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Why Would God Allow Suffering Caused by Nature?


NOTE: Today we begin a 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. The series will continue on each of the next three Fridays.

It is somewhat easier to understand why God would allow suffering to occur through human agents than it is to understand why He would allow suffering to occur through natural causation. After all, it would seem that if God creates the natural order, He could have created it perfectly – so perfectly that there would be no possibility of human suffering. He could have created each human being in a perfectly self-sufficient way, so that we would have no need. Or, if we had need, He could have created us with a perfect capacity to fulfill those needs within a world of perfectly abundant resources.

So why did God create an imperfect natural order? Why did He create a natural order which would allow for scarcity? Why did He create a natural order that would give rise to earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis? Why did He create a natural order which would permit vulnerabilities within the human genome that allow for blindness, deafness, or muscular degeneration? Why did He create a natural order which would permit debilitating diseases?

The brief answer lies in the fact that a perfect natural order would leave no room for weakness and vulnerability; yet weakness and vulnerability induce many positive human characteristics, perhaps the most important human characteristics, such as (1) identity transformation, (2) stoic virtues, (3) agape, and (4) interdependence and human community. This list of characteristics represents the most noble of human strivings, the propensity toward greater civility and civilization, and glimpses of a perfection which is unconditional and even eternal. Though weakness and vulnerability seem to delimit and even undermine human potential, they very frequently detach us from what is base and superficial so that we might freely see and move toward what is truly worthy of ourselves, what will truly have a lasting effect, what is truly destined in its intrinsic perfection to last forever.

A perfect world might leave us content with pure autonomy and superficiality, and would deprive us of the help we might need to deepen our virtue, relationships, community, compassion, and noble striving for the common good. The “perfect world” might deprive us of the impetus toward real perfection, the perfection of love, the perfection which is destined to last forever. We will now discuss each of the above four positive characteristics of weakness and vulnerability induced by an imperfect world.

Human beings tend to move through four levels of happiness or purpose:

(1) happiness arising out of external physical and material stimuli;

(2) happiness arising out of ego-satisfaction and comparative advantage (such as status, admiration, popularity, winning, power, and control);

(3) happiness arising out of making an optimal positive difference and legacy to the people and world around me; and

(4) happiness arising out of being connected with and immersed in what is perfect, ultimate, and eternal in Truth, Love, Goodness, Beauty, and Being (for those with faith, God).

It so happens that the lower levels of happiness/identity are more surface-apparent, immediately gratifying, and intense than the higher levels. They tend to more easily attract us and hold our attention from without (instead of requiring discipline from within), so we more easily gravitate toward them. However, they are much less pervasive, enduring, and deep than the higher levels of happiness/identity. For example, making an optimal positive difference to others and the world with my time, talent, and energy (Level 3) can have effects far beyond my ego-gratification (Level 2), so it is more pervasive than Level 2. These effects can last much longer than the acquisition of a new car, the enjoyment of an ice cream cone, and the enjoyment of status and power – so they are more enduring than Levels 1 and 2. Finally, they are deeper than Levels 1 and 2, because they involve my highest creative and psychological powers (i.e., my powers of intellection, moral reasoning, ideal formation, love, spiritual engagement, etc.).

The difficulty is that only one of these levels of happiness/identity can be dominant. The others will become recessive. Thus, if the desire for physical pleasure and material goods is dominant, the desire for ego-satisfaction, optimal contribution, and spiritual connection will be recessive. We will therefore live for what is most surface-apparent and immediately gratifying, but neglect what is most pervasive, enduring, and deep (and therefore, what could express our most noble purpose in life). Alternatively, if we want to move toward what is most pervasive, enduring and deep, we will have to allow Levels 1 and 2 to become recessive; we will have to let go of them (enticing as they are); and this is where suffering frequently comes in.

We cannot say that human beings require suffering in order to move from the more superficial levels of happiness/identity to the higher (most pervasive, enduring, and deep) ones, for human beings can see the intrinsic goodness and beauty of making an optimal positive difference to family, friends, community, organization, culture, and even, for Christians, the kingdom of God. They can be attracted to this noble, beautiful, and even transcendent identity as a fulfillment of their higher selves, or even their transcendent eternal selves. However, this more positive impetus to move toward the more pervasive, enduring, and deep identity can be assisted by suffering, weakness, and vulnerability; for it is precisely these negative conditions which can break the spell of the lower levels of identity.

