The Blessing of Suffering

January 8, 2013

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.

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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.

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Motivation to Care

January 7, 2013

There was an interesting piece in the NYT’s in late Dec. concerning the ‘Humanist’ response or in this case, non-response to the Newtown massacre. It appears to confirm what many Christians have often said – there is no substantive comfort in atheism when faced with grief and loss. Interestingly certain secularists acknowledge this shortcoming:

“It is a failure of community, and that’s where the answer for the future has to lie,” said Greg M. Epstein, 35, the humanist chaplain at Harvard and author of the book “Good Without God.” “What religion has to offer to people at moments like this — more than theology, more than divine presence — is community. And we need to provide an alternative form of community if we’re going to matter for the increasing number of people who say they are not believers.”

Darrel W. Ray, a psychologist in the Kansas City area who runs the Web site The Secular Therapist Project, made a similar point in a recent interview. As someone who was raised as a believing Christian and who holds a master’s degree in theology, he was uniquely able to identify what humanism needs to provide in a time of crisis.

“When people are in a terrible kind of pain — a death that is unexpected, the natural order is taken out of order — you would do anything to take away the pain,” Dr. Ray, 62, said. “And I’m not going to deny that religion does help deal with that first week or two of pain.

“The best we can do as humanists,” he continued, “is to talk about that pain in rational terms with the people who are suffering. We have humanist celebrants, as we call them, but they’re focused on doing weddings. It takes a lot more training to learn how to deal with grief and loss. I don’t see celebrants working in hospice or in hospitals, for example. There are secular people who need pastoral care, but we abdicate it to clergy.”

In an attempt to protect atheism from responsibility for any wrongs committed by atheists, secularists are quick to point out that the term atheism is descriptive, not proscriptive. But when it comes to positive actions like caring for those in need atheists are quick to take credit for ‘being good without God’. This might work when it comes to feeding the hungry or raising money for a charity, but when it comes to offering hope to the bereaved or dying, atheism obviously has nothing to offer. Like it or not, when one faces the finality of death, existence apart from God is always nihilistic; and there is certainly no hope or comfort in nihilism. Of course this is quite different for the Christian who is commanded to “mourn with those who mourn” and who have hope to offer beyond the grave.

That fact that Christianity offers hope to those who have suffered tragic losses doesn’t in and of itself prove Christianity true, but it does demonstrate that the lack of faith represents a significant loss. And given the fact that humans have a universal need for such comfort and hope, it demonstrates that there is a deeper aspect to human life that atheists simply don’t comprehend.


Observations

December 10, 2012

Those who deny the existence of the spiritual shouldn’t complain when our celebrations becomes exercises in materialistic consumption.


The Death of Recent Myths

November 21, 2012

There was an illusion, oh sometime around 14 years ago during the reign of Bill Clinton that certain behaviors by leaders no longer mattered, that we could parse one’s ‘private life’ (usually meaning one’s sexual proclivities) from one’s public performance. Of course, that was in the midst of the last economic boom, and many were willing to trade integrity in their leaders for some cash in their pockets.

But the times change, particularly when so many pockets are empty. The recent spate of high level adulterous affairs hasn’t been met with the same yawning indifference that Clinton’s was. Jonathan Edwards, Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer and now of course General Petraeus and General George Allen have all garnered resignations and reprobation. This is particularly the case in the latter two, given these men fell not only under the ethical considerations of political leaders (presuming some exist) but the auspices of military regulations as well. Perhaps the thought of our Generals engaging in sexual dalliances while boys die on battlefields is too much even for our promiscuous culture.

This is one of the great divides when Christians and secularists speak about ‘morality’. Atheists are fond of saying that Christians have no corner on morality, that one doesn’t need to believe in God to be good. More recently they seek to demonstrate this by highly publicized works of charity in order to demonstrate they can ‘be good without God’. When saying that, they are defining the ‘good’ to be those behaviors that have outward effects, not necessarily those behaviors traditionally understood to be good in Western society and by Christians. Adultery is one such behavior that seems to fall outside of the atheist prevue of morality.

New Atheist Richard Dawkins made this exceedingly clear in his essay on the subject, Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster . As he boldly asks:

Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected — or fear — that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is “cheating on them”. “Cheating” really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption — that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being’s body — is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

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Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

Given his casual indifference to marital vows I guess we shouldn’t be surprised there have been three Mrs. Dawkins – he appears to be, to paraphrase the character Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “always on the lookout for a future ex-Mrs. Dawkins”.

Dawkins’ assurances aside, adultery obviously has many victims. There are the bereaved spouses, the loss of trust in a community, and not least of all the pain of any children that might be involved. In the case of General Petreaus there was the opening of himself to blackmail and the communication of sensitive information, not to mention the damage to the trust the public had invested in him as the head of one of the most important national security agencies. If not in reality, people in powerful positions convey the perception of coercing those with less power into relationships with them.

For the Christian of course there is no distinction between public and private morality. Morality for the Christian is primarily an offense against God and His intended purposes for human life. In fact being moral for public purposes is considered hypocrisy, as Jesus plainly teaches concerning the Pharisees of His day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. – Matthew 23:27-28

For a Christian being moral isn’t merely about what one does in public, but what one is when the public isn’t watching. At least for now our society, if not secularists, appears to agree with this standard.


Agree With Us or Else

October 15, 2012

I have written previously about repressive tendencies of the secular left with regard to the gay rights agenda. Because the arguments of the secular left are generally basedon  emotion and desire for power rather than reason and logic, they fear pressing their agendas in the marketplace of ideas where they exposed for the shams that they often are. Given this inability to make and sustain an argument for their ideas, they instead attempt to attack and vilify those who disagree with them. Thus the ongoing attempts to persecute Chik-fil-a for its pro-family stance.

