My soul failed when he spake; I sought him, but I could not find him, I called him, but he gave me no answer… For love is strong as death… many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it. (Extracts from the Song of Solomon, KJV)
I had written most of this post, when I realised that this Thursday was St. Valentine’s day (when Sts. Cyril and Methodius were mentioned at the Eucharist). St. Valentine was probably an early martyr, so possibly a post on Christian suffering is as appropriate a way of marking his day as any other! Moreover, as the general tenor of my argument is that it is worth accepting suffering for the sake of the good God wills for us in asking of us what is difficult, a festival of love is perhaps an excellent time to emphasise the unbelievable extent of God’s love, in which all the suffering of trying to respond to it, dissolves into nothing in the mutual delight that those who love each other ultimately have in each other.
What are the limits of what it is right to do in order to prevent suffering, and in particular, in order to avoid it ourselves? That is, there is everything in Christianity to imply that people’s suffering and earthly happiness matters, and everything to suggest that we should do what we can to relieve it – that we should sit with our elderly neighbour or put some tins in the food bank and so on.
I think, though, that we run into trouble when what is weighed in the balance with the suffering as the best way of relieving it, are actions that are reasonably supposed contrary to scripture (1). For example, people justify divorce by talking of how much happier they are since they left the marriage, or weigh the ethics of abortion by the distress of the mother (2). This makes sense if pleasure/suffering are the ultimate good and evil, as Bentham might have suggested. But is it compatible with Christianity, to say that preventing suffering or promoting happiness is more important than doing what God has told us is good and right? For Christian compassion is often appealed to as a reason for acting according to our own ideas, and for setting aside anything in scripture that might be used to suggest the contrary as not really meant.
I would argue that this isn’t correct. On the starkest note, if it was, it would follow by that reasoning that Christ’s response in the garden would have been, “This can’t be God’s will, he can’t possibly want me to suffer.” Or the virgin martyrs in Roman times, at points where virgins tended to be condemned to be raped, would have concluded, “I should deny Christ because my mental health will be damaged by what will otherwise happen”. While these are extreme examples, what I am trying to point out is that we are fundamentally askew in an understanding of compassion that is supposed to be based on Christianity if not suffering in whatever form takes precedence over our obedience to God’s commands, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances. These ways of reasoning don’t make sense in the context of what Christ did, and with what the early Christians thought it was right to do in following his example.
Inevitably there are a lot of reasons why we tend to think as we do about this, social, historical, and logical, but I think one is worth focusing on, and that is a tendency to reduce Christian virtue to a system of moral rules. A moral rule is a requirement that someone act in one way rather than another, with the assumption that they are capable of acting in that way. I do agree with “liberals” that the rules given to us by Christ are quite impossible if they are taken that way. We cannot do these things in our own human strength – except as a result of the chance of being in circumstances which we can cope with, which is a mixed blessing. Being able to act rightly separately from God doesn’t help in bringing us closer to God, and can ultimately result in self-righteous pride, which is a greater problem in our journey than most “ordinary” sins.
However, I think the conclusion that liberals tend to come to is mistaken. I don’t think that the human impossibility is a reason for giving up, and allowing abortion and euthanasia, divorce and unchastity (any form of sexual activity outside conjugal marriage), dishonesty, or anything else contrary to God’s commands (3).
The point of doing right is to come to God, indeed, it is to become God – to become by grace what Christ is by nature. The impossibility of doing the right and good he commands simply by our own efforts is part of that. Rather we should cast ourselves on his help. Granted, grace does not take suffering away. But it makes possible what, in simple human strength, is not possible. It makes it possible to cope, and often, though not always, it offers in that state a joy and peace that ordinary human enjoyment cannot dream of (4). The martyrs were (and are) not different types of being, but ordinary people who have taken their belief in God to its logical conclusion in a particular type of circumstance. What we believe is, ultimately, that on which we are willing to act.
