Initial and Additional Thoughts on Suffering and Faith

I give in. A blog just isn’t a blog without commenting on that bloggiest of blogs … The Daily Dish. Mr. Sullivan has braved some fierce atheists for his recent comments on theodicy (1, 2, and 3). I want to applaud him first for sticking his neck out in front of a mixed audience, but I want to add a little more on these comments from the second post:

My notion of a fallen world is related to the fact of mortality, which embraces almost everything on our planet, and causes terrible suffering to animals as well as humans. The difference is that, so far as we know, only humans experience this suffering as a form of alienation; we feel somehow as if we belong elsewhere, as if this mortal coil is not something we simply accept, as if our home was from somewhere else.

This, in my view, is our intimation of God, nascent in the long march of human existence only in the last couple thousand years, and unleashed most amazingly in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Ni ange, ni bete. And from that disjuncture between what we sense of as our actual home and this vale of tears we perforce inhabit, comes our search for God. No reason can end that sense of dislocation because it is some kind of deep sense that is prior to reason.

That’s why I do not experience faith as some kind of rational choice or as some kind of irrational leap. I experience it merely as a condition of being human.

I am not opposed to the reflections here. But there seems to be an issue in the logic moving from the experience of the second paragraph and primary articulation in the third, to the definition of faith in the last.

I think we can only admire an attempt to move from theodicy to the search for theophany. “Ni ange, ni bete” indeed – and if this mystery does not produce intrigue at least, we have shortchanged it.

This accepted, the only options are to pursue a revelation-less spirituality, if we cannot know its source, or find the right one if we can know it. Let’s not pursue that issue here – just say it’s obvious the writer has chosen the former.

It is true that his experience is neither a rational choice nor an irrational leap. Both of those would be articulations in words, but the experience is chthonic. I think that we who hold orthodox faith must merely object: the thing we call faith, our commitment to an articulation of things we cannot point to in the material world, is not what you are calling faith. We have made a leap from our experience, which you reject – but we have the same primary experience that you do … we just don’t call it faith. We are still unsatisfied there, and we have found our satisfaction in Christ. We do not understand that original experience until a revealed faith (and a preached faith) put the words in our mouths. And then our faith is not the experience, but an ability to act on that experience.

NB: Let me stress that I do appreciate Mr. Sullivan’s reflections on suffering. I hope we can add to that, in the way that training adds to skill, and in the way that the right clothing adds to natural beauty.

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