Meaning, Suffering and Integrity

Returning to the discussion about suffering. This is long (c 3700 words).

We had an interesting reading from Romans in our last Sunday service:

“…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Rom 5.3-5, NIV)


What does it mean to believe in God? Specifically, what does it mean for a Christian to believe in God? As I understand it, the essential element is about meaning or purpose – to believe in God is to believe that life is meaningful, is purposeful, and this meaning is by definition independent of personal choice or preference, it is something that stands outside of our desires and it is something to which we need to conform in order to flourish. The Christian claim is that this meaning became manifest in human form in the person of Jesus of Nazareth who taught, was crucified and rose again on the third day two thousand years ago. This is what is meant in the prologue to John’s gospel: the Word became flesh. The logos (meaning, purpose) took human form, lived amongst us, full of grace and truth. Thus, there may be many ways of describing meaning in human life; the Christian claim is that this meaning is explicitly revealed in Jesus yet (if a Christian accepts that all things were made through Christ) we can expect to find meaning outside of the Christian tradition. No genuine human meaning is incompatible with Christianity.


Consider what happens at a church wedding, and specifically the contrast with a state service. At both of them legal vows will be exchanged, yet in the former the language and liturgy of God is foremost; in the latter all references to religion are forbidden. Specifically, in the vows spoken in a church service there is the phrase ‘in the presence of God I make this vow’.

What is being referred to with this language of God is precisely the larger purpose, the larger framework of meaning, within which the vows have their place. There is an acknowledgment of several things: that the desires of the couple are not sovereign; that they are dependent upon God’s grace for the health of their relationship; that the commitment is sacred involving the most profound elements of the personality; that the process is open-ended, may involve drastic change to one or both parties, but that the covenant being made in the sight of God is being set up above whatever individual choices and preferences the parties bring to the agreement.

In other words, a marriage is not just a contract. To say that the marriage is being made ‘in the presence of God’ is to place the relationship in that larger framework of meaning and purpose from which all other meanings and purposes (in a Christian culture) derive their sense. It is about rooting the relationship in a much longer and deeper pattern of life than personal choice and desire.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to have a non-Christian wedding service that partakes of this same character, eg Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist wedding services. What I do not perceive to be possible is to have an explicitly atheist wedding service which partakes of the same sharing in a wider purpose, independent of human choices. The difference I perceive between humourless and sophisticated atheism is that the former doesn’t recognise there to be any problem here; the latter does, and offers alternatives. It is not so much the word ‘God’ itself that matters, it is the acknowledgment of something higher.


How does human suffering fit in with this context of meaning? How does this understanding of the word ‘God’ fit in with “the problem of suffering”? There seem two ways to address this issue, one academic, one more personal.

The academic issue is to point out inconsistencies between supposed attributes of God and the presence of suffering, either as a logical problem (see here) or as an ‘evidentiary’ problem (see here). The greatest problem of these academic approaches is that they mistake the nature of (in particular) Christian faith in God. There are three inter-linked problems:

i) it is a central claim of the tradition that God is ultimately mysterious and not finally knowable. We cannot attain to a position of oversight with respect to God, we are always in an inferior position – that’s part of what the word ‘God’ means – something which is above and beyond our comprehension. Any analysis which seeks to render God’s attributes definable is not engaging with a Christian analysis;

ii) related to this is the axiom that I have mentioned several times before about idolatry. This can be defined in several ways, one of the simplest being ‘God is not a member of a set’ (including the set of things which are not members of a set!). This is a rule of thumb – a grammatical rule – determining how the word God can be used. What it means is that nothing definable in the human realm can be given an absolute meaning. All things are subject to change;

iii) a third implication is that it is blasphemous to try and justify God to humanity – what is technically called theodicy – because the attempt necessarily violates points i) and ii) above, and therefore runs counter to the meaning and purpose that the word God refers to. This doesn’t mean that the problem can’t be considered and clarified further through discussion – it does mean (and this is something that is slowly dawning on me personally) that the faithful not only cannot provide an intellectually satisfactory answer, but that they mustn’t. This is one of the points I take from the Hart article.


One of the problems that I have experienced in discussing this issue is that many theologians explicitly pursue theodicies. The implication of my argument above is that they are faithless. I do not believe it to be an accident that Modern Protestants are over-represented amongst such thinkers.

A Modern Protestant might agree that ‘There is an x such that x is God’. More traditional Christians cry out with Augustine ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee’.


You can add up the parts
but you won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march,
there is no drum
Every heart, every heart
to love will come
but like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

(Leonard Cohen, Anthem)


The more personal problem of suffering relates to what people actually do when they are faced with suffering. When a person’s world crumbles around them because of a particular turn of events is it still possible to claim that life is still meaningful? Does the language about the world having meaning and purpose, apart from our own choices, still make any sort of sense when confronted with life-shattering circumstances? The question could be: when we are in the pit of despair, is there a ladder that can be used to climb up out?

