Friday, March 31, 2006

God & human suffering

For systematic theology this week we read "God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross" by Douglas John Hall. I thought it was an excellent book (although I didn't get to read ALL of it, but I would have if I had been physically able to!). Hall emphasizes the fact that suffering does exist, that God doesn't encourage it, but that suffering does in a way help us to grow.

As my precept (small group class) leader wisely stated, his theory works well for those of us in the "first world" because it reminds us of the reality of suffering and our need to admit it and live in it, but not so well for "two-thirds world" people. Hall's point isn't that we should tolerate and stay in our suffering, but the conclusions he draws of our need to face into the reality of suffering speak more to the condition of "first world" avoidance of suffering but continue to experience emotional/psychic/spiritual suffering, than to those who undergo physical suffering on a regular basis.

Hall brings up the important point that in more developed countries today, we tend to ignore suffering and to believe (in a modernist sort of way) that all suffering can and will be eventually overcome by technology. Sometimes we have to live with suffering right now, but that's not as it should be because we should be able to figure out how to get rid of that pain. But Hall reminds us that not all stories used to have a happy ending. In Hebrew Scripture and in Greek tragedy, lament and tragic endings were an important part of life that needed to be expressed and dealt wtih. Now we tend to ignore the fact that we're suffering.

This is easy to do. I don't "suffer" on a regular basis: I get enough food, I have plenty of clothes, I don't have much money but I have enough for what I need and for a few extras here and there. I have the luxury of being in school, taking the time to be trained academically, to sit around thinking all the time. I will inevitably endure suffering as people I know die, and I've experienced emotional suffering in the divorce of my parents and other broken relationships. Sometimes I suffer from being disconnected from the natural world too long and need to get some sun.

I also suffer from lack of community, which I think is a huge one in American culture. I have a great family and network of friends at home, and I'm beginning to develop one here, but it's not the same organic, interdependent community people lived in for centuries. (Of course both ways have their pros and cons, but that's another post for another day...) There is a definite sense of our independence becoming chains of isolation.

These are the kinds of things middle class Americans generally suffer, I think. Two things strike me about this: 1) as Christians, are we really following Jesus if we're not suffering? God doesn't invite suffering on us, but says it will occur if we're being disciples of Christ; 2) although these things don't feel like they can even compare to others' suffering, it is still suffering and I agree with Hall that it would be better if we could admit it as such, learn from it, and be able to empathize with others when they suffer.

Second thought first: Hall says that by denying suffering we are repressing those feelings inside us, therefore numbing us to pain in ourselves and others. If we're not able to recognize our own suffering we can't recognize it in others and relate to them. We also look for someone to villify, because we need a distraction--we need to see how bad someone else is so that we forget about our own shortcomings (hence the Iraq war???). So acknowleding our own suffering not only helps us become more whole people, but helps us build stronger and more empathetic communities, even with our enemies.

First thought: OK, so we aren't supposed to invite suffering--Hall is very clear that Christianity isn't masochistic. But we aren't supposed to shun it, either. Instead we're to listen to God, do what we hear, and be willing to suffer the consequences out of joy for being part of God's plan. This will automatically anger those in power, hence persecution and suffering, but it ultimately shows up the evil of unjust social institutions, etc. and allows the world to witness the transformative power of God in our lives.

For me the idea of suffering is something I've been thinking about a lot for several years. Why does the American church not suffer? Is that a positive thing--because we've created a government that is more fair than ones that persecute religions? Or is it because we're afraid to suffer and aren't willing to radically follow God's will, so we don't rock the boat enough to spark persecution?

I wonder this especially about Quakers. I don't remember if I wrote this on another blog posting earlier, but I often think about the fact that Quakers are generally seen by American culture as a great religion. Now we feel like we have to live up to that reputation, and so we're bound by our desire for popularity. Instead, I think we should wonder and really seek out what it is that God is calling us to as a community, and do that--even if it's unpopular. Let God first, and history, be the judge of whether it was a good idea or not.

I'm challenged to step out more in faith for action--as I've been kind of preoccupied with in the last few days' postings, I suppose. What does it mean in my life that faith is a verb, not a noun--that it's a lifestyle not a possession? How can I act out my faith even now, in the midst of an ultra-Christian community? I think the biggest thing I'm being called to lately is spaciousness...trusting that everything that needs to get done will get done, but I need to hang out with God alone more often. I can't expect to know what God's calling me to if I don't intentionally listen...

This means suffering in the form of giving up my own control of my schedule and fears about not having time to get enough done, setting aside my own priorities to follow God. Blogging helps with that process--it helps me contemplate what I'm learning and gives me a virtual community to share it with, but I also need the times of silent meditation.

Are there things you're feeling drawn to that would require a certain amount of suffering on your part?


Lovin' Life Liz said...

I really liked your post about suffering! I don't have anything deep to say about it (I just woke up...) but I think another important aspect is after a stage of suffering giving thanks to God to being the constant companion through everything (think Footprints in the Sand). When a period of so called suffering is over, I am more joyful in God and open my eyes and realize all the good that is around me--everything seems to be more vibrant and alive! And I am more willing to help others in this stage!

