Cursing the Infinite?
I would never attempt to "offer an answer" to the problem that suffering poses to believers. Suffering is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. As a Catholic Christian, I see the problem of suffering as inseparable from the cross of Jesus. But this is not the perspective I have adopted here, because I am not speaking only to other Christians. I want to speak about experiences we all have because we are human beings, whatever our belief.
I remember what Francois Mauriac, the French Catholic writer, wrote in his introduction to Elie Wiesel"s The Night Trilogy. As a young journalist for a Tel Aviv newspaper. Wiesel had interviewed Mauriac. Soon they were engaged in a personal conversation about the Holocaust. Mauriac told Weisel that his wife said she'd witnessed Jewish children at the Austerlitz train station being torn away from their mothers, and even though she didn't know what awaited them in the camps, she was horrified. Mauriac writes: "I believe that on that day I touched for the first time upon the mystery of iniquity whose revelation was to mark the end of an era and the beginning of another. The dream which Western man conceived in the eighteenth century, whose dawn he thought he saw in 1789 (the beginning of the French Revolution), and which, until August 2, 1914, had grown stronger with the progress of enlightenment and the discoveries of science—this dream vanished finally for me before those trainloads of little children. And yet I was still thousands of miles away from thinking that they were to be fuel for the gas chamber and the crematory."
Mauriac cannot help but think of the religious implications of this horror. In his introduction, he writes about Wiesel's own experience: "The child who tells us his story here was one of God's elect. From the time when his conscience first awoke, he had lived only for God and had been reared only on the Talmud, aspiring to initiation into the cabbala, dedicated to the Eternal. Have we ever thought about the consequences of a horror that, though less apparent, less striking than the other outrages, is yet the worst of all to those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute evil?"
Wiesel's own words about his experience are overwhelming: "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my Faith forever....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never." These words are not fiction or hyperbole. They are real life. Recalling his presence as a child at the feast of Rosh Hashanah, Wiesel writes: "That day, I had ceased to plead, I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, and God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long."
Elie Wiesel: "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust."
Every fiber of my own heart vibrates with this anguished protest. I too would join Wiesel, Mauriac, and all who have experienced such horrors in cursing this face of the Infinite. And yet, there is something else in my heart that will also not go away—the certainty that this anger cannot be, and cannot be allowed to be, the last word about human life.
The last word must be the hope of the same heart that causes me still to protest, to rail against the infinite Mystery that permits such horrors to happen.
In the program " The Millennial Pope" Germaine Greer speaks movingly about suffering and God, and I was asked to respond to her cry. Although a self-proclaimed atheist, Greer, with tears in her eyes, movingly expressed her deep appreciation for religious music as a human cry toward a Presence that was "just not there." Then, in the face of the sufferings of children in Africa, she added, "If God exists, I hate him."
What could I possibly say in response? Not only would a prepackaged religious reply have been insulting, but I also found an echo of her words within me. I knew her words came from her heart. I thought they were, in the truest sense of the word, authentic—honestly reflecting the author who had uttered them. I remembered that the existential writer and philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had seen such personal authenticity as a kind of sanctity. Germaine Greer is that kind of saint. I hope she doesn't mind the appellation. I use it to show my respect for those who, in the face of human suffering, cannot believe in God.
As a striving toward transcendence, creative suffering—as we've seen expressed in Germaine Greer's anguished words —opens us to others who are also suffering, thus creating a solidarity among those who suffer. To suffer together means to walk together toward transcendence. This solidarity is the proper human response to suffering. This doesn't mean that we "share the pain" of those who suffer. While this phrase is used quite often, I don't think this is possible. Nothing is more intimately personal than the pain of suffering. It is, after all, a wound in our personal identity, and personal identity cannot be shared. Each person is unique and unrepeatable. What we share is the questioning, and thus we suffer with the one who suffers. We "co-suffer" with that person.
