Friday, February 22, 2008

Banging Bricks Together

for Cowboy Diva, and hoping it is somehow helpful

"About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters;..."
I can't do much more than bang bricks together on this subject, at the moment; that is, take the sources that spark my reflection and crash them against each other (my usual way of doing things, in other words). So begin with this notation from an introduction to Kant's Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone:

The Enlightenment, which began in the seventeenth century and flourished in the eighteenth, constitutes one of the great spiritual movements of modern Europe. In it we see the Renaissance working itself out through the agencies of its scientific and philosophical discoveries. Because of its influence on Kant, who was in so many essential respects a thinker of the Enlightenment, we should recall at the outset the main characteristics of this movement. It was essentially revolutionary, directed against the authority of intellectual and religious tradition. The positive force at its core was a determined assertion of the freedom of the individual--freedom in affairs social and political, intellectual and religious. This spirit expressed itself most emphatically in a new and extragavant belief in the power of reason."
--Theodore M. Green, "The Historical Context and Religious Significance of Kant's Religion," Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, Immanuel Kant, tr. Theodore M. Green and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York, Harper Torchbooks: 1960), p. ix.

What Green says of the Enlightenment could also be said of the Romantic movement which followed and was a direct reaction to the authority, intellectual and religious, which the Enlightenment had established. While the Enlightenment gave the individual grounds for freedom within society, Romanticism took that freedom one step further, and set up the Byronic hero who defied society with his freedom. And, of course, when the individual is so very important as to merit our regard even against the disregard of society, the logical question follows: if I am so special, why must I suffer so?

And even if I don't think myself so special as a Lord Byron, the question persists: why must I suffer so? Voltaire took on that question while attacking this "best of all possible worlds" which the Enlightenment (especially Leibniz) had assured us it was:

As God must have created man good, the vitiating causes which had perverted him must be man-made, that is, contingent and removable. What was needed was to purify the race of these evil influences so that human nature might shine forth in its original purity; and reason, it was felt, was qualified to undertake this labor of purification. The long night of spiritual slavery, men believed, was nearing its end; reason, once freed from all trammels, would prove equal to every demand. Is not the world, men asked, after all a good place to live in? Nay, is it not the best of all possible worlds?
Hume, Kant, and Voltaire, each in their way, proved that optimism premature, if not entirely false. Wordsworth merely substituted "individual" for "race," replaced "memory" with "purification," and thus gave us both Romanticism, and Freudian psychology at one blow. And now if there is a main injustice in the best of all possible worlds, it is that God still hasn't seen fit to snuff out suffering; especially, of course, my suffering (which may simply be the suffering cause by my knowing that you are suffering. Thus is suffering selfish and un-selfish, at the same time.).

Now take up in another hand another brick; this time Merton, reprinted in Bread and Wine (Plough Publishing 2002):

The Christian must not only accept suffering: he must make it holy. Nothing so easily becomes unholy as suffering.

Merely accepted, suffering does nothing for our souls except, perhaps, to harden them. Endurance alone is no consecration. True asceticism is not a mer cult of fortitude. We can deny ourselves rigorously for the wrong reason and end up pleasing ourselves mightily with our self-denial.

Suffering is consecrated to God by faith--not by faith in suffering, but by faith in God. Some of us believe in the power and the value of suffering. But such a belief is an illusion. Suffering has no power and no value of its own.

It is valuable only as a test of faith. What if our faith fails the test? Is it good to suffer, then? What if we enter into suffering with a strong faith in suffering, and then discover that suffering destroys us?

To believe in suffering is pride; but to suffer, believing in God, is humility. For pride may tell us that we are strong enough to suffer, that suffering is good for us because we are good. Humility tells us that suffering is an evil which we must always expect to find in our lives because of the evil that is in ourselves. But faith also knows that the mercy of God is given to those who seek him in suffering, and that by his grace we can overcome evil with good. Suffering, then, becomes good by accident, by the good that it enables us to recieve more abundantly from the mercy of God. It does not make us good by itself; but it enables us to make ourselves better than we are. Thus, what we consecrate to God in suffering is not our suffering but our selves.
Suffering, therefore, can only be consecrated to God by one who believes that Jesus is not dead. And it is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.
I excised a bit there, to put the emphasis on that last paragraph. He goes on for a bit in the selection, ending with an argument that pain "enables Christ to suffer in us and give glory to this Father by being greater, in our hearts, than suffering would ever be," which is a conclusion I just cannot go for. Still, I want to be fair to Merton, and note that I am editing his edited words for my own purpose. The third brick is Bonhoeffer, from the same anthology:

Suffering and rejection are the summary expression of Jesus' cross. Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled. That it is Peter the rock of the church who incurs guilt here immediately after his own confession to Jesus Christ and after his appointment by Jesus, means that from its very inception the church itself has taken offense at the suffering Christ. It neither wants such a Lord nor does it, as the Church of Christ, wants its Lord to force upon it the law of suffering.

