Understanding Suffering, Preaching Hope: Part 2
Part 2: Can Science Help Us Understand?
Why do people (and other creatures) suffer? This has always been a question that plagues Christianity – if God is good, loving, and all-powerful, as we believe, why does God allow suffering, sometimes on an enormous scale? In some ways, it’s an unanswerable question, in that we can never fully (at least in this life) know the mind of God. We can’t see what alternative possibilities might have looked like, and we can’t always know the ultimate outcome of an event, as it may not come to fruition for years or even decades.
We can’t deny the reality of suffering, but suffering does not have to be without hope. As theologian Bethany Sollereder has noted in her book, God, Evolution, and Animal Suffering. Theodicy without a fall, God is not absent when his creatures suffer. God is with suffering creatures, drawing all life towards, in her words, “healing and fulfilment” (p. 184). None of God’s creatures, ourselves included, suffer alone. God is not indifferent to our suffering. Knowing this can be a source of comfort in our suffering. So can understanding why some of the things that are a cause of suffering happen.
Bringing science into the conversation
How can science help make theological sense of suffering? First, science can help us to understand why certain things happen and recognise that these things, while sources of suffering, are also the by-product of something beneficial. The understanding that comes from scientific knowledge becomes theological simply by virtue of being brought into the theological framework through which we make sense of the world and our place in it.
Some of the things that we call natural evils, that is, things that cause harm but are caused by natural processes, rather than by an intentional act by a moral agent, are the result of things that are, in fact, goods. Earthquakes are one example of this. Because the solid, outer crust of our planet sits on top of layers of molten material. Those layers of, essentially thick liquid, are in motion. Some of that motion causes tectonic plates to move, leading to earthquakes. But another effect of that motion, deep in the earth, is the creation of a magnetic field around the earth that protects the planet from solar radiation and solar wind. Without it, the earth would not be able to support life. So the same core processes that create the conditions for life also create the conditions under which earthquakes can happen. When humans live in earthquake zones and are affected by an earthquake, this is undoubtedly harmful. But the harm, it could be argued, is a by product of something essential for life. Science has allowed us to discover how these processes work and how they benefit life on earth. Just knowing that when a major event like an earthquake strikes it is part of a larger natural process and not a certain region or group of people being selected for ‘punishment’, and understanding that such a happening is also not meaningless because it is part of a system that supports life, can be helpful. Such an understanding can help us explore why, in a world created by a good and loving God, such harms occur.
Disease can also be categorised as a natural evil. But disease, too, is often the by-product of natural and potentially beneficial processes. Cancer, for example, while itself definitely not a beneficial process, arises out of natural and necessary processes that are occurring all the time. The most simplistic explanation of cancer is that it is cell division gone wrong as the result of genetic mutation. But cell division itself is not harmful – without it there would be no life, certainly no complex life. Genetic mutation, too, has been essential to the development of life. There would be no evolution without it. But sometimes, genetic mutation causes disease.
Understanding these things scientifically is one thing. But how can we make sense of them in relation to the good and loving God that we know? Simply put, God is love. Love does not create automatons, but rather creatures with freedom and dignity. God allows the universe to develop and be what it will be, through things like evolution, cell division, natural selection, and tectonic activity – including the negative by-products of these things that will sometimes occur. For life to exist, these processes need to exist. If these processes exist, these harms will sometimes happen. The freedom that allows this is the result of God’s love. Just as science can help us understand the natural processes that can lead to the harms often termed natural evil, science and the technology that develops from science can also help us find ways to mitigate against these things. Using again the example of earthquakes, because we understand what causes earthquakes and the effect they have on buildings and other infrastructure, it is possible to build earthquake-resistant structures, such as buildings and bridges, to minimise the risk of harm when an earthquake occurs. Similarly, medical science both allows us to understand the causes of many diseases, and also ways to treat or, as with some infectious diseases, prevent them. Sometimes, of course, treatment of a disease results in a cure, while at other times, it is about managing the symptoms of a disease and improving a patient’s quality of life. In either case, science enables the relief of suffering. With the advance of medical science have come ethical dilemmas. For how long do we prolong life when there is no hope of recovery from injury or disease, just because we can? How do we ensure that medicines and treatments are made available in a way that is fair and equitable? These are difficult questions, but they are the sorts of questions that we can include in our sermons, not necessarily to provide people with the answers, but to show our congregations that it is permissible to ask the questions – and to admit we may disagree on the answers!
Jennifer Brown, Director of Training, College of Preachers
Next Week: pt 3 - Our preaching and moving towards a theology of hope.