Suffering

PETER KREEFT

There are three kinds of evil that I want to talk about: suffering, death and sin. What we fear most, most of the time, is suffering, then death, then sin – exactly the opposite of what it should be.

Well, from somebody who has not suffered very much, you're supposed to receive some wisdom about suffering. That's irony. Alright, let's just plunge in. There are three kinds of evil that I want to talk about: suffering, death and sin. What we fear most, most of the time, is suffering, then death, then sin – exactly the opposite of what it should be. But that's alright; I'll start with the problem of suffering.

To live is to suffer – that was Buddha's First Noble Truth, the truth that he thought was the most obvious and indisputable truth in life, the data on which any quasi-scientific theory of human life must be erected. Pain is the most obvious problem in the world. This is no less true today, for now that our civilisation has succeeded in conquering half of humanity's physical pains, by anesthetics and medical technology and boogie boards, it has also doubled humanity's spiritual pains: depression, despair, divorce (which is more painful than death), other betrayals, loneliness, emptiness, meaninglessness, the existential vacuum. Victor Frankl says, quoting Nietzsche, "A man can endure almost any how if only he has a why." The how is the circumstances, including the suffering. The why is a purpose and a meaning. This is not a theory; this is an observation. Frankl is a scientist. He observed this to be true in the laboratory of Auschwitz.

The corollary of this truth is that if we do not have a purpose and a meaning, then we cannot endure any suffering that's inconvenient. Our culture seems to have made the Faustian bargain of giving up a better why for a better how; giving up meaning for comfort. We've conquered the world of pain, but we've lost our soul, our meaning, our hope, our purpose. And that's why the physical pains that remain, though only half as bad in quantity compared to those of our ancestors, are twice as bad in quality, twice as unendurable, without the meaning to surround them.

The end result is that though the pains are less, we fear them and feel them more. It's like the difference between childbirth and abortion. To use a quantitative analogy for something that is not quantitative, the birth has a hundred pains, but a thousand transcendently meaningful joys. The abortion has only a dozen pains, but no joys.

Suppose we took back our bad bargain, like Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, embracing Christ-like martyrdom for his beloved Lucy, wisely exchanging the whole of his material goods, his hitherto meaningless life, for the pain of the guillotine and the pleasure of spiritual good, moral meaning, including the hope for heaven. That was such an excellent bargain that Carton said of it, "It is a far, far better thing that I do than ever I have done." Or like Jim Elliot, the missionary martyr of Ecuador, who realized the same truth when he said to those who called him a fool for risking his life to preach to the savage Aucas, "He is no fool to give up what he cannot long keep for what he cannot ever lose." Both Sidney Carton and Jim Elliot were echoing the wisdom of the man who said, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" Did any human being in all of human history ever utter a single more practical sentence than that one?

Yet, though spiritual pain is deeper than physical pain, physical pain can be very deep, and very troublesome. It's troublesomeness is not only physical; it dominates the spirit of everyone except those who are both the strongest and the sweetest of humanity. Pain is like a jealous tyrant with a whip, commanding all our attention at every moment, shouting, "Look at me; look at me". It's hard to meditate, or calculate, or compose music or poetry, or discover great new scientific breakthroughs, when you're being whipped or burned or cut all over your nervous system.


Now, there are two obvious solutions to physical pain: no and yes. No tries to abolish it, and this is quite natural and good. And the modern West is very successful in doing that. Yes tries to somehow accept pain, but change our inner attitude towards it. This is the answer of the ancient East, especially of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the ancient West, of Stoicism, which is a kind of non-mystical Buddhism. The modern West prays, "Grant me the courage to change what can be changed," the ancient East prays, "Grant me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed," and both pray for the wisdom to know the difference.

We've abolished ninety percent of pain, and also abolished ninety percent of heroism and courage, which are no longer needed in the bubble.

