Sunday, January 18, 2009

Thank God for small favors

There is a family at my church who's been going through a crisis. I'll probably get the details wrong because I don't know them personally, and I've only heard the story second-hand, but it doesn't matter so much. See, this family has a child, a boy slightly younger than two years old, who right around Christmas time started acting rather strange. Kids that age don't tend to do much anyway, but all of a sudden, he seemed to be especially quiet and inactive, and after he'd been like that for some time, they decided to take him to the hospital, just to be on the safe side.

Well, it turned out that there indeed was something wrong. A scan was taken and indicated that he was bleeding into his brain. Surgery was performed, and it was revealed that the boy had a large tumor which was removed. At the time I am writing this, the boy seems to have recovered; he's back home again and acting normally. He's going to undergo a series of chemotherapy treatments in the coming months, which of course won't be fun, but at least his prospects are good, and his life was saved.

People have sick children all the time. People get cancer. People get treatment. And people recover. Why bring up the story? Because of miracles, and how we perceive them.

Once again, I'm only hearing this story second-hand, but the mother is apparently brimming over with joy and thanksgiving that her son is going to be alright. Through an extensive prayer network, people all over the world have been praying for this boy, and have sent the mother e-mails expressing their thankfulness to God that the boy has recovered. Her response to this crisis is to declare that her son's diagnosis, treatment and recovery are a miracle of God.

Now, I know I wrote about this topic before, but it deserves a brief mention again, that sometimes I suspect the purpose of suffering and misfortune is to turn us to God. If our lives were smooth sailing, we probably would never look to a higher power. This mother was a Christian before all of this transpired, but something about what happened has caused a deepening of her faith. It may very well be that the boy, upon hearing this story when he is old enough to understand it, will also gain great faith from it. From a theistic perspective, suffering can serve a higher purpose (if indeed faith is important).

But I had a little epiphany when I heard the story, and it wasn't the one above, although it comes from the same source. I've spent a lot of time discussing religion, faith and theology with skeptics, and inside my head there's a little voice of a skeptic that goes with me into every conversation. That little voice, speaking out for the skeptics not physically present in the room as the story was told, said, "A kid has a brain tumor, and we're all thanking God for it, simply because he got over it? How stupid is that? If God was really looking out for the kid, wouldn't he have not had a tumor at all?"

I've heard this argument before in one form or another of course, and there does seem to be some logic to it. Wouldn't it be better to not suffer at all? You'd think so, but it's this very argument that tends to lead me to the thoughts I shared above and previously. Suffering leads to introspection, leading some theists to greater faith, some atheists to further skepticism, and various people of both persuasions to reevaluate what they believe. Yet there is another implication.

If indeed to not have a brain tumor is better than having one, what does that imply about those of us who don't have brain tumors? If recovery from a brain tumor can be considered a miracle, then doesn't that imply that not having one in the first place is better than a miracle?

I've heard it said in a sermon or two (paraphrased), "Instead of asking why some kid had a brain tumor, ask why you don't!" Suffering is a fact of life, and whether you are a theist who believes it to be the result of Original Sin or an atheist who sees it as a matter of "nature's red in tooth and claw", or whatever your belief persuasion may be, consider that any moment without suffering may be the biggest miracle of all!

Think of the implications. A couple who suffers from infertility managing to finally have a baby is not nearly as impressive of a miracle as a couple who has no trouble procreating in the first place. A man who survives a nasty automobile accident should, in some sense, not be nearly so thankful as an everyday commuter who manages to spend over an hour each day at speeds up to seventy miles per hour without her car ever coming into contact with an immobile object beyond the road passing beneath her wheels. Every plane that doesn't crash, every surgery that a patient lives through, every bank that doesn't go under when the stock market drops, every job you manage to keep, every walk through your house in the dark without a stubbed toe, and every day you wake up in the morning to find you're still drawing breath into your lungs: those are all profound miracles that we are blind to because we pass through them like a fish through water.

And then there's this: Can an atheist really say that it's better not to have a tumor in the first place? If suffering shows us the "truth" that there is no God, then wouldn't it be better for the boy to not only have a tumor, but to die? Shouldn't we all be wiped out by a plague, or even better, have a huge meteor ram into the earth and destroy all life?

It used to be that theodicies were about theists finding ways to reconcile suffering with the accepted concept of a good and loving God. In the modern age, discussions of the problem of suffering have often been the result of atheists arguing that there is no reconciliation of these concepts. But it seems there is an inherent flaw. If suffering turns us away from God, and it's true that there is no God, and truth is good, then suffering is good. But there can't possibly be enough suffering, because there is a lot of the world that is full of these little miracles.

I don't know that any of this makes any sense. Then again, is there any sense in the suffering of a little boy with a brain tumor? Yet it happens. When we try to make sense of the world, are we losing sight of the bigger picture? Are atheists' preconceived notions blocking their understanding of something profound? Are mine? Probably both.

1 comment:

Na said...

Wow, what an incredibly masochistic view of the world you have managed to concoct here.

A few criticisms:

Argument that the time you spent not suffering is miraculous presupposes miracles and has a rather darker implication that you didn't quite reach: If all our time without suffering is down to a constant stream of miracles, then miracles are the norm - part of the very fabric of life, the universe and everything. In which case, it is actually the suffering that God causes by choosing particular moments to make an exception to the norm and allow harm. God is like a nasty little boy with an ant farm and magnifying glass.
However, if we don't grant miracles any validity, then suffering is either the result of unfortunate happenstance or poor choices. Either way we can show compassion and take steps to prevent and heal, safe in the knowledge that we are not just the playing things of a mean deity.

As much as suffering great trauma may well get you to reevaluate things you have held to be true, it does not add anything to your ability to reason. If anything it may well bias your view and cause you to disregard rational argument in favour of something more emotive. There is absolutely no reason to believe that personal suffering will give you a more reliable insight into "truth". In fact even in this blog you point out that it brings people to very different incompatible conclusions.

There is an argument made that says suffering from causes outside our control does from a stand point of human compassion equate to a natural evil. God's creation of these possibilities and the lack of action against them, stack up against a case for a good and powerful God.
However, for this argument using suffering per se, as opposed to personal suffering, only requires that that kind of suffering has happened at some point.
It also has to be noted that the less suffering there is in society, the less people turn to religion. So suffering is no Allie of atheism; much more so of religion. So yes a atheist can most definitely say that it's better not to have a tumor in the first place. But maybe the problem you have tried to place on the atheists' doorstep, actually belongs on the doorstep of the religious.