Wednesday, May 25, 2016

I Believe … But I Don’t Understand

Image source: gospelcoalition.org.
On Monday, May 23, Patheos published an article by Rebecca Bratten Weiss on suffering and “the clamor of insufficient explanations”. By “insufficient explanations”, Weiss means not only the myriad of clichés we Christians inflict on the suffering and despairing (“If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it;” “God shapes the back to fit the burden”), but also the assertion, “It must be God’s will.”

The Challenge of Suffering

The problem of suffering is the single most potent argument against Christian theology and cosmology, because it cuts past the dry hairsplitting of philosophy to pose a direct challenge to the heart. As Weiss puts it, “The fact that we need to suffer to be well is a symptom of a fallen world, but to suggest that the suffering itself comes not from the darkness of nature but from God on high is horrifying, sadistic.”

In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother Ivan refuses to believe in a God who allows the suffering of children, and says that even if there is some inexplicable benefit to be derived from this, he will not have it. “I respectfully return the ticket” he says. I sympathize. I respectfully return the ticket to whatever fun-house or extravaganza somehow necessitates this terrible suffering. I would rather join Ivan and deny God outright, than believe in a God who is up there pulling all the strings that lead us to torment and loss, because this was the only way, the best of all possible worlds. [N.B.: Weiss has not abandoned the Faith, either formally or informally.]

We can’t escape the challenge by blaming the darkness of nature; for if Nature is dark, it can only be by God’s Will. And it’s not even the best of all possible worlds (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I:25:6 ad 3). Whether God manipulates all events directly, or simply sits back and watches everything play out by itself, or some combination of the two, the buck stops at His desk.

The Limits of Comprehension

All explanations, however, are insufficient. That’s to say, they may suffice for a particular individual, so long as some smart-aleck — or Life itself — doesn’t come along and poke holes in the theory: “Yeah, but what about this case?”

For instance, atheism has a certain emotional toughness and existential bravery in facing a Godless, meaningless universe that appeals to the cynic in some (“Life sucks; get over it”). Under rigorous examination, though, atheism has grave difficulty explaining why we should have an idea or sense of justice at all, let alone accept that it will be regularly thwarted, without leaving questions begged and assumptions unexamined. Stevie Wonder was wrong: you can (and most likely will) suffer even if you don’t believe what you don’t understand.

Likewise, we may appeal to preternatural karma-like forces, so long as we don’t have to explain how an uncreated, material universe comes to have such forces. We can note material consequences of immoral behavior as a kind of natural temporal punishment, so long as we can be satisfied with consequences that don’t manifest or are seemingly disproportionate to their cause. As H. L. Mencken observed, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong” … or at least incomplete.

Christianity faces an additional burden: the inadequacy of language. Being finite creatures, our language is as finite as is our comprehension. How to express, then, that which is transcendent? As complex as our reasoning can be, we still find ourselves simplifying complex realities, reducing the universe to mathematical formulae and wire-frame models, using two dimensions to represent three and even four. But doing so guarantees that what we apprehend is not the reality but a mere shadow, a flat cutout. Leave anything out of the universe in order to comprehend it, and what you comprehend is by definition not the universe. Strip God of His transcendence, and what is left is not Übermann but a straw man.

We ought to know that the premiss, “I do not understand how this can be so,” does not logically support the conclusion, “This cannot be so.” And yet, mad creatures that we are, possessed of confidence beyond all reason in our ability to reason, we demand that all things be comprehensible in order to be true, and ridicule as absurd the poor two-dimensional representations of dimensions we cannot perceive. (Goethe: “We are accustomed to people mocking what they do not understand.”) Bound by our limits, we imagine we can transcend them by pretending they do not exist, like prisoners pretending they can escape the dungeon by ignoring their chains.

You Keep Using That Word …

What we really don’t understand about God is God Himself.