Since suffering reflects the transcendence of the human person, since it points to a Mystery that is the author of the drama of human life, then we cannot really use suffering to deny the existence of God. Instead, it is because there is a God that suffering exists as human beings experience it. The suffering of human beings is a sign of God. What this God is like is another question.
I am reminded of C.S. Lewis's autobiographical A Grief Observed. He wrote about his suffering as a result of his wife's death (and her suffering in the struggle against it, especially when her hopes, raised by what appeared to be miraculous interventions, were dashed by a worsening of her illness). This suffering did not make him doubt God's existence, but God's goodness. If the meaning of suffering cannot be grasped, this response in the face of unbearable suffering is understandable. But both Lewis's and Greer's comments are at once both accusation and acknowledgment of transcendence.
It is no surprise that according to some scripture scholars, the Gospel of John presents Jesus' suffering as a trial in which God is the accused. Satan is the accuser, and we are the jury. To co-suffer is to be willing to serve on the jury in the trial of God and to risk our own faith by identifying with those who suffer in their questioning of God. Even if the one who suffers can no longer articulate or express the experience of suffering, we must put that unutterable question into words for those who suffer. We must establish that solidarity, risk our own faith and identity, make a human connection with the sufferer, and cry out to God together.
And yet, this anger cannot be, and cannot be allowed to be, the last word about human life.
Authentic suffering, then, is a dialogue, not only with God but also among humans. To co-suffer is to share the question "why," to be a companion, and to walk together toward transcendence.
The one who does not co-suffer and is not prepared to do so cannot speak about suffering. Such a person does not know the truth and does not speak the truth. That person is a "liar" or a "deceiver," to use the words of Walker Percy. The only adequate response when confronted with another person's suffering is co-suffering. It is the only way to respect the suffering of another. Co-suffering affirms the wounded personal identity of the sufferer through our willingness to expose our identity to the questioning provoked by the sufferer's pain. This willingness to share suffering is an act of love. Co-suffering is the way we love the one who suffers.
In our relationship with the one who suffers, we as co-sufferers can impose nothing on the other person. We can only help the other to ask the question "why" by asking it together—that is, by praying together. Praying together with the one who suffers is the just response to the suffering.
The cruelest response to suffering is the attempt to explain it away, to tell the one who suffers: "This is why this is happening. I'm sorry that you can't see the answer, but it's clear to me." When the apostles saw a man born blind, for example, they asked Jesus whether it was due to his sins or his parents' sins. Jesus rejected this explanation: he does not suffer because of his sins or his parents' sins: he suffers to manifest God's glory.
To look for an answer in the past is to reduce suffering to a functional problem. The functional mentality explains everything in terms of past causes. This does not do justice to the one who suffers. I call this the "secularization" of suffering, the elimination of its link with transcendence. Job's friends sought to explain the origins of Job's suffering by looking to his past, but Job bitterly protested and repeatedly rejected those explanations as, at the end of the book, did God. Philosopher Martin Heidegger said that pious persons are not the ones who recognize themselves as guilty before God when they suffer, but the ones who struggle against God.
What emerges from the struggle with God? Mystery's answer to suffering is always grace—a free grace that comes to us without conditions, without rationalizations, without explanations. Suffering can be relieved by the co-sufferer only when the co-sufferer can bring the suffering person into contact with grace and into the experience of being loved. The answer to suffering will always be an experience of grace and love.
For Job's so-called friends, Job's suffering was an occasion to construct their theology rather than an opportunity to express their love. They would not walk with him, co-suffer with him, pray with him for grace. Instead, they fit Job's suffering into a theological system that explained everything away. True friends would have acknowledged the horror he was going through, stood by him in his pain and refrained from offering an answer to or a reason for his suffering. Since suffering is experienced as a destruction that renders life meaningless, simplistic explanations trivialize the suffering. It's like saying those who suffer lose their right to full life because of something they did and now they have to pay the price. Job understood that he could not accept an explanation for his suffering; to do so would have devalued his own life and experience.
