Suffering Through Different Eyes (2 of 4)

13. Suffering Through Different Eyes (#2 Worldviews)UNIVERSAL PROBLEM: Suffering Challenges Everyone’s View

Christianity is not the only one on trial; suffering poses a challenge to every worldview. No matter who you are, you must make sense of suffering somehow. So let me begin with a question. How does what you believe explain and answer the expectations and experiences of the suffering in the world around you?

Following on from last week’s blog where I shared my story, I want to pretend as though I went on a worldwide journey to try and make sense of my suffering. I’m a wounded traveller. Before exploring how Christians respond to suffering, I first want to explore suffering through different eyes, to see whether, through the lens of 3 major worldviews, they offer more satisfying answers. With passport in hand, and with no intention to misrepresent the perspectives I encounter, this wounded traveller sets out in a bid to find answers, and hopefully hope.

TRAVERSING THE GLOBE: In Search of Answers

Suppose I travelled to Thailand and were to walk into a Buddhist temple of the Theravada tradition—the one most closely linked with the teaching of Gautama Buddha. If I relayed my suffering to the monk, what would he say? If he held to the four noble truths, he would start by saying that my suffering is really an illusion. I only appear to suffer because I’m too attached to my mother, and to the things of this world. Desire is the cause of my suffering. Because I care about my mum, because I love her—this is why I suffer. His counsel to me would be to ignore the suffering around me, to shed myself of all desires and connections to the world, and to seek oneness with the universe by denying the inherent personhood of my existence. In short, he would say my suffering is not real.

Suppose, deeply confused by my non-existence, I then travel to Oxford to meet with the high priest of new atheism, Professor Richard Dawkins. If I relayed my story to him, what would he say? Judging from his worldview and his writings, he would say that my suffering is meaningless. There is no rhyme and reason; it is merely bad cosmic luck. After all, as he says in his book River Out of Eden, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”[1] Although he may, mustering his British compassion, seek to console me, ultimately he would admit that my suffering has no purpose; nor is it evil, or wrong, for me to experience. In this pitiless, indifferent universe, suffering is just a brute fact that I have to put up with it. And because my life has no ultimate purpose, if suffering gets too hard to simply medicate or ignore, why not just tap out? If my suffering seems too acute, then my only hope for relief is the final silence of annihilation at death.

Suppose, deeply saddened by the purposeless and inevitability of my suffering, I then travel across to India and step into a Hindu temple. If I relayed my suffering to a Brahman priest, what do you think he would he say? According to the teaching of the Vedas, he would tell me that my suffering is ultimately deserved. The karmic cycle of reaping what you sow—whether in this life or the next—assures that my suffering stems from evil I committed in a former life, and that enduring it, rather than seeking to relieve or heal it, is the only means of cosmic penance I have of gaining a better reincarnation.

EMOTIONAL DISSONANCE: Confused by Alternative Options

Before even getting to the Christian story, and what Jesus would say to my story, it seems that suffering presents a challenge to everyone. No one is on neutral footing. Everyone explains suffering somehow. Having sought answers that resonate with our experience and expectations has left me confused. Could suffering really be an illusion? Could it really be meaningless? Could it really be deserved? I’m just not convinced, having travelled to explore the alternatives to Christianity that anyone’s explanation resonates with our experiences, or gels with our innate expectations as to how things should be. So let me ask the sceptic a question:

How has getting rid of the Christian God made any more sense of suffering, or given any more hope for coping with or confronting it?

Stay tuned for the next scene of the story.

Dan Paterson is director of operations at Traverse, and a Pastor at Ashgrove Baptist Church.


[1] Dawkins, R 1995, River Out of Eden, Great Brittain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 133.