Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Trying to imagine a world without suffering

The following is a somewhat expanded version of an article I had published in the "Christian Forum" column in the Abingdon Herald:

One particularly hapless character in Samuel Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot", is ironically named "Lucky". I think that Lucky is a negative analogue of Christ: a suffering servant treated abysmally by his master, carrying a heavy burden of two bags about the stage. A famous passage in the book of Isaiah in the Bible also concerns a suffering servant: Christians believe this to be a prophecy of Christ.

Lucky only gets to make one speech, a long, rambling and incoherent tirade, the gist of which is this: no matter what we do, we are all going to waste away to death, and our labours will be unfinished. The final word of the speech is, despairingly: "Unfinished!" By contrast, the last words of Christ on the cross are triumphant: "It is finished."

The text of Lucky's speech (along with guidelines on the formidable task of learning it!) can be found here.

Lucky then falls down, as if dead, only to be "resurrected" by the other characters, and given back his burden of the two heavy bags.

For more details on this see my earlier blog post on Waiting For Godot.  But for this article, I want to concentrate more on the issue of suffering, and to ask the question: Is Beckett saying here that Christ's death achieved nothing, that his suffering is meaningless except to show that there is no God?

This is perhaps one of the strongest arguments against Christianity (or any religion that has an omnipotent  Creator, apparently capable of everything).  If such a Creator exists, and presumably loves us, then why create a world in which there is so much suffering?

Rather than give a glib answer to this age-old question, I would like to consider what a world without suffering might be like.  

Let's peel away the layers of suffering, one by one, and see what we are logically left with.

It is easy to say, for example, that a world like ours but without cancer would be a "better" world than ours - no-one would have to suffer the excruciating pain of cancer.  Would that not be better than what we have?  My answer to this is: yes, it would, but if we are considering what it would be like to live in such a world, we would still have the same questions - why is there so much suffering - because we would not know about cancer, so other things (say depression, or rheumatoid arthritis) would take their place as the worst thing that can happen.  (Incidentally I think anyone who has been through the misery of severe depression might argue that it is worse than cancer - having cancer does't generally make you want to kill yourself, but depression does).

So we could peel away all the horrible diseases one by one, and still be left with a "worst" disease - and even if that is quite mild by our standards in our world, the hypothetical person in the other world would only know it as the worst thing to endure, and still ask the question "Why is there so much suffering - why do people have to suffer the misery of the common cold?  Could God not have created a world where we don't have to suffer sore throats, coughs and runny noses?"  I cannot resist at this point putting in a link to the hilarious spoof sketch: ManFlu - the truth.  But maybe in a world where this was the worst disease you could have, the symptoms would really appear as horrific as the man in the video seems to think.

So let's peel away all disease and infirmity.  What happens then, when everyone is healthy for their whole lives until the day they die?

This last is the large elephant in the room that I have avoided mentioning till now.  Suppose death is a painless experience that just happens after a certain time with no warning at all?  In a world where death exists, but there is no pain and illness, there would still be suffering.  The knowledge of one's own mortality is always present.  The grief of loved ones left behind is a form of suffering - and the ever present knowledge that you could lose a loved one (in this hypothetical world without warning or prior illness), is hard to bear. I attempted describe this in my short story: One in Fifty Thousand

So perhaps we should also abolish death, in this world of ours?  What would that be like?  Immediately there is an obvious problem if we abolish death but do not abolish birth as well.  It seems, that if God made a mistake in allowing suffering, that mistake was to place us on a finite sized planet!  Exponential growth of population in a finite world is not sustainable: there would have to be some point where all births ceased as well.  Or maybe a fixed, finite number of beings could be "created" in such a perfect world, who would never reproduce.

So this world of no suffering would be static.  Everyone would be content with their own existence, but nothing would ever change, and no new people would be born.  I think that such an existence would be meaningless; apart from all other things, if everyone were perfectly content with their lot, where would be the motivation to reach out to others, and to love?  True love involves putting the other person's needs before your own, but it is pointless if there are no needs to be met.

I started by wondering if the point of the character Lucky in Waiting for Godot was to show that his (and by analogy Christ's) suffering was meaningless. But perhaps it is suffering that actually gives meaning to life and a reason to love; the suffering of Christ shows us a God who is not indifferent to suffering, but stands alongside us and embraces our existence – the greatest act of love ever.

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Footnote:  In reading the above, I imagine a Christian might argue "But did not Christ conquer death by his resurrection? Are we not to expect everlasting life?  How can that be meaningless?".  My answer to this is - yes, these words still hold true, but the everlasting life referred to is in a spiritual domain quite unlike the world we live in.  Perhaps it refers to an infinite domain, were continual birth and change for the better are not constrained by finite resources.  Perhaps "everlasting" does not even refer to time, but rather to a state of contentment where the passage of time is not even a concept of which we might be aware.  I do not think we should speculate on what "life after death" might be like, but should concentrate instead on how we live now, and I hope the above argument has perhaps provided food for thought - perhaps a world where no suffering occurs is a meaningless existence. In the suffering world that we know and live in, there is hope for the Christian in that God himself partakes of the suffering with us, rather than remaining distant and indifferent.  One of the names for Jesus is "Emmanuel" which means "God with us".



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