Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Problem of Pain

The great singer Merry Clayton was seriously hurt in a car accident a week ago, and her friend and fellow-singer Darlene Love wrote this on her Facebook page:
I'm just hearing about this now and in tears. We all need to pray for Merry. Dear Lord, please place your hands upon Merry and heal her body and soul. Please bring her to a full recovery - AMEN! Love you! xoxoxo
I also hope Clayton recovers, of course, but this is the sort of thing that turns me off to popular religion.  I say "popular" and not "mainstream" or "institutional" religion, because the respectable leaders of respectable religion tend to be careful to caution the laity not to expect any real results from prayer, even as they encourage them to pray.  We shouldn't try to pressure God, to make him do what we want, all that matters is what He wants.  The lively, vivid faith of the Common People tends to be a lot less cautious, though no less wrong for that.

Very seriously: the accident must, according to orthodox Christian theology both popular and respectable, have been the result of the Dear Lord placing his hands upon Merry and bringing someone else's car together with hers, in order to humble her and teach her Who is in charge around here.  That's a harsh way of putting it, but it's essentially what the popular Christian writer C. S. Lewis said about "the problem of pain" seventy years ago.
We are perplexed to see misfortune falling on decent, inoffensive, worthy people -- on capable, hard-working mothers of families or diligent, thrifty little trades-people, on those who have worked so hard, and so honestly, for their modest stock of happiness and now seem to be entering on the enjoyment of it with the fullest right. How can I say with sufficient tenderness what here needs to be said? ... Let me implore the reader to try to believe, if only for a moment, that God who made these deserving people, may really be right when He says that their modest prosperity has not made them blessed; that all this must fall from them in the end, and that if they have not learned to know Him they will be wretched. And therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands before them and recognition of this need; He makes that life less sweet to them. ... The creature's illusion of self-sufficiency must, for the creature's sake, be shattered. ... And this illusion ... may be at its strongest in some very honest, kindly, and temperate people, on on such people, therefore, misfortune must fall [The Problem of Pain, Macmillan, 1940, 96-98].
On second thought, I'm not sure I was being harsher than Lewis.  I hope I'm less smug and complacent -- as he admitted he'd been, after his wife died of cancer twenty years later; but in the end he retreated to an exhausted and weary submission to his lord's will.

And then a little while ago, just after the Mexican soccer team beat the Croatian team 3-1, a Mexican acquaintance posted to Facebook:
Gracias Diosss pude ver los 3 golazos aunque aki mi raza no me crelleron soy vidente
Roughly: Thank you Goddd that I could see the 3 goals although my people didn't believe me I'm a prophet

So it's presumptuous to expect Yahweh to place his hands on Merry Clayton when he had more important matters like the World Cup to handle.  (As I've pointed out many times, this attitude is widespread among sports fans and athletes alike: His eye is on my team, or on Me Me Me.)

The victim-Christianist writer Rod Dreher kvelled yesterday about a "miracle in Philadelphia" (yes, I know, he's alluding to another "miracle") in which a Ukrainian Orthodox church in the City of Brotherly Love "burned to the ground -- but its icons were unharmed."  Well, "a few of the icons," anyway; or maybe "a lot of" them, or maybe "Not one of those pictures caught on fire" -- the firefighter quoted isn't very consistent.  It would be a nice coincidence if none of the icons was damaged, but I'm not sure what it would prove, since of course Yahweh could just as easily have spared the church altogether.  Maybe it's like the man who was blind from birth in the gospel of John: Jesus explained to his disciples that the blindness wasn't due to any sin by the man or by his parents, but "so that the works of God might be displayed in him" (9:3).  So Yahweh set the church afire, but spared the icons to show his power and glorify himself.  Just the kind of god people like, apparently -- at any rate, very few Christians seem to stumble over a doctrine like this.

Last week another writer at The American Conservative, Alan Jacobs, asked, "What Does Atheism Do for Atheists?" in reply to an article by Susan Jacoby on the blessings of atheism.  I haven't read Jacoby's article yet, though I know I should; she's not the sharpest pencil in the box.  But I do want to try to answer Jacobs's question sometime.  My first thought, though, is to counter: What does religion do for the religious?  It seems to me, from what I've observed, that its comforts are not very reliable, and require the cultivation of doublethink to work at all: to remember Yahweh's omnipotence selectively, so that you beg him to repair an injury while forgetting that, according to your own doctrines, he himself inflicted it.  I can't believe that the strain of leaving that contradiction unresolved doesn't take a toll of some kind.

Atheists in general don't do any better with such questions.  That whatever answers we come up with are not satisfactory doesn't mean that theists' answers are correct, of course.  More soon, I hope.