Sunday, March 20, 2022

Why is there suffering?

As the Ukrainian tragedy unfolds in its painful and bitter reality, day by day, beyond the deaths, injuries, destruction, separations of families as women and children flee,  this is also, unmistakably, a tragedy for global Christianity. 

One church, the Russian Orthodox church is supporting the Russian invasion and many, many other churches (including the Russian Orthodox aligned Orthodox church in Ukraine!!) are deeply opposed. For all the good the opposing churches are offering in the cause of Christ, it is being undermined by the warmongering of Patriarch Kirill.

It is as bad as it gets. It should not be happening. It is difficult to reconcile any aspect of this multi-level tragedy with the God we who are Christian claim to love and to adore.

Why is there suffering? Why is there such suffering as we see in the world at this time? (Totally acknowledging other terrible and terrifying suffering, still, in (e.g.) Syria, the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistant, Xingjiang and Myanmar.)

You'll likely be pleased to know that I am not going to attempt to answer that question here. I have no particular reason to think I could offer some new thinking on the subject.

But I would like to share with you a book notice, about a book I have recently come across.


Why Is There Suffering? Pick Your Own Theological Expedition by Bethany N. Sollereder is very readable, intelligently written and cleverly taking care not to lead the reader to land on one and only one answer to the question. "Pick your own theological expedition" means the reader is invited to read the chapters that relate to the direction their thinking is heading in and skip the chapters (or come to them later on) which don't seem relevant.

For some readers here the book may appear lightweight but that could mean it is perfect to put into the hands of those who won't actually open up a heavyweight book on this subject.

Happy reading!


Mark Murphy said...

Thanks Peter. I will order a copy for our therapy centre library, as this is a question that is of perennial concern for our clients and practitioners, and one that I personally often wrestle with, especially after suffering a brain tumour some years ago.

Looking it up at book depository, I came across another title I'd never heard of, but perhaps some of you here are familiar with: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, by Allan Kreider.

Whatever its historical veracity, the title is immediately appealing and intriguing, especially for a hot-head like me,

and speaks to topics that have been in the foreground on this blog - theology, scripture, and formation, the tension between the Now and the Not Yet, as well a practical and theological response to (if not a explanation of) suffering.

I'm interested if any others here have read it and their impressions.

Kia ora,


Peter Carrell said...

As a matter of fact, Mark, Kreider's book is on the agenda for the book reading group I am a part of which introduced me to the Suffering book!
(I've read a little of Kreider - looks good and he is a good scholar.)

Unknown said...

Yes. Read Krieder's book.

As you do, it may occur to you that you have read about this link between faith in the Creator god of Israel and the virtue of heroic patience somewhere else...

Krieder is not a psychologist, but an historian. Nevertheless, his book is a worthwhile preface to the strain of Christian psychology of which Robert Roberts is an exponent and Linda Zagzebski the philosopher.


Mark Murphy said...

Hmmm, synchronicity here. Chunky reading group!

Ok, I'm committing myself to read Augustine's On Patience for Lent.


Unknown said...

Sollereder's book looks as though it could be a fun and instructive party game :-) But poker, chess, and backgammon are games too, and they do not attract the same players.

Evil is a cosmological curio; suffering is a problem solved by religions and philosophies in their therapeutic modes. Theodicy is the modernist confusion of not knowing the difference between the two.

Kreider's book, like other studies of the early church, prompts me to wonder: can one can believe without wanting to be like the apostolic generation? And, if one does want to be like them, when does one want an account of the apostolic writings that is more than history?


Mark Murphy said...

"Evil is a cosmological curio..."

The only way this makes sense to me is if you are saying philosophical theology treats evil as a cosmological curiosity, which is an indeed blasphemous waste of time to human beings who are suffering.

I'm not experiencing much light from Augustine On Patience: he starts out with the fundamental idea of an impassible God. I've never been able to understand that from a Christian perspective: that all language of God grieving, being tender, being moved to justice, getting angry at injustice, let alone experiencing godforsakeness on the cross, is just human metaphor for the goodness of a changeless, unmoveable Being. But I am a hothead.

Any illumination gratefully received...


Unknown said...

Hi Mark

What basis is there for an expectation that human beings will not suffer?

