Thursday 2 June 2016

The Truth about Suffering

The modern attitude to suffering is that it is a great evil which should be eradicated as far as that is possible. Our whole moral system today is more or less based on the premise that what leads to personal happiness is good, as long as it doesn't harm anyone else, and what causes suffering is always wrong. But what if suffering is actually the whole reason for life in this world? What if the fact of suffering does not disprove the idea of God but actually proves it?

To make sense of this, on the face of it, absurd idea we have to understand what we are and why we are here. And what we are it's not what we appear to be. The self as we know it is a false thing. It is not our true being or, if it is, then it is rotten, gone bad. Now if this is the case then what that self views as good or bad is not necessarily so. That is not to say that suffering is good and happiness is spiritually corrosive. But sometimes they might very well be so.

For the worldly self that we all identify with and look to fulfil is a false self. It is something we have identified with but it is not us. 
Our true self is the soul which is a spiritual being, and the reality is that suffering is often necessary to make us aware of this. It is what is required to detach us from our false identification with the ego-self and realign us with the truth of our being. No suffering means spiritual stagnation though that is not to say that suffering should be sought. That would be the ego trying to manipulate its own overthrow for its own ends. But if suffering comes, and cannot be avoided, then it should be accepted and the lessons it brings learned. And there always are lessons to be learned even if it is the ability to endure without complaint and so grow in patience and humility. There is always the possibility of removing our concern from our worldly self and its fears and desires, and fixing our thoughts on something greater which is the true source of our being.

Naturally this only relates to personal suffering. The suffering of others is never something we should observe without compassion or idly stand by and watch, though even then we have to understand that it may be necessary. We have to develop the spiritual discernment that will enable us to appreciate what is suffering sent to teach the soul or, better put, to teach us that we are the soul, and what is suffering caused by the wrong conditions that human beings have created on this planet ever since they lost their connection to the spiritual world.

So the soul, a spiritual being, is what we are and our duty here is to remember our origins. The soul on its own level cannot suffer, certainly not as it can do here where the conditions, specifically the sense of separation, exist to make that possible. This is the world of duality in which we are alone, cut off from the rest of life, and it is that which both helps us to grow and causes suffering. The two go together.

So, strange as it may seem, suffering is actually something for which we should be grateful to God. It takes a certain spiritual maturity to see this and, like all such doctrines, it can be misunderstood. Suffering is not good. It is an evil. We moderns are right about that. But it is an evil out of which good may come. Very possibly in a world that hadn't fallen it would not have been necessary but this one did fall and so it is required even if, as I have been assured, all hardships now will be amply compensated for. This is not easy to understandCan it be true? Can the pain of this world really be seen in a light that explains it, still more justifies it? I think it can. Is it really so hard to accept that suffering has a purpose and that one day it will be seen as no more than a bad dream when the day dawns. Of course, in order to accept that idea we have to come to terms with the fact that we are only half made in our current state. We are still being formed, and it may be that when the new man is finally formed his past travails will seem to him well worth it in the light of his present glory.

So the conclusion I draw is that the fact of suffering can be taken as proof of God's existence and of his purpose for us. When we identify ourselves exclusively with our material being then suffering makes no sense. But when we start to see ourselves as visitors to this world, come to experience the lessons it has to offer then we can see it in its true light. And this was surely what Jesus demonstrated by his life and death. He showed us that accepted suffering can be the way to redemption and self-transformation.

After I had written this piece I was asked a question about the suffering of animals. How could a good God allow animals to suffer? Humans may do so because the abuse of free will has made a fallen world but why animals? Why (ran the question) are they involved in the predator/prey cycle? But the point is that it's not just humanity that has fallen. The whole of nature has been affected whether as a consequence of the human deviation or because of the original fall of the angels from heaven which we can understand to mean that celestial beings were banished from higher worlds and forced to live in lower realms which they have corrupted by their presence. Nature itself has been corrupted. But there is also the important point that all life is evolving. Animals too are here to learn and they will do that far more quickly when faced with challenge which the predator/prey cycle brings to both its participants far more than a lion lying down with the lamb scenario would. If any vegetarian is shocked by this statement I should point out that I make it as someone who has not eaten meat since 1978.


David Balfour said...

"Very possibly in a world that hadn't fallen it would not have been necessary but this one did fall and so it is required even if, as I have been assured, all hardships now will be amply compensated for." 

Would you mind clarifying what your understanding of the fall is William if you have not already done so in another post I coul read instead?

William Wildblood said...

Well, David, my understanding of the Fall is more or less as it is understood in traditional Christian teachings and as presented mythologically in the Bible. In other words, at some point in our spiritual childhood we took a wrong turning and so our path of spiritual unfoldment, that is, the evolution of our consciousness, which would have been natural and gentle, became disturbed, and sin and death entered the picture. We were corrupted by whatever it is that is personified as the devil, the principle of rebellion against God, and took the path of fulfilment for the separate ego rather than the spiritual self. Our will was perverted. This was only rectified, or given the chance of rectification if we accepted that chance, by the advent of Christ which is why medieval theologians called the Fall a felix culpa or fortunate sin. It brought Christ to us.

