Friday, 2 April 2010

Does Suffering have a meaning?


Coincident with my daughter doing an essay for her English Literature coursework on Beckett’s “Endgame” on the proposition whether tragedy creates a sense of meaning to suffering, I find myself also pondering this subject – a fitting one for a Good Friday, when we remember Christ’s suffering on the Cross.  Rather than consider academically whether the literary genre of tragedy can create a sense of meaning for suffering, I shall try and consider the broader question of whether suffering has a meaning at all, or is it the the inevitable consequence of a blind, pitilessly indifferent nature , as Richard Dawkins has argued in “River Out Of Eden”?
Dawkins’s materialistic explanation has the merit that it is the easiest to understand.  If there is no God, then there isn’t the difficult part of explaining why such a God should allow suffering.
And yet, we all somehow want to find meaning in suffering – and some better explanation for it than random chance.  I do not know why this should be, and yet even in Beckett’s bleak masterpiece “Endgame”, there is this need to find some meaning, or perhaps someone to blame.  There is one point in the play in which three of the characters attempt to pray in silence to God.  After a short pause they all decide that absolutely nothing has happened.  The main character, Hamm, comments “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!”  This comment was originally censored in England when it was performed in 1957.  The objection was to calling God a “bastard”, and not to asserting that he didn’t exist, and the word was changed to “swine”.
Though this line is shockingly blasphemous, I think it’s pretty funny at the same time, and also very profound.  To call someone a “bastard” implies that you believe they exist, so the juxtaposition of this on an assertion of non-existence creates a paradox that makes us think.  Some part of our rationality wants to have someone to blame for suffering; it seems a blind indifferent universe isn’t sufficient to have a go at:  because it is not a person, you can’t call the universe a bastard.  Or it might be that the speaker is angry at God for not existing.  Why didn’t you show up and help us through all of this?  In the same way, one of the emotions experienced in the grief of bereavement is anger at the person who died – how dare they die and leave me alone?
So how does our religion deal with this big problem?  In a way it provides and doesn’t provide an answer at the same time.  The debate over meaning in suffering goes back to the most ancient times.  In the book of Job in the bible, there is much debate over the reason for Job’s immense suffering.  For his three so-called “comforters”, it is clear that they want to find a rational explanation for it.  They argue that Job must have sinned, and as a result he is suffering.  All he has to do is admit his guilt and God will forgive him.  In this, the suffering is seen as a consequence of Job’s actions.  But throughout all this, Job maintains his innocence – he hasn‘t done anything essentially wrong to deserve this.  In the final chapters of the book, Job is confronted by God, and yet still, no complete answer is given to the riddle of his suffering.  Instead God shows him the vastness and intricacy of His creation, and reminds Job of his ignorance – how little he knows, and how he wasn’t there when it was all put together.   In the end, Job realises this and states “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3).  By the end, Job is vindicated and, but his friends have been foolish in asserting that there is a rational explanation – bad deeds and their consequences; and they are rebuked and have to seek forgiveness.
All of this seems to imply that suffering does not have a meaning, or that maybe the meaning of it is beyond our grasp.
How does this all change with the events we recall on Good Friday?  I have written elsewhere of Beckett’s “Waiting For Godot” that one of the characters (Lucky) is an analogue for Christ, through which Beckett negates the idea that Christ’s suffering achieved any purpose.  In contrast to Christ’s last words on the Cross “It is finished!”, the last words spoken by Lucky in the play before his mock “death and resurrection” are “Unfinished ...”.  The hapless Lucky’s suffering has achieved nothing at all, and it proceeds after those events, and nothing has changed.  Likewise in “Endgame”, the first words spoken by Clov  (who is a kind of “suffering servant” to the central character Ham) are “Finished, It’s finished, nearly finished,  it must be nearly finished”, starting from the complete certainty of “Finished” and descending by degrees into uncertainty.  The suffering of the characters in the play goes on, day in, day out, the same farce day after day, seemingly without point and meaning.  The absence of belief in God implies that death can be seen as the end of suffering, and yet the characters never seem able to take that step.  In Hamm’s first speech, perhaps echoing the famous soliloquy of the similarly-named Hamlet, he states “ it’s time it ended, and yet ... I hesitate ...... to ... to end”.  And similarly for Hamlet, the stark debate “To be, or not to be” boils down to indecision – is it really a question of not existing anymore, or is there an “undiscovered country” (the afterlife) in which even more disturbing dreams may come than in this life?
While for Hamlet, the fear of what the afterlife may bring deters him from suicide, perhaps for Hamm it is still this innate desire to find meaning in existence, and the suffering that existence entails.
Does Christ’s suffering on the Cross provide an answer to all this?  Does His suffering have a “meaning”?  Traditionally the doctrine of substitutionary atonement – that Christ died in our place, and took the punishment that we deserved, is supposed to provide this answer.
But is the answer as simple as this?  In one sense it is.  All you have to do is believe and be saved; that much is clear from the Bible (see John 3:16 ).  But like many deep mysteries, there are always further layers to be explored. The most important moment, perhaps during the accounts of the crucifixion that we read is when Jesus says “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”  This is the cry of someone who suffers intolerably, and has no idea why.  In its fear and confusion, is it not somewhat similar to Hamm’s cry: “The bastard! He doesn’t exist.” ?  It carries the same sense of accusation in "why have you done this?"
So for me, as a Christian, it seems what this shows is that we still don’t know the reason why suffering exists, but we do know that God placed himself in the same position as us, of not knowing the reasons, and enduring all the fear, anguish and suffering that this entails.  Just as Job was innocent, so was Christ, and innocent people suffer for no reason.  What Christ’s death and resurrection show us is that one day we may find a reason, and an end of suffering.  God is not a non-existent bastard,  but a real entity who knows just as we do, what it is to suffer.

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