Friday, February 29, 2008

The Problem of Suffering

I have been thinking about this topic for awhile, and have planned to do a post on it. The thoughts just keep rolling around in my head, and I have not been zapped with any burst of insight on the subject.

But, last evening, just as my husband arrived home from an evening meeting (half-way across our state), he was greeted by our dog. . .who had thrown up her dinner in the entrance way to our house. Then, she proceeded to go out to our sun porch and repeat the process. So, I had two big messes to clean up. Since my husband was tired, I told him to go ahead to get some rest while I cleaned up. After I was done, I tried to help settle the dog down in some comfortable place. Since she likes to sleep on a couch, I tried to get her up on the couch. In picking her up, I obviously hit some tender spot, because she yelped. I felt awful--and I kept wishing that she could vocalize and tell me how I could help her. She was suffering.

Animals clearly experience suffering. One of the essays I have my students read is about animal rights--and, one of the arguments made there is that since animals feel pain, they should not be purposefully subjected to procedures that intentionally cause them pain, e.g. experimentation. It is always interesting to listen to the students discuss this issue, as they struggle to establish some rational balance--some things we do will cause animals pain, but there is a utilitarian end that helps justify the pain.

What about the suffering that the human animal experiences? I recently heard Terry Gross interview Bart Ehrman. Ehrman has just published a new book entitled God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer. He has wrestled with this question which is one of the oldest facing any religion. It goes like this: if God is all-powerful and loving, why is there pain and suffering in the world?

I listened to the interview with fascination, because as I thought of some of the classic answers to this question, Ehrman would knock them down. For example, one of the answers is that suffering is the consequence of choices we make, and that it is a necessary component of our having free will. Ehrman says--fine, if you make the choice that causes your suffering, but what if the one suffering is an innocent bystander. One by one, he knocks down these various reasons as to why there is suffering. Well, I will just have to get the book and ponder his reasoning.

Then, almost as a companion to hearing that interview, my daughter proposed that I get and read a book with her--one that she would be discussing in one of her grad school classes: Susan Sontag's Regarding the Pain of Others. In fairness, Sontag is not looking at the problem of suffering. She examines photography and art that depicts pain and then looks at how we respond to such works. She argues variously that some photos make pain real to us, but that they can also inure us to pain.

A final ingredient in my mix of pondering is a movie we saw last year: Zwartboek (or Black Book). Now technically, this movie isn't just about suffering. The plot revolves around the Dutch resistance during World War II and a young Jewish woman who agrees to become the lover of a Nazi military leader. True--many people in the movie do suffer and experience pain. What fascinated me, though, was the question about what people are willing to do to help alleviate the suffering of others--Rachel, the heroine of the story, agrees to become the Nazi leader's lover because for her, the end justifies the means. Her actions are self-sacrificing, but they can also be seen as questionable at times.

It's a bit of a stretch--putting this movie along side the two books which are distinctly on suffering. In some ways, for me the problem of suffering gets wrapped up with the problem of evil. There does seem to be a connection--at least, sometimes evil causes suffering. I suspect Ehrman probably rejects that explanation--I will have to see when I read his work.

Enough of this amorphous thought process--for now, the dog is on the mend; my brain is in a whirl (per usual) and the computer is working, albeit not as a laptop but as a desktop tethered to an external screen. Maybe that's why I am musing about the problem of suffering.


chumly said...

Pain just makes us pray more. So in a way it is good.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad your dog is feeling better. Pain in animals and small children always makes my thinking cloudy. You, on the other hand, seem to think more clearly and deeply when challenged in that way. Still, I suspect the issue of suffering will be rolling around in my brain all day as I work on painting my kitchen! Thanks for that! :)

Ruth said...

One of my co-workers has been going through a lot of suffering and declared herself "mad at God" a couple of weeks ago after her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Her father is in hospital with dementia and a stroke, and her husband lost 3 of 4 limbs to a severe strep infection and nearly died. I have been pondering this question too, but in the face of such suffering my explanations are trite. And who can fathom the suffering that occurred in the Great Wars and other conflicts? Lots of hard questions...

Beverly said...

i'm glad your dog is feeling better.

The books sound interesting and the movie as well.

I think about my little granddaughter when I think of suffering...and her parents. They live good, honorable, Christian lives, and when my DIL was pregnant, again she did everything right. Yet, my granddaughter was born with cystic fibrosis. While she is very healthy right now, we know the day will come when she will not be.

They have never said to me out loud, "Why did God permit this?" but I'm sure that it must be in their minds. Their faith has not wavered.

And yet, itis so hard. It is hard for me to watch them and that dear little girl. We cherish all the good times, and believe me, I come to visit as often as I can.

Trixie said...


I have not read this book by Ehrman, but I have read others. He is a clear thinker and writer. I think you will find it thought provoking. I heard the interview, too. I am waiting for the library to get a copy. Let me know what you think.

ViewAllSides said...

Poignant points all...

I wanted to congratulate you for inspiring critical thinking to your students via the concept of animal rights. Now, I invite you to consider animals from a spiritual perspective.

More and more, the worlds of animal welfare and faith are coming to embrace the sentiency of animals. Both The Humane Society of the United States and Best Friends Animals Society, two national animal welfare groups, have created departments of Animals & Religion. The latter, actually facilitated the gathering of a group of multi-faith religious leaders who ultimately decided to create, "A Religious Proclamation for Animal Compassion." (

I think it was Schweitzer who said, "Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace."

Perhaps in our lifetime???

Cathy said...

Donna, You've got to give me a pass on this post. I read the first and last paragraphs. I've gotten pretty brittle about suffering this winter. I'm just a huge wuss.

The question of why we suffer is unanswerable.

My concern for the suffering of animals is why I no longer eat anything that nurses its young. And OMG I'm afraid someone is going to make a HUGE case for poultry suffering and I'm sunk.

Climenheise said...

Two thoughts about pain. 1) It's not God's problem. Whatever one thinks about God (personal, impersonal, there, not there), the reality of suffering is our problem. 2) I haven't read Ehrman either. I may -- we'll see. A theology of the environment is higher on my list right now than constructing a theodicy. But I do know that the negative arguments (observing that there is a problem) are always easier to construct than the positive ones. He says (I gather) that we should make life as good for each other as we can. Why? If there is no God, no source of goodness or joy or beauty, then where do these things come from. The problem of beauty is at least as big a problem for us as the problem of suffering, maybe bigger.

Responding to a blog is a bad place to discuss such things: thanks for prompting the thinking process!

mon@rch said...

Sorry to hear about your puppy and glad it's feeling better! My one cat if she eats too much will also return her dinner! We have cut back some and is much better but the other is rough because I am always trying to sneak her the dental diet that always gives problem to the one cat!

Mary said...

I'm glad your dog is feeling better. When an animal suffers, my mind goes blank.

You raised some difficult questions about suffering. Sometimes self-inflicted, yes. But there have been so many people I love who have suffered so much - friends, family. Some very good people seem to be targeted too many times. It's unfair and all of them look to the sky and say, "Why, God?"

Great post, Donna. I'll be thinking about this for a while.

JeanMac said...

Thought provoking -

Island Rambles Blog said...

Another deep thinking post brought on by the loss of the beloved laptop and now suffering with a standard computer!!! :-) ..I must admit I went immediately to the last paragraph to see if the dog was OK then went back...sorry, I am honest though. I will reread as my intellectual mind has melted from too much time on the computer looking at birds.

I love climenheise comments as I often ponder on how something can be so beautiful and perfect in this imperfect world.