Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Problem of No Pain

Faith is cold as ice —
Why are little ones born only to suffer
For the want of immunity
Or a bowl of rice?

-          Rush, Roll the Bones

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis

…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God most of all.

Lewis begins with a short preface, basically telling the reader how unqualified he is to write on this subject.  We will see.

He opens with the problem of pain – perhaps summarized in the snippet of Rush lyrics offered at the top of this post, but with more flavor.  It is man’s knowledge of pain that has allowed him to develop hundreds of ways of inflicting pain on his fellow man. 

Everything about pain points to the opposite of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit:

Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.

Yet this raises a real problem: if the universe is so bad, why on earth did man dream up this idea of a good Creator?  After all, the world of man at the time of this “invention” was far more painful and frightening than the world in which virtually all of us live in today – they dared not even venture into the nearby forest, let alone across a continent or across an ocean.  Are we to believe that men were not just fools, but completely foolish?

Certainly at all periods the pain and waste of human life was equally obvious. …It is mere nonsense to put pain among the discoveries of science.

Lewis identifies three strands or elements common to all developed religion, and in Christianity one more: the Numinous (mysterious, awe-inspiring); an acknowledgment of some kind of morality; the Numinous power is made guardian of the morality; the fourth, unique to Christianity: Jesus – at one with the “Something” which is the Numinous and the giver of the moral law.

[Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimately reality is righteous and loving.

It is relatively easy to look at pain as the anomaly of life – in our time and in the developed world.  But the opposite is the reality: we certainly have the certainty of death – first, one by one, many of our loved ones; eventually, each one of us.  Take away the division of labor and even this mental exercise is enough to cause physical pain; this was the reality of pain for much of human history.

But could not God have made it otherwise?

If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished.  But the creatures are not happy.  Therefore God lacks either goodness, power, or both.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem of pain.  For this, Lewis discusses God’s omnipotence – His power to do all. 

His Omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible.  You may attribute miracles to him, but not nonsense.

God cannot both give free will to His human creatures and not give free will to them at the same time.  As Lewis says: “...meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’.”

It remains true that all things are possible to God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. …nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.

The ‘laws of nature’ appear to present a strong argument against the goodness and / or the power of God.  Lewis will argue that not even Omnipotence could create free souls without at the same time creating a “relatively independent” nature.

The freedom of a creature means freedom to choose; the freedom to choose implies choices from which one can choose.  The fixed nature of matter, therefore, cannot make it always and everywhere agreeable to every creature.  A man travelling in one direction downhill means that when travelling in the other direction, another man is going uphill.

If fire comforts the body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced.  Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit.

Wood can be used for a beam just as easily as it can be used to hit our neighbor on the head.  But why couldn’t God transform that wood into soft grass one moment before the blow struck the neighbor’s head?  In such a world, wrong action would be impossible; this would make a mockery of free will.

Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

We don’t want a Father in heaven; we want a grandfather in heaven: one who likes to see the young people having a good time and enjoying themselves.  But a Father has a greater responsibility: love.  And love requires correction. 


To really feel the joy in life
You must suffer through the pain

Until you struggle through the dark
You'll never know that you're alive

-          Dream Theater, Illumination Theory

There is more to this book, so no grand conclusion as of now.  I can only say something from personal experience and observation: life has had the most meaning when one offers or sees an example of another going through pain, when one is dealing with pain and is comforted by another, when one is comforting and aiding another in pain.

Does this mean we should rejoice in pain, or pray for more?  Hardly.  Pain will come, with or without our encouragement.  But Jesus came to alleviate pain, and Jesus is the archetype for human beings.  What useless creatures we would be if we had no struggles with which to deal.

In the developed world – certainly in the West – life is reasonably pain-free when compared to other places and times.  This drives people to invent ways to risk pain.  And those who take on such risks describe the experience as most meaningful. 

I cannot put such activities in the same category as the pain that comes naturally in life – it cannot fill the same void in the same way.  However, it does demonstrate the truth of much of what Lewis has written. 

