Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Suffering" as Becoming

Douglas John Hall, in God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross, introduces the idea that God has created with some suffering (though by no means all suffering) built in to the system. He defines this intended suffering broadly with the phrase "suffering as becoming." He suggests that God did not create creatures complete but with the capacity for growth and the ability to change, and with growth and change inevitably comes suffering in some sense. He gives this broad category four specific manifestations which he believes are witnessed in the various creation accounts of the Old Testament: loneliness, the experience of limits, temptation, and anxiety.

I confess that I was quite taken with this proposition at first. At first glance, I could see all those features in the creation story and was more than willing to relegate some suffering to the necessity of the created order (probably out of some naive hope that it would lessen the total burden of the problem of suffering). With a little prodding (particularly from one NihilNominis, to whom I am grateful), however, I came to realize that Hall's proposal did not stand up to scrutiny.

Certainly his position would be defensible if he were to retreat into the bastion of semantic particularity. If he defined suffering in such a way that it stripped it of any reference to pain as such, if he made it in some sense synonymous with imperfection, his case would be not only provable but self-evident. He could argue quite convincingly that humanity is something less than God and something less than the fullness of its own potential, and he could label the pursuit of those two features of creation "suffering," thus proving that suffering is intrinsic to creation. This would seem to be the route suggested when he writes "we may say that suffering belongs to the order of creation insofar as struggle is necessary to the human glory that is God's intention for us."

He oversteps when he suggests that life was never intended to be "painfree." By attaching not only the negative connotation of "suffering" to the "struggle" of becoming but the more definite experience of pain to that struggle, Hall reveals the great flaw in his argument. I propose that Hall has merely reframed the process of becoming which is intrinsic to creation and which is, according to its intention, positive in negative language in order to support his claim that "life without any kind of suffering would be no life at all; it would be a form of death.

When God creates Adam in Genesis 2, it is readily apparent to the Creator that something is amiss. The man is alone, and immediately we have in creation loneliness. (Hall positively refuses to refer to Adam as "man," preferring to neuter him by calling him the "earth creature," raising the question of how this poor gender neutral beast will ever populate the earth with Eve...but that quibble is for another time.) I will set aside the fact that creation is not yet completed in this scene (leaving one to wonder what could be deduced about what is and isn't intrinsic to creation if we stopped on day three and examined the state of things) and address myself to the larger question of whether or not the experience of a need for relationship constitutes suffering. That is, in fact, what Hall is identifying here, that need for relationship which causes it to be "not good" for man to be alone and is the necessary precursor for his joy in finding companionship in Eve.

But is the need for companionship really pain? Certainly it can be productive of pain. Anyone not living a truly privileged life has experienced the pain of isolation, even when companionship of various kinds is available. In these situations, however, it is the isolation that is productive of pain not merely the desire for relationship. In the same sense that the desire for food only becomes painful when food is unnaturally withheld, the natural desire for relationship which is built into the human creature only produces pain when we are left in contranatural isolation from God and from humanity. As God created the world, that need exists but it is constantly fulfilled both with the community of people and, more profoundly, communion with God. Those communions are by no means perfect, and particularly with regard to God the growth in communion is eternal and never complete. Nevertheless, the fact that communion exists makes that need for relationship a joyful reality, a drive toward greater bliss. By calling the need for communion loneliness and ascribing pain to it, Hall presupposes the corruption of sin.

Common to the lot of all humanity is the experience of limits. Hall writes, "we are not big enough, or strong enough or wise enough, old enough or young enough, agile enough, versatile enough." We cannot merely will ourselves to sprout wings and fly. While this last fantastical analogy is rarely productive of suffering in anyone but small children, the general concept nevertheless holds. No small amount of suffering comes from the "frustration" (to borrow from Hall) of not being able to transcend our limits. Yet again the real source of this frustration manifests itself on closer examination. It is not merely the existence of those limits or our knowledge of them that is productive of pain, but our will to transcend them. The inability to sprout wings and fly doesn't bother adults precisely because most of them have shred their childish wish that they might be able to truly soar as the birds do. Other irrational lusts for transcendence replace these childish notions, however, in the form of women who cling desperately to their youth or men thirst for power which is always just one step beyond them. It is the lust for transcendence that is productive of suffering (defined traditionally) not merely the existence of limits. The question then remains, and I should hope that its answer is obvious, is the lust to transcend the limits of our abilities part of what God has ordained for creation?

