Two grievous passings, one very recent, one less so (dear Martine), made me go back to thoughts I have been mulling over since I was a wee lad. We people suffer many things, including our own deaths. Worse, the fear of the latter keeps us on our toes, perhaps more than we should.
And if anyone would ask me why I would refuse to believe in God, a pertinent question in the time of Advent in my view, answers can be found in abundance.
The most poignant riposte to any kind of belief in the Deity is, of course, related to evil and suffering. Let’s cut to the chase here, as Steven Weinberg does:
“Remembrance of the Holocaust leaves me unsympathetic to attempts to justify the ways of God to man. If there is a God that has special plans for humans, then He has taken very great pains to hide His concern for us. To me it would seem impolite if not impious to bother such a God with our prayers.”
This perhaps is ‘British politeness’ (despite the fact that Weinberg is American) in the face of most likely the greatest of evils in human history. Nevertheless, his argument is clear and well taken. Let’s drive this point home with C.S. Lewis’ observation in his The Problem of Pain:
“All stories will come to nothing: all life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”
The story of Job in the Hebrew Bible is perhaps the most well-known story on suffering brought to us from antiquity. And, I think, it gives insight into the reality of suffering beyond what we nowadays find appropriate.
And let’s entertain the reality of God in Job’s story for now. Evil and suffering have deep moral connotations that require infinitely more than the meagre Darwinian imperative we discussed earlier.
I will use Eleonor Stump’s brilliant Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering as my cue in the following. Required reading for anyone wanting to delve deep in this bewildering subject.
The following is mostly the ‘normal’ reading of Job:
God allows Job, an innocent person as explicitly stated in the story, to suffer terribly. In his suffering, Job acknowledges God’s great power and he complains bitterly about God’s apparent lack of goodness. When God finally appears on the scene to answer Job’s charge, however, all God speaks about to Job is His power. The end of a very disappointing and weird story.
Suffering brings us nothing other than, if you believe such a thing, a confrontation with an all-powerful God who explains nothing and demands everything. I get Weinberg’s complaint. (And I am not playing nice here or get all metaphorical!)
And it get’s worse. All Job can do, when confronted in the story by this God, is grovel. As Stump points out:
“Are we to suppose that Job was something like a pompous windbag, willing to complain about the boss of the universe behind his back but utterly unable to stand up to him to his face? I do not see how one could read Job in this way.”
Now let’s shift to the comic V for Vendetta by Alan Moore. In this story, a totalitarian and oppressive fascist government runs England in 1997.
On the fifth of November, a masked vigilante named V begins his attack on the regime by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. The same night, he rescues a sixteen-year old girl, Evey Hammond, who is very much afraid of the regime, as most other people.
At one point, she is incarcerated and tortured, finding solace only in a note left by another prisoner, Valerie. Evey is eventually threatened with execution unless she tells her captors V’s whereabouts. An exhausted Evey says she would rather die, and unexpectedly, is then released.
Evey finds out that V has held her and that he staged the event in order to liberate her from the fear of her own death by juxtaposing this with the death of her principles. She is, in the end, willing to give up the former as she cannot give up the latter.
Now, what kind of parallels are there to be made between these wildly different stories? I want to draw the attention to the fact that humans can, in stories and, by implication, in real life, conceive of situations in which evil does accomplish something good above and beyond the evil they are confronted with and the suffering they have to endure.
Now don’t get me wrong here: evil and suffering are emphatically not good as such. That would be positively evil to think, and it is simply not true. However, people have envisioned situations, in stories like Job and V for Vendetta, in which evil and suffering does bear fruit for the individual ‘under fire’.
Obviously, Evey is been given the opportunity to look behind the veil, albeit only after her surrender to the virtual firing squad by refusing to cooperate. We are not granted that privilege in life.
And what about Job? His anger with God is well known and for most would feel uncomfortable and simultaneously justifiable. Be that as it may, Job’s vehement accusations against God move Job closer to God.
In his indictment of God, Job takes his stand fiercely on the side of goodness. God or no God, anyone can recognise goodness, and what Job suffers simply cannot be regarded as good. Period. End of story. And rightly so.
The ‘comforter friends’ of Job are shocked that Job refuses simply to take as good ‘anything done by God’. Conversely, Job is shocked by them and their willingness to abandon any objective standard of goodness in the interest of being on the side of the ruler of the universe.
Stump observes (italics added):
“Satan’s first attack on Job has the unintended result of separating the love of prosperity from the love of goodness in Job. But Satan’s second attack separates in Job two things that might be thought to be inextricably connected: the love of the office of the Deity, and the love of the goodness that is truly the essence of God.”
And for the second separation, Job is highly commended by God when He finally speaks to him and condemns his friends!
And don’t get confused by God’s power talk. He speaks as a parent: “Will [Leviathan] make long pleas to you, cajole you with tender words? Will he make a covenant with you, will you take him as [an] eternal slave? [Will you] [p]lay with him as with a bird, leash him for your girls?” (Job 41: 3–5)
And this parental love Job ‘sees’. He doesn’t bow to power in the end, but to love. The divine speeches suggest that God’s relationship to all his creatures is deeply personal, intimate, and parental. And that goes for Job as well.
Does this all ‘help’ when confronted with suffering and death? I don’t know. Really I don’t. What I do know is that people can and do rise above their suffering, and sometimes become luminous, as Job, in the process.
But there are no guarantees.
What I do believe is that God, in a way I cannot fathom, is intimately close and has come close in the birth of Christ. That is a guarantee I can and will live by. And that I will celebrate with my family, with friends near and far, and with those people I come across the coming weeks.
Have a great Christmas!