Friday, July 18, 2014

Journal of a Soul 61

Dealing with Pain 2

As Robert Frost once answered to the question of what he had learnt from life - "It goes on!"
The ships still sail no matter how sad we are!
It is always so hard to write something new, and certainly more difficult still to write something insightful and profound about the subject of pain.  This particular post will only attempt to continue to flesh out what I said in my last post, and try to tease out this subject from some other angles.  Qoheleth of the Old Testament, being a good skeptic, doubted that there is very much new under the sun.  However, he did not take into account the fact that while a problem or a particular issue may seem to be the same old thing yet again that there is a myriad of new and different ways of tackling that problem or issue.  I have quoted one of my favourite poets many times here (T.S. Eliot) as saying that while he might have treated of the same themes over and over again in his poems that he assuredly always said what he had to say in a different way.  In short, a different angle or a different perspective on the same old problem is always enlightening and always enriching.

A little Wisdom from the Fourth and Fifth Centuries

St Augustine of Hippo by Antonio Rodriguez
St. Augustine of Hippo 354 – 430, who straddled these two centuries, was a most erudite philosopher and theologian and one of the greatest scholars of his era.  He had a lot to say on the mystery of pain and suffering.  He wrote much on the topic of evil in the world, and his logical and insightful mind left us with some interesting insights. One which I like is that good is at all times logically prior to evil.  For example, when a piece of fruit, say an apple or an orange, rots, the putrefaction or the rottenness occurs in and inheres in the logically prior goodness of the fruit.  The goodness of the fruit or vegetable is there first. Likewise, take for example that you break your leg playing football or some other sport, the brokenness of the bone only occurs in the logically prior good bone.  St Augustine put this beautifully and succinctly in his eloquent Latin thus: "Malum est privatio boni" which translates as "Evil is the privation of the good."  For a fourth century thinker, who had just converted to the Christian Church, this argument allowed him to posit the utter goodness of God while a previous religion to which he had belonged, the Manichean sect, had always asserted that the godhead contained both good and evil principles.  Evil vitiates the good and all evil is either brought about by the Devil or by the evil actions of human beings who have been given their free will to act in any manner they wish by a loving God. For Augustine, such a loving God will not force human beings to act correctly under any circumstances as He values human free will so much.   In all of this, remember we are dealing with fourth and fifth century thought.

In another attempt to square the existence of evil with a good God, St Augustine also alluded to the Principle of Plenitude which he had learnt from Plato.  In a nutshell this principle states that the universe by its nature must contain all possible forms of existence, and this by definition means that it must also contain evil. For an article on this theory see HERE.

Western Philosophy and its Flaws
The wind and sea has battered this tree: Calabria, January 2014
One can see here immediately the emergence of one of the main flaws of Western Philosophy, namely a preoccupation with the cognitive and cerebral nature of thinking, and this flawed perspective would reign right down to our own time, viz., the supremacy of reason or rationality or the cognitive - to express the issue in as many ways as possible. There is no great weight given to the native psychology or inner feelings of the human person.  The strength of Western Philosophy, namely its pursuit of cognitive thinking and rational thought, is also its striking weakness if it is not balanced more by the affective considerations  drawn from a more holistic perspective as to what the human being is or may be in its fullness.  Western philosophy and theology built upon the foundations laid by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and they interwove Greek philosophy with Christian thought to a considerable extent.  However, as regards the question of evil, the contribution of the very early Christian thinker St Irenaeus can so easily be overlooked as the greats like St Augustine and St Thomas held so much sway for so many centuries.  Irenaeus showed a more lateral thinking process and allowed for development of the human person in a more holistic sense to use this term rather anachronistically.

The Thought of St Irenaeus, 130-202 A.D. : Wisdom from the Second century
The astute St Irenaeus of Lyons

I don't like introducing technical terms into what I describe here as a journal of a soul, but I feel for the sake of completion I will have to do so.  That term is Theodicy, and it basically means the attempt to answer the question of why a good God (Theos) permits the existence (or justice or Dike: hence Theodicy) of evil. Theodicy attempts to resolve the problem of evil by reconciling the traditional divine characteristics of  omniscience, benevolence and omnipotence with the occurrence of evil and suffering in the physical and human worlds.  Without getting into any complexities, this theodicy argued that human beings are born into a world in which they have to grow and develop.  The argument goes that we humans would never grow and develop unless there were problems (including pain and suffering) that would cause and help us to grow.  This second-century philosopher and theologian Irenaeus, after whom the theodicy is named, proposed a two-stage creation process in which humans require free will and the experience of evil to develop. Another early Christian theologian, Origen, presented a response to the problem of evil which cast the world as a schoolroom or hospital for the soul. It is interesting to note that the great Romantic poet John Keats saw the world as the "vale of soul-making" and his thoughts were very much in line with those of St Origen and St Irenaeus.*


Once again, as I have said in my opening paragraph, there is precious little insight that any of us can offer to this profound theme, but rehearsing the answers proposed by scholars and spiritual souls over the centuries of our civilization is a sine qua non for any thought on the subject.  T.S. Eliot, whom I am wont to quote and whom I quoted in my opening paragraph stated that he could not be a good poet, or even a poet at all, unless he could place himself within a tradition of poets writing over the long number of years our civilization has lasted.  Likewise, with any other study we care to embark upon.  

The most important lesson that I have learnt from my studies and from my reading over the years is that of the balance of opposites.  How would we know the good unless we knew its opposite, namely evil?  How would we know the light unless we experienced the dark? How would we know joy unless we knew sorrow? How would we know exultation unless we knew humility? How would we know happiness unless we knew its opposite? How would we know love unless we knew its absence?  How would we know hope unless we understood despair. These are all polar opposites that seem to exist in a healthy if strange tension.  The Romantics, especially Coleridge, spoke much about this phenomenon as the tension of opposites. Yeats called such a tension of opposites by the name "antinomies."  The Eastern Religions/Spiritualities often get around understanding, or at least accepting and appreciating, this balance of opposites a little better than the Western mind.  However, for an Eastern take on the mystery presented by the problems of pain and suffering we must wait for a later post and yet again some deeper reflection. Until then, dear reader, Peace, Shalom, Namaste, and may we be given the strength and courage to bear whatever pain and suffering is our lot!

End Note

* "(T)heologian Mark Scott has argued that Origen, rather than Irenaeus, ought to be considered the father of this kind of theodicy. In 1710, Gottfried Leibniz proposed that the world is the best of all possible worlds because it balances all the possible goods the world could contain. Friedrich Schleiermacher argued in the nineteenth century that God must necessarily create flawlessly, so this world must be the best possible world because it allows God's purposes to be naturally fulfilled. In 1966, philosopher John Hick discussed the similarities of the preceding theodicies, calling them all "Irenaean". He supported the view that creation is incomplete and argued that the world is best placed for the full moral development of humans, as it presents genuine moral choices. British philosopher Richard Swinburne proposed that, to make a free moral choice, humans must have experience of the consequences of their own actions and that natural evil must exist to provide such choices." (See WIKI for a more detailed account of this interesting Theodicy).

No comments:

Post a Comment