By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 16, 2014)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his eleventh letter:
Well, you are always full of surprises, to say the least. I was stunned when I read that you have decided to leave your university and transfer to a small, ecumenical Christian college in New Brunswick to finish your degree. "Not," you hasten to add, "because I have become some kind of convert to Christianity, but because I have become fed up with the narrowness of the place where I am stuck now, where consideration of the God-dimension of things is never taken seriously." Your logic for making this move seems to me to be impeccable:
To be sane is to be in touch with reality as much as possible. To be well-educated is to be taught to understand reality as much as possible. But if there is a God, then He is the ultimate reality, the reality behind all other realities. So to go through a college education where the God-dimension of the subjects we study is almost always completely ignored, or completely dissed, is ... well ... insane.
I'll add an analogy to your logic here. It seems to me that the kind of education you were getting at that secular university was like doing a physics major, and taking courses on the origins of the universe, and never mentioning the Big Bang. Yet the Big Bang is arguably the initial reality behind all physical realities in this universe. To ignore it — much less deny it without careful consideration — as the beginning of all physical realities in this world, would be...well...insane.
All this is to say that, from what I can see, you have made a good decision. I didn't mean to try to instigate such a change when we started our e-mail dialogue last fall, but I can heartily endorse it now — especially because I know the place you are going quite well, having given lectures there several times in the past. It's a small, friendly place, where the God-side of things is indeed given a fair hearing, but will certainly not be imposed on you. You will be in good hands.
At the same time, you shared with me your struggles — which have evidently been going on for months now — with the powerful message of a novel you read in French class: The Plague by Albert Camus. Now I see more clearly why you said that our dialogue, helpful as it has been to you so far, has not really addressed the "core doubts" that you struggle with. Despite all the evidence and arguments I have marshaled for the existence of God, and the reality and immortality of the human spirit, the protest against God put forward in that book seems unanswerable to you at the moment. Nobody can put it better than you did in your last letter:
If there really is a God — the Sufficient Reason for everything that exists, as you said — then how can He permit so much innocent suffering to go on in His world? I mean how could He sit back and watch millions of people — helpless peasants mostly — get wiped out by the bubonic plague that killed 1/3 of the population of Europe in the 14th century, and do nothing about it? How come He permitted Auschwitz and Dachau and Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why does He let little children die of leukemia, young mothers die of cancer, leave millions of families to die of starvation in Africa, do nothing as He sees wives beaten, unborn children killed in their mother's wombs, husbands and fathers slaughtered in senseless wars, whole towns swept off the map by earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanoes and tsunamis? In short, if there really is a God why is all this is happening on His watch?
I hope you won't be shocked by what I have to say this time, Krystal, but the truth is philosophy cannot give us a complete answer to your question. Human reason can only go so far.
But we also need to set what philosophy cannot tell us against all that it can. If what you wrote, Krystal, is all that we can know about human misery and innocent suffering in the world, then that would be a decisive objection against either the existence or goodness of God; your doubts would be fully justified.
Happily, it isn't all that we can know. Philosophical reason can shed at least some light on the mystery of human suffering.
First of all, philosophy can show us, beyond a reasonable doubt, that there is an all-powerful, all-seeing, infinitely good Creator. All that you wrote about suffering, Krystal, does not show that there is anything logically amiss with any of the "pro-God" arguments we discussed in our previous letters. In other words, we do not need to reject the existence of God in the face of all the innocent suffering in the world in order to be rationally consistent. To begin with, we just need to admit the limitation of our human perspective on these things. We can honestly say "I don't understand why God permits some of the things He does; I definitely don't have the complete answer to these things. But His knowledge and wisdom are infinite, and mine is only finite. If He exists — as philosophy can show — then He knows the complete answers. A God of infinite knowledge and benevolence could only permit innocent suffering to happen for the sake of at least the possible attainment of some greater good, which we cannot fully see — or at least, not yet." To adopt this view, Krystal, allows you to do justice both to the strong arguments in favor of the existence of God, and at the same time to the awful reality of innocent suffering in His world.
Again, from our limited vantage point we may not be able fully to see what that "greater good" could be, but that does not mean it does not exist, or that philosophy cannot provide us at least with some insights into what the greater good could be and what God is up to.
