Talking with a brilliant, elderly psychiatrist on Wednesday, he was speaking quite warmly about a patient he had interviewed that morning. He is a man deeply touched by his patients’ suffering, and her courage in adversity had impressed him. He described her as very religious, and this led in his monologue to questions of suffering, faith, and endurance. Not being religious himself, he quite naturally wondered why her suffering had not caused her to lose her faith.
Ironically, the physical therapist in a wheelchair rolled past just then, with ashes on his forehead.
Without lecturing the man, I spoke of Frankl’s and Bettelheim’s observations of people in the concentration camps. I noted that ease of life in nations usually led to less religiosity, and the same is often true for individuals for well. He kept returning to the same point – his general puzzlement at the existence of faith in the face of hardship.
I cast my net wider, giving evidence that religious people had given a great deal of thought to suffering over the centuries. I mentioned Luther and Therese, Francis of Assissi, Job – I could certainly have kept going. It was like bumping up against a wall over and over. The doctor’s impression was that this had not been thought through by religious people. The single overwhelming question of how can God be good if people suffer was as far as he could go. He felt that contradiction so strongly that he was unable to really engage intellectually beyond that. Though he did not claim it was an original idea, he spoke as if it were a new revelation that religious people just weren’t dealing with.
The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say, is that we have had this conversation twice before at least, about three years ago and ten years ago. His understated amazement was present then as well: wow, people suffer and yet still maintain there is a good God! How can that be? Nothing I said then made any difference either. And he’s had plenty of time to read up on it or ponder it over the years if he wanted to. This is, I will reassert, a person extremely skilled in listening to his patients and intuiting the meaning and subtext of what they say, a person who has seen complex theories of personality come and go over his lifetime. Not only are there no obvious intellectual or emotional barriers to his understanding these ideas, he is in fact over-equipped to enter into ideas and feelings of others.
So. He doesn’t ponder the meanings. But I ponder him. How is it that person who thinks and cares deeply can walk by such questions? It is not as if he has examined this at length and come to a different conclusion; he has not noted subtle flaws in the reasoning of religious people; he has not identified new contradictions that have not been addressed. He comes to the edge of the ocean and sees only desert because he is standing on sand.
The scriptures speak of things being veiled from our sight, and most especially, the things of God. CS Lewis illustrates the idea in The Last Battle, where the dwarves have passed through the door and entered into heaven, but believe they are stuck in a dark, dirty stable. They are offered a banquet, but taste only filthy straw. In the Gospel of John, scene after scene has Jesus commenting about the Pharisees’ inability to understand. In some verses it seems as if this is very much their own fault; in others it sounds as if such understanding is only by God’s action and they could not do otherwise. In between, Jesus mentions also those who believe only because of signs. (Chapters 3-8 refer to this problem repeatedly, with Jesus giving a subtly different answer each time. The answer is clearly almost within our reach but just beyond our understanding).
My doctor friend standing by the ocean – is it his own fault that he does not say “Well, people say there’s an ocean here. Shouldn’t I at least step out a bit and see if I get wet?” Or is there nothing he can do, because he does see only sand? These things are beyond me.
I am making no statement, BTW, that all or most nonbelievers fit this description. On the contrary, I have spoken with some and read many nonbelievers who seem to have genuinely engaged the larger questions surrounding Christian belief. But I have met many, many others over the years who fit the elderly psychiatrist’s category. They do not even really know what the questions are, and they don’t know that they don’t know. Do they sense at some deep level that the answers beyond the door are too expensive, or is this gift simply not given to them?