“Aim at something. Discipline yourself. Or suffer the consequence. What is that consequence? All the suffering of life without any of the meaning. Is there a better description of Hell?”
-Jordan B. Peterson
No, I don’t think there is. Which is yet another reason why I find the appeal to the “Problem of Evil” as an attack on Christian and Jewish theism not just deeply irrational (which it is), but morally abhorrent. Those attempting to wield this rhetorical cudgel are attempting to drive a wedge between people and the ultimate and only source of real, eternal and transcendent meaning. That would be God. That is to say, the philosophical materialist or other skeptic who strives through dissuading people from faith in God is strives to dissuade them from embracing the only real source of ultimate meaning, while simultaneously assigning to the suffering and pain in life the sole, deciding significance in weighing the question of meaning and of the essential moral valence of the universe (is life good, is God good). As if pain and good were necessarily incompatible.
We all know this is untrue and the honest among us admit it. The Peterson quote used above comes from Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, specifically the point in the book where the question of meaning is discussed. The key point he makes in the chapter is that facing the difficult, frightening, painful thing, with the possibility of real failure, real loss, real pain, is necessary for life in the world (as it currently is) to be meaningful. That is a profound theological truth, in addition to a psychological one. It is closely related to the point Satan makes in the first verses of Job. Good that we know will always be rewarded, always be protected, is no good at all. It is pure self-interest with no motivation going beyond personal well-being. Good that is done, held in the heart and lived in the face of pain, loss and suffering, that is the real Good, the Good that defies evil and perdures in its face. These possibilities, if not actualities of evil, are absolutely necessary for the Good to be realized in the world as it is.
However, to take the matter Peterson brings up one step further: Purposelessness even without immediate, obvious physical suffering becomes itself a form of suffering. This point is made in a number of stories in one of my favorite genres, science fiction. And since I’m writing in the television and film age, a number of the examples I am about to adduce are from film and TV, starting with “A Nice Place to Visit”, which was episode 28 of The Twilight Zone and was broadcast first in 1960. Never seen it? Seen it a long time ago and don’t remember it clearly? Well you can watch a cut-down five-minute video encapsulating the key plot points here or you can allow me to summarize: A man named Henry Francis “Rocky” Valentine, a mobster, gets shot and killed in an attempted robbery wakes up in a luxury apartment after he dies. He soon discovers, through his guide, a cherubic slightly older man who refers to himself as “Pip”, that his every wish is granted, every need fulfilled, and …there is absolutely no risk to any of it. He can’t lose at the casino, can’t get shot by the cops if he robs the local bank, can’t get VD from one of the “stacked broads” (the words used in the episode which caused the show some tension with the network censors in 1960, no kidding) who… attends him…in short, nothing he can do can matter. At all. As soon as he has this realization, he begs “Pip”, whom he had assumed was an angel, to take him from the place he had assumed was Heaven to “the other place”.
“Oh, Mr. Valentine. I never told you this was Heaven. This is the other place,” Pip replies, and the episode ends with Rocky Valentine frantically trying to open the now-locked door of his apartment.
And other than that door being locked? Not a thing has changed about his material conditions. He can’t get hurt. His liquor cabinet is full. His every need is met. He will not suffer, physically. And it means nothing. That is Hell. That is suffering.
The point is made in an equally horrific manner in the Matrix movie, the quote from Agent Smith reads like this:
Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization.
The idea is certainly expressed in materialist terms and by the arch-villain of the series, no less, but the core concept agrees with the underlying Biblical idea of the fall of man: We were offered a world that was essentially perfect, which meant a world in complete harmony with God but chose instead a world in which we could learn exactly what this thing called “evil” is. This is an element in the “freewill defense” of Judeo-Christian theism and it derives from the logically sound premise that any created entity made by the supreme and perfect source and ground of all being is necessary going to be less than perfect: Morally, physically, spiritually, intellectually, in every sense. The human race could have chosen to accept the very minor limitation of not knowing that there was such as thing as life apart from God, but we chose not to accept that limitation. And we keep making that same choice.
Another example from popular science fiction: Kirk and Picard in the Nexus in the film Star Trek: Generations. The context here is that the two captains of the U.S.S. Enterprise meet each other in a
thoroughly silly plot contrivance kind of pocket dimension in which one’s mind shapes reality, but only for the better, meaning that their fondest desires come true. For Picard, this means marriage, kids and a traditional French Christmas that owes more to the late-nineteenth-century than the mid-twenty-fourth. For Kirk, this means being at his uncle’s horse farm in Idaho, where he repeatedly and easily makes a jump over a small ravine that had always scared him before. You can watch the scene here, and get the dramatic presentation of Kirk and Picard and the essence of meaning.
Kirk realizes the existential lesson inherent in the situation very quickly (because the plot requires that he realize it quickly so that he and Picard can go fight the bad guy): A life free of risk is a life without meaning. Our choices have to matter, which means the possibility of failure, loss, pain, must real. It does not have to realized, but in a world fundamentally separated from the source of all Good–that would be Adonai himself– it will be. Only his grace and mercy keeps the pain, suffering and loss from being the only elements defining human existence.
“Then free will isn’t worth it,” is one common objection raised to this argument. Of course, those raising that objection are in my experience the very ones who would scream “divine tyranny!” or “that’s not what I meant” if God were to revoke their free will tomorrow and leave them unable to choose evil. Were God to make impossible for us to choose adultery, homosexuality, greed, theft, covetousness, those yummy fits of rage we all enjoy (and the brutal violence that sometimes accompanies them), drunkenness, gluttony, and all the other evils we prize so much and justify so readily, we would all resent having our liberty to choose these things taken from us, and we would all be right to resent it. But God has not taken that liberty from us, however much we might want to take it from each other. He has given us the enormous gift of deciding to live with or without him. We chose the world were our choices matter, our lives, matter, and as a necessary consequence, our decision entails that pain and suffering will in some measure be a real factor in human life. Looking for someone to blame for a world in which a thing called a pediatric cardiology ward can exist? Look in the mirror. The fault is not in He who made the stars, but in ourselves.
As a postscript, consider the following quote from Viktor Frankl, taken from his book with Pinchas Lapide, Gottsuche und Sinnfrage: Ein Gespräch. Sorry for those who don’t read German or Portuguese. There is no English edition (yet, I am trying to convince the rights holders to let me translate and publish the whole thing):
„Many people say that ‚Oh, certainly most people lost their faith in Auschwitz!‘ But that’s absolutely wrong. I don’t have any statistics, but my impressions, my feeling is that what was true is that more people regained their faith in Auschwitz than lost it, that faith was strengthened in more people in Auschwitz- and that means in spite of Auschwitz- than that people lost their faith there. So we shouldn’t just keep on using the pat formula ‚faith after Auschwitz‘ in connection with the ability to have faith, but instead we should talk about faith in spite of Auschwitz“.- Viktor FranklViktor E. Frankl and Pinchas Lapide, Gottsuche und Sinnfrage. Translation is the author’s.
Faith in and in spite of suffering- Therein lies a the direct connection to real, transcendent meaning and not coincidentally, the one power who provides true strength and consolation when facing suffering in this shattered world.
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