Belief that we need to emphasise the role of grace in Christian living has tended to lead me to is the conclusion that it is deeply important to guard and preserve the worshipping space as a space orientated to facilitate contact with God (5). Worship is the normal means of building the relationship of real trust with God that allows us to cast ourselves on his grace when things are difficult (which is not to say he cannot provide otherwise if we are deprived of it through no fault of our own). I think there is a tendency to relegate worship to being a mere luxury of our “spare time”, to happen only away from Church, something that is almost a guilty pleasure which is taking us away from doing things that are good. I’d argue that rather we should regard worship both as part of that at which we are ultimately aiming (union with God) and that which fuels all good activity, and that worship should be the primary preoccupation of the Christian community. We can often join with others for charity and social projects – despite differences, there is a lot of common ground in many cases – but no-one else is going to provide people with Christian worship.
Real worship and Christian living go hand in hand, and I think also that we should not be afraid to preach the Gospel in all its difficult integrity. We are not offering a sort of alternative entertainment to the shopping centre on a Sunday morning, or a different theatrical backdrop for a registry office wedding! People who come to the church to be married having cohabited should expect to be invited to repent (6). People should expect to hear sensible suggestions about how to balance the claims of their children (7), and their own legitimate need for appropriate recreation, with sacrificial charitable giving. Christ suffered, and he rose. We suffer, and we too will rise. What we are offered is far greater than any possible loss. God loves us. The commands he gave us, however difficult, he gave us for our good (8). We do not need to be afraid of casting ourselves on his help and obeying them. We do not need to be afraid of our (inevitable) failure (9). Building church communities which can offer human support for those whose lives are being made difficult by their faithfulness to the Gospel is a major challenge in the modern world, but it is reasonable to argue that it is an extremely important part of the task of Christian compassion: if our real good lies in doing what God wants, then helping another to do it is what most promotes their good.
However, though I am sure that Christian compassion, properly understood, does not mean making or advocating choices contrary to his commands, and while I am confident in a relatively traditional understanding of the nature of those commands (10), I remain thoroughly unclear as to how one is to decide what one should do where there is no clear reason to act one way or the other. The simple fact that something is likely to cause you to suffer or to be less happy may not be a reason to rule it out, but it also isn’t a reason to do it. On the contrary, as God is our creator and this life a gift as much as the life to come is, earthly happiness and flourishing are important (11). But does that really give us back to our own inclinations and judgements about what will make us happiest except where we have been told particular actions should be done or avoided?
That hardly fits in with the type of anthropology (understanding of what the person is) that I’m advocating here: it is rather too machine-like, and sends us back to “moral rules” rather than “person held in grace”. It doesn’t really allow the whole of our lives to belong to God. I suppose that this is where the issue goes beyond the province of philosophy, in that specific discernment, “what does God want me to do in this time and place?” becomes highly relevant. I am sure this must be part of the answer to the puzzle, but discernment relies on good formation, good advice, and stability of relationship with God, and it cannot completely take the place of practical reasoning (12), as part of Christian formation is likely to be learning to be motivated by the right thoughts and feelings, and the way in which a question will be framed and prayed over is contingent on our way of thinking about it in the first place.
I have no proposed answer to the question of what Christian practical reasoning should look like on this level, and this frustrates me, as in that aspect of things I have only managed to deconstruct, and not to construct, at least not to a level which adequately guides my own practice without continuous perplexity as to whether I am getting it more or less right or not.
I am sure that we need, in general, to realise that Christian ways of reasoning about what we do should differ from those of the world, and that, to place the seeking of earthly happiness and the prevention of earthly suffering over all other considerations, is not something that belongs to the Christian tradition, despite the emphasis of that tradition on compassion. God is faithful. True faith requires making decisions on that basis, and not on the basis only of our immediate experience. How a Christian should make minor decisions about modern everyday life in practice, if the things which are normally a guide to action and decision in our society cannot be followed at least in their raw form, remains a matter of perplexity to me. If anyone has any thoughts, I would be extremely interested to hear them.
