodus 3)! Job found his answer and found his God at the end of his far deeper quest into the same mystery as mine, but his three friends did not. Why? Because Job asked God! Job prayed. His three friends only philosophized. Job talked to God, his three friends only talked about God. Even the profoundest philosophy pales next to even the most primitive prayer. St. Augustine’s Confessions is the greatest masterpiece of religious psychology ever written because it is prayer. He, too, talks to God, not only about him, because he knows God is really present. He philosophizes face-to-face with God. How could the darkness of dishonesty or deceit endure that light? Almost every other sentence of the Confessions is a question. Augustine asks God hundreds of questions. That’s why he gets hundreds of answers. “Seek and you shall find.” Augustine believed that; therefore he sought; therefore he found. Let philosophers today pray, let philosophers shut up and let God show up, and we will soon see a new philosophy to startle the world.
7. Finally, like Augustine, I do not merely skim off the results of my spiritual and intellectual journey, but I give you also the journey itself, the process. Journeys in thought can be just as real, just as exciting, and just as dramatic as bodily journeys. And they do not deplete your bank account. They even add to your idea account. We should speak naturally of thought-journeys, thought-adventures, thought-explorations. We don’t because we think of thinking as something specialized for intellectuals, or as something abstract and dry and removed from life, or as static and dogmatic and cut and dried. No. Read Socrates or Augustine or Pascal or Kierkegaard, and you will find another kind of thinking. I am not in their league, but I play at their game. This book, in other words, is a quest, not just a question.
In fact, the most valuable things in this book are the things I had no idea I was going to write, the things I learned only by questioning and doubting my old answers. I teach courses in philosophy and religion, and I know most of the arguments and most of the stock answers. Only when I was dissatisfied with these, only when my faith expressed itself in doubting, did I learn new and deeper lessons. The same thing seems to have happened, on an incomparably deeper level, to Job. So this book is more like a diary than a philosophy lecture.
Evil, Suffering, Death, and Sin: Defining Terms
I shall sometimes be talking about the problem of suffering and sometimes, more generally, about the problem of evil. There are three basic kinds of evil: 1) suffering, which is a disharmony or alienation between ourselves as embodied creatures and something in this physical world; 2) death, which is the disharmony, alienation or separation between the soul and the body; and 3) sin, which is the disharmony or alienation between the soul and God.
We shall see connections among these three evils, or alienations, or mis-relationships later on. I only want to explain here that I shall sometimes be focusing only on the problem of suffering and at other times be speaking more generally about evil as such. Sometimes it is suffering that is the problem (as in Job), sometimes it is evil as such that is the problem (as in philosophers like Augustine and Aquinas who ask, If God is infinitely good, where is there room for any kind of evil?). We want to look at all objections, all aspects of the problem—sometimes specifically suffering, sometimes generically evil.