For example, there is what is called in philosophy "the free will defense." It simply says this: from what we can see, "the lion's share" of all the miseries of human life are directly caused by, and augmented by, the misuse of God's greatest natural gift to us — our freedom to choose. God did not want to create mere robots, whose behavior was completely pre-programmed by their genes and their environment; He did not want to create mere "puppets on a string" — for robots and puppets cannot think for themselves, cannot create anything new or meaningful, and most of all, cannot love. Authentic love, creativity, and knowledge can only arise in beings who are truly free, who voluntarily choose to embrace an idea, to envision a new work of art, to reach out and give themselves away for the sake of others. If this is the kind of creature that God was striving to create when He fashioned human beings — if this was the "greater good" He was trying to attain — then He had no choice but to bestow upon us the gift of free will. But the freedom to think, love, and create is also the freedom to lie, hate, and destroy. God took the risk of giving human beings true freedom because He evidently believed the risk was worth it: the "greater good" of enabling human beings to attain true wisdom, creativity, and love was worth it. Do we have the kind of vantage point on the whole story of humanity to tell Him that He was wrong?
"Yes we do!" someone might say. "It's not that free will gets misused just by some people and not others. Everyone seems to misuse it, to one degree or another. As a result, 'man's inhumanity to man' wounds every human life. Many of the pages of human history are written in blood. If there really is a God, then He clearly made a serious 'design-flaw' in human nature itself; He is not the 'perfect boundless Good' that your philosophy claims him to be."
Here again, however, philosophy has more to say. The deepest miseries that we inflict on each other come from the misuse of another of the highest gifts that God gave to us: our interdependence. Freedom and interdependence go together to make up the twin foundation of the highest human goods. I put it this way in a book I am writing:
It is only because human lives are free and interdependent that we can experience such blessings as the procreation and nurture of children, familial love and affection, the enrichment of our lives through the development of culture and civilization, and social and cooperative enterprises of all kinds: those that sustain human life with proper food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and creative work opportunities. Human freedom and interdependence make possible love, language, literature, scientific advance, the development of computers and the construction of great cathedrals. At its highest and best, human freedom and interdependence are taken up by divine grace into the experience of loving "communion" in the Body of Christ. However, the same freedom and interdependence which makes all of these goods possible also makes us deeply vulnerable to its misuse, resulting in abuses of human dignity, and injustices of all kinds. In short, we can affect each other's lives so deeply for ill only because we can also affect each other so deeply for good.
So, again, we are faced with the same question: are we in a position to be able to say that God made a big mistake here, and that everything that He made possible for us by giving us true freedom and interdependence is not worth the cost in human suffering? I don't think we are. And unless we are sure that we are, then the innocent suffering in the world, insofar as it results from human vice, and agonizing as it is, does not amount to a decisive objection against the existence or goodness of God.
In fact, Krystal, I think philosophy can shed even more light for us on the mystery of innocent suffering.
For instance, reason can tell us that if an infinitely wise and good Creator God gave to humanity many rich blessings such as freedom and interdependence, then He must have given them for a good purpose. Evidently, the talents and gifts He gave to each one of us are to be freely used precisely to help overcome and relieve the miseries of others. In other words, God knew that as the result of the highest gifts He gave to us, He would also have to permit some evil and suffering in His world. So He has included in His creative design for human life a built-in "immune system," so to speak, to counteract these miseries.
How do we know this?
Well, first of all, because He gave us some "white-blood cells": not just the physical ones in our bodies, but also the guiding light of the Natural Moral Law. This inner Light that He instilled in every human heart includes a general principle of "benevolence" directed especially toward those who are closest to us, whose needs are most evident to us, and whose needs we can most effectively address: our family members, relatives, friends, and near neighbors. In short, the Natural Law constantly beckons us to reach out and help one another.
In addition, God has given us "vital signs" indicators to help keep us on the right path. Clearly, if God is pure Spirit, and He has bestowed on every human being a spirit that is a created reflection of His own, then it stands to reason that our spirits were made to do what God's Spirit does: bestow gifts and blessings on others. It is the constant testimony of those who follow the Natural Moral Law, and who reflect God's generous and compassionate Spirit in their own lives, that they experience tremendous inner peace and satisfaction from doing so — a clear sign that this is precisely the way we were meant to live, to fulfill the good purpose for which we were made. The person that lives this way walks with an easily contented spirit, a peaceful conscience, and a quiet heart. The "vital signs," so to speak, are all positive.