There are at least three options:

i) a nihilist answer: there is no ladder. Life is bleak and meaningless. There is no higher purpose. Get used to it! Stop indulging in lily-livered sentimentalism and self-deceit. The trouble I see with this sort of answer is that it destroys everything that makes humanity distinctively human – there is no longer any human Quality available. There is nothing to build a life around.

ii) an enlightened existentialist answer: make the ladder yourself, out of your own resources. Where I think this line of thought breaks down in this context (it breaks down elsewhere too) is that it is appealing to resources of character and moral strength that may be precisely what have been exhausted by the suffering.

iii) a Christian (or other religious response) which, ultimately, ends up talking about mystery. That which was thought to be God – a stable source of meaning and value – turns out now to be no such thing. Either there is no God (options i) and ii) open up) or else God is not what God was thought to be. In other words the context of suffering is one where we are brought closer to reality and closer to God. For they are the same thing in the end. Option iii) is essentially a declaration of faith.


This was a sermon I gave at the funeral of a teenage girl who had taken her own life:

We have come and gathered in this church today to mourn the death of _____; to lament for a life lost all too soon; to seek some measure of understanding of what has been, and perhaps, some hope for what will be.

In all of the tragedies offered up in our human life, very few are as severe or as painful as the loss sustained by ________’s family. It is a loss which shatters all the foundations on which a family is built up – the bonds of love and trust which hold a family together. As the reading from the book of Lamentations puts it – “In all the world has there been such sorrow?” And this shock and grief is not confined to ________’s own family, for it is something which affects the entire community, all of us gathered here today. For we do share life with each other. We are not separate from each other. We are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper. And so this wound, which is so overwhelming for _______’s family, is also a wound in our community, our fellowship of neighbours and friends. Where do we go from here?

When someone takes their own life, we who are left behind are confronted with questions. The pain inside demands an answer, and so the mind tortures itself with doubt and worries. Was there something that I could have said differently that might have prevented this? Was there something I could have done that would have eased the pain in _______’s heart? If only I hadn’t done this or said that. This is our natural reaction, it is a reaction of care and concern which demonstrates the love we had for _______. But ultimately, there can be no final answers; there certainly cannot be any final blame. We are confronted, in _______’s taking of her own life, with a deep and a very painful mystery. And all we can ask is ‘why?’ Perhaps most of all, we ask, ‘Why God? Where were you in all this?’ For it seems to me that when we are faced with pain that we do not understand, when we come close to being overwhelmed by it, what is most painful is the meaning of what has happened. We ask the question why. Why God? Why?

In our gospel reading we heard the story of the death of Lazarus, which also gathered a community together in grief. When Jesus comes to Mary and Martha he is too late to prevent Lazarus’ death – Lazarus, whom he loved and befriended. And it wasn’t that Jesus couldn’t get there in time – he chose to delay for a few days. And both Mary and Martha ask him why, saying “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We don’t know why Jesus didn’t come immediately. Just as we don’t know why nothing prevented _______’s death. We do know that Jesus was terribly upset by the death, and by the grief of the community. And in consequence, Jesus acts to raise Lazarus from death, to unbind him from his shroud and release him from his tomb. Lazarus is set free from death – a promise of resurrection that is extended to all who trust in Jesus.

But why couldn’t Jesus just have prevented the death in the first place? Why couldn’t God make a world which doesn’t have suffering in it? Why can’t he tell us how and why it all makes sense – why is it that this world is the sort of place that _______ couldn’t cope with, when she had so much to live for, and there was so much love available for her? I have no easy answer for that question. We live within the world that He has created, where we must wrestle and struggle with this mystery of human pain and suffering. But in the face of that suffering, I do believe that there is the possibility of hope; and that hope is the only answer we can find, which might heal our wounds.

For Christians follow an innocent man who was hung to death on a cross; and a representation of that event hangs above me now. And his cry from the cross was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Jesus also felt abandoned by God, even he couldn’t understand what it was that was happening. And yet on the morning of the third day, he was raised to life again, which is why we still talk about him over 2000 years later. This might seem just to replace one mystery with another, but what has changed is that we can hope. For when we are confronted with pain that we don’t understand, when we feel cheated by life, we still have a choice. We can say that life is meaningless, that it doesn’t make sense, and reject everything that God has given to us. But if we do that, we never move away from the cross. We remain rooted in our pain and we never get to Easter morning. For the alternative is to say, although I don’t, although I can’t understand how this tragedy can make sense, I trust… I trust that God is in charge, that He loves us, and that no one who is truly loved is ever lost. For love is eternal, it is what the world is made of, and it is what the maker of this world is made of.

In the face of the pain of this tragic event, if we can trust in God, if we can hold on to hope, we can trust that one day we will share in that resurrection when, finally, we will understand how and why it all makes sense. On that day we shall be reunited with those we love, and then there will be no more pain, there will be no more grief and sorrow, and God will gently wipe away every tear from our eyes.