But the modern West has not succeeded in conquering all pains by technology. Instead, it has created an artificial protective bubble that is empty of most of the physical pains of life that our pre-technological ancestors had to cope with. But we've found the bubble also empty of meaning, and thus spiritually painful. We've abolished ninety percent of pain, and also abolished ninety percent of heroism and courage, which are no longer needed in the bubble. Each decade, we get a little closer to Brave New World, that is, to the greatest pain of all, the pain of an absolutely meaningless life. To quote one of America's greatest philosophers, Yogi Berra – yes, we recognize wisdom even among the evil empire – "If this world was perfect, it wouldn't be." Right on. Brave New World, by the way, if you haven't read it, you must read; it's a prophecy.

If the West's problem is failure, I think the East's problem is success. For some people, at least, that is, for the spiritual athletes who practice Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga, or the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, pain is abolished, by abolishing its root, desire. When there are no desires left, there are no frustrations left. Hindu or Buddhist Yoga can indeed succeed in killing off the desires. The true Buddhist does overcome all pain, but also all pleasure. All fear, but also all hope. All hate, but also all love. All misery, but also all joy. This is a remarkable achievement. But is it worth the price of the abolition of half our human nature? It looks like spiritual euthanasia: killing the patient, the desires, to cure the disease, pain.

I think, however, this is a misunderstanding. I must confess that the Buddhists that I have met have surprised me and impressed me with their peaceful alertness and spiritual aliveness. They certainly are not spiritually dead. But they have also surprised me with the inadequacy of their philosophy, their explanations. I must be as offensively honest with the East as I have been with the West, though, and protest that the freedom from pain is not worth the price. I will take the bitter with the sweet, thank you; the depth with the heights. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

From the moment of our birth, human nature includes two incompatible elements – the presence of pain, and the demand for its absence. We all have pain, and we all hate pain. Buddha's First Noble Truth, and Freud's pleasure principle. What is pain? It is the disproportion between desire and satisfaction. In the words of England's richest philosopher, "I can't get no satisfaction." And "You can't always get what you want."

The modern secular West tries to get the satisfaction; the ancient mystical East tries to get rid of the desires. The West tries to conquer the pain; the East tries to conquer the fear of the pain. Our common problem is that our desires are greater than our satisfactions. The West tries to change that disequation by bringing satisfactions up to the level of desires – of course, this never works – while the East seeks the same end by the opposite means of bringing desires down to or even below the level of satisfaction. And this does work, but only for the practiced Yogan or enlightened Buddhist. East and West both give us roads for escaping the problem. They're opposite roads, but they both escape the disproportion between desire and satisfaction, which is the formula for pain, or suffering.


What is the Christian alternative? C. S. Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, "Christ came not to free us from our pains, but to transform them into his." That's the answer in one sentence. I'd like to try to unpack that answer. Christ does not try to solve the problem of pain; he changes it – into a mystery. He plunges us into suffering instead of out of it; plunges us into its essence, its meaning, transforms the meaning of suffering, and not just by teaching about it, but by doing it; by acting.

So his pain is also not the pain that the world gives. It's proactive; it's a weapon. The cross is a sword.

His way is the way into the deepest truth of suffering, instead of a way of escaping suffering, and escaping its deep truth, and this deep truth at the heart of suffering is that there is life there, like a mother's birth canal. Or like death, which is also a mother, and also a birth canal, and also suffering. In fact, all suffering is a little death, le petit mal. And death is the consummation of all our sufferings, all our losses, all our diminishments. You lose everything in death. This supreme loss becomes our supreme gain. And therefore, the little deaths, the little sufferings, participate in that.

But this is very weird; this is totally different. This is not ordinary life, or ordinary death, or ordinary suffering, or ordinary peace. He says, "My peace is not the peace that the world can give". So his pain is also not the pain that the world gives. It's proactive; it's a weapon. The cross is a sword. It even looks like a sword. Held at the hilt by the hand of heaven, and plunged in to the earth like a syringe, not to suck blood like Dracula, but to give it. It's an act of spiritual warfare, freely chosen. It's a victory. It forces open a door at the heart of pain, a door that leads to something even better than pleasure, and that's a new kind of life. Worldly pain goes nowhere, or only to death. The cross goes to heaven.

