Archive for category Religion

Finding the good in suffering

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.


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The case for tried-and-true

A few months ago I went to a dance at my university and experienced, for the first (and last) time in a while, the way our generation dances — that is, grinding. The experience has haunted me enough to inspire this post.

I couldn’t look at any couple without being strongly reminded of the way a dog or an insect would mount another. In any other setting, most guys wouldn’t be caught dead swinging their hips the way they do on the dance floor, in order to accommodate the girls situated neatly on their crotches (sorry, I’m trying to avoid as many gory details as possible). Faces are slack, expressionless, concentrated on matching the rhythm of the partner’s hips. It’s instinctual, repetitive, easy — and it feels damn good.

But I think we can agree that this kind of dancing is also intrinsically artless. There’s nothing to memorize, no sequence of movements to practice at home or learn under someone’s instruction. While the dancing of 50 or 100 years ago had elements of performance and procedure in it, grinding exists only in the moment and there are no rules.

Ritual is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” (Side note: Instinct had directed me to, but my higher brain function, which has been co-opted by my unpaid editor jobs, took over.) I actually like the definition better because it includes the words “pattern of behavior” rather than just “series of acts.”

Compared to the past, I think that our behavior (as a culture, as individuals) is perhaps losing some of its association with patterns. The silliest evidence is the evolution of “random” into a catchall reaction or descriptor (“That’s so random!”). But more generally, our daily choices and actions are influenced by technology that offers us unlimited choices. Commercials for smartphones flash city streets, lavish living rooms, the interior of a bar or just eye candy of the device itself, in just a few frames each. Why spend time and effort doing something you’ve done before, when your “intelligent, maybe even genius” device (Verizon’s words, not mine) can always lead you to a new experience?

Personally, I see a connection between our growing impatience with routine and the increasing secularism of the first world (and of American society in particular). While there are many more factors to this than the abandonment of ritual, as a Christian I know that a major turnoff to religion for many of my friends and peers is its reliance on repeated rites, singing or speaking in unison. Even within the religious population, many communities of worshippers are employing a more “contemporary” approach that eschews the centuries-old hymns and books in favor of guitars and PowerPoint sermons.

As for me, I love the simple hymns and the prayers we say week after week. I eat that stuff up. I find that having something stay constant in my life makes it easier to examine what’s different today, this week, this year. I have studied karate and yoga, and the challenge of learning to do something in a set way, and to replicate it, is a valuable experience.

So I think ritual and routine are underrated. You can take this with a grain of salt because I happen to be a very plan- and routine-oriented person; I love waking up at the same time every day and fixing my Cream of Wheat and cup of tea the way I did the day before, and the day before that. But the point is, I think ballroom dancing, yoga, karate and religious rites exist because people are programmed to imitate, learn and reproduce (sequences of actions as well as DNA) — and in a culture that prizes originality and individuality, we’ve lost sight of that.

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Kicking it old school: the modern religious world could use a Luther successor

Netflix keeps unearthing odd little gems for me to watch, so today I watched this movie about a Jesuit missionary trying to convert the Huron tribe. (It wasn’t bad, I recommend it. Except it seems to be dubbed over French.) The main character spent a lot of time lecturing both Native Americans and his adorable French protegee about things they should or shouldn’t do. Don’t fornicate. Don’t kill. Don’t interpret dreams. And I think that’s one of the most prevalent faces Christianity, among other religions, presents to the world: a set of edicts governing your behavior. If you discipline your actions, you purify your soul.

I think it may be closer to the other way around. I think Martin Luther got it right when he was protesting indulgences: it’s not your acts that save you, it’s your faith. Following the rules isn’t going to change your state of mind, at least not in a sincere and lasting way.

It’s the same with the other facet that outsiders see in Christianity: you know, the Jesus thing. There’s this ad campaign right now for a televangelist station, which presents words like savior, teacher, lunatic, then asks (from the perspective of Jesus), “Who do you say that I am?” — apparently distilling an entire belief system into one Gospel quotation.

The thing is, Jesus isn’t really a “who” question. You don’t hang faith on the identity of one person, on the reconciliation of that identity. Being secure in the belief of “who” Jesus was doesn’t just transform you into a perfect Christian. Faith is about turning your gaze outward, being part of something larger than yourself. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus channel and shape that faith through stories and lessons that they get out of ancient texts, and through trying to shape their behavior as well. What I’m trying to say is that you can’t manufacture faith from doctrine; doctrine grows from a faith that’s already there.

The most important point I would make, if I could address any non-religious people out there, is that faith absolutely isn’t about being perfect, not in any belief system. Religious people will try to tell you they’ve got it all right and you’ve got it all wrong, and that’s just not true. For me, faith is about accepting that our lives are pretty mysterious, that we make mistakes and that things don’t always turn out well. Perfection is impossible in this life; if I find some connection with God, I catch a glimpse of a greater significance to my existence than my brief life, barely a speck on the space-time continuum. And when I talk about greater meaning, I’m not saying that today’s suffering will all be “worth it” because we’re going to heaven. I mean that I can begin to see how my life is connected to everything else; how it has no temporal or spatial or metaphysical constraints.

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