So You Still Believe in Life?

“So you still believe in life; thank God, thank God!” says Dunya to her brother Raskolnikov, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

That belief, that affirmation of life, is not a given– not in Dostoevsky’s novel, not in our world today, not in the lives of people we know, not even in our own lives. The catalog of outrageous suffering is long, and believing in life will always will be something of a leap, a jumping out over a deep, dark chasm. Time is a mercy: temporal distance softens the stabs of shame, grief, regret and loss that accompany our days. Compassion is an even deeper balm, the salve (salvation) of shared burdens and pains.

Raskolnikov’s answer to his sister is equivocal: “I did not believe in it, but just now, as I stood with my mother’s arms around me, we both wept; I do not believe, but I have asked her to pray for me. God knows how that comes about, Dunechka; even I don’t understand any of it.”

He can’t affirm life intellectually (“I don’t understand it”), but he has believed in life through his body– with his mother’s arms around him, and in tears. Sometimes that’s all we can do, and it’s the best we can do: to hold and be held, and weep.

Crime and Punishment

Nearly one week on from the shootings in Newtown, and a quick review of the public conversation regarding gun laws reveals both the worthily impassioned words of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the thoughtful reasoning of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg. I recommend both (through the magic of Google search, of course).

Religion in the Balance will leave the gun control policy debate to others. Of some interest to us is the fact that a few people (Lindsey Fitzharris in The Guardian, for example), are questioning the reflexive application of the descriptor “mentally ill” to Adam Lanza– questioning, in other words, the thought process that automatically assumes that if a crime is horrific enough, the perpetrator must be insane. Might he have just been evil?

This is where Dostoevsky comes back in.

In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov murders an old woman intentionally, and then another woman too– a younger woman who, as bad luck would have it, arrives on the scene unexpectedly. Raskolnikov gets away with his crime for several days, although a character named Porfiry Petrovich increasingly suspects that Raskolnikov is the murderer. They confront one another; Porfiry lays out his thoughts about the murders:

“This is an obscure and fantastic case, a contemporary case, something that could only happen in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled…. [T]here is a resolution evident here, for the first step, but resolution of a special kind– a resolve like that of a man falling from a precipice or flinging himself off a tower; this is the work of a man carried along into a crime, as it were, by some outside force.” (Crime and Punishment, the Coulson Translation, Part Six– Chapter II)

Even if Adam Lanza was “mentally ill,” his crime is “something that could happen only in our day, when the heart of man has grown troubled”: a blind, consuming, raging violence that ends in suicide. This is often– although not always– the pattern of these shootings: the rage that goes indiscriminately outward to innocent victims, ends by being turned inward to the intolerable, shame-saturated self. They end in suicide.

Dostoevsky For These Days

Nearing the end of reading Feodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I had been contemplating the darkness of the human heart for my next RIB post when the news out of Newtown blackened these already sunless days. The great 19th-century Russian novelist has more to say to us about current events, than any pundit.

In a quick search I was gratified to find that both Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Sean Kirst of the Syracuse Post-Standard invoked Dostoevsky in their reflections on the suffering of innocents in Newtown. Both columnists refer to Dostoevsky’s character Ivan Karamazov– one of the Karamazov brothers– who recounts, in wrenching detail, brutalities inflicted on children. Douthat is worth quoting at length:

“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.”

Douthat concludes his article with wisdom and theological refinement: no intellectual argument for the All-Powerful, All-Loving Deity can be proffered successfully in the face of such suffering; rather, there is only the power of bearing witness, and the slow, sad healing that comes in compassionate solidarity and shared grief. The Biblical story of Christmas, Douthat continues, is not the sentimentality we have repeated to ourselves so much that we think (falsely) that it’s true: to the contrary, Herod killed babies. It is into that kind of brutal world that the God-we-know-in-Jesus comes as a powerless baby, to redeem that world by sharing in its (our) suffering.

I will have more on Dostoevsky and Newtown soon.

Here is the link to Douthat’s article:

Stoicism in Syria?

Last winter I had the opportunity to hear and interact with Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States. This preceded the beginning of the unrest in that country, and the recurring violent response of the Assad government. Since that opportunity last winter, I have periodically checked the ambassador’s blog (simply google “Syrian ambassador” if you want to find it), just to see if he has been able to write anything new for public consumption.

His last entry– and it has been his last entry for awhile now– is dated March 25th, 2011 (just after the initial government crackdown on protesters in Daraa). In it, Imad reflects on the teachings of the 8th-century Muslim thinker Al-Kindi. Islam grew in the early centuries after Muhammad; in its openness and confidence it was able to engage Hellenistic ideas, and Al-Kindi’s thought reflects that engagement. Al-Kindi’s teaching on suffering– to which Imad gives his approval– is to cultivate a detachment to the world of ephemera. This detachment is to be cultivated in response to the old wisdom that everything of this world will rust and rot and pass away. What is permanent (a la Plato) is the world of ideas: consequently, intellectual contemplation is the way around suffering. The world of the intellect– from this perspective– is unchanging, and endures.

Yesterday the Assad regime received a rebuke from the U.N. Security Council. According to some human rights organizations, 2000 citizens have been killed by Syrian security forces. Apologists for the regime counter that such a response has been necessary for two reasons: first, Syrian security forces themselves have been violently attacked, and therefore need to defend themselves; and second, radicalized Islamic groups have infiltrated the protesters and are taking advantage of the unrest to promote deeper instability.

While those mitigating factors are probably true to some degree, it’s not clear that they would justify the kind of force that the government has used. And further, even the Syrian ambassador admits that the Assad regime has made mistakes in its response to the events of the last 5 months.