Third, it clear from the reflections of great philosophers such as Aristotle and Aquinas that the more we practice virtues such as generosity of spirit and compassion, the stronger those virtues become in us — especially if they are forged and refined in the midst of adversity. This suggests that one of the reasons God permits evils and sufferings in His world is that by facing and overcoming them with virtue, we can grow stronger in spirit. Many philosophical theists, therefore, speak of God's world as "a vale of soul-making." To some extent at least, God permits life to be a struggle and a challenge for us for our own good. In other words, life is meant to be more like a physiotherapy center than a rest home!
Fourth, there must be divine medicine for us near at hand. For it is reasonable to assume that a God who asks us to face and overcome suffering and misery in our lives, and in the lives of others, will not leave us to do so on our own. He will come to our aid. At the very least, He will provide us with the spiritual medicine we need for the journey: light and inspiration to guide our steps, strength to enable us to persevere, and pardon and forgiveness when we stumble and fall. That He does so is the constant testimony of those who believe in God down through history (Jews, Christians, theists and deists of all kinds). Turning to Him in prayer for light and strength, therefore, is not a solely "religious" thing to do—it is a reasonable thing to do for anyone who walks the path of philosophy.
Finally, can we imagine that if there really is an all-powerful, all-seeing, infinitely benevolent God that He would create such amazing creatures as us, set before us such difficult challenges, and then let our lives be cut off in the end without hope? Surely, reason alone compels us to believe otherwise. Remember, He gave to each one of us an immortal spirit, which means that our destiny extends beyond the struggles of this world. The Book of Wisdom in the Bible, drawing upon the ancient Greek heritage of philosophy, sums it up like this:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. (3:1-4)
Krystal, I know your "core doubts" (as you put them) do not come solely from philosophical reflection, or from reading that novel by Camus. None of us are "disembodied brains," so to speak — when we think philosophical thoughts, we can only do so in the midst of the circumstances and struggles of our daily lives. And I know that there is not a day that goes by that you do not miss your beloved grandmother who loved you so much, and who was taken from you and your Mom in such a cruel way through an extended period of physical deterioration and suffering. I am not denying the basis of your grief — I am just asking you to search your heart, and ask yourself: "Was the suffering and dying of my grandma really the full truth about the end of her story?" After all, she was a woman who deeply believed in God. She lived a life full of generosity and compassion for others, as well as constant prayer, and she struggled heroically in her final months to keep her belief and her prayer for others strong to the end. When she died, her hope was "full of immortality," as the Book of Wisdom says, and she looked forward to the day when she would be with us all again, in the nearer presence of God, where there is neither sorrow, nor crying, nor pain any longer. Would you say now that the beliefs on which she lived and died were tragically mistaken? Was her whole life and her final hope founded on sheer folly? Rather, doesn't philosophy indicate, in numerous ways, that your grandma was absolutely right?
Benjamin Franklin once summed up what decades of philosophical reflection led him to believe about God and about human life in these words:
Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we render to him is doing good to his other Children. That the soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its conduct in in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion ...
To my mind, Franklin was entirely right. I know that this philosophy does not answer every agonizing question that plagues us: for example, "Why did God permit this terrible suffering in this particular circumstance? Why doesn't He do more to stop it?" The ancient philosopher Boethius wrote his greatest work after he had been condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. The result was his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy. You see, Krystal, he didn't claim that philosophy alone could supply us with all the answers we seek. But it can supply us with some answers: with enough for "consolation" in the midst of affliction, some light for the way, and a reasonable hope for our journey's end.
Perhaps you will think to yourself: "But that's not enough; it's just not enough to answer all the questions that need answering — and the answers it gives are not enough fully to rescue the human race from evil and guilt, from suffering and death." Well, if that's your perspective, Krystal, I think you are right: Philosophy alone really isn't enough. But it's a great start — a big step in the right direction!
And maybe God also has other ways of speaking to us than just through philosophy. I mean why do we think that God is limited to revealing His nature, His character, and His purposes for human life solely through what we can demonstrate by our reason alone, reflecting on His creation? Maybe He has a lot more to say to us than philosophy can contain? Maybe some of the most important things He has to tell us — even about suffering and evil in His world, and His response to them — could only be expressed to us in another way? In fact, in the form of a Cross?
That, of course, is another story.
Meanwhile, don't lose heart. Gerard Manley Hopkins summed up in a single poem, Krystal, just about everything that I've tried to share with you over the past year, and the ground of all our hope. He expressed it far better than I could ever do:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
• Letter #6: A Message in the Stars
• Letter #7: The Inner Light
• Letter #8: The New Age, and Other Options
• Letter #9: Physics and the Self-Creating Universe
• Letter #10: The Wonder of Existence
Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.