Monday, October 27, 2008

Hauerwas on suffering

"To ask why we suffer makes the questioner appear either terribly foolish or extremely arrogant. It seems foolish to ask, since in fact we do suffer and no sufficient reason can be given to explain that fact. Indeed, if it were explained, suffering would be denied some of its power. The question seems arrogant because it seeks to put us in the position of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only God knows the answer to such questions."

- Stanley Hauerwas, "Should Suffering Be Eliminated?" in The Hauerwas Reader, 565.

Hauerwas goes on to say that it is also a question that can't be avoided and ought to be asked. Yet it seems to me that some accounts of providence may illegitimately remove the sting of this question by attempting to give just such an answer. When a sufferer asks the "why" question and our answer seeks a response along the lines of "Oh, I see now why this and all suffering is justified and necessary", then we have removed all room for the strong scriptural theme (and healthy, indeed necessary, human practice) of lament. If we become so content with the present that we are not groaning for a healed world, then perhaps we have silenced the Spirit who groans with us.


the don said...

Very good!

I believe that the Lectionary does not include Psalms of Lament or Lamentations in it's cycles.

This could also contribute to beg the question. We have not learned or postured ourselves in the context of worship.

Megan said...

And if we start to say suffering is justified, do we malign God, who stands against evil? It is a different thing to say that no matter how bad, his power and grace can work through it. On a personal note, I know I found people telling me that my miscarried child died because, for instance, the time wasn't right, a dismissal of the tragedy of losing that life. Yet I do believe that God worked through that tragedy powerfully for good.

Mike W said...

There was recently a conference on the problem of evil here. One attendee ( a lecturer) summed up the message of the conference with a sigh " The problem of evil...what problem?"

byron smith said...

Mike - do you mean that the answers given at the conference (dis)solved the problem? If so, then that is sad. Because we longer have good news to announce, just secret knowledge to impart.

Megan - yes, I think that's exactly right. We do not need to assume that everything has a perfectly good meaning in some grand plan to also affirm that God is able to work good even out of suffering.

Josh - Yes, I'm disappointed at that omission, since communal lament is also important. There is a reason Israel (the Holy Spirit!) included those psalms.

the don said...

byron, can you talk a bit more about the distinction you made in response to mike about imparting secret knowledge? are you asserting that in addressing the problem of evil, we are being co-opted into gnosticism???

i've never thought about this... do tell!!!

byron smith said...

are you asserting that in addressing the problem of evil, we are being co-opted into gnosticism?
In a way, yes. Though not through simply addressing the issue (it is impossible not to do so if one has any honesty about life and any understanding about the claims of the gospel), but addressing it in a the kind of way that 'resolves' (or dissolves) the tension between the goodness of God on the one hand and the persistence and pervasiveness of suffering and evil on the other. I take it that this tension is a properly eschatological one, only to be 'resolved' by God's victory over the forces of evil in Christ (his life, death, resurrection, ascension and parousia). If, instead of such an evangelical and eschatological answer (see e.g. here for more discussion, though the whole series is making this claim), we give an answer primarily/exclusively from providence, we are in effect saying that there is no problem of evil. The only "problem" is that we don't understand how these things which appear to be evil, are actually intended by God to bring about good and are not evil at all. Thus the "solution" to this problem is for us to gain the secret knowledge of God's plan (even if, on most more or less orthodox accounts of providence, this knowledge is only promised now), or at least to accept that such secret knowledge exists. Evil has ceased to be primarily the enemy of God and has become simply his instrument.

Is this making sense?

For more on this, check out these quotes from D. B. Hart (or just read his whole little book (The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the tsunami?). N. T. Wright also has an excellent little book called Evil and the Justice of God which is also worth reading.

Mike W said...

Yep, that seemed to be it. A tone of, 'Aha, these pesky people who raise suffering just need to realise......'

byron smith said...

Yes, if only they would stop suffering, then my theology would make so much more sense! How unthoughtful of them!