• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

How an Imperfect World Produces Unconditional Love


NOTE: Today we continue our four-part series by philosopher Fr. Robert Spitzer addressing the question, "Why Would God Allow Suffering Caused by Nature?" Instead of focusing on the existence of moral evil, or suffering caused by the free choice of humans, he examines why an apparently good God would create an imperfect world replete with natural disasters, physical disabilities, and unavoidable heartache.

In philosophy, agape is one of the highest forms of love. For our purpose here, suffice it to say that agape is a gift of self which is frequently expressed in self-sacrifice. It is grounded in empathy with the other which makes transparent the unique and intrinsic goodness, worthiness, and lovability of that other, which creates a unity with that other whereby doing the good for the other is just as easy, if not easier, than doing the good for oneself. As such, agape arises out of a desire to give life to the intrinsically valuable and lovable other. That other could be a stranger or a friend.

Furthermore, agape seeks no reward – neither the reward of romantic feelings intrinsic to eros (romantic love), nor the reward of reciprocal commitment and care intrinsic to philia (friendship), nor even the feelings of love and delight intrinsic to storge (affection). In agape, it is sufficient to see the other as valuable and lovable in him or herself. The well-being of the other (in him or herself) is a sufficient reward for the commitment of one’s time, future, psychic energy, physical energy, resources, and even self-sacrifice. The well-being of the other in him or herself is its own reward.

As can be seen, agape begins with empathy, a feeling for another, or perhaps better, a feeling with another. That produces a recognition of the unique and intrinsic goodness and lovability of the other, which produces “caring for” and “caring about” the other (in him or herself). Finally, that leads to unity with the other whereby doing the good for the other is just as easy if not easier than doing the good for oneself.

Most of us would agree to the proposition that this “feeling for and with another” is quite natural. We can meet another for a few moments and get a sense of the goodness and lovability of another from that other’s mere benevolent glance. We can see another in need and intuit the worthiness of that other by merely looking into their eyes. We can meet our students on the first day of class and intuit from the ethos exuded by them that they are worth our time and energy. Mere presence, mere tone of voice, mere benevolent glance engenders a recognition of unique and intrinsic goodness and lovability which causes us to care about the other, to protect the other, to attend to the other’s needs, to spend time with the other, and even to sacrifice oneself for the other – even a total stranger. It is as if we have a receptor, like a radio antenna, which is attuned to the frequency of the other’s unique and intrinsic goodness and lovability, and when the signal comes, whether it be from a smile, an utterance, a look of need, we connect in a single feeling which engenders a gift of self.

Yet, even though most would agree that empathy is natural to us, we must hasten to add that our own desires for autonomy and ego-fulfillment can block our receptivity to the other’s “signal.” We can become so self-absorbed or self-involved that we forget to turn on the receiver, and even if we have turned on the receiver, we have the volume turned down so low that it cannot produce adequate output in our hearts. It is at this juncture that suffering – particularly the suffering of weakness and vulnerability arising out of an imperfect world, proves to be most helpful.

This point may be illustrated by a story my father told me when I was a boy. I think he meant it more as a parable about how some attitudes can lead some people to become believers and other people to become unbelievers and even malcontents. But it became for me a first glimpse into the interrelationship between suffering and compassion, love and lovability, trust and trustworthiness, co-responsibility and dignity, and the nature of God.

Once upon a time, God created a world at a banquet table. He had everyone sit down, and served up a sumptuous feast. Unfortunately, He did not provide any of the people at the table with wrists or elbows. As a consequence, nobody could feed themselves. All they could do was feel acute hunger while gazing at the feast.

This provoked a variety of responses. At one end of the table, a group began to conjecture that God could not possibly be all-powerful, for if He were, He would have been all-knowing, and would have realized that it would have been far more perfect to create persons with wrists and elbows so that they could eat sumptuous feasts placed before them. The refrain was frequently heard, “Any fool can see that some pivot point on the arm would be preferable to the impoverished straight ones with which we have been provided!”

A second group retorted, “If there really is a God, it would seem that He would have to be all-powerful and all-knowing, in which case, He would not make elementary mistakes. If God is God, He could have made a better creature (e.g., with elbows). If God exists, and in His omniscience has created us without elbows or wrists, He must have a cruel streak, perhaps even a sadistic streak. At the very minimum, He certainly cannot be all-loving.”

A third group responded by noting that the attributes of “all-powerful” and “all-loving” would seem to belong to God by nature, for love is positive, and God is purely positive, therefore, God (not being devoid of any positivity) would have to be pure love. They then concluded that God could not exist at all, for it was clear that the people at the table were set into a condition that was certainly less than perfect (which seemed to betoken an imperfectly loving God). They conjectured, “We should not ask where the banquet came from, let alone where we come from, but just accept the fact that life is inexplicable and absurd. After all, we have been created to suffer, but an all-loving God (which God would have to be, if He existed) would not have done this. Our only recourse is to face, with authenticity and courage, the absence of God in the world, and to embrace the despair and absurdity of life.”

