What to do with Suffering?

(Spectrumbot) #1

Suffering is the subjective experience of evil. Not merely a threatening external presence in nature, it is a disturbing challenge that touches us in our primordial foundations and certainties. It cruelly becomes an eroding event from within. Its universality doesn't respect age, gender, religion or ethnicity. This compels us to try to understand and make some sense of it, knowing in advance that whatever the resulting interpretation, it will always remain a precarious, fragmented and insufficient belief in the unexpected and weary path of life. This unavoidable vulnerability nevertheless – and surprisingly – coexists with a parallel and unquenchable desire for living that universally engraves every human, making them structurally and pre-rationally resilient. Religion and culture don't create these two universal human conditions, Suffering and Resiliency. They only propose well-intentioned interpretations that we need to continually revise in an open, humble and honest dialogue with ourselves, others, history and God.

An accurate, informed and contemporary reflection on Suffering is proposed by Dr. Richard Rice, from Loma Linda University School of Religion, in his recent book Suffering and the Search for Meaning. Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (InterVarsity Press 2014). Rice's first achievement in this book is descriptive. In a systematic and synoptic way he lays out seven major Western reflections on Suffering that he appropriately calls “Theodicies”. Theodicy is a Greek term that puts together the two words “justify” (dikaioo) and “God” (Theos). Theodicy is the attempt to defend (justify) God in face of Suffering and Evil. Formally this attempt emerged in Europe and lexicographically is associated with the seventeenth century German Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In Rice's descriptive rework of the topic the main current theodicies today are:

  1. Perfect Plan Theodicy
  2. Free Will Theodicy
  3. Soul Making Theodicy
  4. Cosmic Conflict Theodicy
  5. Openness of God Theodicy
  6. Finite God Theodicy
  7. Protest Theodicies

In these seven short but accurate theological and philosophical descriptions, entwined with dramatic and everyday human experiences, Rice reviews their underlining their strengths and limits. Whoever wants to have a general overview of today’s main views on Suffering will certainly get an enormous help from this book. But the value doesn't stop here. I will briefly underline two additional important characteristics: the “ecumenism” of Rice theoretical reflection and the “pragmatism” of his existential approach to Suffering. In other words, Rice describes and builds up what, on one side, we could call “Reflective Theodicies” and on the other side what he himself calls the parallel and complementary “Practical Theodicies” – that is, the personal frameworks everybody needs to accompany the more theoretical ones. Let's briefly consider these two further contributions.

First, Rice's description and processing of these “Reflective Theodicies”, is original and creative. Classical Theodicies tend to become structurally monolithic, exclusive and definitive reflections on Suffering. Rice instead understands and treats them as partial, flexible and open interpretations of this human dilemma. And for this very reason he persuades and pushes us to understand them as necessarily inclusive and complementary explanations. Even when they show, due to their somewhat opposed and contradictory premises and positions, a resistance to interact and be integrated in a final synthesis, we nevertheless are called to make them coexist together in a meaningful ecumenical tension.

Second, Rice doesn't suggest only the necessary complementarity of the various “Reflective Theodicies”. He is even more inclusive indicating the necessity of developing “practical theodicies” to complete, in a more personal way, with what the “Reflective Theodicies” have just initiated. “Reflective Theodicies” are necessary but insufficient strategies to cope with suffering. But what is a “Practical Theodicy”? While current practical strategies to face Suffering tend to be mainly circumstantial, reaction-based and unilateral, Rice suggests we:

- build up more consistent practical strategies that include theories of suffering like the ones he describes,

- add the exposure and dialogue with everyday stories of people who have suffered and survived,

- include religious and Biblical motives, symbols and narratives which possess the wisdom of describing Suffering as a mystery more than as a problem.

Following Larry D. Bouchard, (“Holding Fragments”) Rice suggests we “juxtapose” these personal theodicies rather than “synthesize” them, adopting what Philosopher Jeffrey Stout calls human (using a French word) “Bricolage”. “A bricoleur is a handyman who makes do with whatever materials he can find and patches things up with this and that”. That is what “Practical Theodicy”, says Rice, is all about.