Christ doesn't give us this bloody road without first having travelled it himself. As T. S. Eliot says, "The wounded surgeon plies the steel." God's answer to our pain was not a philosophy, but a person. I like to see Christ as the tears of God. Instead of telling us why not to weep, he wept, and transformed human tears into divine tears. Christians believe that in Christ God shared our human nature, so that we could share his divine nature. And so he also shared our human pain, so that we could share his divine pain, so that our very pains could become divine. He suffered for us not to make our sufferings go away, but to make them enter him – to make them his own. He changed not the existence, but the essence, of suffering. Not the quantity, but the quality. The world, East or West, can change only one of the two contrary elements of suffering – desire or satisfaction, which are out of whack. Christ changes the whole essential meaning of suffering. That's why we can enter into it instead of escaping it – because it now has this new meaning. It is now redemptive; it is now the work of Christ.

In the Garden of Eden, before sin, there was no suffering, because there was no cause of suffering, and no need for suffering. Once we became alienated from God, we also became alienated from God's world, and from our own bodies. The alienation from the world is pain, and the alienation from our own bodies is death. What Christ did about this on the cross was to change the meaning of pain by removing its first cause, its ultimate cause – separation from God. The word for that in Christian theology is sin. Sin doesn't just mean no-no's. It's an ontological term. It's like divorce from God, the source of all good. And he removed this forever.

God's answer to our pain was not a philosophy, but a person. I like to see Christ as the tears of God. Instead of telling us why not to weep, he wept, and transformed human tears into divine tears.

The world, even at its best, can remove only pain's proximate causes, either the surplus of desire or the defect of satisfaction. And it can do that only temporarily. Christians believe that they can enter into this mystery of the cross not just mentally or subjectively or by imitation, but really, truly, ontologically, by incorporation – the word means, literally, embodying – into the body of Christ. Christianity is a very materialistic religion. That holy body that suffered and died on the cross, and suffers still in its members – that body is one and the same body in four places. It's on the cross, it's in heaven, it's in the Eucharist, and it's in the church in his members. When Paul was knocked off his high horse by the light from heaven, and he said, "Who are you?" and the voice said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting," he was doubly astounded. First, he didn't know that Jesus was divine. Second, he didn't know that Jesus was the members of his body whom he was persecuting.

This body of Christ that died on the cross is the body of Christ that ascended into heaven, and is also the body of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist; it's one thing. And that's also the body of Christ that we call the church, into which we are incorporated or embodied by faith and baptism. He's the one head of the one body; he doesn't have more than one body, any more than the church has more than one head. That would make Christ a monster. Christ marries a bride, not a harem. He's not even a Muslim with four brides; he has one. And he's certainly not a monster with one body and more than one head. That's polytheism. So the total Christ, head and body, is neither polysomatic nor polycephalic. But that's some advanced theology. Let's go back into basic, practical stuff.

 

Read part 1 of this talk here.
Read part 2 of this talk here.
Read part 3 of this talk here.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Peter Kreeft. "The Dark Side." transcribed from talk given for Socrates in the City (May 4, 2005).

This talk based on ideas contained in Peter Kreeft's book Making Sense Out of Suffering.

This article is reprinted with permission from Peter Kreeft.

The Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Taking this as a starting point, Eric Metaxas thought it would be valuable to create a forum that might encourage busy and successful professionals in thinking about the bigger questions in life. Thus Socrates In The City: Conversations on the Examined Life was born.

Every month or so Socrates In The City sponsors an event in which people can begin a dialogue on "Life, God, and other small topics" by hearing a notable thinker and writer. These events are meant to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, because nowhere is it written that finding answers to life's biggest questions shouldn't be exciting and even, perhaps, fun.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2011 Peter Kreeft




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