Friday, April 27, 2007

An Extreme Form of Play?

You may wonder about the title here, but read on and it will become apparent why I chose it.

It can be genuinely difficult to account for human suffering within the Christian worldview. I definately believe that the Christian worldview has the only truly satisfactory answer to the problem of suffering and pain, but we can't evade
the fact that it still remains a struggle to accept. Sometimes we give pat answers, but they tend to shrivel away when the first real hardship comes along. When we look at it Biblically, we find that the solution is ultimately personal. There are theological and philosophical answers that we should consider, but we need to experientially work through our doubts in the way that Job did. Otherwise, it seems we are just looking for a "silver bullet" to end suffering and pain.

It is interesting to look at esoteric "eastern" religions and the way they deal with suffering. When we analyize them, we have to be careful to view their individual statements in light of their overarching worldview, since their worldview is so substantially different. It is easy for us (Western Christians) to largely misunderstand what they are saying, because we have some fundamental assumptions that are so radically different than theirs.

In "The Joyous Cosmology", lecturer Alan Watts says "Pain and suffering are simply extreme forms of play, and there isn't anything in the whole world to be afraid of because it doesn't happen to anyone! There isn't any substantial ego at all." To him, there isn't even enough of an distinguishable concept of "ego" or "I" to categorize suffering as wrong or protestable. And, to him, this makes the question of personal suffering as irrelevant. He supposes that this "self" is just a comedy of sorts, or a "double-take" as Watts puts it. In this view, pain is the necessary counterpart of non-pain and can't be understood in a very personal way.

What Alan Watts says may be seem very estoteric, but it isn't that far off from the prevailing mindset is of our culture, albiet non-directly. They still don't "jive" with Alan's direct and non-comprimising terminology (and may even deny such a connection). Very few would outright accept his total rejection of the idea of "ego". First of all, they still hold (to some degree of consistensy) to Judeo-Christian notions of "personality". Secondly, if anything modern society is more egotistic than every before. But ultimately the worldview of perhaps the majority of people in the west rest on premises similar to those of Watts. The thought of Alan Watts is essentially consistent relativism applied to being as a whole, not just fractured segments of reality (which would probably be what most relativists do).

The ultimate conclusion that this view takes is different than the Christian answer, though it may show some surface similarities. It could be summed up in this: If pain and non-pain are just two sides of the same coin and individuality is really just a "grand delusion", then pain and suffering should be accepted as a mere increase intensity in the way things should be. Or in Watts' words, an "extreme form of play".

While Christianity is sympathetic to the need to contextualize pain/suffering as part of a greater picture, something beyond individuality, at this point we must disagree with "eastern religionists" and rather assert that pain/suffering is an abnormality and something that can be consistently lamented. I say this with caution and reservation. When I say it is "abnormal" I am not diminishing God's sovereignty. He controls all things, including pain and suffering. He has decreed it. It did not escape His attention. But, what I am saying is this: Firstly, it is possible to have well-being without human pain and suffering. This is not a case of "ying and yan". The way things are right now is due to the Fall. Secondly, man does have a distinguishable personality or "ego". Formed in God's image, man is a person, a distinguishable being, and so we can coherently speak of him as "suffering" in a personal way.

Ironically enough, while blaming God for our suffering is not proper, the very concept of blaming God for suffering finds its roots in Christianity! That is not to say that Christianity suggests we should blame God, but rather that Christianity provides sufficient framework for assessing suffering in the area of morality. Christianity provides us with the categories to see suffering and pain as abnormal. "Eastern" religion and philosophical teachings, whether that of Alan Watts or others, don't. It isn't that they say "pain is gain" (which could be said to be true sometimes), but rather that their belief system erases the distinction between pain and gain. The truth is, this system leaves the suffering "high and dry". They rightly say that being an isolated and seperate ego can be alienating. But the alienation they point out pales in consideration to the alienation experienced in their system-when the "ego" is seen as an illusion, one is an undetermined part of an undeliniated "everything".

We can sincerely and rightly lament suffering and sigh under the stress of pain. We are also called to be patient with it even when it is not relieved right away (James 5:7). It is not an "extreme form of play" in the charade of existence. We are not to just passively accept suffering and resign to it. Though that is part of it, it is not the whole picture. There are also things for us to do (James 5:13). We are personal beings, not simply cogs in a a machine. We suffer, and what is inside of our skin is distinguishable from what is outside. Others hear our cries for relief, and ultimately God does. We can consistently dislike pain and suffering; it is not an inseperatable part of reality. There is a distinction between evil and good, between pain and non-pain. Pain is abnormal and hard. For the Christian, accepting it and dealing with it shouldn't mean ambivalence towards it, but rather the acknowledgement that though it is abnormal, its hurt pales in comparison to the healing we will one day experience (Romans 8:18). God's grace gets us through it now (2 Corinthians 1:5), but even that can't be compared with what is to come.

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