Tuesday, January 1, 2013

On New Year's Day, a Radical Faith for a Suffering World

As we begin 2013 this New Year’s Day, Solemn Feast of Mary, Mother of God, we look back upon a preceding year that, if nothing else, sadly reminded us of the evil and suffering that is abroad in the world. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, just before Christmas, senseless violence that took the lives of 20 small school children, shocked the country as no event has in the post-September 11th era.
The sadness that follows on the Newtown shooting, and the many other tragedies and outrages that have befallen us just in the last decade, force society to once more confront the ancient “problem of evil”—how could these events happen? If there is a God, why does he allow such things to occur? And what can be done about them?

Perhaps more so than in ages past, the modern world struggles to answer, or even approach, these questions. We are a rationalist and publically secular society. When confronted with a Newtown or Columbine, we turn almost immediately to various experts for answers. Experts on gun control—and so we argue about the wisdom and efficacy of laws that restrict access to firearms. Experts on mental health—and so we examine the need for better psychological treatments, commitment laws and the brand of mental defect that might explain the killer’s actions.
All of this is understandable and reasonable, to a degree. But these types of responses do not probe the ultimate question: why do these things occur and why must certain people, for no reason at all, undergo such profound suffering?

For those without faith, these random acts of violence and nihilism serve to confirm that there cannot be a God, and certainly not a good and loving one. The denial of God has a powerful appeal to the rationalist modern mind. Logic seems to hold that a loving and all-powerful God who cares for His Creation could never permit, for example, the random and horrific death of school children. Because we crave the “proveable”, this sort of thinking appears to offer a somewhat verifiable answer: evil acts demonstrate the absence of God.

The denial of God, however, is no answer. With the denial of God, one begs the question of whether the “evil act” may even be properly described as “evil.” For without a good and loving God who commanded “Thou shalt not kill”, it is not at all clear why murder—even the murder of innocent children—constitutes the moral outrage that we instinctively assign to it. The invocation of deistic or atheistic responses essentially confirms the nihilism of the evil it seeks to explain; it leads only to the conclusion that there are no conclusions.

For the faithful, the existence of evil poses perhaps the greatest and most longstanding challenge to Christianity. It is entirely true that the faithful man, like the doubter, cannot wholly and completely explain evil—why God allows it and why it visits some more than others. In fact, in this materialist and rationalist modern world, even the faithful often overlook the profound answer Christianity offers, opting instead for the vague comforts of religious traditions.

Yet, when fully embraced, it is the Christian world-view that gives the most coherent response to the problem of evil, suffering and death. In sum, the Christian answer is a radical faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Christian does not proffer a “comprehensive answer” in the sense the term would be used by the secular world. Christ’s Cross does not wholly explain why we suffer evil. Rather, the Cross instructs us that suffering and evil are a foundational reality of the created world, an essential aspect of human existence.

For Christ Himself, son of God, suffered in the most dramatic and horrific manner one might imagine. While we often focus on the excruciating physical pain He endured, the physical agony alone does not constitute the entirety of His suffering. Christ also suffered evil and unjust human actions against His person. He suffered betrayal at the hands of a close friend and follower. He suffered the caprice of the mob, senselessly denouncing him. He suffered under a callous and corrupt government that signed his death warrant as a matter of expediency with no finding of guilt.

So in the Passion and Death of Christ, the faithful are called to accept the reality of suffering in this life. We can speculate as to why God allows evil and pain—the price of man’s free will, for example—but in the Passion and in the Cross, we can know that suffering is fundamental to our human existence because the most truly human person who ever lived, Jesus Christ, endured suffering resulting from the evil acts of his fellow men. This is the lot of man, and in the suffering of His Son, God acknowledges this difficult truth of our condition in the most stark and dramatic way.

Yet it is not the entire reality. Christ’s Resurrection is as much of a part of the fundamental reality of our existence as is our suffering. And the Resurrection is not merely an event that happened to Christ, who returned to life after a death wrought by evil and filled with pain. Rather, it is the destiny offered to each person who suffers in this life loss, pain, grief and death. The Resurrection is the promise of eternal life.

And eternal life is the great equalizer. We all die. Some die with the awful notoriety of the children of Sandy Hook and the victims of September 11, 2001. Less noticed, by no less brutal, are the deaths of those who perish by accidents, fires, “routine murders” and disease each day. Others at last succumb to death in peace at an advanced age. There is no way to know the particular fate that awaits any particular individual. Neither wealth, nor power, nor righteousness, nor innocence, nor even age, is a guarantee of a prolonged or happy life.

But beyond death, however it may come, is the Resurrection and eternal life with God. The routes taken to this ultimate end are different, but we are all called to this terminus and, therefore, the way in which we meet God finally becomes unimportant. Eternal life makes sense of, and brings meaning to, any death.

This is a great and fearful thought. It causes us to admit that we having nothing approaching absolute control over our own lives. Faith does not offer us a shield against suffering, pain and death. It could happen to you, as they say.

But Faith offers us not only its sister virtue, Hope, but also intelligibility for our existence. Many generations of Catholic school children were taught by rote this simple but profound formulation of the meaning of life: “I was made to know and to love and to serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.” The children of Sandy Hook, in their own ways, knew and loved and served God. This is evident in the light and joy that they brought to their families, who so dolefully mourn their passing. Now, fulfilling their very purpose, they are happy with God in eternal life, taking their place among the saints and their spiritual mother, the Queen of Heaven. Someday, she will wipe the tears from the eyes of their parents, as they are reunited at last and forever with their children in Paradise.

Can we believe this? It takes mere observation to know that there is suffering and evil in this world. But can we believe that such pain is not the end; that the same wonderful destiny awaits each son and daughter of God, just as Christ promised?

This we cannot prove, and such matters do not belong to the rationalist world. Still, for the Christian, this is the ultimate truth about our existence and, without it, there cannot be much, if any, truth in the world at all.

But to truly believe it requires the radical Faith of the Gospel. Among the several themes of Christ’s ministry perhaps none is of greater significance than the call to a radical Faith. That is, total trust in God. Faith the size of mustard seed can move a mountain; Faith allows you to walk to the Lord upon the water; Faith that knows that a mere word from the lips of Christ can heal—he need not enter under your roof. Get up, go home, your Faith has saved you!

The radical Faith of the Gospel teaches us to fear God, not man. It teaches us that God Himself suffered for us and with us, so our pain has meaning because it is form of unity with the Lord. And death, whenever and however it may visit us, is the gateway to life eternal.

This is the point and purpose of our life. If we can accept and embrace this truth, a truth of a different nature than that which we can grasp by reason or science, a truth that can be at odds with our own personal desires, we can make sense of even the most lachrymose happenings in this veil of tears.

It is this truth alone that enables us to say: Happy New Year