What about suffering?

If I’m going to encourage the use of science in worship, I really need to tackle the issue of suffering. You can’t go far in biology without finding insects that eat each other from the inside out, dinosaurs with arthritis, or children dying of horrific diseases. Some Christians believe in a ‘fall’ that affected the very fabric of creation, and some believe that the world was created fit for purpose (rather than perfect) and that the fall affected relationships. Either way God has created a beautiful world and allowed suffering to happen in it, and we have to figure out how to survive – physically, spiritually, intellectually, emotionally.

I will not begin to tackle the question of suffering right now, but I will offer a series of extracts from the first chapter of Annie Dillard‘s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek‘. I first came across Dillard through Philip Yancey‘s book Soul Survivor, and have found that her writing provokes those questions of ‘why?’ in the face of so much beauty and so much suffering. (Though I haven’t finished the book yet, so please don’t spoil it for me by replying with detailed criticisms…)

That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we were also created.

Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s, once having called forth the universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. Is this what we think happened?

It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem.

Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist (who?), there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous. About five years ago I saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-storey building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem or the kindling of a star.

We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of a mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, (Canterbury Press 2001 edition, chapter 1, p9-11)

3 thoughts on “What about suffering?

  1. Ed July 16, 2011 / 9:55 am

    Dear Ruth,
    As a student of theology I can say that you are of course right that this so-called Augustinian theodicy (that everything was “perfect” and went downhill from there) is the widely known “model”, it is by no means the only model and it is not beyond criticism on many levels (not just scientific – there are solid theological reasons to question it). While I don’t think we can ever have a complete “theory of everything” as far as suffering and theodicy is concerned I believe we can have a general idea. Irenean theodicy, particularly as covered by Hick (after St Ireneaus of Lyons) takes a very different approach, and to oversimplify it, says that creation has to move towards perfection – maybe via unexpected routes and in unexpected ways. We weren’t perfect creatures who have now become imperfect. We were and are imperfect but it is will of God that we strive towards perfection (Mt. 5:48) and the intelligible light of Christ, the Son and the Word, and His Incarnation, is God’s promise. Glory to God in the highest.


  2. Richard Hosking July 20, 2011 / 3:56 pm

    Hope – one of St Paul’s ‘Big Three’ (1 Cor 13:13, Ro 15:13) – is described by sociologist Peter Berger as a ‘signal of transcendence’ which rises above the tide of human suffering.

    Blaise Pascal noted that the Jewish people have stemmed such a tide for centuries (Pensees 617, 618, 619 @ Project Gutenberg), and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reflected on this theme in his 1854 poem about the Jewish cemetery on Rhode Island.

    This suffering is brought into focus by a BBC forensic science documentary (link below), where genetic analysis using mitochondrial DNA combines with strong circumstantial evidence to graphically illustrate Jewish persecution in 13th century England.

    However, in a great article on ‘The Logic of Hope’ Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks writes that despite such immense hardship, ‘Hope kept the Jewish people alive’ and that it emerges ‘through a quite specific set of beliefs: that God exists, that He cares about us, [and] that He has made a covenant with humanity [which] He will never break.’

    (Incidentally, the final verse of Longfellow’s beautiful elegiac poem is in need of revision).

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0125kbf/History_Cold_Case_Series_2_The_Bodies_in_the_Well/ (available in UK until 28.07.11)


  3. John Sims July 22, 2013 / 5:12 pm

    ..I see and experience a world that has pain and suffering at its centre. I am surrounded by the heart-breaking brutality of life and the equally heart-breaking beauty every where. I believe in a God that brought the two together a place called Calvary,…..Amen


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