It demonstrates, in a less-than-perfect way, that the problem of no pain is much greater than the problem of pain.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Concern for All

Well, mostly.

God said to Jonah:

Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?

Jonah is angry that God did not do the deed – destroy Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, the empire that had destroyed Jerusalem. 

In Greece, philosophy was becoming farcical – “abstruse,” as Armstrong puts it.  An arrow in flight is motionless, because at any given moment it occupies a space exactly equal to itself; before Achilles could cover any distance, he had to cover half of it – again…motionless.

Zeno wanted to demonstrate the logical absurdity of common sense…reason was undermining itself.

Anaxagoras identified the source from which everything developed: the nous (mind).  A divine cosmic intelligence, but it wasn’t supernatural – it was made up of matter, like all else.  Nous set everything in motion; after this the atoms were left to their own devices, randomly smashing into each other.

Protagoras offered that “The measure of all things is man….” There is no transcendent authority or Supreme God; man must rely on his own human judgment. Euripides offered: “The nous in each one of us is a god.”  Euripides offered a story – Medea: Colchis was rejected by her husband, Jason.  In revenge, she killed Jason’s new wife, his father, and the sons that she had borne to Jason – she had argued herself into a terrible crime spree:

Reason was becoming a frightening tool.  It could lead people to a spiritual and moral void, and, if skillfully used, it could find cogent reasons for cruel and perverse actions.

Oedipus launched an inquiry into his father’s death and discovered he was the murderer – and without realizing who she was, had married his own mother! 

Through no fault of his own, he had become a monstrous figure, the polluter of his city, hopelessly defiled by actions whose significance he had failed to grasp at the time.  He was guilty and innocent, agent and victim.

Oedipus accepted his punishment even though he didn’t deserve it.  Those witnessing this play were driven to sympathy, feeling compassion for a man who committed crimes that would normally fill them with disgust.  Sympathy brought on a purifying catharsis. 

Now we come to Socrates.  His dialectic was designed to expose false beliefs and elicit truth.  The goal was the struggle, not some artificial end point.  Along with Plato, he discovered the psyche, or soul.  It existed before birth and would survive death. 

Socrates’ teaching was considered blasphemous.  The timing was convenient – Athens was losing wars, losing its navy.  At his trial, Socrates was accused of failing to recognize the gods of the state, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the youth.  Socrates became a scapegoat.  He refused to escape from prison despite the unjust sentence; he refused exile.  He drank the poison. 

In China, gentlemen’s wars became total war.  Women and children were fair game; the wounded and infirm were shown no mercy.  More and more of the population would be mobilized.  No more fighting face to face – the reflex crossbow made killing possible at a distance of half a mile.

Into the mess stepped Mozi, whose concern was for the peasants.  War ruined harvests, killed civilians, wasted weapons and horses.  How could any of this be good for the kingdom?

Should people have concern for everybody?  Should they reject aggression?  These and other topics were addressed, based on conformance to the practice of the sage kings, if it was supported by common sense, and if it did benefit the human race.  Mozi would back up his arguments with reference to the High God.

Siddhatta Gotama was twenty-nine years old, married, with a newborn child.  He decided to leave home in the quiet of night.  He had a long quest ahead, in search of a form of existence – attainable in this life – that was not contingent, flawed, or transient.  We know him as the Buddha.

To reach this form of existence, he practiced severe extremities: laying on a mattress of spikes, drinking his urine, eating his feces, fasting until his bones stuck out.  He became so weak that he was left for dead on the side of the road.  Even with all this, he could not escape desires for attention, the lust and cravings of this life.

…Gotama aspired to an attitude of total equanimity toward others, feeling neither attraction nor antipathy.


The Hebrew God offered mercy even to enemies.  The Greeks travelled a wide road – from the most abstruse, to self-centered, to vengeful, to unchained reason, to sympathy.  Mozi reintroduced other-considering behavior after two centuries of total war.

The Buddha?  I keep finding the philosophy of India an outlier in this narrative.