Augustine and Suffering (sounds cheery)

Part of the writing process, for me, is to stack things up a few weeks ahead of when they need to be published. I’m writing this on February 10th, and I imagine it’ll go out in early March. It means I can just keep writing as much as I want, and it also means that I’ve got a bit of time to cool down on the ideas. When you initially have an idea, you think it’s the best thing in the world, and when you look it again two days later, you think Oh, that’s a bit lopsided. Anyway, I was reading through this post on Augustine and the suffering of the righteous, and it occured to me that Augustine doesn’t really theorise suffering in a patalable way – at least not for contemporary society. So that’s what I wanted to look at today.

Augustine’s basic contention is that everything that is, is good. Reality is built and sustained by the goodness of God, and the only reason evil exists is because we’re disobedient. That’s a pretty common line among most Christian thinkers – God is entirely perfect, and evil is entirely of ourselves. Augustine writes that “No nature is contrary to God; but a perversion, being evil, is contrary to good” (XII, 3). Perversion, or evil, is that which diminishes or destroys nature and its goodness – so our proper human nature is righteous and perfect, but we are made less human to the extent that we are diminished by sin, which is a perversion and destruction of that humanity. Evil is therefore not a ‘thing’ in and of itself, it is a parasite that wears away at our nature.

Augustine takes this line in order to resist the Manichees, who we’ve talked about before. The Manichees kinda went full dualism and argued that the physical world was corrupted by the very fact of its physical nature. The physical world was bad, the spiritual realm was good, and the sooner we got off this rotten planet the better. My impression of Augustine so far is that he never quite gets the balance right either – I wonder if he undersells the physical plane. It seems like he never entirely gets away from the Manichee/Platonist thing – although this conception of good and evil is a pretty great stab at it! By affirming existence and nature as good, Augustine affirms the goodness of this physical realm, which is good Christology.

That said, Augustine’s theory of good and evil makes it difficult to talk about suffering in a way that people today can really appreciate. He’s got this fundamental approach of ‘Everything that happens is either a blessing or a lesson’, and that can be kinda tough to swallow. Now, yes, we can agree that some suffering is the result of evil, and that it diminishes us as humans, but it seems only logical and fair to claim that some of what we would describe as suffering is, in fact, a God-given opportunity for growth. That’s the whole point (well, half the point) of the Book of Job – that suffering is not, in and of itself, necessarily evil. That’s hard for people to swallow – especially people who’re suffering! You can’t just go to a kid with bone cancer and tell them it’s just a lesson from God and it’s fundamentally a good thing – and yes, you can argue that bone cancer might be evil suffering rather than good suffering, but the point holds. There are people who just aren’t going to accept the idea, and that’s fair enough.

For me personally, it’s something I’m largely on board with in the Stoic sort of sense – God takes priority over everything, so when I’m suffering, the pain or discomfort is less important to me than God is. That doesn’t mean pain and discomfort are easy or fun, it just means my priorities are elsewhere. Some people might describe that as being a zealot, but I don’t consider the term pejorative: zealots are simply people willing to put an external goal above themselves. That said, I acknowledge that while it’s my personal philosophy, it’s not something everybody’s going to be willing to take on, and that’s totally fine. The problem is that Augustine doesn’t really leave many alternatives with the way he theorises good and evil. There’s not really any way to soften the blow.

To some extent a good deal of responsibility lies with contemporary culture itself. I’d argue that society puts too much emphasis on personal happiness and gratification, and not enough on self-sacrifice and service. There’s this kinda expectation that we all ought to be blissed out and happy – it’s not even restricted to a religious culture, either, this is mainstream society. This cultural expectation of happiness and personal satisfaction seems to tie a lot of people up – either because they don’t get what they think will make them happy, or because they do get it and they don’t find it satisfying. At the same time, there’s this purely emotive appeal when you see someone suffering – it’s hard to feel like their pain could be at all part of God’s good plan for the world.

In fact, in some situations it’s crucially important to respond to that feeling of injustice. Righteous anger at what we might describe as ‘evil suffering’ is a basic cornerstone of Christ’s ministry. The most obvious example is when he whips the moneylenders out of the Temple – that’s righteous anger. It’s also a textbook example of what Augustine might call corrective suffering, which is like the moral equivalent of sticking a fork in a toaster. It hurts, but you did something dumb, and this will teach you not to do it. But then, at the same time, we can’t talk about ‘corrective suffering’ without conjuring up the spectres of brutal filthy regimes. A topical example might be the ‘corrective rape’ and murder of Sizakele Sigasa and Salome Masooa in South Africa in 2007. As a theory, corrective suffering can sound promising – the idea of karma employs the same principle. However, in practice, we have only ever really seen horrific human rights abuses in the name of righteous punishment. This is part of the problem of trying to do theology – you’ve got the theories, and you can remain committed to the theories, but today they’re so saturated in a history of violence and cruelty that they become unpalatable. That’s kinda the problem with Augustine on suffering – it’s not that he’s necessarily wrong, it’s that even if he’s right, nobody really wants to hear it.

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