C.S. Lewis and the Problem of Pain: a few reflections

The nature of the problem is as it always has been.  God is supposed to be both good and powerful.  But what is more, He is supposed to be all good (even goodness itself) and perfectly powerful (omnipotent). We find it difficult to imagine that if one of us were both perfectly good and perfectly powerful that we would do anything besides “perfect” the world.  There would be no suffering, no evil.  As it is now, these things exist without doubt. How, then, do we maintain a belief in God?

The first thing we cannot do is decide that we will change our definition of God.  “Making God” less than perfectly good and perfectly powerful is not an option.  Denying the evil that exists in the world would be a futile, not to mention dishonest, effort.  What gives?

Perhaps, as we should with all arguments, we must look for an error in our terms.  Our term which lacks the important features of clearness and unambiguous is “perfect world.” The so called perfect world we imagine ourselves creating if we were all good and all powerful would forego the perfection of free will if we were to guarantee that our puppets (and that is what they would be) could not fail to act perfectly in every way.

Forced action loses meaning. Let us take an example. If I stub my toe on a rock, I may or may not curse the rock, shout at the rock about how evil it is, etc.  But this can only be because I am attributing characteristics to the rock that I, in a more stable mode of thought, certainly know the rock lacks.  This “fault” attributed to the rock when it causes harm is no more “real” than any praise of some inanimate object when it “causes” joy. Likewise, a puppet that treated all other puppets with dignity and respect (besides the obviously absurd tone this is already taking on) is worthy of no praise at all.

If God is free, if God is love, and if we are created in the image of God, we must be free to love.  Not that the necessity of freedom belongs to us, but to the love.  One cannot love unless one is free to do so. Our “perfect world” would lack that little thing called love, and be far from perfect after all.

C.S. Lewis closely examines the attributes of God spoken of above, namely, goodness and power.  He shows us the errors of our anthropomorphism when apply our standards of these to God.  Rejecting all arbitrariness, however, in what it means for God to be called good, Lewis basically agrees with St. Thomas Aquinas.  The goodness and the power are found analogously in God.  More exactly, they are found strictly there, in all their perfection, and found in us and in our understanding of them only with all the flaws that come with being attributed to contingent being.

Therefore, it is not enough to say, in response to the question of God’s goodness and a world that looks full of evil, that “God’s ways are different than ours.” That, taken alone, would be a copout. The reality is, God’s ways are higher than ours, and although we cannot fully understand them, there is nothing preventing us from seeing that our goodness is a participation in His, and not the reverse, which is how we tend to think when we are unaware of this truth.

When speaking to one who disbelieves in God because of suffering, I find that I do not have to change my main points much from the discussion of Calvinism.  The principles are the same; the freedom of man demands, logically, the ability to sin or to do good. All talk of freedom, naturally speaking, must include both possibilities (here, I won’t discuss the freedom of the saints in Heaven, which is a freedom “from” sin, rather than a “freedom” to sin).

We, as humans, feel accomplishment only when we achieve something difficult. We jump out of a plane because there is some risk; we play a sport against an equal or even a somewhat superior athlete so that we may attain victory at a price. Without the possibility of failure, success loses much meaning.

Certainly there is a danger in overextending this analogy, but God did not create a world as a mere puppet-show that simply ran the script. He created a world where man is free to love Him and free to fail to do so. God, unlike us, knows the outcome at the moment He sets out to do anything, but this omniscience does not detract from the “risk” in the project.

A better analogy is that of the man courting a woman.  If she was a robot, programmed to love him without fail, the love would be meaningless.  No wonder, to be blunt, hookers, pornography, and the like are only ever physically and momentarily satisfying, but never emotionally so. It is, rather, in winning the love of the beloved that the love is true.

Now, God does not need love, and wills only to give it.  Yet, true to what love is (metaphysically), the love must be mutual, must be returned.  Freedom, then, is necessary, and any rejection (always a possibility) of this love is a loss in being, thus a loss in goodness, and thus a movement towards evil, which is the lack of being where it otherwise should be.

Love is the reason for evil, but only its “cause” in an indirect way.