And when they do-- everyone will-- what would make that suffering a god-problem rather than a consciousness problem? Early Christians so welcomed martyrdom that they had to be dissuaded from seeking it.


Unknown said...


In replying as I do, I intend no unkindness or polemic. I just can't frame an answer without knowing how it came to be expected that there would be neither evil nor suffering in the present aeon.


Mark Murphy said...

So here we get into, I guess, distinguishing forms of suffering.

Suffering-as-pain provides extremely useful forms of conscious feedback. It allows me to avoid further suffering, hopefully...

...such as when my daughter pulls her throbbing hand back from the hot element, when I realize that eating lots of carbohydrates makes me feel tired and depressed, or when someone realizes their feelings of emptiness reflect a job or commitment which is soul-destroying.

This is suffering as a 'natural' message to pay attention - something needs attending to. No 'problem' between this form of suffering and a God of love....

This slides into John Hick's Iranean theodicy - the world as a 'vale of soul-making' (John Keats); a God of love permitting suffering as part of the process of human growth.

..although some 'natural' forms of suffering end up being so excessive: watching a child being eaten out by cancer. How does that reflect a loving creator? How does that grow a soul?

And then there's the suffering that results from what I suppose philosophers call 'moral evil' excessive forms: Putin bombing a children's hospital, my client being sexually abused for eight years etc etc.

Is this suffering as a message we need to attend to? Yes. Do our responses to this help grow us morally and spiritually? Yes, they might.

But it is so excessive, so destructive. These forms of suffering destroy the consciousness that might learn from them. It's into another category, maybe "evil".

Theologians often say that God allows this suffering because she has created us to be free, as free agents, and if God keeps intervening to save us from suffering-as-evil, now where would we be?

There is a terrible tension, a deep cosmological chasm, and not just a curio, between a universe in which evil takes place everyday - and in the most banal ways - and the creator of that universe as a loving being.

Lots of forms of suffering are not part of that chasm, but part of functional life. But evil is, isn't it? How do we square this?

An impassible, testing (masochistic?) God in whose image and example we must endure all suffering until we reach our heavenly reward (Augustine).

A God who steps into the godforsakeness of the world to redeem our crucified state (Moltmann).

A 'two handed' God who does both (God of the mystics)...Allows suffering with his left hand (for the sake of our moral and spiritual growth) while comforting us with his right hand (as Christ and Spirit).

Sorry for long post.

Father Ron said...

"When I survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my PRIDE."

It seems to me the hymn-writer here understood a major cause of suffering:

One cannot but wonder what is there of human arrogance and pride that have provoked the sorrow and suffering that is being perpetrated in so many places around the globe at this moment - including the Ukraine. The desire to rule over other people's lives seem so often to be at the heart of human striving for supremacy. Too often, this striving results in belligerence and acts of war. No wonder people like Saint Francis of Assisi pleaded the charism of peacemaking.


Mark Murphy said...

Complete change of tack:

This is an extremely lively debate that followers of this blog I'm sure will enjoy, if they haven't already seen;

Tom Holland (for) vs. A.C. Grayling (against) on 'Did Christianity give us our human values?' on the (Anglican?) podcast 'Unbelievable'....

...including an interesting piece in the middle by Tom on Paul, sexuality, and human dignity (explained in a way I'd never heard of before).

In the Unbelievable podcast there is also Tom Holland in dialogue with N.T. Wright, and speaking by himself on Christianity, persecution, and the meaning of the cross - I haven't yet watched any of those.

All roads lead to Calvary.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark

"Sorry for long post."

It's elegantly concise, and on a slippery topic, mostly clear.

The distinction some draw between natural and moral evil is familiar to me.

If I rightly read between the lines of your 9:48, you have anticipated some of my reply ;-)


Today, the two commonplace references for theodicy debates are--

J. L. Mackie (1955) “Evil and Omnipotence.” in Mind, 64, 254. 200–212.

Alvin Plantinga (2008) God, Freedom and Evil. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2008.

