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?