Now, in this last part of my reflection, I will provide three critical considerations to Rice's proposal. His analysis is basically a theological-philosophical treatment of Suffering. And as such, even with its flexibility and openness, it doesn't necessarily represent the best approach to the human dilemma of suffering today. It lacks a larger socio-cultural-medical analysis that would see the limits and paradoxes of a “Theodicy-like” approach. It would also allow him to come nearer to the real historical situation of today. Culturally speaking, for instance, today's experience of pain and suffering is unique and paradoxical. It can't be compared to the perception of pain in Biblical, medieval or renaissance times. Technique and drugs have deeply modified our relationship to pain and suffering, putting us in a unique historical condition. It is also paradoxical, because technique and drugs have diminished the perception of pain so dramatically, a perception that was always intense previously. As Epicurus said, if pain is strong it is also necessarily short and if it’s weak you necessarily can accommodate and coexist with it. This classical formula on pain is no longer applicable. By separating the perception of pain with the real state of the sickened body, technique and drugs have paradoxically increased the general pain. It has become psychologically more intense and chronic while physical pain can simultaneously be dramatically diminished. Therefore I think that a theological-philosophical approach that is not integrated with a larger socio-cultural-medical approach to pain and suffering lacks an important analytical component.

My three critical considerations are the following:

First, Rice's “Theodicy-like” approach to suffering remains entrapped in a rationalist and reductionist way of thinking, typical of Western current culture, notwithstanding the generous efforts introduced to limit its direct and collateral effects. Using the word “Theodicy” doesn't help much even in Rice's updated and more human form. And that suspect word is also introduced in the personal-existential dimension, which goes beyond merely the reflective one. Theodicy is not the unique way of reflecting theoretically on suffering and, on a more practical level, it's surely a terrible one.

Second, Rice's “Personal Theodicy” proposal presupposes and structurally retains an individualistic perception of human suffering – typical of Western societies. Here the individual with his/her experience of suffering has priority to a more social or communitarian articulation and understanding. The openness to “their” or “your” suffering as a way of coping better with it is not, in Rice's analysis, a primary experience but a secondary one. In the modern or post-modern versions of Western individualism everything starts and ends with “my” experience.

Third, Rice's “Reflective” and “Practical” Theodicy proposal presupposes a punctual and atomistic way of facing suffering that is also typical of Western societies. You face suffering when it is present and you are obliged to consider it. When it is not there you can and must keep going, chasing your goals and objectives. For non-Western traditions life and death, suffering and joy, health and pain always go together. They are not exceptional but instead rather constant life experiences. This is one of the reasons why these traditions are “slow” societies. For the dynamic Western societies suffering, death and pain need to be separated and hidden from a functioning and functional life. In this perspective suffering can be approached not continually but only punctually – just in certain adequate and programmed moments like sickness or death. This easily becomes a managerial and administrative approach to suffering and pain.

The rationalist, individualist and atomistic trend still perceptible in Rice's reflection is just the updated religious extension of the general trend of Western culture. Alternative views on suffering that are more symbolic, corporative and holistic have always existed in other Southern cultures. Such perspectives could help Western culture today to enrich and improve their way of coping with suffering. But alternative views of suffering are not only present outside Western societies. They exist also inside, for instance, in the rich symbolic and aesthetic narrative of the American Black community, as immortalized in those precious theological and existential treaties that represent the Gospel and Black Spirituals.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6627

After Collision with Truck, Walla Walla University Student Madison Baird Passes Away
(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

Great analysis of a scholarly work by a friend. But and it is a big but! here am I age 89 11 months, with a 20 percent WWII disability, with both hip joints replaced, a rod down the left tibia, two heart stents, a pace maker- defibrillater, hearing aids, and eye glasses, 13 daily medications. Living in a senior citizen complex under siege for Flu, with at least two memorial services a month. Without the Cross I would be a sorry mess. This morning, I was denied a change of address on my drivers license, I needed at least two verifications, That could include two mag with my new address on them. I had to walk four blocks and drive four miles to get the. verification. I am now home. Should the doxology spring forth? YES. But a few unseemly words did precede. sorry about that.