Scutum Fidei (The Shield of Faith)
Consider the mystery of the Holy Trinity: United in substance, differing in relationships, similes and metaphors abound which attempt to explain “one God in three Persons”. But as this humorous cartoon from Lutheran Satire demonstrates, analogies tend to fall short in one respect or another. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not one God wearing three different hats (Modalism, recently recurring as “Jesus Only”); Son and Holy Spirit are not contingent, subordinate beings similar to the Father (Arianism); Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not “parts” or “thirds” of the Godhead (Partialism).[*]

In the language of the Church, the Trinity is a mystery, not because it is obscure or hidden, but because as manifested it goes beyond our ability to articulate. Said St. John Damascene (fl. 381 – 395), “[The Trinity] is known and adored in Faith, not by investigating, examining and proving. … You have to believe that God is in three Persons. How sublime this is above all questions. For God is inconceivable” (Concerning Heresy, epilogue). And yes, it does mean what I think it means.

And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. (Athanasian Creed)

Answering Mystery with Mystery

Returning to the problem of suffering and God’s Will:

We know that God does not will evil for its own sake, that He takes no pleasure in the suffering of His creatures (cf. Summa Theologiae I:19:9). “You are not a god who delights in evil; no wicked person finds refuge with you” (Psalm 5:5 NABRE). “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth” (Wisdom 1:13-14). Indeed, God suffers with us: unbound by Time, and united to us in form through the Son, there is never a moment when He does not experience the ache of hunger, the privations of homelessness, and the agony of His execution. Radically present in all his creatures, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), what do we suffer that He does not suffer with us?

If, as Thomas Nagel has argued, we can’t presume to understand what it’s like to be a bat because we don’t know what constructing a perception of reality through echolocation is really like (among other things), still less can we presume to understand how omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence would affect our decisions and actions. We are made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Genesis 1:27), but the image is a poor reflection; the likeness is not the fullness of the Reality unto which it is like (cf. Exodus 15:11). We are Flatlanders trying to predict the behavior of a basketball; God simply will not behave the way we think He should, because all our expectations are framed by our limitations — limitations He does not share. There is no “getting around” the total Other-ness of God.

That is, more or less, the answer God gave Job: You don’t understand. You have neither My knowledge nor My wisdom nor My power; your comprehension is too limited. G. K. Chesterton observed that “the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein is indeed a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say ‘I do not understand,’ it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat, ‘You do not understand.’ And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.” (The Everlasting Man, p. 98)

“As we bless God for the good, so we must bless Him for the evil.” Those are the words of the Talmud. They’re words beyond understanding, but if we cannot say them, we cannot hope. Bitterness, yes … but hopelessness, no. The Jewish way is to bless and to hope, and to bless and to hope, until blessing and hope surmount the pain and even the bitterness, and the living learn how to go on. … God is righteous. God is good. It’s people who sometimes forget; who let evil rule them; who lose the sense of the image of God within them and become beasts of prey. … “Blessed is the God who will judge righteously.” He does not forget. Sometimes it seems as if He needs time to assimilate everything He has seen, and to react to it and give recompense. But you’ll see it …. He does not forget! (Mel Mermelstein, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685, cit. in Roy H. Schoeman, Salvation is from the Jews: The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming, p. 147)

Credo etsi non intelligam

Credo ut intelligam, said St. Anselm of Canterbury — not “I believe so that I shall understand,” but rather “I believe in order that (in time) I may understand.” The subjunctive mood is contingent; it speaks not of what is or what will be, but only of what is possible. “For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. ... For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Corinthians 13:9-10,12)

The silence of the well-meaning, the cessation of cliché-riddled inspirational blather, is itself insufficient. There is no refuge or surcease from suffering in understanding, only in acceptance … to pray in the midst of our anguish, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” For neither denial nor anger nor despair will bring light to the darkness of the night. There remains nothing but to light a candle and wait in hope for the dawn.

I believe, even if I may not understand.




[*] Although partialism was never defined or anathematized by any council, it does violate the dogma of divine simplicity (God has no spatial or temporal “parts” and thus can’t be divided) as articulated in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215, cf. Denziger 428) and the First Vatican Council (1870, cf. Denziger 1782). See Christianity Stack Exchange, “Is Partialism a real heresy?”, for further details.