Friday, February 27, 2009

The Truth Is Veiled

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?


Donna B. said...

This is the quandary of the person who sees suffering (through no action of the sufferer) as evil.

To me it boils down to the very simplistic question of why a benevolent and loving God would allow suffering.

Which leads me to the belief that God created nature and human nature to hold good and evil inside them both... or perhaps God, nature, and humans are all good, but that humans don't (can't?) recognize the good in evil (ie, creative destruction).

Or, without the existence of evil, good would be meaningless.

Boethius said...

Why would a person ask the deeper questions and yet not pursue the answers? Is this a veil? Perhaps this gentleman continues to have this conversation with you, AVI because he wants you to see that your answers are incorrect. Is he playing the psychologist with you? Is he trying to challenge your faith?

Anonymous said...

Great post, AVI. Lots to think about.

"They do not even really know what the questions are..." This I think in a nutshell characterizes the majority of my science-educated co-workers over the years of my career. Life's answers cannot be down Path B because Path A cannot be wrong. Science has the answers and they're all in the college textbooks that our learned professors used. There is no other "story" to consider. The realms of Faith are beyond consideration - irrelevant. Like you, I’m at a loss as to how to take the discussion to the next step. To my co-workers, that’s Path B. I’m reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Ben Wyman said...

Isn't that often how our mind works, when we want to not believe something and so find one small immovable post to lean against? We assume that the reason others don't believe what we do is that no one else sees this one, immovalbe fact? The same way people could argue that everything Bush did was evil, and Republicans won't admit it because they they can't even see that George Bush STOLE the election. Animal rights activists pursue a similar agenda - people who eat meat don't understand what happens to the animals! If they did, they wouldn't eat meat, right?

Retriever said...

Great post. That poor old man. Soon he will be facing death himself, and fearing the void if he really is without faith. It always amazes me when people can see how people of faith endure the unimaginable, and still don't get it. Like most of my relatives...

There was a really good study of group dynamics in a Japanese concentration camp in WWII China of the Europeans they captured, called Shandung Compound by Langdon Gilkey we studied when I was doing my CPE residency. He analyzed the different ways various prisoners behaved. Many Protestsant evangelicals behaved rather badly (ie: selfishly) but the Dutch Catholic lay brothers were the saints of the group: they all set to and dug the latrines without being forced, to keep the group healthy.

Sometimes I worry that the reason the sceptics don't believe is just because so many of us are such an appalling example of our professed faith. At least, I know I am.

Most of the ones I talk to are clearly answering some kind of still, small voice of God calling them or they would not keep badgering me, and saying "How stupid this is..." or "how can a seemingly intelligent person believe that..." Their lives seem so limited. Even brilliant, compassionate people, it's as if they were one of those ice boats made of frozen sea spray on a stick floating on the surface of the ocean, shiny, lovely, but will melt or be toppled easily.

They don't believe me when I tell them of miracles experienced in my own life or those of people around me, and they seem stuck on the problem of evil. They are surprised that people suffer. It seems incompatible with there being a good God. It's odd, given the prevalence of a kind of Buddhism Lite that pervades the new age and PC communities, as the Buddha certainly spoke about Life being suffering.

I had one elderly great aunt-in-law assail me one Thanksgiving saying fiercely "Well, I don't see how you can believe that God is good when my mother, the one you used to read to when you were in college, she DIED!" I replied mildly "Well, she was 93..." and was roundly reviled as a heartless critter.