Human Suffering – Divine Indifference

Sunday March 3rd 2013

Robinson College Chapel

‘Cancer’ Simon said, ‘could you talk about cancer in the light of the title of this term’s theme?’

He was aware that we as a family had just had a 12 week whistle stop journey from health to death with a relative diagnosed with the disease.

He was aware that I have a very strong faith.

What he didn’t know, was that for many years I had another quite separate career as a nursing sister.

The presence of suffering in the world be it at a personal or global level, must be the most understandable reason to deny the existence of a loving God. The God who can permit these abominations to human wellbeing must be malevolent, certainly indifferent; ergo it is easy to deny any existence.

Human suffering has always, will always be a part of being human; pain, anguish, distress, misery, agony, anger, torment, fear. The experience of suffering is part of being alive in this world where we find love, laughter and unselfish devotion but yes, juxtaposed with cruelty, devastation and disaster.

All these negative emotions sweep over people given the diagnosis of cancer, or indeed any terminal illness. Not necessarily all at once; for many the first feeling will be numbness, having just heard what they might have known deep down but didn’t want to hear. The rest will follow, as the enormity of the diagnosis is comprehended. They are they lucky ones. They are the ones with whom the medical practitioner has been straight; with whom he has not talked in clichés.

How many times do we hear the nebulous expression ‘a growth’ or ‘a tumour’ or ‘a little lump’ or the even more tenuous ‘a few suspect cells? Clearly one hopes they will be just that and benign. Or people suddenly drop their voices in a parody of Les Dawson when it comes to mentioning ‘the big C’ or cancer.

Leaving medical matters to one side, there comes a point quite soon when faith is talked or at least thought about and in particular, God, because where is he?  The need to blame someone for a problem is inherent in the human psyche and helps one to cope with the fall-out of a situation., whether it’s who pranged the car or who was responsible for an epidemic. With a diagnosis of terminal illness or for that matter any other catastrophe the need to apportion blame is almost in direct proportion to the enormity of the verdict. ‘She’s such a lovely person, she didn’t deserve that’,’ they are a good family it’s so unfair’. And there is no shortage of people ready to share their understanding of God as a malevolent divinity; ‘Why doesn’t He stop the worlds suffering, wars, starvation, global meteorological catastrophes?’ They vent their spleens in print from the tabloids to academic papers and back again.  One can at least say they are acknowledging a God albeit one with divine indifference.

Atheism from a repugnance of suffering though is very understandable. Conversely, there are those who accent to creedal propositions as an insurance, sort of faith of the mouth if not the heart, just going through the motions to keep all ones bases covered.

Worse still are vacuous words, like an oleaginous cloak, from the lips of the sympathetic as they attempt to second guess the help and support that the sufferer’s faith must be to them. MUST be to them! There is no MUST about it right at this moment.

For people of faith or non there are many paths to be chosen; and not always chosen, the response is often so immediate that retrospectively a patient will admit that they didn’t ever expect to react in ‘that way’. Initial reaction will likely be to admit to being very frightened, then maybe to seek support divine or otherwise from ones closest family and friends. For Christians, very early on, prayer support and the loving, listening presence of a fellow believer will be the foundation upon which the coping will be built.

The more emotionally vulnerable are those who feel the need to be overtly cheery and outwardly verbose about how their faith or self determination will see them through whatever is to come. I have no doubt it will; but going up in a balloon of spiritual hot air or borne up on a cloud of adrenalin infused optimism might precipitate a rather deeper and ultimately more painful decent into mortal reality. What about the angry person? The thing about God, and I say this only as my perception of his magnificence, is that he can take any amount of our anger and hatred. So for the truly let down and deeply hurt Christian there is the knowledge that behind and above and underneath all the torrent of invective there is His love. For the atheist needing a punch bag anything which comes to mind will do.

So after this vehemently physical outburst one prays there is some peace. Not like a tissue being wiped across a few tears but something which takes much longer to work through but eventually brings a deep awareness that one is not alone. Making sense of the challenges ahead has to be a more visceral response and cannot be merely intellectualised. Asking for help, acknowledging the need for help, is the beginning prayer; it is not merely resigning oneself to the mercy or lack of it of a tyrannical God.

Human suffering, yes. Divine indifference, never. I have had the great privilege of being with many people and their relatives as a loved one dies and there is dignity in death from believers and unbelievers alike. I would hate to suggest that only people of faith can cope. And, it has been my experience that the longer and more protracted the illness, the more people start to say things, like, ‘I wish they could just go’.

