Suffering and The Meaning of Life

Ralph Wood over at Touchstone has some things to say about how Westerners and moderns — people of the rational enlightenment (this includes a lot of Christians) — think about how to live as he considers a couple of books on Dostoyevsky.

Ivan [Karimazov] is the Dostoevskian character who most fully embodies the soul-rending doubts that have become endemic to modern life. Citing the work of Isaiah Berlin, Cicovacki shows that Ivan is wracked by the three most devastating Enlightenment “humiliations” of Christian tradition: (1) the denial that man is the purpose and center of creation; (2) the insistence that man is but a creature of nature like all other animals; and (3) the discovery that reason is not autonomous and objective but subject to overt passions and covert illusions that radically distort its judgments.

Overly simply stated, Cicovacki’s argument is that Dostoevsky does not give typically Western answers to these questions. On the contrary, Dostoevsky is an anti-rationalist who insists, with Alyosha, that it is not only unnecessary but actually impossible to know the meaning of life as a condition for affirming it. In this rather existentialist reading of Dostoevsky, the great Russian is seen as providing a helpfully Eastern vision of life over against a more Western outlook.

At the center of this essay is what it means to live amidst suffering.

Though his argument is too subtle and complex for brief treatment, Professor Cicovacki argues that Dostoevsky refuses any such constriction of human life. Its troublesome breadth and incomprehensible variety are the source of its sustaining and invigorating vitality. Ivan Karamazov ends in cruelty and madness because he will not embrace such a harsh and contradictory world. He demands to understand why the universe is full of purposeless suffering before he will embrace it.

The emphasis here is mine.

We moderns seek understanding because, in the end, we seek control. One of the promises of modernity — perhaps its penultimate promise (the ultimate promise being complete rational control over all of creation, including humanity)– is an end to suffering, and thus, modernity finds no meaning in suffering itself except its end.

Yet this very question — why is the universe full of purposeless suffering? — has no answer. Not no discernible answer, nor no easy answer, but no answer at all. (Scripture toys with the question, and doesn’t really answer it either, save to say, who are you, squishy humans, to even ask?) I have come to accept this as simply a condition of existence, which I think is tremendously freeing. For the modern, to strive against fear, uncertainty, and suffering is to strive to impose an order upon the world that the world itself cannot bear. It is to work and to worry for something that simply cannot be achieved.

This is not an academic question. I do ministry with and for some profoundly wounded young people — abused and neglected kids — who have experienced some of the most horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other. All have struggled with meaning and purpose in their lives, especially in the face of brutality, cruelty, neglect, and abandonment. “What is my life for? Is this pain all I will ever know?” God knows I don’t ever want to see a child (or anyone else) kidnapped and raped, or traded and used for pleasure and profit, or abandoned in the middle of nowhere, but we live in a world in which these things happen. And will continue to happen.

There’s a sense I have that trying to remake the world so that bad things don’t happen — because the world is full of people trying to reorder it in various and sundry ways — risks making the world fundamentally inhuman. There is an extent to which modernity — in all its forms — seeks the abolition of humanity, and its replacement with people made for the machine, the process, the procedure, the market, the ideology. When I talk about a church in exile living radically unideological lives, this is what I’m getting at. We seek the human — and thus the divine — first. We seek to meet the messy human chaos — the messy divine presence in the world — in someone, rather than attempting to fit or mold them to some grand vision of the good order of the world.

But mostly it means we embrace life, and all the awfulness it has to offer, even its moral incoherence and seeming purposelessness. Because it is life. Because God so loves the world.

I was asked this week by a young person, “what is the point of it?” Of life, and specifically her life. (Though when I told her about my life, and all that has happened to me, she wasn’t entirely inspired.) And I also told her:

What’s it about? Love. God loves you. That’s an invitation to love God, and then to love the world. Not a happy, loving world. But a violent, miserable one. It makes no sense. It feels wrong sometimes. But it is true.

That’s as good a summation of my faith, of the truth of life — and what I hope to lead others into — as I can possibly make.

Wood deals a bit with Christ in Dostoyevsky, about what catching the “gospel” really means:

This transcendent order is immensely complex and often discomforting. Dostoevsky’s Christ does not merely confirm and re-establish the world’s best impulses. He introduces radically new possibilities and realities. He interrupts closed systems of thinking and destructive ways of desiring. He refuses to leave us alone in our joylessness and lovelessness. Yet he never coerces. For then he would become just another force of nature, and the Church would be just another product of culture.

But such a life entails no promise of happiness or security. There is no guarantee that the world will be healed or that we ourselves shall be spared immense suffering. On the contrary, to be immersed in the viscous reality of the world by making choices and reaping their consequences is inevitably to be burdened by both hurt and guilt.

If this is good news you can bear, then bear it. Bear it gladly.

(H/T to Rod Dreher.)

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