A fourth group was listening to the responses of the first three, but did not seem to be engaged by the heavily theoretical discourse. A few of them began to look across the table, and in an act of compassion, noticed that even though they could not feed themselves, they could feed the person across the table. In an act of freely choosing to feed the other first, of letting go of the resentment about not being able to “do it for myself,” they began to feed one another. At once, agape was discovered in freedom, while their very real need to eat was satisfied.

This parable reveals a key insight into suffering, namely, that “empathy has reasons that negative theorizing knows not of.” The first three groups had all assumed that weakness and vulnerability were essentially negative, and because of this, they assumed that either God had made a mistake or He was defective in love. Their preoccupation with the negativity of weakness distracted them from discovering, in that same weakness, the positive, empathetic, compassionate responsiveness to the need of the other which grounds the unity and generativity of love. This lesson holds the key not only to the meaning of suffering but also to the life and joy of agape.

The experience of the fourth group at the table reveals by God would create us into an imperfect world – because the imperfection of the human condition leads to weakness and vulnerability, and this weakness and vulnerability provide invaluable assistance in directing us toward empathy and compassion, and even in receiving the empathy and compassion from another.

As I've noted in past posts, weakness and vulnerability are not required for empathy and compassion, for many people will find empathy and compassion to be their own reward. They will see the positivity of empathy and compassion as good for both others and themselves.

Again, I must repeat that this was certainly not the case for me. Even though I saw the intrinsic goodness and worthwhileness of empathy and compassion (for both myself and others), my egocentricity and desire for autonomy created such powerful blocks that I could not move myself to what I thought was my life’s purpose and destiny. I needed to be knocked off my pedestal; I needed to be released from the spell of autonomy and egocentricity through sheer weakness and vulnerability. This happened to me – the weakness and vulnerability of an imperfect genome in imperfect conditions in an imperfect world.

Like the fourth group in the parable, my imperfect condition gave me a moment to reconsider the entire meaning of life – what really made life worth living, and it was here that I discovered empathy, love, and even compassion. The process was gradual, but the “thorn in the flesh” gave me the very real assistance I needed to open myself to love as a meaning of life.

Is suffering really necessary for agape (empathy, the acceptance of love’s vulnerability, humility, forgiveness, and compassion)? For a being like God, it is not, for God can, in a timeless, completely transparent act, through His perfect power and love, achieve perfect empathy, perfect acceptance of love’s vulnerability, perfect humility, perfect forgiveness, and perfect compassion. I suppose angelic beings could also do this in a timeless and transparent way.

There are some people who can easily move to this position without much assistance from suffering. But for people like me, suffering is absolutely indispensable to removing the blocks to agape presented by my egocentric and autonomous desires, my belief in the cultural myth of self-sufficiency, my underestimation of the goodness and love of other people, and all the other limitations to my head and heart.

God allowed an imperfect physical nature and an imperfect world for people like me not only to actualize agape freely (at least partially), but also, and perhaps more importantly, to even notice it. God asks people who are better than me in love to patiently bear with the trials that are indispensable for people like me to arrive at an insight about empathy, humility, forgiveness, and compassion. But then again, they already have the empathy, humility, and compassion to do this, so God’s request is truly achievable.

God works through this suffering. He doesn’t waste any of it. For those who are open to seeing the horizon of love embedded in it, there is a future, nay, an eternity for each of us to manifest our own unique brand of unconditional love. Without suffering, I do not think I could have even begun to move freely toward that horizon which is my eternal destiny and joy.

Next week, Fr. Spitzer will finish our series by exploring why God provides room to build a better world.
(Image credit: Vew Online)

Fr. Robert Spitzer

Written by

Fr. Robert Spitzer, PhD is a Catholic priest in the Jesuit order, and is currently the President of the Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center. He earned his PhD in philosophy from the Catholic University of America and from 1998 to 2009 was President of Gonzaga University. Fr. Spitzer has made multiple media appearances including: Larry King Live (debating Stephen Hawking, Leonard Mlodinow, and Deepak Chopra on God and modern physics), the Today Show (debating on the topic of active euthanasia), The History Channel in “God and The Universe,” and a multiple part PBS series “Closer to the Truth." Fr. Spitzer is the author of five books including New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Eerdmans, 2010); Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues (Ignatius, 2011); and Healing the Culture: A Commonsense Philosophy of Happiness, Freedom and the Life Issues (Ignatius, 2011). Follow Fr. Spitzer's work at the Magis Center of Reason and Faith.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.