I now read Paul in a different light that 50 years ago. Tom Z

(Steve Mga) #3

Theodocity is a branch of theology that has developed many arguments on how there can be a God, a good God, or a just God in the presence of so much evil in the world. About which God appears to do Nothing, except an individual “change of heart” here and there.
God fully allows.
Further, God seems to fully cause, or at least allow natural disasters of drought, flood, hurricane, tornado, tsunami, plague, infestation, physical handicap, mental illness, and painful diseases, may of which we call “acts of God”. All of these have made much of human life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. What are we to do with this?
I do not see any all-powerful God taking power at all. Exactly HOW is God loving? God is somehow IN the suffering, participating as a suffering OBJECT too. At least we are Participating In Something Together.
Only if human suffering is first of all and last of all Divine Suffering can we begin to connect any dots.
Jesus is Not Observing human suffering from a distance but is somehow IN human suffering with us and for us.
Is suffering necessary to teach us how to love and care for one another? I really believe that it is — by observation! ONLY people who have suffered in some way can save one another. Deep communion and deap compassion is formed much more by Shared Pain than by shared pleasure. Jesus said to Peter, “you must be ground like wheat, and once you have recovered, then you can turn and help the brothers” Luke 22:31-32. Was THIS his REAL ordination to the ministry?
ONLY the survivors know the full terror of the passage, the arms that held them through it all, and the power of the obstacles that were overcome. This Second Healing is the more important one.
Those who have “passed over” eventually find a much bigger world of endurance, meaning, hope, self-esteem, deeper and true desire, but most especially a bottomless pool both within and without.
The Eastern fathers of the church called this transformation THEOSIS, or the process of the divinization of the human person. This deep transformation is achieved by a “vital Spiritual experience” that is available to all human beings.
It leads to an emotional sobriety, an immense freedom, a natural compassion, a sense of divine union that is the deepest and most universal meaning of that much-used word – SALVATION. Only those who have passed over know the real meaning of that word – and that it is not just a word at all. It is at this precise point that the Suffering God and the Suffering Soul can meet.
ONLY a Suffering God can “save” suffering people. Those who have passed across this chasm can and will save one another.
Any other god becomes a guilty bystander, and one that you will not deeply trust, much less love.
God wants to love and be loved rather than be served [John 15:15] This turns the history of Religion on its head.
To mourn for one is to mourn for all. To mourn WITH all is to Fully Participate at the very foundation of Being Itself.—
Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water, chapter Only A Suffering God Can Save, pg 119-128.

I would ALSO recommend watching the movie GOD ON TRIAL [you can watch it on YouTube]. God is put on trial by a group of Jewish men waiting to be taken to the Gas Chambers and incinerated later on in the day. It addresses the Age Old question: How can there be evil in a universe ruled by an all-powerful, benevolent God?

(Elmer Cupino) #4

I wish I were your psychiatrist. I would have argued for a higher rate. Maybe not less than 100%?!

(Thomas J Zwemer) #5

Elmer When Did I offend you? Upon what evidence do you come to that conclusion? Tom

(Elmer Cupino) #6


You have not offended me a bit. I’m just curious why your medical officer did not grant you a higher service connection for you service during WWII. My experience has been to contest 20% routinely as an advocate for my patients and almost always, a higher percentage is granted.

I’m deeply grateful for your service in the Philippines, being a Filipino myself. You will be in our prayers as you continue to recuperate.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #7

Thank you. I was granted 30% but when I earned my doctorate in dentistry it was dropped to 20%. Never the less it has been a life long struggle, fortunately I have a very supported extended family. unlike Brian Williams, I was there. War is hell even if one is on the winning side. Tom Z

(Aage Rendalen) #8

The Asian concept of ying and yang and the Buddhist mantra that “to live is to suffer” come much closer to describing the human experience than do the three monotheistic religions of the Middle East. The monotheistic religions create enormous theoretical–and existential–problems by describing God first and the human experience last–opposite of what Asians do.

Up to the end of the Middle Ages everybody knew that the orbits of planets were circular. The problem was that observations did not support that idea, so astronomers came up with a bit of celestial math that turned the ellipses of reality into heavenly circles. I feel that theologians are doing the same when they try to make reality conform to theological concepts of God.

Gutierrez argues that “Suffering is the subjective experience of evil.” The problem with that definition is, of course, that it implicates God in “evil.” As Gutierrez points out, medical science has altered perceptions of pain and suffering, but the question still remains: If God is behind advances in medical science, why has he waited so long and why has he left us without a cure for cancer? Antibiotics have revolutionized health care, but why didn’t God reveal the secret of penicillin to the alchemists of the Middle Ages? As long as God seems to be comfortable with the idea of humans interfering with the operation of bacteria and virus, why not stop the Black Death from decimating the population of Europe in the 14th century or provide a vaccine against the Spanish flue in 1918?

Occam’s Razor still shreds to pieces all attempts at making sense of an almighty God–let alone provide rational justification for his passivity–in the face of human suffering.

(George Tichy) #9

Tom, I think you misunderstood Elmer’s comment. Maybe you are still upset with the earlier experience this morning, and it is having grave consequences on your mood.