Physical pleasures (Level 1) can be so riveting that they can produce addiction. The same holds true for status, esteem, control, and power. In my own life, I have seen how powerful (and even addictive) these lower levels of identity can be. Yet, I truly desired (and saw the beauty and nobility of) the higher levels of happiness/identity. Though this vision was quite powerful in me, I found myself transfixed by the lower levels – almost unable to move myself beyond them. This is where the “power of weakness and vulnerability” came into my life.

Experiences of physical limitation and the failure of “my best laid plans” broke the spell of unmitigated pursuit of ego, status, and power. I had a genuine Pauline experience of having to look at life anew – to look for more pervasive purpose in the face of a loss of power – to reexamine what I was living for in light of a loss of control. I became thankful for my weaknesses and the imperfect natural order which gave rise to them. Without them, I would have been unqualifiedly locked into my addiction to ego, status, and power – even though I saw the beauty and nobility of optimal contribution and love. I would have been addicted to the superficial amidst the appreciation of the noble – what an emptiness, what a frustration, what unhappiness – until weakness broke the spell. The irony is, weakness and suffering gave me the freedom to overcome the far greater suffering of living beneath myself, of avoiding noble purpose, of consciously wasting my life.

As noted above, there are probably people who do not need suffering to make a move from, say, Level 2 to Level 3 and 4. I was not one of them. Suffering was my liberation, my vehicle, my pathway to what was most worthy of my life, and what was most noble and perduring in me. I suspect that there are others like me who can use a dose of suffering, weakness, and vulnerability every now and then to call them to their most noble, perduring, and true selves. For these, the imperfect world is indispensable. Being left to the so-called perfect world would have led to superficiality and spiritual deprivation (a deeper pain).

This liberating power of suffering is not restricted to physical or psychological weakness. It applies most poignantly to the anticipation of death. I once had a student who asked, “Why do we need to die? If God is perfect and He intended to give us eternal life, why does He make us die in order to get there? Why not just allow us to continue living without all the mystery about the beyond?” I initially responded that eternal life is not merely a continuation of this current earthly life, and that death provided the transition from this life to the “new” life.

She responded, “Well, why isn’t the ‘new’ life a continuation of this one? Why wouldn’t God create us immediately in the ‘new’ life?” I indicated to her that the goodness, joy, and beauty of the “new” life did not essentially consist in a perfect, natural order (although this would be part of it), but rather in the perfect love that would exist between God and us, and between all of us in God. I further indicated that this “love” would consist in a perfect act of empathy with another whereby doing the good for the other would be just as easy, if not easier, than doing the good for oneself – where empathy would take over the desire for ego-satisfaction and autonomy – where communion and community would not immolate the individual personality, but bring it to its completion through others and God.

The student almost intuitively agreed that this would be perfect joy, which led her to re-ask the question, “Well, why didn’t God just create us in a situation of perfect love?” My answer revolved around the fact that love is our free choice. God cannot create us into a “world of perfect love;” we have to create the condition of love for ourselves and others by our free decisions. As noted immediately above, our decision to love (to live for a contributive identity) can be assisted considerably by weakness and vulnerability; but even more importantly, it can be assisted by the anticipation of death.

As many philosophers have noted (both those coming from a transcendental perspective, such as Karl Rahner and Edith Stein, or a merely immanent perspective, such as Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul Sartre), death produces a psychological finality which compels us to make a decision about what truly matters to us, what truly defines our lives, sooner rather than later. It really does not matter whether we have a strong belief in an afterlife or not; the finality of death incites us to make a statement about the “pre-death” meaning of our lives.

Most of us view an interminable deferral of fundamental options (such as, to live for love or not to live for love; to live for integrity or not to live for integrity; to live for truth or not to live for truth; etc.) to be unacceptable because death calls us to give authentic definition to our lives – the finality of death says to our innermost being that we must express our true selves prior to the termination of the life we know.

Death might be the best gift we have been given because it calls us to our deepest life-definition and self-definition, and in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, to the creation of our essence. If we believe in an afterlife, we take this authentic self-definition (say, love) with us into our eternity. But even if we do not believe in an afterlife, death still constitutes an indispensable gift of life, for it prevents us from interminably delaying the creation of our essence. It calls us to proclaim who we truly are and what we really stand for – sooner rather than later. We cannot interminably waste our lives in indecision.

In light of death, the choice of one’s fundamental essence (say, love) becomes transformative and “life-giving.” Death gives life – an authentic, reflective, and free life through a more pervasive, enduring, and deep purpose in life.

Next week, Fr. Spitzer will explore why the attainment of virtues requires an imperfect world.
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Fr. Robert Spitzer

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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.

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