I see the personal problem as much the most important and significant question to address. That is why I want to know what (humourless) atheists would say to people in concrete situations. Do they choose option i) or ii) or do they choose different ones? It’s not a trivial request and the discussion will forever share a certain abstract and unreal quality until answers are provided.

“Life can educate one to a belief in God. And experiences too are what bring this about; but I don’t mean visions and other forms of sense experience which show us the ‘existence of this being’, but, eg, sufferings of various sorts. They neither show us God in the way a sense impression shows us an object, nor do they give rise to conjectures about him. Experiences, thoughts, – life can force this concept on us.” (Wittgenstein, 1950)

Why is it that it was the highly educated in Paris who were so shocked by the Lisbon earthquake, whereas those who had experienced the suffering carried on with their prayers? Could it be that for all their intellectual refinement they were not as in touch with reality as the poor Portuguese? It is, after all, part of the logic of belief in God that non-belief is evidence of delusion, of a failure to properly grasp the nature of reality.


Can the ladder be climbed up? Or is it simply delusional to think that life is meaningful?

One of the things that I feel is often missed in discussion with atheists is the necessary connection between ‘God’ and ‘meaning/purpose’. From my perspective you cannot have one without the other – which means that if meaning and purpose are accepted as part and parcel of human life then that necessarily implies a belief in God.

Of course, the word ‘God’ is not the crucial thing here. The attainment of union with that meaning and purpose could be called Nirvana and still be referring to the same thing. The language that has been developed in our culture happens to be drawn from the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The way in which we talk about things that are worthwhile, indeed, what sort of things we count as being worthwhile, are inherited from this Christian context.

What is important is not the words or rituals that are used but the life that is lived. And where the life is lived with hope, integrity and purpose – there is God.

“What can we bring to the Lord?
What kind of offerings should we give him?
Should we bow before God
with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
to pay for our sins?

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6.6-8 NLT)


I was profoundly struck by Scott g’s comment (here)”pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’ this is the difference between what you do, and what pirsig does. what pirsig does is enlightening, and what you do is frustrating. pirsig wants us to get it. you seem to not want us to get it.”

I think I have been at fault in these discussions. The first fault is one which the interlocutors at Stephen’s site have picked up on, describing me as having a strategy “of obfuscation and smokescreen delivered with an air of intellectual and spiritual superiority.” I am culpable of intellectual arrogance. Specifically: I do believe that no open-minded person with a genuine curiosity about the issues could remain a humourless atheist; I do see it as an intellectual backwater driven more by a polemical agenda than a heartfelt pursuit of truth. Which is why I enjoy engaging with sophisticated atheists so much – they recognise, inter alia, that a) there is more to Christianity than Modern Protestantism; b) that the rhetoric of science doesn’t match up with the reality; c) that the heritage of Christianity is still dominant in Western societies; d) that Christianity and other religions engage in certain humanly essential pursuits which need to be addressed by anything purporting to replace it.

I think I need to repent of some intellectual arrogance, and that repentance needs principally to take the form of listening more attentively to interlocutors. What went wrong with the recent conversation at Stephen Law’s site would seem to be that I lost track of what was actually being asked.

There is a second fault flowing from this, and from the above. I have been engaging in the argument on secular terms and it is becoming more and more clear to me that the framework of the debate is inherently atheistic. That is, it is impossible to explain the word ‘God’ and all that it means whilst accepting a secular frame of reference (and by secular I mean the late Modern Protestant framework that most Philosophy of Religion is pursued within).

Scott correctly identifies the solution: ‘pirsig painted constant attempts to have us resonate with a model of ‘quality,’ both by what it is and what it isn’t, and i would expect you to constantly attempt to paint whatever you need to to have us resonate with ‘god.’

I think this is exactly right. I need to talk positively about what God means – God as understood and explored within the mainstream Christian tradition. God is not a concept to be defined but a reality to be explored. And I have no desire to hide that in a smokescreen.


What I am really thinking about is a discussion of ‘the way’. Protestant cultures have a high reverence for words – it is a legacy of the technological revolution which put the Bible into every household, as the immediate source of authority. Yet words are ultimately useless. Another Wittgenstein reference: ‘it has been impossible for me to say one word in my writings about all that music has meant to me in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?’

I do need to talk about the way – about how meaning and purpose are integrated into a life – about how the presence of suffering not only doesn’t destroy that meaning but is tied up with it, in that the most profound understandings of meaning and purpose come on the far side of the suffering, not before.

And the way is not something reducible to words. It has to be shown in order to make any sense. Which brings us back to where I began – with Jesus. Christianity makes no sense without him, without what he taught, how he lived, how he died and rose again. The way I would want to describe is the way that he walked. It is not a matter of words but of the Word – the logos. The logic which animates Christian life, and which can’t ultimately be wrapped up in neat and tidy definitions. It can only be shown with a life.


An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it.

Wittgenstein, 1948