“Christianity now has to preach the diagnosis – in itself very bad news – before it can win a hearing for the cure.” This was one of the few lines that I remembered clearly from having read the book years ago.  It seems to go hand in hand with Chesterton’s ascertain that “Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved,” for one must merely look at the front page of the paper each day or view the history of man.

Today, however, it remains more true than even in Lewis’ and Chesterton’s time that the “sickness” is not a given among the majority of men. The fundamentalists would ask “are you saved?” and perhaps their audience would reject that Jesus was that salvation, but now the question is easily returned “saved from what?” It is one thing to discuss with your doctor the best medicinal approach to curing your illness, but it is quite another to tell him, despite the exam results, that you are not sick.  This, in the end, means the worst kind of illness; not merely that of the body, but of the mind.

Lewis speaks of the Fall of Man and the importance of obedience.  I think that this obedience needs to be better understood these days. Obedience and trust, for one, go hand in hand.  Look at Mother Teresa, who reminds us that God asks of us, not to be successful, but faithful. By this, it is clear that obedient faith is what she has in mind.  In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells us that “we have received grace and apostleship for obedience to the faith, in all nations, for his name.”

Lewis reminds us, when addressing the purpose of human pain (and the fact of “purpose” is itself extremely important) that Augustine has said “God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full.” We are reminded of another text of Augustine, this time from the Confessions, “Unhappy the man who knows all these things (the creatures) and knows not thee! But happy the one who knows Thee although he knows not these other things. And the one who knows both Thee and them is not the happier for knowing them, than for knowing Thee alone.” However, our hands are often full and cannot make room for God (this is why “it is difficult for the rich man to enter heaven”), but when we behold God, it is not to the detriment of being able to behold all these created things as well.  The beholding of God, and putting Him first, makes room for all these others as well.

When leaving the temporal and pondering the eternal, C.S. Lewis touches upon a problem that I think many, perhaps most, of us do not take enough time to face: how is eternal punishment to be reconciled with a merciful God? In other words, is it really even possible for a creature, who did not ask to exist in the first place, to do so much wrong in a finite life that he deserves an infinite damnation?

Lewis gives, not a dogmatic solution, but a possibility. He shows that our understanding of time, and parallel time on earth, is not necessarily equated with that of eternity.  Certainly, if I am having a “grand old time” while I know my spouse is at home suffering, it must, if I have any heart, affect me.  But this is based upon the reality that she suffers while I have joy, and these are concurrent.

Eternity is not, however, time simply extended indefinitely.  Likewise, the realms of heaven and hell are not necessarily in the same plane of existence as one another, as the two distinct points on the map are, one where I am enjoying myself and the other where my spouse is feeling sadness. While we cannot understand exactly how this works, we must be open to the fact that the reality is above our understanding, and it need not be that the saints are joyous in heaven “while” friends and family they knew on earth concurrently burn in the underworld.  Likewise, the eternity of the suffering of the damned cannot be understood linearly, as if their 80 years of sin on earth (or worse, their one mortal sin committed and unrepented shortly before death) were simply to be equaled with a “long, long time” in hell. Peter Kreeft takes up this idea of Lewis (as Kreeft takes many ideas of Lewis) and expands upon it in several of his talks and books, and is worth hearing for further reflection.

Animal pain, and its purpose, seems more difficult, and is treated next.  The recognition that we cannot trace animal pain directly to the Fall, at least not in a manner of linear time, because animals existed and hunted one another long before the birth of man, makes for an interesting problem, both philosophically and theologically. Lewis does not, I must say, answer the problem to my satisfaction, but he does not answer it to his own satisfaction either.  He simply shows us a way, once more, to break out of our often anthropomorphic thoughts.  In other words, he does what Hume did for Kant, in “waking us from our dogmatic slumber.”

Lastly, one line I will never forget for its humor, but must ponder often (for it contains much more than at first may be seen) is where Lewis, in answering the question of “where are the mosquitoes” in heaven, says that “it is not hard to imagine that hell for humans and heaven for mosquitoes might be the same place.” This line, as I said, is funny enough to easily commit to memory.  I think it, however, a good starting point for deep reflection on the bigger reality that lies beyond our everyday experience.


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