Take a tea, and relax now! (Doctor’s order!.. :slight_smile: )

(George Tichy) #10

Rick Rice’s book is indeed good. I am reading it slowly ( along with other three books, two by Bonhoeffer). He has interesting points. He is a great author and his books are always full of wisdom and solid intellectual material. Rice’s “The Openness of God” inspired my thinking years ago when it was published.

However, I am not sure that anyone will ever be able to actually explain the problem of human suffering, no matter what kind of philosophical maneuver is developed and adopted. A truly loving God in the presence of human suffering as we know it on this planet appears to be an oxymoron. I sure don’t have an answer for this dilemma, though I have been looking for one for tens of years.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #11

George Great Idea. but when shrink calls for 100 percent disability one does wonder. Tom Z

(Joselito Coo) #12

Typically, the western approach has been a search for some propositional truths. To find meaning or causes for our collective creaturely or individual human suffering, as the sub-title of Rice’s book suggests. The alternative method (eastern? way), whether or not we can explain our suffering, is simply to endure it or remove its cause (god?).

(George Tichy) #13

No Tom, we know @elmer_cupino better than that. Don’t read what is not written. To me it was obvious he was saying that, if he were the one evaluating the case, he would have done a better job and gotten you a better deal. That’s what I got from it.

(Elmer Cupino) #14

I had met a vet with a 30 percent connection from a tour in Vietnam about three years ago. He had requested for a second opinion from a VA psychiatrist who recommended 30 percent service connection. In reviewing his case, all clinical data underscored the severity of his symptoms so we requested for a reevaluation and I had recommended 100% service connection. VA denied my request but gave him 70%. We requested for a review again and in three months the VA gave up and gave him 100%. I’ve never seen the Vet again!

(Steve Mga) #15

The alternative method you propose seems to be the underlying response in the psalms. Endure, Remove [remember the Blessings and Cursings by Moses], and invoke God’s presence.
I dont believe that the SaTan as we understand was understood that way by them.

(Thomas J Zwemer) #16

I would attend the Chicago and Atlanta Symphonies because I enjoyed the sound. Rick and wife would come with the score and really follow it. So he writes to a educated class beyond me… he does pick topics of ultimate concern,addressed to pastors as background for their homilies. In the present climate of Adventism it is a safe and useful bet. Tom Z

(Elaine Nelson) #17

Tom. at our age we have known more pain than the average 21-yr. old, but that is more physical pain. Think of the pain of millions of refugees around the world; children forever separated, even taken from their parents to face an unknown future.

Then there is the awful pain of death and divorce for others; a child who may be separated from a loving parent at a very young age; something you and I have never experienced, although most of us have seen divorce in our children or grandchildren’s lives that is more pain than physical and cannot be relieved by all the medications physicians have.

Theodicy attempts to explain the “ways of God and man” that is unexplainable. What is, is all we can know; what “should be” is idealism. Acceptance is so very difficult, but death is eventually inevitable for all. Sometimes, it comes as a welcome relief; probably for those in your present facility. Death is not to be feared, only the pain often accompanying it but today, there is medicine available
Personally, I favor physician assisted suicide when the pain is unbearable and the end is in sight.

(Sirje) #18

This theorizing of all the “Theodicies” is probably very erudite and all - only for those not actually in serious pain at the moment.

To suggest that we come to terms with suffering and pain by studying all these possible theories; and then, probably making some sort of definitive statement about it seems unrealistic. None of these studies will give any comfort when we really need answers. When our world falls apart there is no part of anybody’s book that’s going to make the pain go away, or explain why the answer to our prayers is a distinct “NO” - and one day it will be a “NO,” no matter how many prayer vigils are held.

(Aage Rendalen) #19

Very true, Sirje. This is what happened to C.S.Lewis, who had made a career out of explaining suffering in the context of faith. When he finally fell in love and married in his 50s, he lost his wife to cancer and it’s anybody’s guess how much of his faith he was able to salvage, as spelled out in his (originally anonymous) book, A Grief Observed and as featured in the movie Shadowlands. What the theologians are attempting to do is to dispel an intellectual quandary, not suffering. They have no more of an answer to the whys and wherefores of suffering than anybody else. It is so much easier to approach this painful fact of human life as a non-believer than as a believer. To me, suffering makes sense because I see it through the lens of science, not religion. The best a believer could do is to declare it a mystery beyond understanding and instead of spending life coming up with special pleadings and go through intellectual contortions to satisfy the inner rationalist, instead try to live like Jesus and do one’s best to alleviate the suffering of other people.

(Elaine Nelson) #20

Did God ever explain to Job why all his suffering? Nor did he accept it but constantly railed at it. Theories are meaningless to the suffering.