Thursday, 4 June 2015

How is the suffering of animals compatible with a loving God?

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Readers Question: Is a belief in a loving God in conflict with the experience of an enduringly hostile natural world? [See below^ for full question]

My Answer: It is unwise and unconvincing to try and explain the reason behind every cause of suffering. But the framework for explanations can be given. 

First, we need to recognize that earth is not Heaven, is not meant to be Heaven - earth is not a failed Heaven.

In other words, if we consider why we are present on earth, for a finite time during a mortal incarnate life - I think we will see that:

1. Part of it is to experience and learn from bad things (or else we would simply have been created into Heaven/ stayed in Heaven).

Past societies did not find suffering such a challenge - partly because they did not regard mortal life on earth as perfectible - while modern man has grown-up with the idea that any imperfection, of any size, in the whole known world, can be and should be corrected; and if it has not them somebody is to blame!

2. Different individual people have different individual 'destinies' - I mean we are here for different reasons, to experience and learn different things: to make different choices.

In other words, while our lives are neither dictated nor controlled - we are not born randomly with respect to place, time and parents; there must be a reason for it.

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So, what are we called upon to explain? Everything, or just some things? The destiny of Men; or of animals; or all living things; or everything there is? In general or in detail?

How much of life is supposed to be spent asking questions - and waiting for answers?

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^Full Question: I say this not in relation to things like natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, etc. which you have already covered extensively but more in response to observations of the natural world that 'jar' unpleasantly with the notion of a primarily loving creator e.g. parasites that burrow into the eye balls of young children, lions tearing apart and eviscerating pray (and humans historically always living in conflict with wild animals as hunter gatherer's) on the plains of Africa, 'innocent' animals starving, perishing in agony in their natural habitats, etc. I enjoy wildlife programs enormously but they often make very uncomfortable viewing and invite the question 'would a loving God create a natural world that is so ruthless, stark and violent?' Presumably not? And so are the animals fallen too? Or are there still lions in heaven somewhere dragging down a weak infant elephant that has strayed from the group? (If lions would have a place in paradise at all would it not require a very different creature?) Does God enjoy hunting? I expect many a Victorian and modern alike might see a certain virtue in the 'sport' of the kill but I can't see this somehow as an attribute of loving heavenly father? As a Christian again I now tend to assume their must be an explanation for all of this and accept I am just ignorant about such matters but I know I'm not alone in having made these observations and responding with revulsion towards the natural world when I approach it from a position of love. I can empathise with naturalists like David Attenborough whom I have heard make similar observations in their case for agnosticism. It certainly seems like ancient humans especially had a great deal of experience that would counter a belief in a single loving God and instead draw them to a spontaneous animism comprised of multiple oppositional intelligences with vastly different intentions towards humans and more often than not demanding propitiation and devotion to prevent a natural world of bad things damaging or denying human interests or intentions.

6 comments:

  1. The question of suffering is powerful because we are so often mistaken about the proper life for a man. Our answers are often 1) individualistic and 2) on some level hedonistic.

    There is a great deal of suffering in the world, and Schopenhauer is correct to say that pain far outweighs pleasure. The course of life for every one of us is a journey towards death, almost always accompanied by decline and misery.

    The criticism of the irreligious, by the Church, for much of its history, has been that the irreligious forget suffering and death. Look out for "memento mori" on old tombstones. It is the Church who asks us to remember suffering. Strange thing!

    Suffering is vast and omnipresent. The question for an individual can only be whether suffering is the ultimate master of the universe, or whether it has in fact been defeated. That it has been defeated is the Christian story.

    The atheist claims that suffering is so bad that it slays the idea of God, but not quite so bad as to cast himself into infinite spiritual depression that he has been born a doomed denizen of this doomed world. The contradictions in his psyche are numerous on this point, and could easily -- though it would be tedious -- be explored in depth.

    Of more immediate importance than those who have confused themselves about this intellectually, are those that have been oppressed by life and have suffered real suffering, and have had their faith destroyed by it. The Christian's mission to them is to retell the death and resurrection of the man Jesus.

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  2. "I can empathise with naturalists like David Attenborough whom I have heard make similar observations in their case for agnosticism."

    I've watched a few of Attenborough's nature documentaries, and he seemed to revel in the violence.

    I've spent a lot of time in nature (growing up in Canada, there's lots of it to see), and the violence in his documentaries seemed out-sized.

    The natural world is fascinating, extremely complex, and predation of conscious beings is a small fraction of what goes on. Most life forms aren't animals. Most animals are herbivores. Most predation that does occur is the eating of bugs, worms, and so on. There is a large amount of symbiosis. And so on. I guess footage of goats sitting around all day eating grass isn't going to sell copies, though.

    Which is to say, when you step back and look at the natural world in terms of, say, sheer biomass, it's actually not very 'hostile' in the relevant sense. Even when considering predation amongst higher vertebrates, it's usually over pretty quickly, especially compared with how much suffering humans today inflict on themselves near the end of their earthly lives. And so on.

    Which isn't to say natural suffering ought not to be accounted for in one's theology, but that it's important to have perspective on this.

    What might this theology look like? A simple explanation is that predation is an inevitable by-product of what God wanted to create (as creation is a process, not a magical conjuring trick), and that since He's good, where He's going, suffering will not exist. Something like ultimately, all creation (except perhaps those who choose to except themselves) will be in the Beatific Vision. Perhaps.

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  3. "So, what are we called upon to explain? Everything, or just some things? The destiny of Men; or of animals; or all living things; or everything there is? In general or in detail?

    How much of life is supposed to be spent asking questions - and waiting for answers?"

    When I was a small boy I asked my mother to give me a small wireless radio. She consented, naturally thinking I would take it to my play room to listen to. When she found me hours later I had taken it apart with a small screwdriver to find out how it works. Naturally, it was easier for that small boy to take things apart and ask how things work or why things are the way they part. Putting things back together is much more difficult.

    I would also look at the stars in the night sky on a Summer evening and feel at some profound level I cannot fully explain that my destiny is to eventually know fully all of the mysteries of the Universe.

    I suppose I haven't changed much since those formative years. I am still compulsively taking things to bits to see how they work and asking questions about why? What if? How? Why not? Etc.

    Thanks for humoring me anyway :-)

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  4. The Plague Doctor4 June 2015 at 23:54

    Joel writes:
    "The atheist claims that suffering is so bad that it slays the idea of God, but not quite so bad as to cast himself into infinite spiritual depression that he has been born a doomed denizen of this doomed world. The contradictions in his psyche are numerous on this point, and could easily -- though it would be tedious -- be explored in depth.

    These are fake-atheists (DNAtheists) such as Richard Dawkins.

    True atheists suffer from no such self-contradictions.

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  5. C.S. Lewis tackled this in The Problem of Pain. I am not sure his chapter is satisfactory, but it was a serious effort.

    This post set me to wondering what pre-literate and other primitive societies, living in daily contact with all sorts of animals, thought about the "feelings" of other living things. Totem animal traditions suggest this was very much on human minds, but not in a modern way. Of course, animals suffered, but so did men. We were all in it together, and nobody seemed overly sentimental when something bad or even terrible happened. Life went on.

    Any thoughts on that?

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  6. This is only a problem IF one has egalitarian "metaphysics." In other words, the idea of "equal suffering" is both absurd AND the very basis for the entire legitimacy of the Grievance Industry. If one "sees" suffering as hierarchal than the Crucifixion answers the "problem."

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