What does the experience of suffering do for belief in God? Is it easier to believe in a higher power when grieving, or harder? Is it natural for belief in the transcendent to flourish when loss arises, or does it instead become more difficult to grasp?
No simple answer captures the experience of all. Some people respond to terrible suffering with an increased conviction in their faith, or even a conversion from unbelief into belief. A pastor loses his spouse but the next Sunday preaches with more vigour than he's had since seminary. A parent loses their child and, while broken-hearted, develops a yearning to step into church for the first time since that dreary Easter service attended as a teen. Others experience loss and find faith in God hard to register. It appears empty, intangible, perhaps childish. One finds their atheism confirmed or their prior faith shattered. A marriage of forty years ends and now any hope in prayer feels feeble. In the same week one loses their career and best friend and the universe seems even more a-anthropic than it did before.
What accounts for this difference in reaction? What it is about suffering, or what happens within it, that pulls some people toward the spiritual and pushes others away?
Regarding moving away, Christian apologists typically identify two distinct forces that can challenge belief in God. One is intellectual, the other is emotional. On this received diagnosis, a person is in the grip of the intellectual challenge if he/she is grappling with a particular argument in a philosophically reflective manner. He/she wonders whether the co-existence of suffering and an all-powerful, all-loving God might be as confused as the idea of a married bachelor. Or if the worry isn't about a straight-up logical contradiction, it's about whether suffering might nonetheless provide some pretty good evidence against God's existence. But a person struggling with the emotional challenge of suffering, so the story goes, is simply dealing with the pain of loss. He/she hates what has happened in their lives and all this hatred, pain and sorrow twists into incredulity at the very notion of God, and ultimately hardened unbelief.
No doubt there are powerful and important philosophical arguments regarding the compatibility or probability of God's existence given the facts of suffering, though I'm not going to comment on those here. No doubt as well the simple pain of loss can, somehow or other, twist into an aversion to God. But the so-called "emotional" side of the problem shouldn't just be left at that sort of analysis. As it stands it misses something rather important. It suggests that, if you're not struggling ultimately with some premise-by-premise dispassionate argument, then you're really only grappling with a sort of dumb feeling. You are the victim of your mindless emotional whims which have carried you along the treacherous road of irrationality. You need to calm down and come to your senses. What is missing is the existential aspect of coming to terms with loss.1
One unique feature of human beings is our capacity to tell stories. Sometimes this is done with much deliberative effort through novels, films, and music, but all of us, artistically talented or not, do it in our day-to-day lives as well. “So yesterday, I was on the train and...”, “You'll never believe what she said to the boss over the phone this morning; she...”, “... we legged it! That bouncer was after us but we just blended into the crowd.” Our conversations are full of tiny narratives. And we also have stories about the progression of our own lives. Even if we don't share these stories with others, we tell them to ourselves...
“I was always really shy and lacking confidence, but then at college I learnt to accept myself for who I am, since then...”, “I've moved from relationship to relationship and never really felt happy. I was always just sort of getting involved with people because I thought that's what normal people did. But I stopped that for a while and now I've met the one I'm learning even more that...”, “I was always told that I couldn't make it but through every business venture I've learn more and more about what it takes to succeed. The next step will realise my potential and I'll finally prove that...”
We hold these sorts of stories in our own minds and use them to understand what our life has been all about and where it's going. We understand our life as having been all about the struggle to accept ourself, or the search for love, or the quest to show that though we weren't as talented as our siblings we still have much to offer the world. These narratives run right through the heart of who we understand ourselves to be. It is these narratives that provide our life with meaning – the existential aspect of our lives. They are precious. They are also vulnerable.
My experience of real suffering is limited. Be that as it may, it is experience nonetheless. And what came with it was a sense that reality was going in the wrong direction. It was like the flow of things was all messed up. Although the event of loss was more real than anything it also had a dreamlike quality. It passed through consciousness but was almost instinctively rejected by it. My mind had got used to expecting the story to go one way and now the plot was violently jerked in another direction. The experience was disorientating.
Suffering has the power to interfere and even wreck our self-story. It is this cruelty of suffering that I want to comment on in the next part. I think that within it we find a crucial key to what inspires the journey to or away from transcendence. They are two different responses to the rupturing of your life-narrative...
You understand your life as having been about the search for the person who will truly love you for who you are. You run through several promising relationships that all end in pain. You finally find the man or woman of your dreams. You marry. You are gloriously happy. Your partner dies of cancer one year into the marriage.
There is a reason we call some deaths senseless.
How do you go on from there?
1 Actually, some apologists do label the emotional problem as “existential” but their description of it doesn't seem much different as a result. All that said, I've hardly taken a scientific survey of apologist's attitudes here. These are just my intuitive impressions of the current apologetics “scene” as I see it (on the online world anyway). This isn't a serious scholarly assessment of current attitudes in apologetics.