Suffering, salvation, and the mystery of an imperfect world

Suffering, salvation, and the mystery of an imperfect world

[Schall on Spitzer, another Jesuit “in whom there is no guile” (cf. John 1:47)]

As Fr. Robert Spitzer’s new book demonstrates, God cannot make us free and then make it absolutely certain that we do not reject Him. The whole point of love is that it be freely given, freely received, and freely returned.

“Need entails weakness, effort, inconvenience, and pain, that is, the possibility of suffering, but it seems that God could have eliminated the possibility of such suffering at the outset by creating completely self-sufficient beings in a world of perfectly abundant resources. So why did God create an imperfect natural order?” — Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press 2017), 429.
“We can conclude from Jesus’ revelation that our relationship to God really matters to Him; it really affects His subjective, personal, and relational state of consciousness. Though God does not need to be in relationship with us to be ‘what’ He is in His nature and power—the unique, uncaused, unconditional loving, perfectly good, unrestricted act of self-consciousness and thought capable of creating everything that exists—He chose to enter into a relationship with us that can affect His subjective state of consciousness.” — Fr. Spitzer, The Light Shines on in the Darkness, 88.

I.

The Light Shines on in the Darkness is the last of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s “Quartet” of books under the general title of “Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence”. Previously, I commented on the second volume, on “Yearning”: Why is it that we are never completely satisfied with anything in this world even when what we have does, to some extent, satisfy us? Many existing things meet our human needs and wants; the world manifests an inter-related order. We live midst much abundance, as Spitzer’s first volume indicates. Yet, we are never completely happy with it.

The third volume recounts what we know about ourselves and the world as indicated in divine revelation. The present volume is devoted to the perplexing issues of pain and suffering. This 500-page book, which requires attentive reading, intends to meet head-on the claims that natural ills and humanly-caused moral disasters indicate either that God does not exist or, if He does, that He is a cruel or uncaring God. All four volumes contain easily identified subdivisions that refer back or forward to further discussions of points at issue.

Spitzer sets out to explain nothing less than why an imperfect world exists and why it might be best that it does. He explains, along the way, the paradoxical truth that suffering need not lead to damnation but to our redemption and glory. Ultimately, man is saved through suffering. Ironically, in the end, an “imperfect” world is far superior to a “perfect” world that requires no effort on the part of creatures. The imperfection of the world is rooted in the perfection of the Godhead. This truth is why the world can exist as it does. We are given intelligence so that we can know that our world, even with its sufferings and limitations is not a chaos.

Father Spitzer is a man of many talents. His Magis Institute is a wide-ranging source of scientific, theological, philosophical, and practical knowledge. He appears regularly on EWTN in a program devoted to nothing less than his own “universe”. And, in many ways, he is also his own university. His earlier book New Proofs for the Existence of God is a must-read, revealing his wide-ranging grasp of things scientific and philosophical.

Moreover, as he mentions several times in this and other books, Spitzer’s eyesight is such that he sees very little. Any reader of Spitzer can only be astonished at the wide-ranging scope of his reading and research. He seems to remember everything he ever read. For a man who can barely see, he appears, with the help of readers and electronic devices, to have covered a greater range of knowledge than even the most learned among us have considered.

II.

The obvious thing we think about when it comes to pain and suffering is that neither “should” exist. They prove that something is wrong somewhere. When we feel pain in some parts of our body or soul, we normally seek to rid ourselves of it. And often we do—broken bones, on being reset, heal; headaches and flu go away, often with some treatment. Pain seems to have some positive purpose. The doctor wants to know: “Where does it hurt?” If it did not hurt, we would not know anything was wrong with us. The “design” of our human bodies includes a pain “communications system” whereby we can locate where things go wrong. Without pain, many of us would have been dead long ago because we never recognized that anything was wrong in us.

But other kinds of things—spiritual things—also go wrong. Aristotle pointed out that anger, though often uncontrolled, can be a good thing. It shows we can recognize things of the spiritual order that also go wrong; it indicates that we recognize, as we should, when something is evil or wrong. Spitzer, in this book, spends a good deal of time with the Old and New Testament passages in which Yahweh or Christ reacts angrily to something. At first sight, this reaction seems contrary to the divine being and the final revelation in the New Testament that God is love. How can a transcendent God, complete in Himself, be upset about anything?

Spitzer considers it necessary to defend God, as it were, from any suspicion that He is non-loving if He shows anger or disappointment with our thoughts or actions. Spitzer thus maintains that any “anger” shown by God in scripture is really a manifestation of His love and His willingness to forgive. Still, while this may be true, we cannot have God being indifferent to sins and aberrations. Otherwise, it would not make much difference what we did. As the second introductory citation suggests, even though God is “changeless”, His love of His creatures includes, through Christ, the dimensions of their souls, and of their sufferings. We can, thus, in some analogous way, say that God, in sustaining us in being, suffers when we suffer and is angered when we sin. But in His providence, both suffering and sin (which are not the same things) can lead to a greater good.