The great difficulty with the left-wing position is that it has no natural limits. As with Orwell’s Animal Farm, secular leftists insist on increasingly strident positions that end up destroying the very people whom they once claimed to be fighting for. In the end nothing is left but totalitarianism, with a few power hungry people controlling everything.

There is perhaps no greater recent example of this than the case of Dr. Angela McCaskill, a Deputy to the President and the Associate Provost of Diversity and Inclusion at Gallaudet University. Dr. McCaskill was put on administrative leave for the sin of signing a petition for a referendum on the same-sex marriage law in Maryland. This was despite the fact that Dr. McCaskill was the first African-American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a school for the deaf and hard of hearing. That she is a supporter of a gay rights resource center on her campus apparently didn’t factor in at all. There is no reason to believe she even opposed gay marriage. Her unforgivable error was to indicate she supported allowing a vote by the people of Maryland on the issue. In the extremism that typifies secular leftist thought, even this slight derivation from leftist dogma is punishable by the loss of one’s job.

The greatest freedom that exists is the right to conscience. It is the basis of all our primary freedoms – free speech, free press, free association and of course freedom of religion. It is also the essence of Christian belief – because there is no other means of salvation in the gospel than a choice made by faith; a belief that is compelled by men can never lead to salvation. This is why the truest danger of the gay rights agenda is not to families themselves (though such dangers exist) but to our essential liberties that are rooted in our conscience rights. It should give every person concerned with liberty pause that while gay marriage is not yet the law of the land the secular left is using the issue as a bludgeon to silence opponents, real and imagined.

Heaven help our liberties the day it does become the law of the land and the insatiable desire for power of the secular left has no limit.


The Myth of Secular Inevitability

August 9, 2012

One of the memes often proffered by secularists is that due to the advances of science and atheism, the inevitable trend of modern nations is to become more secular. Europe is often cited as an example of such a trend given its modern economy, extensive social welfare programs and overt secularism.

The reality however isn’t so simple or even that supportive of such a theory. Anyone who knows something about history (and by history, I mean knowledge of a time previous to the 1980s. Or even the 1880s) knows that religious belief (particularly the advance of Christianity) waxes and wanes, sometimes exploding in great awakenings, sometimes languishing during times of great prosperity and materialism. The idea that secularism is inevitably and irreversibly advancing is based on trends that really only encompass the last few decades and that focus primarily on a few places in the world. Of course this theory also is a wish fulfillment of the New Atheist movement who are trying desperately to demonstrate they are more than a tiny, transient movement fueled primarily by disgruntled and disenfranchised young single men.

Nonetheless, there is of course no little evidence that the belief in the inevitability of secularism is misplaced. One example would be a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor concerning the growth of Christian churches in France:

For years, intellectuals proclaimed the end of Christianity in France, swallowed by the tides of modernity, science, and reason. Protestants were mostly evicted or “invited to leave” during the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century. The use of religious language and symbols was outlawed in public in the years after the French Revolution against the Catholic nobility. “Having faith” or “being spiritual” is often seen as odd, or a form of ignorance, or superstition.

Yet studies show a different story on the ground. Daniel Liechti, vice-president of the French National Evangelical Council, found that since 1970, a new evangelical church has opened in France every 10 days. The number of churches increased from 769 to 2,068 last year.

Evangelicalism has been growing quietly since the 1950s. The number of practitioners has risen from 55,000 to 460,000 today, with another 140,000 believers who identify as faithful. Gypsy Protestants account for roughly 70,000 of evangelicals in France. Half of the country’s Protestants are evangelicals, according to CNRS figures.

Such growth belies many of the polls New Atheists often rely on to advance the idea of secular advancement. Certainly the populations of Christians are smaller than those in the US, but they are growing – and not only in France but in other places presumed to be securely secular like China.

New Atheists will no doubt dismiss this as an anomaly or outlier and continue to assert the future is theirs. Knowledgeable Christians who pay attention to history and societies beyond the West will know differently. The wise in general will know that the best test of such beliefs is the passage of time itself or as a great sage was once said to respond to every supposed turn of events, “We shall see”.


Fewer People Believe in Evolution

June 15, 2012

One common recent meme articulated by  atheists is the US is becoming more secular while Christianity is fading. There are various polls offered to that effect, and while I don’t disagree that more people are willing identify as atheists, I am not sure that this particularly indicative of the fact Christianity is fading in its influence in the US.

I think better explanation of what is happening is polarization; rather than there being a large middle ground of where people fall on matters of faith, they are being pushed to take sides in what has become a much more contentious discussion about the existence of God and the truth of Christianity. Part of this has to do with the success of more conservative churches and the fading of mainline religious institutions. Part of this has to do with the openness and combativeness of the New Atheists who have no toleration for those they call accommodationists, or those who allow for the notion that religious ideas inhabit a different sphere of thought than science does.

A recent Gallop poll gives some weight to that interpretation. Asking respondents whether they believe human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God guided this process, human beings have evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life but God had no part in this process or whether God human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years, the survey found that 6% more people believed in the direct creation of humans than did just two years ago. This would seem to run counter to the notion that the US populace is becoming more ‘secular’ – particularly given the atheist position that God played no part in the development of humans dropped by a point. But the greatest drop was in what I would call the ‘middle’ position, the notion that God guided the development of humans over time. That notion dropped by an amount corresponding to the amount that the full blown creationist position increased. I think this is some indication that the middle ground is evaporating in the wrangling between Bible-believing Christians and the New Atheists.

While I don’t necessarily discount the idea that the U.S. is becoming more secular (the West certainly is to its growing detriment) and I think there are Christian principles that explain why this is so. But the current data suggest something else is going on, and that something else maybe a very refreshing distinction between the Christian and secular position that can’t be compromised away.