Saturday, August 29, 2015

Imagination, pain, and children

I have long thought that speculation has a role in Christian theology in precisely those situations where someone says, "I can't imagine how that could be!" Sometimes those speculations end up being borderline heretical, or at least heretical if one assumes certain premises, and that has to be watched. At the same time, it may be better at least to have the speculations in one's back pocket for the time when one says to oneself, "How could that be?"

This sort of thing comes into play, for example, when talking about the Trinity. One will almost always say something heretical when one tries to get a clear concept of the Trinity, and I'm not going to brush off that problem. On the other hand, if someone says that the Trinity must be logically incoherent, a little speculation can at least be a way to argue that it does not have to be logically incoherent.

Most Christians of a philosophical turn of mind have given a lot of thought to the problem of evil, and I think it is highly biblical to use the concept of soul-making as one part of the answer to the problem of evil. In this thread I have been recently discussing that topic a bit with a blogger who lost his faith during a time of severe suffering.

To my mind, the harder cases are those where it is difficult to give (without speculation) a soul-making explanation of the suffering involved. These would be cases where the person suffering is an infant, young child, or mentally disabled person and is hence unable to process the suffering in such a way (it seems) as to be sanctified by it. It would also apply to cases where pain is so severe that it blots out thought. At least, these are problematic if we assume that soul-making is primarily a mental event--learning something, for example, or consciously clinging to God.

The trouble with saying that God uses these events as soul-making for other people is that that seems to mean that God isn't really seeking the best good of the suffering individual but rather is using him as a means to an end, which (in my opinion) is incompatible with the doctrine that God loves every person so much that he seeks that person's highest good. So, while it may well be true that God can use the suffering of an infant for good in the lives of the parents or doctors, that can't be the whole story. What about the baby? Those of us who are pro-life face related questions when we think about the babies who have died in abortions. What is God's plan for them?

Without in any way meaning to be flippant, I offer the following somewhat unusual speculations so that, at a minimum, we don't have to say, "I can't imagine what possible purpose God could use that suffering for when he allows it."

1) Mystical soul-making

What if soul-making isn't primarily a mental event or an event requiring conscious response, at least not for creatures who have souls and are intended (ultimately) to be rational creatures? This could mean, for example, that you could suffer while mentally deranged and somehow be purified by it, which would become evident when you were no longer deranged, even though you had no thoughts about it. And the same mutatis mutandis for infants, etc. I admit that this one is my least favorite of the speculations in this post, because it seems to me improbable that God deals with man in that way. The pattern that seems more biblical is of our response to suffering being the way in which God uses suffering in our lives, so that soul-making is not a process in which the soul is purely passive. However, I put it out there as a possibility, because that's the point of this post--exploring possibilities.

2) Levels of glory in heaven

Suppose we assume that all babies and those with childlike mental levels go to heaven. Still, it doesn't follow that everyone will have the same level of glory in heaven. The speculation here is that perhaps our sufferings here on earth are used, via our own response to them either here on earth or after death, to partly determine how glorious our individual heavenly state will be. This is a very Dantesque notion. The reader will recall how Dante has some in the sphere of the moon, still enjoying the presence of God, but in some sense lesser than those in the sphere of the sun. (It is from that portion of the Divine Comedy that the famous line comes, "In His will is our peace.")

3) Personal sanctification after death

Suppose that there are not different levels of glory in heaven (contra 1), that all babies go to heaven, but that each person has an individualized route to glorification. This seems pretty obviously true already, and Christians attest to their belief in this idea when they say that God has a plan for each of us, or God has a way in mind by which to sanctify each of us. Again, use the concept introduced in #2 that our own response to suffering after the fact, which might be after death, can be used in some way for us. In that case, the suffering experienced in this life by those who can't process or think about it in this life, for whatever reason, could still be used by God via our response to it after death to bring us to individual perfection.

4) Salvation

I've saved the most heretical for last. Suppose that not all babies go to heaven and suppose that eternal salvation can be determined by what happens after death. Suppose that whether babies et. al. go to heaven depends on their own response to God after death when they are given the mental abilities of an older person. In that case, those individuals' response to knowledge of their own suffering here on earth, in conjunction with the knowledge of God vouchsafed to them at that time, could be part of what determines their eternal destiny.

I don't make any of these speculations lightly, and I don't know if any of them are true. I make them because the next time you hear someone say, "I can't possibly imagine how God could use this terrible illness this baby died of for the benefit of the baby," you should be able to respond, "That just shows that you need to expand your imagination."


steve said...

One so-called philosopher said:

"Also, there is plenty of suffering and evil that does not seem to teach us any unique lessons. Showing compassion can be praiseworthy; but surely we can learn this without two-year olds dying from cancer or tornados ripping through towns every summer. And just what did we learn from the Holocaust that we didn’t know already? We didn’t know that mass murder was evil and needed the Nazi’s reign of terror to learn this?"