The major thrust of this book, however, places the problem of suffering in a wider context. In order to understand pain and suffering, we have to begin with the more fundamental question: Why do we exist at all? Once we answer this question, we can turn our attention to pain and suffering. But we do not often see the whole of our existence spelled out. We are not simply “finite” beings with no transcendent destiny.

The fundamental context of Spitzer’s approach is contained in the first citation above, namely, that the world is imperfect. If we lived in or were given a “perfect” world in which everything we needed was provided for us—if there was no pain or disorder in the world—we would stagnate and be content to do nothing but receive what we wanted. However we imagine heaven to be, it is not a place of complete inertness where nothing happens.

The same is true of this world. Something is demanded of us here. The world is not a place wherein nothing happens. Indeed, it is a place where the most important thing we can imagine happens—to wit, our decision about who we are and what we make ourselves to be for eternity. Our civilization is reluctant to face head-on the implications of our strange existence in this world. To understand it, we must begin with the fact that we need not exist in the first place. God does not “need” the world or us in it; He is complete in His own inner Trinitarian life. If anything besides God does exist, it is because God chooses for it to exist. The key question then becomes: Why would God “choose” that something besides Himself in His Trinitarian life would exist outside of Himself?

What did God freely “choose” to exist? God did not first put the cosmos into existence and then ask Himself what to do with it. Rather, first He decided to associate with Himself, in His inner life, finite and free beings who could respond to and could choose to return the love that is within the divinity. Thus, God operated under a certain risk or constraint. He could not have (nor did He want to have) beings who were not free to choose His inner life as their eternal destiny. The cosmos, then, is the arena wherein the drama of this choosing by the rational creature of his own destiny takes place. Man—each man in his life, death , and resurrection—is the central drama of which the cosmos is but the background.

In order for man to manifest what he is, what he freely makes himself to be in his inner soul, he needed time and space. He was given a world that challenged him to figure out how it worked in itself and for his own good, for his own “dominion”. He was not in the world simply to keep it going in time. The adventure of humanity in its existence over time is to figure out what God did in the world He created to make it what it is. This figuring out can be called something like learning the natural law or the scientific reasons inherent in things. Spitzer is particularly good in showing these connections. The world is not complete until some beings within it—beings who are not God—also know it and understand it. This knowing is the adventure of mankind in this world. In the final analysis, we want to know both our destiny and simply what is.

But the adventure of mankind within the world itself is only secondary. The world is ultimately an invitation to each person to accept or reject, in the conditions of his time and life, whether he will choose freely to love God and those in His Kingdom. The alternative to choosing God is the choosing of oneself as the end of his own existence. All through this book we find the theme of the centrality of free will, of how God cannot have it both ways. That is, God cannot make us free and then make it absolutely certain that we do not reject Him. The whole point of divine and human love and friendship is that it be freely given and freely received and returned. The “risk” of God in creation is precisely the possibility that His love of His creatures can be rejected.

III.

Where does suffering come into this scenario? This is the whole point of the redemption in the Word made flesh to dwell amongst us. The initial rejection of God had its consequences in death, in work, and in child-bearing. We human beings live with and in the consequences of the choices of others. God does not suspend the laws of nature every other second to prevent our suffering. God always acts, as Spitzer repeatedly insists, for our good in the greater good of everyone. Were it not the case that our actions have no consequences, we could have no effect on one another. Our sins are not, in their effects, simply our own.

The Redemption through Christ’s cross and resurrection was God’s way of responding to the issue of suffering, to the accusation that God was at fault for allowing suffering in the world. As it turned out, suffering was not the evil; the free rejection of God was the evil most central to our final existence. The finite, imperfect world is the place where this final rejection or acceptance is made. The redemption was God’s way of giving us a second and third chance to behold the consequences of our free acts. But death is the reality that tells us we must sooner or later choose how we are to be in eternity. We have here no lasting city.

Spitzer is careful to show how suffering itself can be understood and accepted. It is an indication of what is wrong with us. It can be a sacrifice for others who do not choose to see the importance of their own final choices. We are created to live an eternal life, whether we choose God or reject Him by the way we live our lives among the others given to us in our brief passage through the daylight.

The redemption is fundamentally directed to our transcendent end that comes to each person in death. We are to die and rise again, as Christ did. This is the completion of our existence. But the scene of our choosing is within this finite world; we make our choices in our relation to others. The whole natural order is there for us to understand and develop. But the real drama of our existence is how we stand to God, how we freely choose. We are given a certain number of days and years.

Spitzer’s final volume carefully takes us through the steps whereby we discover just what our existence means in the cosmos in which we exist. None of us chooses to come to be. Our initial existence is a gift. But it is a demanding gift. Whether the world goes well or ill in the time allotted to us makes relatively little difference. We all face the same question: How do I choose to define myself in the everlasting? If we get this wrong, we will get everything else wrong. No book spells such issuer out more clearly and thoroughly than Spitzer’s reflections on suffering and its relation to God.

The two initial citations remain with us: 1) We live in an imperfect world that is perfect for its purpose. And 2) God is indeed concerned with the lives of each of us, with how we respond to the risk He took in creating us free in the first place.

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