Not merely the presence of a forbidden tree (the existence of which would be enough to drive so many modern persons to transgression) but also of a tempter who we must confess is one of God's creations in some sense represent the reality of temptation in Eden. Certainly here Hall is at his strongest. It is hard for anyone who has experienced temptation to suggest that it is anything but a cruel form of suffering. The more we try to resist the pull to do what we know we ought not to do, the more excruciating the experience becomes. It would almost seem pleasurable to given in (and certainly that is the reason we always do) if not for that gnawing fact that suffering, in the truest sense, always follows transgression.

Still, I believe that upon closer examination we will see that it is not the mere presence of temptation which produces suffering but our own arrogance in the form of rebellion against God which makes it so. At its most basic level, the temptation in the garden is merely the presentation of contrary choice. Humans have the ability to decide between right and wrong. Certainly the capacity to decide is not itself suffering. What causes the suffering associated with temptation is not the ability to choose but the two wills which war within us. There is the will of God which steers us ultimately toward glory and our own shortsighted will which struggles to understand the difference between immediate gratification and ultimate glorification. It is our refusal to subordinate our will to the will of God which is productive of suffering, not merely the capacity to choose or even the presence of a tempter who would entice us to choose. Hall references Jesus' temptation as a parallel to that in the garden, but I think that the Temptation provides just the picture of painless temptation that validates my point. In submitting his own will to that of the Father, Jesus not only doesn't suffer at the hands of the tempter, he causes the tempter to suffer in humiliating defeat three times over.

Having understood temptation, Hall's final category, anxiety, is much simpler. In fact, I wonder if it should even be considered at all, as I struggle to see its presence related explicitly in the Genesis story. Nevertheless, Hall speaks of the anxiety of dependency as a form of integrative suffering inherent in the world. Certainly humanity is dependent on God not only for basic things like existence and the sustaining of that existence but also for more abstract gifts like direction and access to truth. The feeling of dependency and the absence of direct contact with the Object on which we are dependent certainly produces not only anxiety but pain.

There are two ways, however, that viewing this anxiety of dependency like this is flawed. First, it anachronistically reads the present lack of connection with God into the Eden narrative. There is a sense in which humanity will always be ontologically apart from God, but the original couple still experienced their dependency on God in more direct, more concrete terms than we do. The radical separation presently experienced is undoubtedly less the intention of the Creator and more the perversion of the creature. Second, the pain produced by the anxiety of dependency is rooted not merely in being dependent but in lacking faith in that on which we depend. If we truly trusted fully in the Provider and Sustainer of life, then there would be no anxiety in our dependency. Suggesting that the suffering associated with our ultimate insufficiency is built into creation is tantamount to saying that mistrust of God was ordained by God. That can hardly be the case.

In the end, it appears that Hall, rather than establishing the presence of suffering in the blueprint of creation, has reframed positive aspects of reality in negative terms which in their very expression presupposes the presence of sin. Isolation, mistrust, rebellion, and arrogance are all productive of suffering, truly painful suffering. These are the qualities that Hall actually identifies. The positive notions he has redefined - the desire for communion, the experience of dependence, the knowledge of limits, and the capacity for choice - are not only not productive of suffering but in fact represent some of the greatest joy-producing gifts which God has bestowed on creation. Certainly when corrupted by improper choice and compounded by the isolation which results from sin, all of the above transform into contranatural sources of pain, but to suggest that God has embedded the contranatural in the natural is a contradiction in terms. Ultimately, I am forced to reject Hall's suggestion that any form of suffering was intended in creation.

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