In part 1 and 2 I tried to show that when a life-narrative built around immanent goods collapses, a Grand-Story or an Anti-Story can appear compelling, even obviously true. I think that there are some important implications that a Christian can draw from this.
Firstly, we need to complicate the picture a bit. Up until now I've pretty much equated belief in God with belief in a Grand-Story, but actually you can believe in God and not believe in a Grand-Story. Belief in God is compatible with a story focussed on immanent goods, or even an Anti-Story. You might think, for instance, that although God exists he is in fact concerned with providing you with immanent goods. God, so conceived, yearns mostly to provide you with a spouse, getting you a good career, maybe even making you wealthy. On such a view, God is concerned with making you happy – giving you a fulfilling life in the here and now. This is not a Grand-Story. A Grand-Story claims that life is about matters higher than immanent goods, but this view of God forms a narrative whereby immanent goods are still the focus. As for an Anti-Story, you might think that God exists but that he is unconcerned with the world, aloof, distant. Or if not with the world as a whole, then with you. You might see yourself as damned, exiled, removed from God's favour and care.
From a Christian point of view, an Anti-Story which maintains God's existence can be destructive but it at least leaves one open to an experience of grace. You might think that God has cast you aside only to then experience forgiveness before the cross of Christ. But I want to concentrate on God-belief which maintains a focus on immanent goods. This is because I think this kind of narrative is both quite popular and also spiritually dangerous.
The danger lies in the fact that such a story can look, to the person who believes it, to be a Grand-Story even though it isn't. After all if you believe in God it sure seems like you're believing in something higher, something transcendent and“beyond”. It certainly seems like you believe in some grand purpose and meaning. After all, you believe in God for pity's sake! Here, then, is the risk. You believe that God ultimately wants you, say, to be happily married. But it doesn't happen. You never marry. Or you do marry but it ends in divorce, or your spouse dies all too young. Or you remain married but miserable. Your life-narrative is shattered. You thought your life was all about finding romance. You thought everything was heading in that glorious direction. But it hasn't been. Where do you go now? What narrative do you adopt? Do you go to a Grand-Story and read your life as having had some deeper sense behind it, or do you go to an Anti-Story and find yourself not believing in meaning at all? Well, if you think a Grand-Story is what you had been believing all along, then it will seem obvious to you, when this collapses, that the only way to go is an Anti-Story. It will seem to you that you've tried believing in God, you've tried putting your faith in some ultimate purpose, and it's come up empty. It will seem obvious to you that God doesn't exist. Even though your faith was never in a Grand-Story, the illusion that it was set you up for atheism.
The lesson is obvious. Christians need to be very careful regarding what sort of God-narrative they preach. One that proclaims a God concerned first of all with providing us immanent goods will set people up for disillusion and unbelief. Our message cannot be that God is concerned just with making ourselves happy in the here and now. Such a message actually shuts people off from the chance to experience a deeper narrative to their lives when immanent goods are taken from them. A story of loss can become a story about hearing the call of God. Disappointment can become the chance to find some more worthy calling. A mature Christianity allows people to experience their lives as rich in meaning even when life takes away treasured goods. The ability for Christianity to provide such a higher narrative is one of the reasons why it can resonate so strongly with deep human longings. To reduce it to immanent concerns trivialises it and robs it of this power.
Evangelistically, taking heed of the existential side of suffering can open up dialogue with those pained over why God would allow bad things. An existential approach allows us to read the question in a different way. On the received diagnosis of the problem of suffering outlined in part 1, you can only really converse with someone about suffering if you're dealing purely with the intellectual problem; you then have an argument to look at and you can challenge its premises or what's inferred from them. But you can't really say anything to the person struggling with the emotional issue. What can you say to a bunch of irrational feelings? You are perhaps better off saying nothing at all. Offer a hug if it's appropriate. But if we recognise that the “emotional” problem is often an existential one, we once more have the power to speak to the person.
“Why does God allow suffering?” need not be read as a blind outcry of pain but instead as the question “what sense can I make of the suffering in my life? What story can run through it preserved?” We have the possibility of articulating an alternative to the Anti-Story – the possibility of providing a better reading of their situation. Of course this isn't straight forward to do. It's not a matter of just picking premises and going after them. And there will still be times where silence and a hug are the right moves. But even if difficult, even if requiring spades of wisdom and sympathy, there is the hope that over time a person might come to see their life-narrative within the wider narrative of the gospel.