With grace, we suddenly experience the goodness of our (and others') existence, which has infinite value for it own sake. At the end of the book of Job, God asks Job to consider his origins, to realize that he was created without any claim to existence, that he is not his own maker. His existence is sheer grace. Job discovers himself as he is asked by God to consider the mystery of his human identity. By asking questions of Job, God joins, so to speak, Job's questioning. In a way, God co-suffers with job.
Suffering is an expression of human personhood, human transcendence. God's response to our suffering, a suffering with us, respects our identity as individuals. Likewise, the most intimate encounter between human beings is through shared suffering. The communion of life born through shared suffering is the strongest interpersonal communion in the world, breaking down all barriers among human beings, and bringing us together through a bond with transcendence, with "something always greater than us."
The Great Visitor
Emmanuel Mounier, the founder of the French "personalist" philosophical movement, wrote that the most important aspect of human life is a "divine restlessness" in us, a divine "lack of peace" within our hearts. It is a permanent search for the meaning of life, an interest imprinted on "un-extinguished souls," on those who are not paralyzed by temporary satisfactions or ideological answers to all human questions. Indeed what makes our lives truly human is the ceaseless questioning before Mystery, before "something greater," whether we are three or ninety-three years old. This questioning allows us to see even everyday sights with the same amazement and wonder we felt the first time we saw them and to keep our hearts awake to the world around us.
To suffer together means to walk together toward transcendence. This solidarity is the proper human response to suffering.
This questioning also makes life worth living in the midst of even the greatest sufferings. Mounier saw those united by this approach to life as constituting a unique community, a people committed to action, to new initiatives that break ground at the deepest level of human experience and open new possibilities for humankind. The inhabitants of the world of suffering are the ones who truly transform the world. They are the true revolutionaries on behalf of human dignity. He writes of those he had met through such experience: "I have always thought that we would endure, by virtue of the organic character of our beginnings: It is from the earth, from its solidarity, that a birth full of joy takes place...and a patient feeling of a work that grows, of the stages that follow, awaited almost calmly, with assuredness (in the midst of the discomfort of days of anguish). It is necessary to suffer so that the truth not be crystallized in doctrine, but be born from the flesh."
For Mournier, these words were not mere abstractions—he lived them. For years he and his wife desired a child, but when she finally arrived, she suffered from a terrible brain disease, which totally disfigured her. The care of the child affected every moment of their lives, day after day. "I feel a great tiredness," he wrote, "and at the same time a great calm mixed together. I think that the real, the positive, are given in the calm, by the love of our child being sweetly transformed into an offering, in a tenderness that surpasses her, originated in her, and returns to her, transforming us with her."
In his profound suffering he turns to the Mystery from which suffering originates and makes a pilgrimage to a place of miracles, begging for a miracle, but not the miracle of having the illness cured. He asks to come home again with the sick child and " know the joy of having believed in the gratuity of the grace of God (and not in its automatic therapeutical effects), the joy of knowing that a miracle is never refused to one who accepts in advance whatever form it will have when given, even if it were invisible, even if it had a crucified form, even if it were a matter of a misfortune. Instead, it is not a matter of a misfortune. We have been visited by Someone very great."
"We have been visited by Someone very great"—this is the deepest experience of which human persons are capable before the mystery of suffering. The "misfortune" becomes a claim to go beyond pure resignation to an active commitment—to "remain with you," as he says to his daughter. Co-suffering makes us stand before those who suffer, with profound awe and respect. In these experiences, "Someone very great" visits us.
And still, as we consider earlier reflections, we must ask: What about Greer? What about Wiesel? As we saw earlier, Greer and Wiesel also experienced something "very great" indeed, and it was an absolute horror.
