13 December 2022, The Tablet

Why suffering is the price we pay for living in a world that makes sense

Why suffering is the price we pay for living in a world that makes sense

During his Angelus address, Pope Francis spoke about the suffering of people in Ukraine.
CNS photo/Vatican Media

Seated one day at my desk at The Times where I worked as its religious affairs correspondent and weekly columnist, I took a call from someone I didn't know. A friend had told him, he said, that I had solved “the problem of evil” in one of my articles, and he wanted to know how I had done it. I couldn't remember: the article in question had appeared some years before.

The problem, as all readers of The Tablet will be aware, is the impossibility of reconciling the goodness of God with the existence of human suffering. If He really cared, he would stop it. So either He can't, hence He is not all powerful, or he doesn't really care, so He is not all loving. So the two doctrines about God cannot both be true.

This is the theological dilemma called theodicy. There was a famous argument between Voltaire and Leibniz following the Lisbon earthquake which destroyed the city in 1755 and killed thousands of its inhabitants. Leibniz asserted that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds; Voltaire ridiculed him in his novel Candide. It was widely held that Voltaire had won the argument. God could have prevented the earthquake and didn't, therefore He – and perhaps we have to drop the upper case letter – did not exist. I had argued, my caller told me, that Leibniz was right.

I found the article, and I think the argument is worth repeating. Maybe someone can do a Voltaire and knock it down. It was triggered by my reflections as an airline passenger, feeling the surge of the engine as the pilot opened the throttle on take off. As we accelerated down the runway I said a prayer, maybe a Hail Mary or two, as I usually did. But what exactly was I praying for? A miracle if necessary, I suppose, so we would not crash. I was praying that the laws of aerodynamics still applied, and when the aircraft wings had enough lift we would leave the ground and head safely towards our destination.

But if you tease that apart, it breaks down into series of steps taken by the airport ground crew and maintenance teams. I was praying, in effect, that the man or woman whose job it was to tighten the bolts holding the engines to the wings ­had done his or her job properly; that the technician who last x-rayed the jet turbine blades to check for metal fatigue hadn't missed a potentially fatal crack; that debris lying on the runway had been cleared away; that de-icing had been done if necessary; that air traffic control had made sure no other aircraft was about to occupy the bit of airspace we were heading into... and so on.

Or to put it another way, I was praying that had a maintenance engineer skipped his checks and left a bolt or two loose, God would step in and miraculously tighten them. Or that a turbine blade wasn't about to fail because God had made it whole again; or that thanks to divine intervention the piece of debris that fell off an earlier plane into the runway had been blown away; that maintenance crews had been reminded by God to de-ice the wings; and that air traffic controllers, having forgotten to check the flight path of other aircraft nearby, were given a supernatural reminder to check their radar screens one more time. Or if not, God had still stepped in to keep the planes safely apart. And so on. That is a lot to pray for.

At which point my musings became more general. If God did all those things in answer to my prayers, why just for me? Why did I think I was so special? All these acts of divine intervention, at the request of just one passenger, to prevent just one air crash? It became obvious God and his supernatural tool kit would have to be all over every aircraft in every airport on the planet, checking every detail. And what I and all us praying passengers would be asking for was in effect a suspension of the laws of cause and effect, so that mistakes were caught in time and miraculously corrected, and did not have horrendous consequences.

Under the normal laws of physics, a loose bolt would rattle free, the engines would become detached, and the plane would crash. A piece of debris on the runway would pierce a fuel tank and set it on fire; two aircraft on a collision course would collide; wings laden with ice would not generate enough lift. These are the results of scientific laws, and I would be asking God to suspend them for my benefit. And indeed, because I know very well I was not a special case, we would be asking God to suspend all the laws of science and the invariable connection between cause and effect on which those laws had depended since the beginning of time. In every case. Everywhere. Permanently.

So an aircraft with no engines would still fly, and aircraft which collided would bounce off each other with no damage. So why bother with aircraft maintenance engineers or air traffic controllers? We would all be safe as houses, and there would be none of the human suffering that attends an air crash. Or any other disasters, natural or manmade. But having abandoned cause and effect, the very idea of rationality would be lost. Nothing would make sense. Our human brains would not have evolved to cope with a rational world as there wouldn't be one; we would still be amoebas on the shore line. The world would be governed not be predictable science but by random miracles.

This is an unreal world that cannot exist. Or to put it another way, the very existence of the world we know depends on the consistency of scientific laws and the guaranteed connection between cause and effect. And they are the reason that suffering exists and not some mysterious higher purpose by which suffering turns out to be somehow spiritually advantageous.

This supposition is banal, not at all profound and meditation on it does not move us to a higher level of enlightenment. The world is the way it is, and suffering exists in it, because that is the only rational option. If God had intervened to prevent the Lisbon earthquake he would have had to intervene to prevent all earthquakes and indeed all other disasters, natural and manmade, then and now. It is the price we pay for living in a world that makes sense – the only possible world we can imagine. Leibniz was right, and although I had forgotten about it in a moment of absent-mindedess, so was I.

What do you think?


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User comments (1)

Comment by: JohnCPW
Posted: 14/12/2022 11:30:32
Thank you, Cliff. It seems to me that the "problem of suffering", like a few other challenges in life in general and the Catholic faith in particular (Original Sin, anyone?) really stem from our perfectly natural tendency to create God in our own image. Perhaps the most profound notion we can have is "personhood", so our best shot at pinning down God has been to describe them as three persons. To me these "problems" open a window through which we may begin to discern how very much more there is to God than personhood.

There is an old quip about quantum mechanics to the effect that anyone who claims to understand it obviously doesn’t. It seems so counter-intuitive, not least because our senses have never had to deal with its consequences. Nevertheless, the conscientious labours of science get us ever closer.

When it comes to God and the nature and purpose of creation, we are – or should be – on a very similar journey. The "Hard Problems" challenge our model of reality, requiring us to discern a better model, which should, in turn, refine how we try to live.
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