I imagine that some of the students here are wondering what all this talk of death has to do with them.  Here’s a fact. 70 to 80% of students will encounter the loss of a relative during their time at Cambridge. In the words of the immortal Monty Python ‘Life is terminal’ ‘Death is alive and happening’. So, however it is viewed, whether from the distance of youth or the proximity of years it is a surety. There is comfort in the gentle demise whilst sleeping, of an elderly loved one. There is horror and disbelief at the loss of a promising young life knocked off their bike in town here. Is there divine indifference to either of these extremes?

How can  God let the latter happen? How can any divine being allow, permit, sit back and watch, whilst a young promising light is snuffed out?

 Ok, Divine Indifference  - looks like it.

How can we believe in a God who permits such suffering? And how good it is that that question is constantly asked. God is not the ultimate puppeteer of our lives. We live in society with other human beings and the dynamics of this symbiosis work best when there is order and regularity. Cause and effect become analytical dimensions of our intellectual interpretation of our society, termite mound or city, each has a viable survival system by which that society works best.  So, is there not something extraordinarily disingenuous about expecting God to put in an appearance and tweak the strings when things are getting out of hand, scary, or dangerous? Would we feel happier if we thought he would?  ---  Or ---  might we be rather afraid of a God who by his, albeit omnipotent interference, can, like a Faustian Lord of Misrule, throw a spanner into the works of an individuals life by creating pain and sickness and mourning and grief?

The French philosopher Paul Claudel wrote:- ‘Jesus did not come to explain suffering nor to take it away, he came to fill it with his presence’.

Praying with pain, physical and mental is not a childish or cowardly submission; it is actually a brave and courageous step of commitment to a sharing of the load and an acknowledgement of need, of human suffering. For those whose philosophy is one of Divine Indifference there will of course still be strength to be gained from the support of another human being, a poem, a piece of music, a sunset and good it is. The commitment of me to my faith in no way diminishes or decries the comfort gained in other places without any Godly reference.

Even within the Bible many writers railed against Divine Indifference, raging at God for their misfortunes; the Psalms are peppered with them:- ‘though has made us like sheep for slaughter. Ps 44. Jeremiah the prophet called God a ‘deceitful brook’ with ‘waters that fail’ Jesus himself cried out’ My God My God why has though forsaken me’.

Divine indifference? How about human indifference? It is as facile to blame God as to accept the situation by shrugging it of with ‘well it must be God’s will’ in other words we are indifferent to His doings in our lives for good or ill.

I think there is a difference between what God wills directly and what he allows to happen because the world is what it is. Take the student knocked of his bike and killed. When his parents allowed him to come up to Cambridge and bring his bike, their permission included the risk of an accident. Obviously they didn’t WILL that outcome. In modern parlance – stuff happens.

So with God, his creation is a huge risk. Fire burns, water drowns, but both are essential for life.

The fact that we question and ask why is evidence for hope. We were not created heartless robots. But, God is way beyond our human grasp and therefore way beyond our ability to give rational explanations for bad situations. Suffering remains a mystery and our response to it can only be a mixture of wonder and anger, anger and wonder. The familiarity of our experience is stripped away and in our naked need we are prey to thoughts of divine indifference and indeed our own indifference to the divine.  Yet God is there, right there with us. St John the Divine, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonheoffer, Henri Nouen have all written far more eloquently than I ever could about the dark night of the soul; about how being emptied of any emotion other than total and utter lifeless rejection and unworthiness has immeasurable value. At this lowest ebb is where they found the most sublime, the most supreme place; in their emotional nakedness they could acknowledge ‘Lord I am nothing, you are all’.

And at that moment the two elements of this series of talks become one, become fused together. Thoughts of human suffering and divine indifference become words; concepts of mean human boundaries which once released from can be replaced with burning light, relief and submission to the numinous. In the words of St John of the cross:- ‘the endurance of darkness is preparation for great light’.

It may well be argued that the two sides of a discussion on the indifference of the divine to human suffering, those who believe and those who don’t, are not likely to ever be brought to compliance. However, when the chips are down and all seems bleak, I have witnessed many so called agnostics seeking solace in the hospital chapel saying the Lords Prayer, dug up from the depths of a remembered school assembly. I have sat with people in the stillness of a hospital side ward who feel a deep sense of something they can’t fathom. Divine indifference? I don’t think so.

Thomas Merton wrote

We must confront obstacles, we must face reality. We can’t sink into suffocating sentimentality for this would be a false sanctuary consoled by an imaginary Christ’.

The last words I leave to Rowan Williams from a piece he wrote for the Sunday Telegraph following the Asian Tsunami in 2005. :-

‘The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again – not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others. They have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence. These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart’.

Human Suffering  Yes.

Divine Indifference  Never.

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