QuakerK said...


I'm surprised you didn't mention the most recent example of a Quaker suffering for his faith: Tom Fox. Clearly, what happened to him was a result of his religious witness. And I also thought of another example, the Friday night speaker at New York Yearly Meeting Spring Sessions this past weekend, Nadine Wood. She has made a number of trips to Aceh in Indonesia, including times when it was still a war zone and her visit was accompanied by the sound of automatic weapons fire. I'm not sure how much she suffered--there was a fair amount of physical discomfort, but it doesn't sound like she was ever physically assualted, or had a gun stuck in her face--but it certainly sounds like she was at risk.

So Quakers can and do suffer for their witness. That makes it sound like, if Quakers today don't suffer, it's because we aren't living our witness out faithfully (and I fully include myself in that category). I've thought a bit about this in connection with the peace testimony. When I've looked into the history of the peace testimony, it's clear that some of the major ways in which Quakers used to witness against the peace testimony no longer apply. In particular, when there is no required military service, you can't make a point of avoiding it. But that doesn't mean that opportunities for witness don't exist. For example, Friends could (and some do) reject paying taxes to fund war. Why don't we? Probably there are plenty of Quakers who think that's not required of them, but I'll bet there are plenty of other Quakers who are inclined in that direction but are held back by concern of consequences--which is not to dismiss those concerns. For example, someone with a spouse and children really does have obligations that a single Friend does not. But still, that sort of witness is hard, which probably explains at least part of why it's not done.

It's probably so obvious I don't even need to say it, but there are still lots of ways to witness, it seems to me. If I just think about the Sermon on the Mount, I can think of innumerable ways in which it challenges how I live my life. Not only specific things, like attitudes towards material possessions, but even the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, that total faith in God and devotion to the Kingdom. I'm not doing that, for sure.

The funny thing is, I think while faithful witness runs the risk of increasing physical suffering, it almost seems to me like it reduces other kinds of suffering. Nadine, the NYYM speaker this past weekend, clearly felt a freedom and joy in service. In that sense, her emotional or existential suffering was reduced, even as she put herself at increased risk. She, at least, seemed to think it was a trade worth making.

By the way, it's funny I came across your post. When I read it, in particular the bit about Americans avoiding suffering, it reminded me of something. I realized it was the piece by the NY Times religion writer on Saturday. He wrote about a George Rouault exhibit in New York, and in the article he quotes someone who also points out that Americans avoid suffering, even though it seems pretty clearly to be part of the Christian message. Interesting coincidence, or not.


Anna Dunford said...

Hi Cherice (and Liz 'n' all...)

What you wrote here reminded me of Oliver Kisaka's statement at WGYF that we can (to paraphrase as I can't remember it exactly..!) be popular with god or with our fellow humans but not both - ie following god's leadings truthfully will make us unpopular but that it is more important to follow god.

Maybe this fits in with what David was saying about the image Quakerism has? But surely how it got it in the first place was because people stood up for what they believed, were prepared if necessary to go to gaol or die for it, they put the cat amongst the pigeons (in a non-violent respectful to pigeons manner of course!) and were prepared to face the consequences. I'm sure all of these made them most unpopular at the time yet history recognises them.

Are we by our inaction and unwillingness to collectively put ourselves on the line jeapodising the ongoing good name that we are trying to protect?

Keep posting and getting us thinking, it's like doing your course by proxy! =)

love & light

Peter the Anderson said...

Hi Cherice,
If ever there was teaching which could cause an ordinary person to suffer it's in the Sermon on the Mount. It's so extreme and uncompromising, and so different from the way of the world. To provide for and feed others and work on the basis of love, rather than personal economic necessity or greed? I can hear the economic overlords of our time saying 'Get back to work, slaves!'. Once family units did this, but now even parents have to be forced by laws to provide for their kids when they can't love their spouses any more. So what about working for strangers? So extreme, so uncompromising, it hurts.

janamills said...

I love this post, really got me thinking, I have been really digging into the whole concept recently, I am reading "the kingdom of God is within you" by L Tolstoy, he touches on a lot of quaker ideas and quotes some quakers aswell, for deffinately not something to go into lightly as i guess making a choice to stand against something can cost you your life (tom fox) but I reckon your right, its so important to understand, thanks for another perspective to get me thinking some more!

Paul said...

Hmmm…I seem to be continually drawn back to relationship. The Apostle Paul says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing (NIV stays “fellowship”) of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” Like you, I don’t want to seek suffering, but seek Jesus…and look what I get. Again Paul in Colossians, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the body, that is, the church.” Christ’s afflictions aren’t complete? I can share in those afflictions (suffering)? Do I want to share in them? Do I want to know Christ. This is hard stuff for me.

I agree, there are times when listening prayer, centering prayer is suffering…a desert experience. Not always, but sometimes. I go there because I’m called.