Mackie asserted that it is inconsistent to believe in a god who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent. He defined *omnipotence* as including the powers to (a) control creatures and (b) act outside of created rules. He coined the phrase "Omnipotence Paradox" for the supporting argument: defenses of such a god's goodness depend on qualifications of his omnipotence, QED. Plantinga responds that because omnipotence does not entail (a) or (b), Mackie has not demonstrated inconsistency. Public apologists (eg Dinesh D'Souza) sometimes buttress Plantinga's argument by pointing out that human biology is only viable in a universe with the precise physical constants of this one.


To be slightly clearer here at ADU, (1) reasoned opinion is not biblical *pistis*, (2) demonstrating the reasonableness of X is not the same as demonstrating the necessity of X, (3) acknowledging that some things are not presently understandable is reasonable, (4) Christians define "God" for themselves with reference to the canonical narrative of the scriptures, (5) apologists are not necessarily either theologians or philosophers or therapists, (6) arguments for sceptics are not necessarily interventions for sufferers, (7) the gospel does not depend on the success of the apologetic enterprise, and (8) when Christians have neighbours with incommensurable values, the fact of that difference is well within the plan that representative Jews and Christians have found in the canon.

The usual theodicy argument has low stakes for Christians and does not appear to be adjudicable. See (1-4), (7-8).

Further in a postmodern society, the old argument sounds bigoted, bullying, and dangerous to human rights. "If you want to belong to the Club, then you can't have religious beliefs that seem necessarily consistent to secular me." An outcome of the several C17 wars of religion was a Western resolve, one that grew with time, to embrace pluralism and never again to have such a Club. Thinking as much of my Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish neighbours as of Christians, I am reluctant to dignify the theodicy argument with attention.


If we want to talk in an insider's way about the suffering of believers, then Christianity, like other major religions, has the resources to support that conversation. Since one can be both a suffering believer and a philosopher, it is intriguing that Simone Weil, who knew factory work and the French Resistance as well as seminars, developed a rather extensive theory of her own.

So of course we try to make directly biblical sense of the ghastly suffering of Ukrainians, the less obvious moral injury of the Russian invaders, and the grand project of a Eurasian empire that regards itself as Christian and European but also as non-Western. But like Blaise Pascal or Soren Kierkegaard, I do not see how thinking of YHWH simply as the atemporal "god of the philosophers" sheds light on persons and events.


Anonymous said...


At 6:54, I should have typed *INconsistent* in the third part.

Then the sentence in quotes would have read--

"If you want to belong to the Club, then you can't have religious beliefs that seem necessarily inconsistent to secular me."


Nobody objected to an argument like Mackie's in 1955. When I was a student in the 1970s, it was textbook stuff. What change in the world since then makes it objectionable now?

The nature, scope, and authority of public reason are all contested in the streets today in ways that few foresaw as late as the 1970s. Certainly, nobody then foresaw that a conservative Thomist like Ed Feser would be blogging approval of Noam Chomsky's theory of media-as-propaganda (see the link at right).

Here up yonder, some proximate social causes of this disruption are obvious-- the collapse of the empiricist episteme, mass discovery of ideology, loss of popular trust in elites, their own turn against Cold War consensus, emergence of *biopolitics*, decadence of party systems, media biased by their market niches, cultural pluralism caused by diversity and immigration, the rise of networks of influencers in radio and online, corporate and internet cancel culture, and in churches, *moralistic therapeutic deism*. Other grander events like the pandemic, by radicalising opinion in all directions, have turned the kaleidoscope quickly.

Mackie's argument has had an excellent safety record for almost 70 years. But today it implies that convictions about religion (and morality? politics? aesthetics?) are unworthy of public respect unless they are intelligible and credible to a secularist customs agent checking baggage for the Modern World. The real world will continue to change in ways that we cannot foresee, but for the time being, at least, we are better served by a disposition to first understand ideas that are strange to us on their own terms. To most of the West, Jesus is a famous stranger.


Mark Murphy said...

Great response, Bowman. I really appreciate the territory you've covered here, and not just for theodicy, but any project to import philosophical solutions, or at least thinking that is divorced from participatory life in a faith community, into the house of faith so as to order it better.

I am left, as if for the first time (uncanny feeling I've done this before and forgotten), wondering about the relationship between reason and pistis....

And thinking on, in your evocative words, 'Jesus as a famous stranger.'