This makes it necessary for Jesus to relate clearly and unequivocally to his own disciples the "must" of suffering. Just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself." Just as Peter, in denying Christ, said "I do not know the man," so also should each disciple say this to herself or himself. Self-denial can never be defined as some profusion--be it ever so great--of individual acts of self-torment or of asceticism. It is not suicide, since there, too, a person's self-will can yet assert itself. Self-denial meanks knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him.

The cross is not adversity, nor the harshness of fate, but suffering coming soleley from our commitment to Jesus Christ. The suffering of the cross is not fortuitous, but necessary. The cross is not the suffering tied to natural existence, but the suffering tied to being Christians. The cross is never simply a matter of suffering, but a matter of suffering and rejection and even strictly speaking, rejection for the sake of Jesus Christ, not for the sake of some other arbitrary behavior or confession. The cross always simultaneously mean rejction, and that the disgrace of suffering is part of the cross. Being expelled, despised, and abandoned by people in one's suffering, as we find in the unending lament of the psalmist, is an essential feature of the suffering of the cross, yet one no longer comprehensible to a form of Christian life unable to distinguish between bourgeois and Christian existence.
Merton is talking about the kind of suffering we ordinarily relate to questions of theodicy; questions like: "Why does God hate me?" As Annie Dillard points out, those questions usually revolve around: Why would God permit me, personally, to suffer? This is where the Enlightenment enters in, to enlighten a dark corner of experience but, by throwing light on it, to not necessarily illumine anything. Does it really address the nature of God to wonder why God would let me suffer? When the obvious answer is: why not? Why are you so special you should not suffer, should not feel pain, should not die? Suffering, of course, is all about the intimation of death. If I have no memory of the pain, there is no suffering, and death will surely cut off at least such memories. But if I live through the pain.... Well, why would God permit that to happen, and to me? That focus on the importance of the individual, amplified by the Romantic movement which followed upon the Enlightenment, merely amplifies my misery. But what is the answer? Get my old, pre-Enligthenment mind back? Learn to distinguish between "natural suffering" and the "suffering of the Cross," and place them in a hierarchy? Offer up my suffering to God, believing it glorifies Christ in me? Perhaps that glorifies my faith, but how does it help me cope with cancer, or the suffering of a loved one with cancer?

The one issue does not answer for the other, but then there are unanswerable questions. One such question is: "Why does God let me suffer?" Merton and Bonhoeffer understand that; and would say it is an essentially selfish question. The question they are addressing, the productive question, the question that actually helps, that may actually heal, is: what can you do with your suffering? Endure it? Or can you, better, make use of it? And here I turn to Julian of Norwich, whose own true "sickness unto death" gave her visions that were not only redemptive, but reassuring:

"But I did not see sin; for I believe it has no sort of substance nor portion of being, nor could it be recognized were it not for the suffering which it causes. And this suffering seems to me to be something transient, for it purges us and makes us know ourselves and pray for mercy; for the Passion of our Lord supports us against all this, and this is his blessed will. And because of the tender love which our good Lord feels for all who shall be saved, he supports us willingly and sweetly, meaning this: 'It is true that sin is the cause of all this suffering, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.' These words were said very tenderly, with no suggestion that I or anyone who will be saved was being blamed. It would therefore be very strange to blame or wonder at God because of my sin, since he does not blame me for sinning."

"And I wondered greatly as this revelation, and considered our faith, wondering as follows: our faith is grounded in God's word, and it is part of our faith that we should believe that God's word will be kept in all things; and one point of our faith is that many shall be damned--like the angels who fell out of heaven from pride, who are now fiends, and men on earth who die outside the faith of Holy Church, that is, those who are heathens, and also any man who has received Christianity and lives an unChristian life and so dies excluded from the love of God. Holy Church teacmes me to belive that all these shall be condemned everlastingly to hell. And given all this, I thought it impossible that all manner of things should be well, as our Lord revealed at this time. And I recived no other answer in showing from our Lord God but this: 'What is impossible to you is not impossible to me. I shall keep my word in all thing and I shall make all things well.'"

"...the more anxious we are to discover [God's] secret knowledge about this or anything else, the further we shall be from knowing it...."
From chapters 27, 29, and 33, of the Shewings.

We aren't there yet, of course; we are still in the world described by Auden in "Musee des Beaux Arts." Which places us firmly in the world of the Psalmist ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") and of all the Scriptures. Interesting how they are never wrong, the old masters....

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.
--W.H. Auden, 1940

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