Likewise, atheist Andrea Weisberg says "It is hard to imagine how the Holocaust did more to build character than occurrences with a greatly lessened threat of injury or death." The Argument from Evil," Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, 175.

Michael Tooley uses the same examples in his SEP article on "The Problem of Evil".

There are, however, fundamental problems with these objections:

i) One is the failure to distinguish between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance. They are hardly equivalent.

ii) In addition, they just don't know what they are talking about. Unlike Christians such as Eric Liddell, Ernest Gordon, and Corrie ten Boom, they haven't had that experience.

And there's no evidence that they've even read accounts by people who have. So they're in no position to assess soul-making virtues, or the process thereof.

Likewise, I doubt any of them has volunteered at a hospice. Compare that to the stories of a hospice nurse like Trudy Harris.

What do they really know about the dynamic between caregivers and terminal cancer patients?

Lydia McGrew said...

Yes, the failure to distinguish knowledge by acquaintance with knowledge by description is a biggie, there. So, too, is the failure to distinguish "knowing how" with "knowing that." Knowing how to ride a bike is different from knowing facts about bikes. Knowing how to trust God in a horrible situation is different from knowing that God is to be trusted.

In general, I would also say that they don't understand the difference between soul-making as making character and soul-making as conveying knowledge. While it's true that to say someone is courageous is to say that he has some kind of knowledge, there isn't one specific set of knowledge that a person has who is courageous. God wants to make humans certain kinds of beings with certain kinds of character qualities, not just beings with certain kinds of knowledge. It doesn't take all that much imagination to realize that suffering can be involved in making a person courageous, kind, wise, etc. This is why in the main post I conjecture that suffering could be used in this way even after the fact, if the person was too young or otherwise mentally incapable of processing it in this life.

John said...

There will always be those who object to suffering, hardship, opposition, and evil, as though the removal of such things would make this one a better world, and would even make God a better God. For example, some might argue that we could simply do without cancer, or rabies. But "some such things" are necessary not only to provide an environment in which spiritual and moral dimensions of life can be developed, but to provide a challenge against which final judgment will be evaluated.

And other people, both the innocent victims and the evil perps, become part of this dynamic environment in which we develop relative to God. I believe the key factor that will ultimately turn us to or away from God in the face of suffering is our estimation of His love (which was displayed consummately in the horror of crucifixion). Those confident of His love will accept from His hand unspeakable suffering; those who are unable to see His love will complain at every stubbed toe.

Finally, while our personal experiences obviously come in such variety as to never be duplicated, as you said: "...that each person has an individualized route to glorification. This seems pretty obviously true already, and Christians attest to their belief in this idea when they say that God has a plan for each of us, or God has a way in mind by which to sanctify each of us." We should remember that Romans 8, Paul's finest treatment of human (or Christian) suffering, settles on Spirit as the determining factor--the Spirit that empowers, pours the love of God within the heart, and sanctifies--and this determination follows a more standardized (less personalized) route: "We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified."

The "causing of all things to work together for good" is conditioned on loving God and embracing His purpose, and the eventualization proceeds, says Paul, through Christlikeness in answer to Gospel call, and thus to justification and glorification. For all that we face as unique personal experience, that draws us into a fairly standardized process that ends in glorification and centers on the Son. Btw, God "predestines" not individuals, but pre-determined that the group formed by those individuals who love God and are Gospel-called to His purpose would be ushered through this grand spiritual process that culminates in glorification.

Lydia McGrew said...

Thanks, John. One of the difficult issues I wanted to grapple with a bit in the main post was the concern about using individuals as means to the end of others' good. There is certainly nothing wrong with God's using, say, a child's suffering to sanctify the parents. But I think there would be something wrong with God's *only* using the child's suffering to sanctify the parents without concern for the ultimate good of the child. The infinite nature of God's love must somehow, it seems to me, mean that he loves both the child and the parents (and every other rational created being) perfectly and with the end in view that each of them may know the highest good--union with Himself. Of course, they can choose to reject it, since man is free. (There's my Arminian side coming out.) But if the child's suffering is *solely* for the good of others, then I have a problem. So it has to be part of some sort of web in which the good of the individual is also aimed at.

I was thinking of "All things work together" when I was pondering this whole set of issues, because a lot of what I'm saying about God, love, and the beatific vision is implicit rather than explicit in Scripture. Overused though that verse is, it is one of the places where Scripture makes it *explicit* that God truly desires and works toward the highest good of those who are his.

John said...

Aye, Lydia, there is no argument between us. I see your point on Rom. 8:28 and concur with it.

And Arminian views look far less heretical in light of Scripture than they do in the light of Protestant Reformed theology...and it's taken several centuries for many of us to start to see that. The wheels of justice may grind slowly; those of theology far more!