I was thinking recently about two articles in the New York Times about two very different approaches to the reality of human suffering. In each case individuals viewed the suffering of others and made a choice about what it says about the existence of God and the nature of human experience.
For atheist journalist and author Susan Jacoby, suffering is an essential motivation for unbelief. Like many (if not all) atheists, In her op-ed The Blessings of Atheism, Jacoby sees suffering as coup de grâce of belief in a beneficent, all-powerful God. She shares with students how observing the suffering of a friend as a child caused her to question the existence of God, and the relief she finds as an atheist in not having to square the pain in the world with the goodness of God:
The first time I told this story to a class, I was deeply gratified when one student confided that his religious doubts arose from the struggles of a severely disabled sibling, and that he had never been able to discuss the subject candidly with his fundamentalist parents. One of the most positive things any atheist can do is provide a willing ear for a doubter — even if the doubter remains a religious believer.
IT is primarily in the face of suffering, whether the tragedy is individual or collective, that I am forcefully reminded of what atheism has to offer. When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
As I noted in a recent post, atheists do not have much to offer by way of comfort to those who face the bleak realities of human existence. The unavoidable experience of pain and disease, finality of death, and the fact of unchangeable circumstances are not relieved by the atheist’s insistence that they are purposeless, inevitable consequences of an incidental universe grinding along according events set in motion long before humans happened to make an appearance. As critical as atheists are of the supposed contradiction between the goodness of God and the fact of suffering, they seem blind to the fact that atheism can offer no hope whatsoever in the face of greatest pain there is – the death of a loved one.
Atheism may even be more useless when dealing with the case of an incurable condition. While atheism may vaunt its inclination toward pragmatic scientific solutions, it is certain there will always be diseases and disabilities that resist treatments. At that point atheism can only pity the poor sufferer, or in the case of the most pernicious secular solution, suggest the elimination of undesirables as was the case in the early 20th century’s prevalence of eugenics solutions. It is still the case today with selective abortion which has been responsible for the near elimination of some conditions by eliminating in the womb persons who have those conditions.
Thankfully Jacoby’s atheism isn’t the only view we might consider. Another New York Times article, Laws of Physics Can’t Trump the Bonds of Love considers a different approach to humans suffering, one that was highlighted in the award winning documentary short Wright’s Law:
The documentary and the article introduce us to the life of Jeffery Wright, an inspiring high school physics teacher and the father of a child with rare disorder called Joubert syndrome. Unlike the atheist Jacoby, Wright discovered in his son’s suffering a power greater than that of the inevitability of physics:
Mr. Wright starts his lecture by talking about the hopes and dreams he had for Adam and his daughter, Abbie, now 15. He recalls the day Adam was born, and the sadness he felt when he learned of his condition.
“All those dreams about ever watching my son knock a home run over the fence went away,” he tells the class. “The whole thing about where the universe came from? I didn’t care. … I started asking myself, what was the point of it?”
All that changed one day when Mr. Wright saw Abbie, about 4 at the time, playing with dolls on the floor next to Adam. At that moment he realized that his son could see and play — that the little boy had an inner life. He and his wife, Nancy, began teaching Adam simple sign language. One day, his son signed “I love you.”
In the lecture, Mr. Wright signs it for the class: “Daddy, I love you.” “There is nothing more incredible than the day you see this,” he says, and continues: “There is something a lot greater than energy. There’s something a lot greater than entropy. What’s the greatest thing?”
“Love,” his students whisper.
“That’s what makes the ‘why’ we exist,” Mr. Wright tells the spellbound students. “In this great big universe, we have all those stars. Who cares? Well, somebody cares. Somebody cares about you a lot. As long as we care about each other, that’s where we go from here.”
For the strident atheist of course such professions are sentimental claptrap. For Jeffery Wright and his son Adam it is a divine credo, the stuff of life.
Viewing suffering through the lens of God’s love turns the sufferer from an object of pity and tragic circumstance to a human being, with inherent value and dignity. And it transforms the observer who is willing to embrace the purpose in the suffering to a different kind of human being, one love knows no bounds and who has the ability to partake in transforming the lives of others. Jeffery Wright is a great teacher because he values the lives of his students – and he values them because he has learned to love what Scripture calls, “the least of these” – those who suffer the most.
In the book of Matthew Jesus taught his disciples a parable meant to help them understand how closely God was associated with the lives of those who suffer:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Many Christians see this as a parable about the future rewards believers will receive in heaven, but it is so much more than that. Only in Christ is the suffering person so completely associated with the person of God Himself. Only in this understanding of not only the goodness of God, but the compassion and humility of God is suffering shown not only to be meaningful but essential to our own ability to be good. We see the good through suffering not because it works out well in the end, but because seeing the good through the suffering transforms us into different people, a people we could never be otherwise.
In the light of suffering atheism can only ever offer us a resigned acceptance of unintentional circumstances out of our control in a cold meaningless universe. The knowledge of God can give us the power to see the lives of others, whatever their life experience, as eternally valuable gifts by which we can be transformed and transform others.