Adam Phillips tells the story of John Cage, who attended a concert of works composed by a friend. The friend had also written the program notes, in which he said that he hoped his music would help diminish the suffering in the world. After the concert, Cage told his friend that he loved the music but hated the program notes. He didn't think there was "too much" suffering in the world. As far as he was concerned, there was the "right amount." Indeed, ideas such as "too much" or "too little" show that someone measures according to a standard. But what if there is no standard? What if the world is what it is because that's the way it all works out when all the forces of nature interact with each other at this moment in its evolution? Then concepts like too little merely indicate taste or preference, those manifestations of "nature" that we do or don't like.
There is no way of responding to Cage's position other than to recognize that the deepest demands of the human heart somehow go beyond "nature" as defined by science, since in such a view of nature, the amount of suffering in the world is, precisely as Cage's position other than to recognize that the deepest demands of the human heart somehow go beyond "nature" as defined by science, since in such a view of nature, the amount of suffering in the world is, precisely as Cage notes, always just what it has to be. Inasmuch as suffering admits of no "explanations," unless we can figure out something more to say, Cage has a point indeed.
And yet, we must also acknowledge Mounier's experience— both the tremendous suffering that he, his wife, and his daughter experienced as well as the tremendous grace. Somehow to accept without question the suffering of the Mounier family seems heartless, and to deny the grace they experienced is spiritless. We face the realization that if we are truly alive, we will always be divinely "restless"—filled with both the mystery of questions as well as the mystery of grace that we cannot comprehend without a spirit of faith.
All Is Grace
No theory or explanation about the origin of suffering—be it cosmic, evolutionary, other-worldly, historical, or the result of human action—can satisfy the human heart, where suffering is experienced as offensive to existence itself. In that sense the origin of suffering is something "irrational"where rational indicates the human capacity to make sense of it. It is not something merely unknown, but unknowable, a break in the fabric of understsanding itself. No "cause" can explain it adequately.
I suppose that the most popular explanation of suffering is that it is the result of individual or collective guilt, a punishment for doing something that should not have been done ("sin"). Given the universality and longevity of this view, something about it must correspond within human experience. After all, the experience of guilt and the suffering it provokes is the driving force behind most religions. That is why "innocent suffering" is so scandalous and such a threat to religion.
But if we admit that all explanations concerning the origins of suffering are unacceptable, then isn't all suffering really innocent suffering? Isn't that the point, in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, of Ivan Karamazov's argument? We will do well to recall his words. Rejecting the consolation that at the end of history we will somehow restore the harmony wounded by a child's suffering, he cries out: "Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace. I don't want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole truth is not worth such a price... I don't want harmony, for love of mankind I don't want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering... They have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission."
Somehow to accept without question the suffering of the Mounier family seems heartless, and to deny the grace they experienced is spiritless.
Who of us has never felt some sympathy for this stunning protest, echoing it in the deepest region of our heart. And that remains the question: Why this heart-rending protest? Who put it there? The rebellion of Ivan Karamazov is a least as mysterious as the suffering he decries. Human nature is not the origin of evil and suffering. Evil is something totally alien to the way we are made, to our identity as persons. The myth of original man and woman in paradise is far more revealing of how we are made than the evil and suffering that has been inseparable from history, as we know it. The fact that the "man and woman of prehistory" lacked knowledge of good and evil does not make them less human than us—it makes them more human. It is because evil is so alien to how we are made that suffering and death are so repulsive. We cannot imagine "history" without the struggle that brings about suffering, but deep within our hearts we hear a distant echo of what could have been, of how human life was really meant to be.
Suffering, we said, puts us in the presence of, in Mounier's words, "Someone very great." But if this is so, if this "Someone very great" is not to be the origin of the horrors experienced, then this Someone must be one who can descend into the hell we have encountered. This Someone must be able and willing to enter into a relationship with us that will prevent us from sinking into the absolute loneliness that is hell. This Someone must be capable of love even in hell, for hell is not to love anymore.
