Friday 6 May 2016

The problem of pain/ suffering - versus a child-like faith in God our loving Father

The existence of human suffering is used, in modern culture, as a refutation of the Christian belief that God loves us - indeed it tends to be used as an argument against the existence of God, with the assumption that God is loving built-in.

"Yeah, but how can you explain Hitler, and cancer and stuff? God wouldn't allow that"

Like most modern arguments, this is used in such a context and with such an expectation that the Christian is supposed to rebut it in a sentence or maybe two...

The logic goes something like: If God was real, he would have made a better world than this - therefore God is not real.

(Interestingly, the alternative that God is real but not primarily loving - a view affirmed by considerably more than a billion people, doesn't seem to be considered - because mainstream modern Western culture is specifically anti-Christian; so the 'USP' of Christianity {that God is love} is simply taken for granted as characteristic of any God.)

How would I answer such a challenge - if given the luxury of somebody's attention for a few sentences? I would need to state how I regard God, and also the purpose of human life - when both of these are known (but not until then) there is a possibility of explaining the problem of pain.

1. God is the creator, and our loving Father. We can often understand things by this real-metaphor. In other words, we are children, immature but growing, trying to understand why our parents behave the way they do.

2. The purpose of life on earth is 'educational' - we each are growing towards greater divinity (to be more like God) in an environment that is meant to provide maturing, deepening, challenging experience.

3. Every person's specific situation and needs are unique - so there are no general answers to 'why?' something happens to some people - but only explanations of this happening to this person in such a time and place.

4. Therefore, we may be able to understand the reason for our own personal suffering - if we sufficiently understand God, ourselves and our own specific needs and those of people around us. But, given the incredible complexity of things, and the multitude of possibilities, the only imaginable way we could understand even this limited question is from a divine perspective - i.e. if God grants us a personal revelation to explain to us our situation, to explain why X happened to me.

5. And clearly - given the reality of human uniqueness - we can never know this detailed information for most of the seven billion people on the planet, and the billions more who lived in the past.


Also - in general - we need to take a step-back and recognize the nature of what is being asked when a Christian - and I mean a sincere Christian, not merely some person such as a bishop who is claiming to be a Christian - argues that suffering refutes the lovingness of God.

Such a Christian is in the position of a child saying that because bad stuff happens this means 'therefore' his parents do not love him. There is an equation being made between 'my happiness' and my parents love for me - specifically the assertion that if I am suffering, it is because my parents do not love me.

This, I think, is a sufficiently accurate summary of 'the problem of pain' argument in many situations. It is usually a childish and selfish argument - that is, an argument motivated by selfishness and childish in its refusal to acknowledge self-ignorance and immaturity in a context which involves an already-existing lack of belief in the goodness (or reality) of God.

Consider: A child may be, often is, in situations where his parents seem (from the perspective of that child) to be inflicting suffering for no reason - this is one of the great sadnesses of parenting.

For example, taking a child for a painful medical procedure. A Father may be holding the child still while the doctor does something which from the child's perspective is a form of torture. From the child's perspective, Daddy brought me to this horrible place and Daddy is holding me tight so that this nasty man can hurt me.

But, in a good family, this does not destroy, does not even challenge, the child's confidence (faith) in the absolute love of his parents.

The reality is that the Father is doing all this from love of his child - although there is no way that a young child can comprehend the situation.

In practice a child is very likely to be hurt and confused by the situation; but also in practice the little boy clings even more tightly to his Father - because that child knows that whatever happens (or seems to be happening), his Father loves him and wants the best for him.

So the answer to the problem of pain is very simple - simple enough for a young child to understand; and indeed simple Christians of past generations understood this without having to be told. The context is that we know that God is our loving Father, and therefore the more we suffer here and now, the more we want and need him; the more we ought to cling tight onto him.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

In your example of a painful medical procedure, the parents would of course prefer that their child be made healthy without suffering -- but, being finite mortals, they may not have that option available to them. The suffering is a necessary evil. But if we postulate an omnipotent Father, perfectly capable of making omelettes without breaking eggs, it no longer makes sense that he would allow his children to suffer terribly.

I think the argument from suffering is basically sound. The world is manifestly not under the control of an omnipotent, perfectly loving Being. I think even you would agree with this, and so, considering God's love to be unquestionable, you instead question his strict omnipotence. But either the one or the other most certainly does have to be questioned.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Yes, I did not mention 'omnipotence' because it is un-Christian - if someone wants an omnipotent creator God they would have to choose the other major monotheism and a God who is-not Love; and insofar as omnipotence is or becomes focal to Christianity, thus far the resulting religion resembles the other major monotheism.

I see no glimmering of that abstraction 'omnipotence' in the Gospels. It is an error - understandable, but unworthy: born of pride and fear, mixed with hatred - which Christians need to put behind them.

The Christian God is creator and our loving Father. And that is enough.

William Wildblood said...

The idea that this is a fallen world and the cause of that fall was somehow us is not taken into account by those who would dismiss God because of suffering. But the main thing is that this world is not heaven and it's not meant to be. It's a place in which we may be made worthy of heaven (as in able to bear the glory of heaven) and, like it or not, that does require an element of suffering because it requires the shell we surround ourselves with, the ego for want of a better word, to be broken open.

The suffering in this world will one day be put into context but if we could accept the idea of a loving Father who wants to make us more like him then we could start to understand it and to put up with it a little better even now.

David Balfour said...

What you say makes a great deal of sense and yet these arguements against a loving God are very common indeed. To be entirely honest I often appealed to them myself when I felt that the injustice of the world somehow made God into the ultimate brute or monster that would be implicit if the arguement were accepted without a little thought to unpack the implications. I think people are angry at the idea of a God that *allows* the illnesses, deaths and human tragedies to occur everyday. Anger is a powerful emotion and a destructive one. My suspicion is that there will also be forces at work that are delighted to distort the reality of a loving parent by encouraging feelings and reasoning processes that make heavenly father into a monster. The other major arguement I encounter typically from modern women is "Ah so he is a man as well is he?! Typical that a *man-made* religion should invent this kind of stuff!" This second arguement is usually enough to stunt any progress with the first discussion about suffering and a loving God. I'm sorry to say it but many many people just really really really do not like Christianity at all! They claim they don't *hate* it as such when asked and are apparently wounded at the suggestion of this but then their attitudes and behaviours seem to conflict with this. It makes me feel profoundly sad and wounded about the whole thing at times if I am honest.

Ironically Christian's seem to be one of the remaining groups that are socially acceptable to vilify and abuse in a world where no one would dream of criticising the PC 'sacred' subjects such as sexuality, race, gender (although men are ok to abuse and this is an enjoyable hobby for many people nowadays) and most other religions including Islam and Judaism. I find this modern *prejudice* interesting. Let's face it that is exactly what it is, if we are honest with ourselves about the modern attitudes towards Christianity in the prevailing punlock discourse.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - well said.

To return to the omnipotence problem in this context - this vague notion is used as a club to demolish the kind of perspective you and I both advocate; because people simply argue that If God was omnipotent (and loves us) Then he could and should have made things perfect from the start so that we wouldn't need to go through this hard work/ suffering and general rigmarole to become mini-gods (or whatever is the aim).

And this argument is pretty much unanswerable - given that one can pretend to understand the inferred philosophical concept of 'omnipotent'.

In a sense, Christians have only themselves to blame for making 'omnipotence' such a central, indeed credal, requirement of being some types of Christian. And refusing to give it up despite the wreckage and havoc that the concept has caused. All too many self-identified Christians evidently prefer, in practice, a God of total power to a God of total love - this, I believe, is the historical challenge to Christians of the other great monotheism.