Tom Holland's Dominion (see link in my last post) makes a strong case for how distinctly Christian the modern world is. And yet, even if he's right, and I'm inclined to think he is, there is a paradoxical sense (I think Holland gets this too) that Jesus is quite lost or invisible in all of this too. A famous stranger indeed. Peter, what are words above the entrance door to the Christchurch museum? They speak to this.

I used to think, when I was in my 20s, that I could make an attractive enough case for Christianity in the positive categories of secular humanism so as to at least intrigue my non Christian mates further. But now, and this reflects me as much as anything else, I don't see how you can truly taste and see until you've jumped into the stream, until it's rolled you around its bends and falls for a time.

Insane paradox: light who enlightens everyone coming into this world vs the irreducible otherness of Jesus, who resists all attempts at intellectual capture.

In all ways, this is at least a tender, authentically Christian response to the suffering in Ukraine:

Anonymous said...

"Yeah, I used to say I’m religiously bisexual, because when I found faith, I felt more Jewish than ever but also more Christian than ever. And my Jewish friends said, yeah, that’s not really allowed. If you accept Jesus, then you’re not on the team anymore. Yeah, that’s a fair point.

"It all happened in the wrong order. It happened in an order that didn’t make sense: I experienced grace before I experienced God. And so I experienced some sort of love, unconditional love before I figured there was a guy up in the sky, or, and then I experienced a sense of being observed. And then gradually, I experienced a sense that there is a moral order to the universe.

"There’s a theologian Paul Tillich, who has a phrase ‘the ground of being’, that the ground of being is a loving order, a moral order, an eternal order. Occasionally in nature, I just had this sense of things clicking into place, and I didn’t have words for it. It wasn’t like Jesus walked through the wall and said, 'Hey, come follow me.' That never happened. It was the most boring process imaginable-- gradually life seemed to become more enchanted and more alive. The spiritual realm seemed to be alive with a transcendent and divine presence.

"And I liken it to (I think, in The Second Mountain) you’re riding in a train, you’re sitting around all the familiar people, you’re drinking a cup of coffee, and you look out the window, and you realise there’s a lot of ground behind you. At some point, you’ve crossed over a border. You’re no longer a non–believer. You’re a believer in something. And then when you do, at least in my case, you read. You try to read people who are articulating what you’re going through.

"I found that as you’re searching, people send you books. And so I was sent about 600 books in the course of three months. My joke is that only 350 were Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. But it was in that process of reading that I came to refine what this is that I’m feeling. What is this enchanted sensation? What is this sense of divine love and really more sense of a moral order? And because I had grown up with the Christian story and the Jewish story, they both came alive to me. I read the Bible, Old and New Testament.

"But I found myself in the States. In my sort of highly educated coastal community, when you come to faith, you come through Oxford. It’s CS Lewis, it’s JR Tolkien, it’s Sheldon Vanauken (who wrote A Severe Mercy). And so you have a very classy kind of God, and a sort of appropriately Britishly restrained kind of Jesus.

"I sometimes wrestle against that. Jesus was a Jewish guy from the Middle East. When you actually see him through the Jewish lens, living in Jerusalem in a land of vicious conflict-- a series of highly organised power structures, which he upsets all at once-- you realise, Jesus is a total badass. He’s not a guy in a tweed jacket. And so I came to defend the much more aggressive Jesus that shocks. I came to believe in that.

"The thing you said about people wanting to put [converts] on their team, that was certainly true for me. When I was exploring, going to churches, I got there early. And so many people would want to meet me. Then during the passing of the peace, they came over to shake my hand. In order to not go through the social rigmarole, I began to [arrive] later after the service had started and to leave early before it ended, That made me lonely; that made me really lonely; that was destructive."

David Brooks


Anonymous said...

"I used to think... But now..."

Exactly right. Inquirers are allured rather than persuaded or indoctrinated. They feel that allure when they see us doing Jesus-ish things that awaken their intuitions. If the imaginary is not getting larger and richer, conversion is not happening.

This is not at all to say that ideas about Jesus are unimportant. But initially those ideas matter to others as the reason why we do remarkable or eccentric but worthy things. Later, if someone is being drawn into faith, ideas explain the Source of that grace.


Mark Murphy said...

You are teaching me so much. Who are you?