The choices of the Assad regime are not straightforward. What is straightforward, however, is that a regime that cannot be in solidarity with the suffering of its people is not just. It may survive through the use of overweening physical and psychological coercion, but it risks reaping what it has sown.

Here is an excerpt of Imad Moustapha’s reflections on Al-Kindi:

Al-Kindi rightly argues that it is not rational or natural to expect permanence and endurance of things. If we want to acquire and keep sensible things without them perishing, we are expecting from nature something that is unnatural and does not exist.

However, al-Kindi is not advocating a life of asceticism to avoid sadness; he is suggesting that we should be stoic about what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ in life. Thus we should accept good things graciously when they arrive, but never break our hearts when they depart. This is not nonchalance, it is a rational moral position that needs vigorous mental training and inner-self discipline ‘mujahadat al-nafs’. Unnecessary sorrow can be avoided by cultivating moral courage and detachment. The reasonable person is content to enjoy temporary things but does not grieve over what is lost.

Al Kindi wrote that stability and constancy, by necessity, only exist in the world of intellect, which we can contemplate. Therefore, if we do not want to lose the things we love and do not want to be frustrated in obtaining things we seek out, we must contemplate the intellectual world and, from our conceptions of what we love, possess and want from that intellectual world. Hence, he refers to those who are able to resist grief over the loss of cherished things as men of intellect, while those who do grieve are described as men of weak intellect….

via Weblog of a Syrian Diplomat in America.

Natural Disasters and the Power of God

Tsunami Devastation: Did God Cause It?

Whether God causes natural disasters– or allows them to happen– calls into question the nature of God. We wonder whether God is compassionate or vengeful; we wonder if God’s power is all-encompassing, or limited.

One recent conversation turned toward the latter question: does God have control over all of these recent natural disasters? And if God doesn’t have direct control, isn’t the Creator at least responsible for making a universe in which great suffering happens? Couldn’t the world have been made in a different way?

The God who is revealed in the person of a suffering common Jewish man, is a God who is not in control– if by control we mean “having power over” another (or others). Our understanding of power ought not be limited to “the ability to control,” however. There are other ways of having power which are not about control; other ways of exercising authority that do not entail imposing one’s will on another. One truth that Christians affirm, is that in Christ is a new kind of power: the power of solidarity; the power of compassion (literally “suffering with”); the power of love (that is, agape– unconditional love) ultimately to prevail. In Christ, God’s power is revealed not in control, but in vulnerability. God’s power is the vulnerability of Jesus, because it is in vulnerability that we become connected– connected to each other, and to God. God’s power is “God with us” (Emmanuel), not “God over us.”

Such an understanding of God’s power leaves suffering unexplained. I think that’s truthful to life as we live it and know it: bad things happen to good people, and innocents suffer. We can express righteous outrage at God for that, and that expression would be faithful: the Bible records many moments of cried out anguish, including Jesus’ own cry. There is a time to cry out to God for the suffering in the world. Then there’s a time to remember God’s solidarity with suffering, as revealed in Christ– and in remembering, to reach out in imitation of Jesus, with our own acts of solidarity and compassion with those who, like us, suffer.

Here is a blurb from the Christian Century on God and disasters:

Most don’t blame God for disasters

We may never know why bad things happen to good people, but most Americans—except evangelicals—reject the idea that natural disasters are divine punishment, a test of faith or some other sign from God, according to a new poll.

The poll, by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, was conducted a week after a March 11 earthquake triggered a devastating tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

Nearly six in ten evangelicals (59 percent) believe that God can use natural di­sasters to send messages—nearly twice the number of Catholics (31 percent) or mainline Protestants (34 percent) who so believe. Evangelicals (53 percent) are also more than twice as likely as the one in five Catholics or mainline Protestants to believe that God punishes nations for the sins of some citizens.

The poll, released March 24, found that a majority (56 percent) of Americans believe that God is in control of the world, but the idea of God employing Mother Nature to dispense judgment (38 percent of all Americans) or God punishing entire nations for the sins of a few (29 percent) has less support….

Most don’t blame God for disasters | The Christian Century.

William Sloane Coffin on Suffering….

William Sloane Coffin

My good friend Rich Simpson posted the following on his blog (link below, and also in the sidebar) on March 18th. Having recently reflected on suffering here with Auden’s Musee des Beaux Arts (prompted by the destruction in Japan), I found these words an apt follow-on. According to Rich, “the sermon was titled ‘The Uses and Misuses of Suffering’ and can be found in Volume I of The Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years:”

If the only God I could believe in was the God of…atheists like Nietzsche and Camus, I too would be an atheist. I could never believe in a God who didn’t suffer – given the suffering of the world. I could never believe in a God whose chief characteristic was his power, not his goodness. And because my God is a God of goodness, his chief characteristic is not peace but pain. I only quote Scripture, “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” My God hangs upon a cross, a victim not an executioner; the quarry, not the hunter; and one who not only suffers with me but for me, seeking not only to console but, beyond consolation, to strengthen me. Such a God I can affirm and a world with such a God in it I can affirm too. Metaphysically, I can’t answer the problem of pain. I can only resolve it by sharing it – by holding hands with the dying, by protesting in the name of my crucified Lord against war, hunger, oppression, torture, against suffering inflicted by our own human injustice. I know that the worst of all evil is indifference to evil…to keep vigil with him who neither slumbers nor sleeps – that’s the way to live.

via Rich’s Ruminations: The Uses and Misuses of Suffering (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.).

Auden on Suffering: Musee des Beaux Arts

"Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

This poem came to mind while I was looking at some pictures of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. I offer it not in judgment, lament, apology, explanation, or defense. Simply, it is the gift of the poet to see, and to offer that vision in unsparingly truthful yet compassionate words that deepen our sense of the mystery of the world:

Musée des Beaux Arts

by W.H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.