Modern Myths and the Problem of Suffering
As we move toward the beginning of Lent, it becomes time to turn out thoughts to topics our modern world often find uncomfortable: death, suffering, and repentance. The thought of repentance makes us uncomfortable because it reminds us that we have something we must repent for. And no one likes to think of his own mortality. Rather, we tend to label the thought depressing and dismiss it as quickly as possible.
But if there is one thing our world tends to find uncomfortable, perhaps even more than death, it is suffering. I was reminded of this point recently at a school assembly on drug addiction. The assembly was put on by the father of a young man who had overdosed on fentanyl and by a clinical psychologist who dealt with addiction in young people.
They discussed both the effects of drug usage, its dramatic rise among young people, and the reasons for it. As one psychologist explained it, our society is not one that can deal with suffering. Even brief moments of boredom are too much for us (hence the reason young people spend so much time on cell phones and other devices every day). Drugs are a way to feel good fast; they produce a quick feeling of euphoria without requiring any effort on our parts. We no longer need suffer any undesirable feelings. We no longer need suffer at all. We can feel good all the time.
So much of our modern world’s problems comes down to our inability to deal with suffering. We cannot cope with it and so must escape it. And so we do escape: into drugs, smartphones, social media, gambling, prostitution, pornography and so many of the other modern (and ancient) vices. Never willing to suffer, we seek out the next chance for escape.
Suffering is sometimes proposed as a problem for the Christian. “If there is a good God, then why is there suffering in the world?” is a question even older than Christianity. Great Christian philosophers and theologians have spilled a great deal of ink in answer.
But if suffering is a problem for the Christian, it is a more serious problem for the modern pagan. Christianity can account for suffering. As G.K. Chesterton once put it:
“If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do.”
The Christian philosophy can account for suffering through The Fall. The atheist may deny God, but his ordinary modern philosophy leads him to another problem.
This problem arises from believing in the myth of Progress. Now, no Christian could possibly believe that the world and humanity is continually progressing or getting better, but this is one of the cherished myths of the modern world. The myth of Progress holds that our modern world has emerged out of a dark, shameful past of slavery, superstition, and backwardness, and is inevitably progressing toward a modern utopia of equality, justice, liberty, and, of course, long life (for the atheist has great reason to want to prolong his life, believing there is none to follow). Furthermore, this Progress is advancing due to the “heroic” efforts of its staunchest believers, who will somehow conquer suffering by their own efforts.
In this new utopian future, suffering has no place. The myth of Progress cannot account for suffering, not can it find any meaning in it. Technology is supposed to spare us from labor, human medicine from suffering, and political upheaval from injustice.Why should there still be suffering in the world? Any suffering is, at best, an unfortunate holdover from the backward past we have emerged from.
For faithful Christians, not only does suffering have merit and meaning now, but, God willing, our suffering will end with unsurpassed, unimaginable happiness in eternity. Thus Christians bear suffering when it comes (as it inevitably does) because we have a philosophy of life that lets us find it meaningful.
But the modern world has no ideology or philosophy that can allow it to find meaning in the midst of suffering. It pursues freedom from suffering, from restraint, and from fear, for such are the highest goods the world can imagine.
For suffering in this life is inevitable. And faced with the inevitability, and the failure of his own philosophy, modern man can only seek desperate escape: in drugs, alcohol, technology, and other modern distractions. And at long last, man hopes to escape into death. The rise in assisted suicide and euthanasia are the most obvious, and ugliest symptom of a society that cannot suffer.
Despite its drive to avoid any sort of pain, the modern world despairs when confronted with its mythologies. But, persistent and stubborn in their dedication to the myth of Progress, such modern men cannot help but hate and disbelieve Christianity, which offers hope–but a hope that is contingent upon enduring suffering, not upon avoiding it.
Lent is a time to reflect particularly on that which the modern world fails to do: to make sense of suffering, or rather, to find suffering meaningful and bearable. In learning to bear suffering, Christians still can offer a valuable witness–and a great hope–to the modern world.
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