Some people say that the Fall was intended by God because it gives us the opportunity to develop more completely through the full experience of individuality. By falling lower we can rise higher runs the theory. I don't think this is right. First of all, it's not what the Bible says. There it is very specific that the Fall was the result of disobedience on our part. Secondly, that idea would put suffering as part of God's plan from the very beginning and I don't think that is true. I think it became the necessary agent of purification because of the initial deviation. Growth would have been easier if the whole process had not been derailed. Suffering is the result of that deviation and the way, the only way, to get it back on track. If we hadn't gone against God's will, which is not the will of a tyrant but the way of objective reality, it would not have been necessary. It was not part of God's original plan for us or so I believe. And then there is the idea of falling so that we can rise to a higher estate thereby. This may well be the case but that it does not mean it was God's original intention. He is perfectly capable of bringing good from evil and greater good because of the greater suffering.

This theory makes the devil God’s accomplice rather than his adversary but I think it’s nonsense. It makes evil part of God but the Christian cannot accept this distortion of truth. Evil is the rejection of God. The reason people like to think like this is because they like to think of all life as one. So it is but that does not make evil a divine quality or necessity. It is precisely the absence of the divine. It is a parasite on reality not part of it and has no real being to it at root. So I consider the story in the book of Genesis to be an accurate description, given its obvious mythological formulation, of what happened.

What do you think?

William Wildblood said...

With regard to the theory that the fall was part of God's plan for us I should add that the fall did not bring free will. That was already there or the fall could not have happened. It rather bent free will from a pure form that took joy in voluntary obedience to a more selfish less God aware state.

David Balfour said...

I think that the explanations of Mormon Doctrine are the most satisfying that I have heard. To me they 'ring true' in a way that Traditional Christian narratives seem to fall short of an adequate explanation in several respects. My main source of information with regard to this has been through a book called "The God who Weeps: How mormonism sees the world" by Teryl and Fiona Givens. I have listened to the audiobook several times and would thoroughly recommend it if you have not read it or listened to audio version. I find it induces in me a calm sense of reassurance that my tendency to a roving mind of savage self-doubt and second guessing oneself, need not tip the boat over into abandoning my ideas of faith as mere folly or wishful thinking (Something that I am often inclined to imagine or feel at some unsettling level). The Mormon conception of the fall described in the book as a progressive step towards potential spiritual development rather than a banishment from paradise due to simple disobedience is particularly compelling to my mind. But I am finding that there is a fine line between asserting that one *knows* something, whereas in the cool light of the day the honest answer for me would be 'I simply dont know!' when it comes to certain matters of theology. I have my favourite theories but I have noticed that sometimes one can become attached to a dogmatic interpretation as fact and not just a theory and this can be perilous for human beings to do at a personal level. Of course there is the matter of revelation which can be accepeted by faith but I have not personally had such direct communications from the suoernatural realm on such matters and so I have to plead partial ignorance and concede I see things through a glass quite dimly.

Having said that it is quite clear that there is something wrong and flawed with the very nature of this world and with my nature also. How we came to be in this situation I dont really understand. I find the mystery of my existence and the Universe quite confusing when analysed in anything more than general terms.

David Balfour said...

I also find the idea of pre-mortal existence as compelling and that I probably chose to come to Earth and to live in this fallen world in order to learn and grow spiritually. Again this felt like a bit of a penny dropping moment for me when some Mormon missionaries explained to me about the plan for salvation including a 3 act play format of pre-mortal, mortal and post-mortal life. I am not a mormon but they certainly taught me some very interesting ideas that I have now settled on as most likely to be true. I must confess however that I regularly feel frustrated that I do not just *know* more about the basic set up as some kind of pre-programmed knowledge of the plan for salvation at a deeper level. The mormon explanation resorts to the notion of a 'veil of forgetfullness' which again 'rings true' but is perfectly beyond any kind of rational analysis that would seek to reduce uncertainty. Again, this would also fit well with the idea that if moral agency in this life is to be exercised authentically then it really must be a blank slate and we cannot just know our heavenly parents are watching our every move otherwise we would be like teenagers going out into the world to learn to become independent but with mummy and daddy following a few paces behind every step of the way. I think they may well be doing this in some sense but its important to them that we dont feel them being overbearing in the way that any teenager would wish to be treated. But of course when things go wrong that is when we seek out our parents for support and guidance.

Fristratingly though this means that we need to live in a world of what at times feels like intolerable uncertainty about anything important. And I personally am certainly prone to doubts. I sometimes feel a deep conviction that the situation I describe above is palpably true. At other times I get a gut wrenching sense that the existence of God is just an elaborate story I tell myself to keep going in what would otherwise just be a horrific existential nightmare of my own transient being: like a snowflake, wonderful to behold for a few fleeting moments and then gone for eternity!

William Wildblood said...

