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.


rolo said...

Hey Martin,
I just got done reading your series and found it more intellectually stimulating than a gallon of coffee and so wanted to respond.
First off, bravo on finally pointing out some major issues as it pertains to God and suffering. Something I've been thinking about a ton lately is how so many of our modern presuppositions or ways of telling the life narratives around us are frequently unconducive to a mature Christianity. While you're series highlights the area of suffering this insight could quite easily be expanded upon to cover a plethora of issues within the modern world. Brilliant insightful, and most importantly very useful for engaging with the world around us.
Second, I do have some quibbles, however, with the terms Grand Story and Anti Story or GS and AS.
Perhaps, I'm misreading your articles but it seems as if you create a dichotomy between the two. Now in your articles even, though, you create that dichotomy you also note how in some ways the line between the two can become blurry. You're example of the person who believes God should make him happy is a good example of this. Even more striking is your conclusion at the end of Part 2 that when you actually think about AS's don't really exist at all.Everyone has a story whether they realize it or not.This is striking because it raises the validity of a dichotomy between GS and AS. If AS is actually a story then couldn't it be argued that AS really is just a variation of GS that only at a very superficial level negates GS?
Furthermore, according to your articles the defining difference between the two revolves around their attitudes towards immanent goods and the overarching meaning of the world. Under such a rubric how would you say classify an ideology such as Marxism. Marxism is a worldview which not only denies the existence of a transcendent being, but is also extremely focused upon immanent goods. Yet, Marxism is no AS. In fact it's Marxism's intense concern with immanent goods which provides the goal and meaning behind the ideology. Since Marxism doesn't quite fit with either GS or AS where would it fit.
Third,the example you use in your essay concerning the person who thinks God is there to make him happy can actually be argued to be a GS. Yes, the person is concerned with immanent goods, but the concern rises out of a person giving happiness transcendent value for human life. In this sense the real problem with the story is that it's a GS in which one of the main character, in this case God, refuses to fulfill His role in the narrative.
There's more I want to bring up, but this reply is excessively long as is.
Assuming that GS and AS are the proper terms to describe the phenomenon you're referring to I think you're essays provide some provocative intellectual thought on the issue with the relationship between GS and AS in need of some good old fashion philosophical clarification and elaboration. As you British say, "Jolly Good."
Rolo Baez
I'm working on my first blog article and it should be out be the end of the month.

Martin said...

Hi Rolo,

Thanks for the kind words. I really enjoyed writing these last few entries and I'm glad you found them interesting.

I think your comments elucidate some tensions/ambiguities in the labels I've adopted and perhaps some flat-out inadequacies. First of all I'll clarify what I can we'll see where that takes us.

You ask whether an AS might just be a trivial variation on a GS. I suppose, really, I want to affirm that yes that is the case. Both kinds can tell rich, large-scale stories about the history of the cosmos, humanity, and our particular lives. They can provide us with a sense of our story's history and also it's ultimate future. As I write this response it's a clear to me that you're a little too clever for the article I wrote. The initial distinction I make between the two really is a sort of false set-up. The real distinction is the matter of honesty I explained in part 2. A GS is honest about its narrative-nature while an AS is not. I didn't want to bring out the paradoxical nature of an AS too soon though. I wanted, rather, for its force as an explanatory story to be felt. The illusion that the AS really is truly distinct from a GS is what gives it its force to bring sense through suffering. Although it is a kind of GS, it doesn't feel like one. And a story that doesn't feel like a story is powerful when your story has just been broken. The original distinction I set up, then, between a GS as an ultimate story, and an AS as a story-denier, is just a prima facie one. Both are ultimate stories, one just operates silently.

You mention that my example of belief in an immanent-focussed God can actually be interwoven in a GS. Although I would disagree based on my stipulative definitions of a GS and an AS, I think you touch upon something important. There are two senses of “transcendent” that we can distinguish between. One is in the sense of “ultimate”, the other is in the sense of “other-wordly”. In my use of terms “immanent goods” and “transcendent goods”, I used “transcendent” just to mean “other-wordly”. Transcendent goods, so defined, are those are necessarily make reference to something “beyond” (see the examples I gave in the article). Things like human love, labour, good food etc are by definite “immanent” on that register. But of course, immanent goods can still be goods that we consider of utmost, even infinite importance. The well-being and affection of our lover may be something we would not trade anything else for. In athe “ultimate” sense, then, an immanent good can be “transcendent”. It can be of ultimate importance to us. Charles Taylor, when discussing transcendence, is open about the confusion that can arise between these two senses, and he's sometimes forced to explicitly sign-post when one is the focus and not the other. There's a lot of Taylorian inspiration behind these posts, though I've taylored them (ha ha) to different interests.

Finally, regarding Marxism, I think you're right that there's combinations and possibilities of immanence/transcendence I haven't really explored, or have implicitly denied. For instance, it's clear than what looks like an AS prima facie might actually exaggerate the focus on immanent goods. “You aren't guaranteed earthly goods, so enjoy the hell out of them while you get them – grab as much as you can”. I think that the main outline I've what I've said here still holds but you're right that things are more complicated than they seem here.

Martin said...

P.S. Obv link me to your blog when it's up.

rolo said...

Well duh I'll link you to my blog when its up. Speaking of which the next time we Skype I'll need to talk to you about that. I've got a sinister..oops.. I mean saintly idea that I'll need your help with mwhahahaha.
Anyhoo, concerning your posts your reply really did help clarify what you were trying to do with the terms AS and GS. I do still think, however, that you could have made the false dichotomy between GS and AS much clearer by really driving home the fact that they aren't really dichotomous at all.The fact that you exposed the false dichotomy in part 2, but still had it in part 3 left an uncomfortable tension in an otherwise great piece of insightful. I can't wait to be intellectually overwhelmed by your reading of THE Charles Taylor=)