We can say there are two issues at hand when we encounter deep suffering, the logical/probable and the existential. How can a good, loving God exist amidst suffering and death? A secondary but analogous case is can existence itself be good amidst them? Much debate exists over how best to answer, but Dostoevsky is convinced that neither option can make sense without addressing the other at one and the same moment. For Dostoevsky, logic must enter the poetic, or rather gain a poetic sensibility of itself. This is why Dostoevsky’s craft as a novelist is more fitting for this specific question than a purely philosophical treatise, because the poetic narrative is necessary to give a complete answer. He shows this well enough by giving Ivan Karamazov the philosophical monologue that continues to entrance readers regarding this problem, while providing his response in the person of Alyosha, who bears the suffering of others in practice. Theoretical reflection distorts and enslaves when disjointed from embodied practice and active participation in the world. Theory and practice must join hands.
Pain and suffering are phenomenological realities. They invade us; they overwhelm our wills. This is the reason that we cannot not know when we are in pain. It is epistemologically tautological as few other things are. Pain is so deeply apparent it enters into our most private domain, overcoming our inner walls of security. To speak of pain or suffering as “pointless” is to inherently take a teleological stance toward it, to already assume a notion of purposefulness or lack thereof for our existence. That is to say, for example, if man is created for happiness, this pain seems inconceivable within that sense of purpose. Because pain is inherently invasive, we desire relief from pain, to regain the security of the self we thought we constructed so perfectly. The pain ignores our wishes. The pain is not us, but it wishes to be. It wishes to redefine us, to mold us to its horrible likeness. Thus, the existence of pain is inherently relational and interdependent. The science bears this out, but the logic of the sufferer exists in a separate realm from the logic of science. The shallowness of science, which can only speak to the surfaces of existence, can only go so far in entering the deep places.
There remains always space between myself and the pain, if only a little. Even the suffering of the clinically depressed is often experienced as a battle between two selves, the brilliant, despairing mind with whom we contend—David Foster Wallace called it the “terrible master.” Due to its unbidden but inescapable relationality, pain performs the favor of revealing the self to the self, even while it reshapes it. It forcefully casts the inner self into relief against its darker backdrop. But as identity must always define itself in relation, it is in the integration of all relationships that pain takes on a relative stance, as one relation to the self among many. Therefore, our relationship to existence itself must come into this contention. The pain is also therefore relative to our teleology, our understanding of human flourishing and purpose; here pain finds either a place of purpose or a place of pointlessness. But this goes beyond the regurgitation of theory, unless the theory itself lives meaningfully in our depths. If James KA Smith is right, our teleology is the deepest sense of our true selves; our entire being is oriented and formed by that which we love. This Love, that orients the entirety of the rest of our being, is what determines the outcome of our encounter with pain.
This is what Dostoevsky is after. Can there be a pointless pain? Per Dostoevsky, in the deepest sense, no pain is pointless, precisely because of the other relationships that exist. Simply, pain’s interest is to lead us to death, to a preference for non-existence. If death had the final answer, this would be an unfortunate and yet acceptable position. Christ overcomes this. The significance of the resurrection is that the love that leads to life is the true final answer; death is defeated, not merely for Christians but the entirety of the cosmos. That is, not merely that God’s goodness and promises are worth any and all pain, but rather that God entered into the pain Himself; indeed, He took on both Pain and Death, allowing even evil to participate (unwillingly) in bringing mankind back to Himself, back into a state of love and communion. We cannot escape Him, no more than we can escape ourselves. In Simone Weil’s thought, He took on all the pain in this world, and suffered the ultimate separation, of God from God, so that He could cross the infinite abyss of Death to be with us mortals. There are many great mysteries here, but this is how we can know God is present in all suffering, not as a simple relief, but as a co-sufferer. So bearing suffering with Christ brings us into an intimacy with Him, like the intimacy between a father and son or a bride and groom; then does love conquer suffering, and existence becomes preferable to death. Evil becomes double-edged in a way. Pain cannot exist independently, but always as a distortion of Being, an abuse of existence. But God entered into it and brought it back fully into Himself. So any conception of pointless pain always turns on identity in its relation to reality, in who we are and what we love.
This indwelling of God in the suffering of the cosmos may be referred to as com-passion, or quite literally bearing the passion of the other. When the fully transcendent relation which brings us into an eternal becoming (or loving) as the teleological end of humanity, pain always can and does bear “a point” in as much as it participates within that teleology. The wonder of Christian theology is that God makes the step into humanity’s suffering freely. Such is Love.
