Saturday, 30 June 2012

What Can Suffering Do For Belief In God? (3)

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.

What Can Suffering Do For Belief In God? (2)

In part 1 we started to examine what the connection might be between experiencing suffering and believing (or not) in transcendence. I tried to argue that human beings have a deep existential or “narrative” side to their being, not just a cold intellectual or a blind emotional side. We make sense of our lives and of who we are by the stories we tell ourselves. We see our lives as being about certain things like love, or self-acceptance, or the striving for success etc. These stories enable us to experience our lives as having sense and meaning. What I want to do now is explain how the vulnerability of these stories can lead to us to either be open to God (the “beyond”), or closed.

Suffering can call our stories into question. That's putting it mildly; suffering can brutally puncture the plot we'd assumed for our lives. A person sees their life as being about finding love, then their lover dies. Another thinks it's about career success and then they're laid off. Someone else knows its about sporting achievement but an injury robs them of the chance to ever compete. When this happens your old narrative fails to make satisfying sense of your life. It feels like a film that builds up an intriguing plot only to suddenly end with arbitrary, unexplained and unresolved tragedy. When the narrative of your own life suddenly ends that way, the sense of loss, betrayal and disorientation can be very strong. Your life now feels broken, incomplete, wrong in some sense.

What we sometimes fail to see is that we do not abandon life-narratives at this point. What we do, knowingly or not, is adopt a new narrative, one that can still make sense of our lives and the new suffering episode within it. And I'd like to contend that there are two particularly tempting story types that people move toward when this sort of deeply existential suffering occurs. There is the “Grand-Story” kind and the “Anti-Story” kind. I'll explain what these are by describing what they actually share in common.

Both agree that reality is not fundamentally concerned with – not fundamentally about - what we might call “immanent goods”. These are the goods of so-called “ordinary life”, or “earthly” goods if you will. Things like human love, family, labour, good food. Contrast to goods (or supposed goods) that necessarily make reference to something transcendent, e.g. salvation and the knowledge of God, reflection on the divine Forms, union with the Supreme Being. Grand-Stories claim that reality is not ultimately about immanent, earthly goods, it is about transcendent goods - something higher. Immanent goods need not be seen as worthless, but they are not the point of it all; the universe doesn't flow with those goods as its primary goal. The main plot can go on even if immanent goods aren't always protected. As for Anti-Stories, these claim that reality isn't really about anything. There simply is no goal, good, or grand conclusion that the cosmos moves around.
There is no overall meaning to anything. You might be fortunate enough to enjoy some immanent goods but you might not be. You are dealt the hand you're dealt.

Someone who's gone through suffering can find that one of these story types makes massive sense of their situation...

I spent my whole life searching for love. I went through countless relationships. Then I finally found someone I truly adored. We married and though it wasn't perfect it was still wonderful. But my lover died. And I was broken. But I thank God, in some way, because I really started to see that I'd made my life all about the wrong thing. It's clear to me now that God had been trying to call me my whole life but I was always distracted, chasing after someone else. But he has my attention now. And though I miss my partner, I want to spend the rest of my life serving God, knowing him better, and loving all the people he loves so much.”

I spent my whole life searching for love. I went through countless relationships. Then I finally found someone I truly adored. We married and though it wasn't perfect it was still wonderful. But my lover died. And I was broken. It was then that I realised that I'd had a pretty childish view of the world. I thought things would all work out for me, but they didn't and for most people they don't. No-one out there isn't going to help us out, it's down to us. I don't expect a cosmic helping hand, but I do want to live my life in a way that helps people get whatever small slice of happiness they can.”

When a life-narrative centred around some immanent good breaks, you see that a story which focusses on immanent goods cannot make sense of the world you experience. So you either feel drawn to a story which claims there is a higher meaning, or a story which claims there is no meaning at all. Both agree that immanent goods aren't the focus of reality, either by asserting that there is a deeper focus, or no focus at all. Both Grand-Story kinds and Anti-Story kinds, by denying the focus on immanent goods, have the power to make great sense out of someone's suffering. Of course one person generally won't feel an equally powerful draw to both story kinds. A person's prior life experience, values, beliefs etc. will make one story kind appear more powerful than the other (being equally pulled by both is probably very rare). But the point is that both story kinds can appear to people as being obviously affirmed by the experience of suffering. As we observed in part 1, suffering can foster either belief or unbelief. For the person who goes towards belief, it will seem obvious that going through suffering ought to produce faith in God. For the person who goes toward unbelief, it will seem obvious that suffering ought to produce atheism. Suffering can produce powerful conversion/conviction moments in both religious and secular outlooks.

It does not follow from the above, however, that both story kinds are equally true, or equally good readings of life. I only pointed out that, from a certain perspective, one could experience either story powerfully. Nor do I want to claim that such stories are merely projections that we throw on to the world because of our human need. The question of the truth of these stories and their rational merit is beyond the scope of this little exploration. What we can claim here, or at least what I will claim, is that it is more existentially consistent to adopt one of these story kinds than the other.

It seems clear to me that when a person adopts an Anti-Story, they do so with a certain lack of self-awareness. A person who comes to find an Anti-Story persuasive comes to explain their lives by way of it, e.g. “I used to think that there was some higher power looking after me but now I've taken an adult perspective on things and I see there really is no sense to the world.” The problem, of course, is that they come to tell a story of their lives which is all about their rejection of such stories. The rejection becomes itself transfused into a story. They still live within a life-narrative, even though the “official story”, as it were, denies this. Again, I am here leaving aside certain questions of truth. It may very well be, as far as I'm concerned here, that there is no meaning to the world – nothing that makes sense of life. But what I'm claiming here is that many people who accept that sort of claim do so, ironically, because they feel that it makes sense of their experience. They don't adopt it consistently even if it's true (and I have my doubts that anyone ever could.) A Grand-Story type, in contrast, does not deny the existence of meaning and sense. So a person who adopts such a story because of its sense-making ability does so without contradiction. It is a more existentially transparent position. More “honest” in a way. What follows from this must be left aside for now.

In the final part I'll quickly consider some Christian pastoral implications that emerge from the above.