Friday, March 7, 2008

Suffering: "an existential reality"

"Thanks for the post.

I'm not entirely sure I agree that suffering has no intrinsic value, however. Certainly, Augustine's perception of evil is a reasonable and acceptable one, but understanding suffering is more than understanding evil. Evil is a necessary factor in suffering (which I would contend is a distinctly human phenomenon), but suffering is more than just evil; even if by the mere fact that it occurs in the human person, we are bound to say that something about suffering requires goodness, and specifically the loss of goodness at that. Whereas evil is, for Augustine, simply the depravation of a due good--a metaphysically nullity--suffering is a real and existential truth. Therefore, there seems to be something more in suffering than in evil, even on the primal and ontological level.

Further, I would suggest that understanding evil requires going beyond simply what Augustine proposed; while he is a Father of the Church and oft-quoted by Thomas, there is certainly a lot of good, newer philosophy that gives wonderful insight into the problem of evil. Thus, our understanding of suffering is also augmented.

I'd like to hear what you think. I'd also be curious to see more posts on the topic--unless we've already beat it into the ground :-P

Thanks. In Christ,

Dear Andrew:

Thank you for your comments and your great insights. I always appreciate the opportunity to explore more deeply questions of such importance.

You write that "suffering is a real and existential truth." I agree. You also assert that there is more to suffering than its merely being caused by evil. Here I will part ways with you. I think that there is something like a cause and effect relationship between suffering and evil. For my pedestrian purposes I pose the following: through suffering evil becomes real and existential, in its parasitical way, in our very person. Suffering, like evil, is the result of living in a broken and fallen world, which was caused by human disobedience. Suffering is not a punishment for disobedience, just a natural consequence. I never pass on an opportunity to point our Malcolm Muggeridge's observation that original sin is the most empirically verifiable fact in the world. So, for us as Christians, this is a non-controversial suggestion, we would even say that it is axiomatic, which is to say dogmatic.

Dostoevsky makes a distinction between redeemed and unredeemed suffering. The latter being things that just happen to us that cause us to suffer, like suddenly enduring the loss of a loved one and the former being the suffering we bring upon ourselves, not God's punishment, due to sin, to abusing our freedom. As attractive as this distinction is, I can only accept it with a few caveats, with which Dostoevsky would not necessarily disagree. The first caveat is that Jesus Christ redeems all suffering, even the suffering caused by our sins, this is the point St. Paul makes over and again, but stated succinctly in Romans: "while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5,8). The point of the distinction, it seems to me, is to present the contrast for the purpose of assigning some intrinsic value to what he calls redeemed suffering. The necessary caveat to this, which builds on my first caveat, is that in order for suffering to have meaning, to have value, it must be appropriated by the person who is suffering and seen in the light of Christ.
When something happens that causes a person to suffer, the death of a child, say, there is no inherent, that is, intrinsic value in such an occurrence, no good in itself. After all, how can, say, a tsunami be a bad thing? In terms of nature the Christmas tsunami of a few years ago was just a massive shift of tectonic plates. However, to the people affected, as well as for those of us who were not affected, it was truly bad precisely because of the human suffering it caused. There is no intrinsic value, that is, no good in itself, in being diagnosed with a fatal, or even a chronic disease. There is no intrinsic value in being mentally ill, or chemically dependent. None of these things, these occurrences in and of themselves make anybody holier, they might just as well drive one to despair. I know a man who was once a physician, an anesthesiologist who worked in a hospital, he was successful and then he had some terrible things happen in his life. He now lives on the street drug and alcohol dependent, walking around in a stupor most of the time. Did his tragedies have inherent value for him? No. Could they have value for him? Yes! Do I hope that he arrives at meaning, able to make sense of his traumatic story? More than anything in the world! It is not being too trivial to suggest that he must allow his story to be made part of God's story. Jesus Christ makes this really, that is, ontologically, possible.

Let's face it, if we insist that suffering has intrinsic value, is a positive good, a good in itself, we really are giving evil more than its due. Beyond that, if suffering is a good in itself, we can, at least at times, blame God for causing us to suffer. I submit that God does no such thing. I agree that St. Thomas has a lot to say that is of value on a vast array of issues, including suffering. Being far more an Augustinian than a Thomist, however, I am inclined to think Thomas a bit too theoretical in parts. Therefore, I find Thomas' writings a better place to begin and Augustine's writing a better place to end. I simply find St. Augustine more existentially aware than St. Thomas.

I do not believe that evil is a problem, as in something to be solved, just as suffering is not a theory, but, as you put it, an existential reality. Therefore, with the Buddhist we say to live is to suffer. The difference is in how we make sense of suffering. I can only make sense of my suffering. Due to its real and existential character, suffering is deeply personal. The intensely personal nature of suffering is what makes us feel so alone when we suffer. Enduring suffering can lead to alienation as easily as it can lead us to God. This alienation is not only from God, but from other people, and from the world. Most devastating is alienation from one's self, which is where dangers like addiction can creep in. Community is crucial to making sense of suffering, to redeeming it, to enduring it. Let's be honest, having communities of care and concern, which, od necessity, must be communities of truth, is not always the Church's strong point. For these and other reasons I am suspicious and remain unconvinced by any grand theory of suffering, which is not to reject that it can be salvific, just a refusal to accept that it is intrinsically so. Put simply, as far as I can tell, there is a lot of pointless suffering in the world.

I appreciate very much your comments and questions. I also appreciate very much fraternal nature of your comment. So, rather than me posting more on suffering (it has consumed most of my blogging this week- all from reading a book review!), which is a great meditation during Lent, one that I see as Providential, I invite you to be a guest blogger and post a Thomistic take on the value of suffering. I would be most eager to read such a contribution.

In Christ our Eucharist,
Dcn Scott


  1. Thank you for your response. As you articulated it here, my understanding of suffering very much agrees with yours. My initial disagreement last time was not with the necessary redemption of suffering by Christ; rather, it was with the strictly metaphysical constitution of suffering per se. Your identity as an ordained minister is clear in your approach to this question, as I'm sure my identity as a seminarian is clear from my philosophy-happy rebuttal. Nevertheless, thanks for the re-articulation of your position. It makes great sense.

    I would be happy to contribute a guest entry to your blog, however it will have to wait a bit until I have a little more free time for such things. In the mean time, you are welcome to check out my site (; it is a much more basic yet equally catechetical site for Catholics wishing to grow in their understanding of the faith.

    Thanks again for your posts!

    In Christ,

    PS: I'm glad to hear you enjoy Dostoevsky (as well as Marcel, I would guess, from your terminological distinctions with 'problem' and 'broken world'). Both are favorite authors of mine!

  2. Dear Andrew:

    When you have the time, please let me know. I'd love to have to have you contribute. I hope that you did not see my last invitation as a challenge, it was not.

    Thank you for the compliment. You'll be happy to know that one of my main assertions, which arises from my experience, is that philosophy and theology are eminently practical, even necessary, in pastoral ministry.

    In the meantime I will certainly check out your blog.

    In Christ our Eucharist,
    Dcn Scott

  3. Oh- and yes I enjoy both Dostoevsky and Marcel. Next to philosophy and theology stand poetry, literature and music. Truth, goodness, and beauty. What more can ask for?


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