For those who believe suffering or evil can have no answer in the positive form which God takes (which is less an intellectual justification as much as an active, participatory answer), it is often the overwhelming pain that is blamed. This is Ivan Karamozov’s method, but he disregards the very person to whom the pain relates. As noted, pain reveals persons as much as it seeks to dominate them. In this sense, absolute despair in the midst of pain is as much a revelation of one’s self as a situation cast upon the self. This understanding necessitates the existence of a form of free will and individual responsibility for becoming what we are. However, it also necessitates a heavy form of contingency, as we do not become ourselves alone. It is in the space of this interdependency of the Self in which the Holy Spirit works and where the revelation of Self occurs. Pain manifests this interdependent reality in an unavoidable way. Per Fr. Zosima, “We are all responsible for everyone and everything.” In the interconnectedness of Being, your suffering is my suffering. Christ knew this truth in its fullness, and so truly He bore the suffering of the world.
An answer to the issue of animal or environmental suffering exists in the notion of cosmos, such that we are stewards of it, and it too requires salvation (per St. Maximus). This conception demands a radical notion of activism, both a personal and social justice. Both our inner selves and outer circumstances must be addressed; one to the neglect of other ends in blind self-righteousness. One must learn to love before he can give love, but he can only learn love by being loved.
Ivan suggests a pragmatic rejoinder to this notion of loving responsibility for all things. Are there any men who could be as gods in this selfless mode of loving and giving? If so, they can only be very few. Of course, Sainthood is the call of the Christian (and human) life, though admittedly few attain it. But Ivan is wrong, because it is not a great few who can do such things, but none, at least not alone. The Holy Spirit alone makes this accomplishment possible, a response not of effort but of absolute weakness. It is the original relationship between Man and God, the infinite Other who is Love, that makes any transcendence possible. Thus it is not in the heights of greatness that man finds God, but at the nadir, his lowest point. Only by such means can all men follow Christ, for the lowest point is always available to all. But this does not entail the Way is easy. For most of us, our salvation will be as leading a camel through the eye of a needle. Total weakness demands us surrendering our inner securities and false selves which we have so carefully spent our lives crafting. This is why suffering leads us closest to salvation; it reveals our deepest self and our relationship with God, the author of Being. Suffering leads us to the nadir of our existence whether we will it or not. It is Love in this place which heals us; no work of pragmatic or intellectual grandeur can suffice. Suffering is then either our utter despair or our terrible gift; it leads us through unfettered intimacy with the Divine. So as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, we may yet be saved, but as through fire.
Suffering and death as an inescapable and perhaps defining element of mortal existence is probably far more obvious to historical persons. In the unusually wealthy and distracted modern West, we have the anomalous luxury of not viewing reality as composed intrinsically of suffering, decay, and death; rather, we are happy to define reality as infinitely malleable to our desires. It is by no means logically obvious to me which is the more “illusionary” crutch for confronting pain: a loving God or the luxury of material escapism. Both require a teleological stance toward an Infinite, either an infinite love in an infinite God, or an infinite love for material satisfaction and escape. In the latter case, this “infinite” requirement is oft unspoken and assumed, for to speak of it would easily reveal the happy lie. Those who drink of this water will again be thirsty, but only One brings a life-giving water that can relieve Thirst. In this perspective, suffering is not an evil counter-reality, existing in itself in challenge to the goodness of life, but constitutive of a mode of (mortal) existence; it exists as a revelatory inner reality to the incompleteness of that mode of existing. Metaphorically, this reason for pain is similar to how pain exists in more acute examples for alerting us to immediate danger. But rather than physical danger, this pain alerts us to our existential position. Due to our historical privilege, we at large have divested ourselves of the responsibility of bearing the burden of suffering, preferring escapism and distraction, ignoring pain whenever possible. Thus we are made uniquely impotent to confront suffering and unusually susceptible to its totalizing power when it inevitably forces its way into our perception. This is the opposite of Dostoevsky’s call and understanding of God’s answer. It is reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s understanding that the worst despair is that which we never acknowledge we have.
