Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Painful Delusion

The pervasive nature of pain is perhaps the most compelling argument atheists possess. It certainly gives agnostics, as well as many believers, pause. Dostoevsky, the great Christian apologist and prolific Russian novelist, claimed that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God. Many have accepted this proof thus rejecting belief in a creator.

In “The Problem of Pain,” C.S. Lewis refutes this argument. What follows is a terse summary, oftentimes in his own words, of Lewis’ reasoning. Let me be clear, these are not my own reflections but the observations of a scholar who has much to impart. But before I delve into his refutation, one caveat: Lewis provides a sterile, syllogistic explanation of why the existence of God is perfectly compatible with a material world where pain proliferates. Reconciling this seeming contradiction does not make experiencing pain palatable, just comprehensible.

So why is pain a predicament at all? It is solely because of Christianity.

Humans, you see, have always had a sense of the supernatural. All cultures have created myths and legends of entities outside the scope of nature. These have not ceased with modernization. The dread associated with dead bodies is a fear derived from something other than the material world since a dead body is incapable of causing harm. The sense of something beyond the scope of nature is referred to by theologian Rudolf Otto as the “numinous.”

While the numinous is a vague notion of something outside of nature, morality is a clearer one. Values differ from culture to culture but all peoples share a common conception of morality. And this common conception is at odds with our desires, creating a frustrating irony: universal acceptance of a morality that is universally violated. Instead of just giving up we continue to try to meet this standard, which seems so alien and largely unobtainable. Materialists, who reject the existence of anything outside of the natural world, claim this standard is a product of evolution. But the material world can only produce reactions as “I better” not “I ought.” And it is these normative prescriptions that give us civilization.

Now, the first people in history to collectively wed the numinous to morality were the Jews. Prior to their understanding, the supernatural was an amoral thing to be feared. They, however, began to believe in a single God who was just. This God would not commit random acts of cruelty without regard for the individual. The historical event, the incarnation of this God, was the Christ.

And so, Christianity creates the problem of pain. If there was no belief that God is good and loving than there would be no reason to question pain. But the philosophical and historical reality of Christianity cause both believer and unbeliever to struggle with calamity. Self-described atheists should be stoic, indifferent to heartache. But try as they might, they cannot escape the dilemma resulting from pervasive injustice and the intrinsic notion that everything happens for a reason and there is justice in the world.

Next: The Ultimate Compliment