Due to time constraints, I’ve made no attempt to reference this post comprehensively (i.e. to academic standards). If anyone wants proper references to something (e.g. to a particular work of Bentham’s) please ask and I’ll provide them…
- I was puzzled as to whether I should choose “contrary to God’s commands” with all the problems of that, particularly regarding the fact that scriptural interpretation is not my subject and the role of tradition in said interpretation is complex and controversial, or “duty” “commitment” “moral obligation” all of which carry other difficult implications. In the end I have mostly chosen “contrary to God’s commands” in an attempt to be consistent with what I’ve said about reducing Christian ethics to a system of moral rules.
- It is a bit worrying to specify, but I think it is required for clarity, that I should align myself with the traditional Christian ethics in particulars. To anyone distressed by this: I am a sinner who has no right to judge individuals – and God’s mercy is infinite. I was unsure about naming abortion as directly “contrary to scripture” rather than a matter of deduced consistency, but I believe it is often said to be so due to the number of unborn children who seem to be regarded as fully human. Dispute about details of that sort, however, is not really relevant to the argument, as what I am trying to say is that suffering/happiness cannot be set up as the ultimate criteria for what is right.
- Real questions regarding boundaries exist in all cases – I am not writing about that here. But arguing that what is said in Matt. 5:32 about fornication suggests that in the case of sexual unfaithfulness to the other party being continued through marriage with no intention that it should stop renders a Christian marriage invalid and not binding, is fundamentally different from saying that someone is not obliged to be faithful to their marriage vows unless it is making them happy. It is appealing to a different type of criteria.
- It is always difficult to make statements about this, as we never fully understand the way God is acting or the way he is trying to get us to respond. I think what is said here is meaningful, but in no way am I trying to claim that it is exhaustive.
- See also my previous post https://handmaidsdistaff.wordpress.com/2018/10/25/welcoming-children-and-valuing-silence-eleven-creative-ideas-for-churches-with-young-churchgoers/ paragraph five.
- I do not mean that they should be told they are going to hell, or yelled at for twenty minutes by the priest, or told that every other aspect of their relationship is evil because they have been unchaste. I mean that they would properly be invited to understand that Christian marriage rules out all other types of sexual relationship, including any they may have previously had with each other, and that part of entering into Christian marriage is bringing oneself into line with that: i.e. that Christian marriage is not “making the relationship permanent”, as the natural next stage, as it might be in the registry office understanding of marriage, but is entering into a different type of relationship understood in a different way. I realise this is a horrible thing to say as an academic who is never likely to have to actually be the person saying this to a real couple, but I think the principle matters.
- Or others to whom they have particular responsibilities. I keep meaning to write something about this, but it is hopelessly confusing, and I have no real answers yet. The correct particular-responsibility/greater-need balance is a question which I feel is under-considered. I admit to having a bit of a bee in my bonnet about the way simplicity is presented nowadays. It seems to me that we tend to be told to feel guilty about the fact that we are not starving equally to the person in the world who is closest to starvation, because we have spent the money on food for ourselves rather than giving it to charity. I am sure no one means this, but it is the logical conclusion of a lot of what is said, which recognises no claim on property but greater need.
- Probably the thing in which I least practice what I preach, which is a paradoxical demonstration of the point!
- Primarily because I believe that most arguments against it are “culture above Christ” arguments, which appeal to criteria which don’t belong in Christianity (see e.g. note 3; for those familiar with his work, I am using an understanding of tradition which is “school of MacIntyre”).
- For which reason, I would argue strongly that it is excellent to respond to being unhappy or being unable to cope by doing things that are legitimate – seeking marriage/crisis pregnancy counselling, looking for respite care for a sick relative, going to a dating agency or matchmaker if, free to marry, one is not happy single. The argument I am making rules out certain solutions to unhappiness – indeed, it suggests that in the great scheme of things they are not really solutions – and suggests that it should not be the only thing we consider in our decision making, but I really would emphasise that this is not the same thing as saying that human unhappiness doesn’t matter.
- Practical reasoning refers to the manner in which someone thinks about how to act. For example, someone might decide to eat a lentil stew for dinner because it was what they felt like eating, because they thought it was healthier, because it was the only vegetarian option, or because they were abstaining from meat during Lent. In each case, the motivation for the action and the reasons why that is a motivation for acting are different.