The concept of living without pain strikes us at once as enviable and deeply inhuman. I think of androids, or creatures filled with some magic or drug (as in some fantasy literature) which relieves them forever from suffering. Painless people/beings are freed of the reflective burden of mortality, though not its reality. They become un-relatable, like fell gods. In literature, beings of this nature are often used as servants to a dark master or purpose directing them to the tune of a dominant will. It is a type of enslavement. Can such a person truly love? Precisely because these imaginary beings lack vulnerability, they cannot love. To love is to risk. To love assumes the possibility of heart break; connection admits to the possibility of disconnection. Love commingles with suffering exactly because it is sensitive to the beautiful fragility of this moving tension between lack and fullness. Embracing the possibility of pain opens one up to the human possibilities of healing, self-understanding, growth, meaningful relation, empathy, and love. Does this mean that we should seek pain for its own sake? Not at all, no more than we should seek comfort for its own sake. Both are means to a higher end, but a higher end is a specifically human feature.
Narrative is particularly useful as argumentative form in this question of suffering as it reveals a method of finding meaning in suffering. We are naturally and incontrovertibly story-making beings. Pain once contextualized within a story has a point and then can bear meaning. The Christian revelation situates the believer within a narrative that can grant narrative meaning to all pain. The possibility of pain is necessary to meaningful existence and actual relationship. In short, the assertion of why could not God create a meaningful cosmos without the possibility of suffering, or the inclusion of a negative phenomenological potential, is actually nonsensical. Meaning is found in self-gift, in Love. Love is only possible as free relationship between independent (or interdependent) beings. The relationship itself forms the interdependent identities. The relationship also requires vulnerability. Thus identity requires vulnerability. Vulnerability assumes risk, and therefore negative consequence. Finally, suffering can only in the end affirm what we are: Lovers. And only self-giving Love can restore, heal, and satisfy.
Simone Weil similarly speaks specifically of affliction as that which reaches into our soul, and molds our identities anew, capturing them. For her, the ability to direct our gaze, even when we lack capacity to love is most significant. We must want to love. To always look to Christ, who participated in the ultimate affliction, the infinite separation of God from God, while yet maintaining His inner unity of love. Thus does His love meet all the afflicted where they are if they are but open to it.
Something to this ability to “see” the world can be gleaned from Roger Scruton’s The Soul of the World, specifically in the impression of viewing the human face. Both in joy and in sorrow, we can hyper-analyze the specificities of the facial structures which denote these emotions, but it is the inner person, the soul if you will, which grants these states both their terrible dignity and significance. A dead face however perfectly arranged lacks this quality. It lacks the spark of life. God is the spark of life in the face of existence. Suffering exists in this place; it gains its terrible indignity from its contrast with this hidden dignity: the light veiled behind the contour lines of the physical world which manifests it.
Such talk of Love must tempt one to say, “I am glad you have found this in Christ, I have found it elsewhere.” They will then likely repeat some trite parable about blind men touching an elephant having something to do with truth. This is the end effect of the ridiculousness of the modern condition. We are all blinded of course, or in the words of St. Paul, we see only through a glass darkly. But the parable writer is no more above me than I him in this regard. We cannot rest in feel-good philosophies without considering their specific realities and demands. The universal requires the particular to be sensible. Look at the logic of suffering. What does the sufferer need? She needs her mother, and no vague concept of a universal Mother, or Motherliness, or even other mothers can replace her. In fact, these ideals mean nothing without the child first having relation with her mother, apart from which, all petty universals become subtle projections of the self. And when the self becomes so contained in its own illusions (nothing more than an attempted relation between the self and itself), it loses that feature of self-giving relationship, that which gives it an “I,” and then courts death. In the same way, we cannot understand love without meeting Love, and Love must be found in a particular. Love inheres the cosmos, but that particular Love which overcomes all suffering and death is revealed in Christ. Love is naturally found outside of Christ, but it is Christ who reveals the possibility of transcendence, revealing Love as the center of existence. When Christ rose from the dead, Love conquered Death. This is meaningless in the abstract.
Ideals of scientific certainty dissipate in the face of suffering; these epistemic ideals were never realistic, but again suffering reveals the farce. Understanding one’s suffering in this manner can often make the suffering worse. Of course there is a blindness to science—it regards only the surface of things. Science is impotent in the face of pain and death. One cannot measure the abyss. So Goethe speaks through the tragic character of Dr. Faust, “What we don’t know is really what we need, and what we know is of no use for us whatever.” Knowledge is found in participation, such as when we learn to know another. So also with the knowledge of suffering, love, and God.
In Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, one particular line strikes me in my core: “Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was, too. Do you imagine your sufferings will be less because you loved goodness? Truth?”
Nay, it shall be the greater. Glory to God.