I'll take a few of your remarks, if I may David, and give you my opinion on the points they make.

'The Mormon conception of the fall (is) as a progressive step towards potential spiritual development rather than a banishment from paradise due to simple disobedience'

Does this means that Mormons see the fall as intended by God? As I said above I would doubt this. I think we would have had to have left the nursery of Paradise in order to learn and grow, that is descend to a lower, more materialised state of consciousness, but not with such a great loss of connection as actually took place. Not with such a great amount of capacity for sin in our nature. I do think our nature became corrupted and this was more than just a matter of having to do things on our own which would always have been part of the plan for our growth. Something did go wrong. As you say 'it is quite clear that there is something wrong and flawed with the very nature of this world and with (our) nature also'. The natural path of development did go awry in my estimation and the corruption in nature and ourselves that goes right to the root confirms this for me. Also the fact that it needed the advent of Christ to put things (potentially) right. No doubt we will know for sure one day but this is how I see it and feel things to be intuitively. it is just too neat to think this is all part of the plane. I can see why people might think that but I think it ignores important pieces of evidence and fails to see that God can bring good from evil.

It's probably not a coincidence that Mormonism rose at a time and place (i.e. in 19th century Protestantism)when the consciousness of human sinfulness was intense and extreme and so maybe that over-balanced state brought forth a reaction as extremes always do. There was too much emphasis on sin just as nowadays there is too little.

'I also find the idea of pre-mortal existence as compelling and that I probably chose to come to Earth and to live in this fallen world in order to learn and grow spiritually.'

I would agree with this except that I think reincarnation is involved too. But pre-mortal existence is definitely right. It's ridiculous to think otherwise frankly and to believe that we, enormously complicated and sophisticated beings (despite our faults!). came into existence with our mortal birth.

' if moral agency in this life is to be exercised authentically then it really must be a blank slate '

Yes, this is why we can never be absolutely certain about the existence of God. There must be room for faith and there must be room for doubt. We cannot know for sure because then our reactions would be inauthentic. They would not be coming from our true hearts but from the mind so they would not genuinely be integral parts of what we really are. This lack of certainty is both a test and a necessity if we are to grow from within.

Thanks for providing stimulating points for discussion!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - This matter of The Fall is an area on which I do *not* have a personal revelation - I seem to lack intuitive grasp.

I regard Genesis as a very difficult text to understand, and I have a merely intellectual understanding that The Fall was in some sense almost-inevitable, and therefore part of the plan; in th esense that I think we could not have the potential to grow up towards divinity without it.

Sometimes, as individuals - and there may be exceptions - we can *only* learn by our mistakes; and often people will only respond positively to suffering (and often are corrupted by peace, prosperity and comfort).

But it is a terribly difficult area to be clear about, and terribly easy to misunderstand and be misunderstood!

My main insight is that we ought not to regard suffering as one category, nor even as a finite number of categories, but that each instance needs to be individually understood and in a very wide context such that typically we cannot understand it - although in the small number of instances when the suffering has some direct relevance to our own spiritual path we will usually be granted a revelation to its meaning, assuming we are open to that.

William Wildblood said...

I may sound more certain than I am about the Fall, Bruce! I must confess that at different times I've thought different things. (The Masters certainly gave me no clue that I can remember). So I did at one time think that the Fall was all part of the general pattern of the evolution of consciousness and that we had to know duality in order to transcend it consciously. I still think that. It's pretty obvious really.

But, at the same time, did we have to know it to the rather extreme extent that we do? So now it's not the descent into duality that I think was the result of our disobedience (if that's what it was) but the absolute separation that we feel from God. I can envisage a process where we still learnt to be full individuals but without the degree of pain , suffering and fear of death that we have now. It would have been a kinder, gentler process, still fully effective but less of a long hard slog. Also it's clear that Nature has been deeply corrupted by something more than just the results of the misuse of human free will. That must be why the Gnostics could think (incorrectly) that matter was evil and not the creation of the good God. The created world is good but it has been damaged right to the bottom by an anti-spiritual force and so have we I believe. I recently re-read That Hideous Strength and the idea CS Lewis has of the fallen archon who is the planetary guardian of Earth gone bad seems to echo this. Also, Tolkien's idea that the ring of Morgoth had become Nature itself (if I remember this rightly).

So I do think that a fall was part of the plan but not the Fall as we actually experienced it which was the intended fall times several hundred.

And I absolutely agree that you cannot just treat suffering as some abstract category which can be neatly pigeon holed and dealt with like that. Each instance has to be taken on its own terms and seen for what it is which may be one or more of any number of things. You can't respond to it when you see it purely intellectually. At the same time to try to understand that it does, or can, have a purpose is helpful in dealing with it. And perhaps the most important thing is to know that Christ suffered and accepted it with resistance, and we can take away some of the sting of our suffering if we offer it and ourselves up to him. I believe this corresponds to conventional Christian thought.

William Wildblood said...

I mean of course that Christ accepted suffering without resistance!