It stands for the temptation (to Christians): "If *that* is what you *really* want, more than anything else... then *here* it is - pure and simple.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Just to address one of your points - ""Ah so he is a man as well is he?!"

I am finding in my own thinking that the reality of Mother in Heaven takes a larger and larger part in my deepest thoughts - I find it less and less adequate and accurate *not* to mention her.

It may be that the time has come, or is coming, for conscious (not merely implicit or covert) awareness of her importance.

William Wildblood said...

Surely a completely omnipotent God could not be a God of love because love requires that the object of love be a full and free individual. So God gives some of his power to us in the form of free will. No doubt God could do anything he wanted but he chooses not to in order that we have a degree of autonomy.

David Balfour said...

Those are my sentiments exactly Bruce! My feeling is this would have a significantly positive effect to correct the bad feelings about gender distortions.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - (To clarify for other people - not so much yourself).

It should be noted that such complaints about 'sexism' in Christianity nearly always come from anti-Christian subversives (including those who self-identify or self-advertise as Christians) - the reason for emphasizing Mother in Heaven is not to satisfy *them*, because they will not be satisfied but will in fact perceive any such statement as a concession, a sign of weakness, and a signal to push further and harder.

But my point is that Mother is Heaven is known (by Mormons) to be true, but she is not much talked of - and perhaps not much thought about. I am simply saying that I find I think of her more and more, and feel that it is only honest to talk of her more, because to do otherwise seems expediently evasive.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I should add to the above that I do NOT regard getting rid of abstract 'omnipotence' as a significant change to the traditional Christian understanding among ordinary, simple good Christians; who have always regarded God very much as Mormons do, especially in terms of God having emotions, responding to human joy and pain, and of being of immense but not total power - having to work for our Good through time, and via constraints.

Omnipotence in the sense that philosophers and theologians use the word is literally and intractably incomprehensible to ordinary, simple people - it can only be 'operationalized' in the way that the other major monotheism does: as an incomprehensible entity which it os sinful to attempt to comprehend and to whom submission is the necessary response.

Bruce Charlton said...

Comment from GAGDAD BOB:

Couldn't agree more about omnipotence. A Christian who believes in the strict and literal omnipotence of God is a good [adherent of the other major monotheism].

A clue is that God himself is crucified in history.
"Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."

In other words, for a number of reasons, God's will is not done down here. Or, it is and it isn't, depending on circumstances.

To paraphrase someone, God can stop such-and-such an evil (for which reason we pray), but he cannot stop evil as such, since this is not heaven. Or in other words, evil exists on this plane because of its intrinsic distance from heaven. It's like wishing for a world without gravity, when gravity is one of the conditions of existence.

Lost Pilgrim said...

God is a creator. Perhaps he is working towards us being a good creator as well. If so, then the processes he uses might not always seem nice or good to us as individuals.

A nihonto is forged, hammered, folded, beaten again over and over again. In the end it is a thing of beauty and utility. People have freewill we are more difficult to forge and shape than a sword. If we didn't have freewill we wouldn't be worthy to follow our Father. Why didn't he make us perfect? Because we have freewill we have to some extent make ourselves. The only way we can do that is to learn and experience and make decisions for ourselves.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

But most Christians (and atheists from Christian cultures) take it for granted that God is omnipotent -- and that is why there is such a thing as the "problem of evil." I thought that should be made explicit, since your post seems to attribute the problem to people's childishness or selfishness instead.

(On second thought, maybe it is a form of childishness. Very young children think of their parents as all-powerful, and realizing that they are not is an important part of growing up.)

Your post reads as if you think you are debunking the argument from evil, but in fact you accept it and accept its conclusion that no loving and omnipotent God exists.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - At times, you can be so obtuse! There is a large ground between 'accepting' and 'debunking' an argument - to reduce everything to the forced choice between the sides of that dichotomy is obtuse as well as inaccurate.