I think it’s safe to say that the aspect of religion that bothers people the most is not the questionable truth of holy texts or the rituals performed in religious communities: it’s theodicy, or the problem of evil. How is it, we ask, that a God can exist and allow innocent people to experience suffering?
I’ve been reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, and I’d like to share some of the possible answers I’ve found there. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French geologist, Jesuit priest and theologian in the mid-20th century. His work The Divine Milieu deals with many of the problems of Christianity, like balancing work in the world with spiritual devotion. Another balance that he seeks to reach is between our activities — productive work in the world that creates or uplifts — and what he calls our diminishments, like doubt, illness, accidents, and finally death.
God, Teilhard writes, “cannot ordain that the elements of a world in the course of growth… should avoid shocks and diminishments. But God will make it good… by making evil itself serve a higher good of his faithful, the very evil which the present state of creation does not allow him to suppress immediately. Like an artist who is able to make use of a fault or an impurity in the stone he is sculpting or the bronze he is casting so as to produce more exquisite lines or a more beautiful tone, God… transfigures [diminishments] by integrating them into a better plan.” (1)
So evil is like a grain of sand that can be turned into a pearl. It’s like a threat to survival presented to human ancestors in the course of our evolution which compelled us to adapt in new and miraculous ways. Yes, this is not very satisfying or convincing if you’re already certain that no god exists. But for me, as a Christian, it’s a source of hope and courage.
In the same passage, Teilhard discusses more concrete examples of the transfiguration of suffering into something that works toward the eventual perfection of the universe. “[T]he lives of all those who have been outstanding for intelligence or goodness, are full of these instances in which one can see the man emerging ennobled, tempered and renewed from some ordeal, or even some downfall, which seemed bound to diminish or lay him low for ever. Failure in that case” acts on us like pruning shears on plants, making us “shoot up higher and straighter.” (1)
Because I’m a music nerd, this passage immediately reminded me of the lives of so many great composers who’ve died young, fallen in love with unattainable women, contracted terrible illnesses or lived in poverty. I’m thinking specifically of Beethoven (my Beethoven geekery is severe. I wrote a paper on him a few years ago and have been enamored ever since). He began to notice his hearing loss around 1799, when he was only 29 years old, and finally in 1802 he couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. He took some R&R in the small town of Heiligenstadt and wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament.
For me, the Heiligenstadt Testament is incredibly poignant and inspiring. Beethoven writes of the incredible suffering he had been experiencing, not directly because of his deafness, but because it erected a wall between him and the rest of the world. “[F]orgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood.”
The next year, he began work on the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, a seminal piece of music in his career and in the history of classical music.
Beethoven channeled and transformed his suffering by expressing himself through his music, and he truly became one of Teilhard’s great men. This is not to say that suffering is a prerequisite to greatness, and in most cases the potential goodness in suffering is much more difficult to discern. But I think Teilhard’s thesis is fertile ground for pondering how we deal with the evil in our lives, and what part such evil may play in the greater trajectory of the universe.
(1) Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1960. pp. 86-87.