The redemption of suffering and the mystery of love are inseparable. The response to suffering is not to stop caring— that, in fact, is hell—but to experience a caring that sustains us in our humanity as it was meant to be. This is the redemption that the heart seeks.
Love, though, is impossible without freedom, but freedom allows the possibility of acting against love. The freedom to love is what allows the human being to escape the limitations of what science calls nature and to experience justice and injustice.
There is an experience of freedom that is especially quite revealing. I feel free when my needs are fulfilled in all their dimensions and manifestations. Freedom, therefore, is the capacity for perfection, the capacity for being made perfect.
But we know very well that nothing ever satisfies us in such a way that we'll never desire more, or something else. Our hearts desire infinite happiness, infinite satisfaction. Freedom is the capacity for infinity. I am free each time I walk along the path that moves me to infinity, to the stars. If I choose to act in a particular way that separates me from my infinite destiny, I lose something of my freedom and move closer to that abyss of not being free, that is, of "not being able to love anymore." I can be rescued only when the attraction of infinity wins over whatever is attracting me away from it. This is the redemption of my freedom.
The redemption of suffering, inseparable from the drama of freedom, must also take the form of the attractive, loving presence of that "Someone very great" who leads me to the infinity of which I've lost sight. This Someone is willing to co-suffer with me and sustain me as capable of infinity—that is, as free. Whatever the Mystery of my origin and destiny is like, it must somehow possess and be defined by this capacity to sustain my freedom to love through co-suffering. If I call this Mystery "God," then somehow the identity of God must be expressed as the Infinite Love revealed through co-suffering with humankind.
Suffering can be redeemed only by grace, by a love that is recognized as unconditional, boundless, infinite. Paradoxically the drama of innocent suffering that can move us to deny God and hate the very possibility of God's existence can also lead us to discover God. To co-suffer, though, means to risk our identity, and the God who redeems us from suffering must also be willing and able to take that risk, of appearing to us as "nondivine," or different from the absolute power that we associate with divinity. As the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said, if there is to be an "incarnation of Transcendence," it can only take the form of absolute humility.
The redemption of suffering creates a community of those who love and offer a home to those who suffer.
Human beings can humbly co-suffer with those whom they love, but in the end, this co-suffering can only be limited. Our identity, so to speak, is not strong enough to fully sustain the identity of the one who suffers. In the end, human love by itself is always confronted with death. You cannot love someone so much that you can prevent that person from dying. But what if the co-sufferer is the author of our identity? Then this co-suffering would be stronger than death.
Redemption by "divine" co-suffering, therefore, is not a matter of justice rectifying the injustice of suffering, as Ivan Karamazov imagined. Such categories make no sense if love is the ultimate word about the drama of human existence. But if human existence is not about love, then it is not about freedom either. In that case, Cage's observation that there's just the right amount of suffering in the world would be the right answer to the horror experienced by Ivan Karamazov, Germaine Greer, Elie Wiesel, and the many, many others who in the past century alone have come across the mystery of iniquity that is hell.
The redemption of suffering, as our experience indicates, cannot be found as an "ultimate answer" to a problem: it can only be an event that transforms the drama of suffering into a drama of love and shows love to be more powerful than its denial. The possibility of this event sustains a realistic hope and an unfailing determination to protect and defend human freedom and the dignity of human life.
Redemption does not eliminate suffering. Indeed, just as suffering creates a "world" of suffering, so does the redemption of suffering create a community of those who love and offer a home to those who suffer. Its presence in the world of suffering represents an invitation to free human beings to embrace a new vocation, a new mission: to join the community of "redemptive suffering," to help complete what may be lacking in its inner resources to offer a home to those who suffer, sparing them from the loneliness that is hell.
We began with Francois Mauriac's comments concerning Elie Wiesel, and it is appropriate to return to Mauriac as we close our discussion of suffering. I understand fully Mauriac's observations about his meeting with Weisel. Mauriac writes: "What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished?...We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping."