I was speaking with commenter Earl at church, and the conversation moved from the data about differences in homicide rates among Caucasians, hispanics, and African-Americans to the data that the much ballyhooed decline in religiosity is primarily among Caucasians. Earl wondered if the two were related - that the more comfortable among us tend away from both violence and God. Worth pondering, and interesting that Obama, stereotypically elitist in his outlook, put the two ideas together in his Bitter Clingers remark as well.
It reminded me of a post on comfort and suffering, and how they are viewed, that I put up a few years ago.
The Truth Is Veiled (Feb 2009)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?
The link is here if you want to read the 5 excellent comments as well.