We all suffer and die:
Pain and death accompany the passage of life for all creatures. This world is indeed the beautiful dwelling place of the Creator Spirit – but its natural processes exact a very high price.
In response to this universal fact of life, St. Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now – but in the midst of this agony dwells the Spirit, interceding ‘with sighs too deep for words’.
Note that Paul weaves the natural world into the picture: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:18-23)
Pain is part of the natural world:
Pain enters the natural world with the emergence of neurons, nervous systems and brains.
Pain is a physiological stimulus that signals danger; pleasure, which travels along the same pathways, signals something beneficial. Both stimuli enable behavioral adjustment in the face of changing situations – and since this gives a clear benefit for survival, evolution selects for sensitivity to pain and pleasure.
Suffering arises in response to pain. As species evolve, nervous systems and brains grow more complex (allowing for heightened alertness) all the way to levels of consciousness typical of sentient animals. The more sensitivity in a species, the more suffering and the more pleasure.
Death, whether accompanied by pain and suffering or not, is always a fact of life for all organic beings.
The extinction of species brings the rate of death to an astronomical level:
About 98% of all previously existing species have gone extinct. Those who live today walk upon this Earth as upon a vast cemetery.
Most of the world’s pain, suffering, and death are not the result of human sin. Pain, suffering and death existed long before humans emerged: Such afflictions have played an irreplaceable role in the emergence of complex and beautiful life forms. While human misuse of the creation is sinful, if we take humans out of the picture, pain, suffering and death would still continue unabated for other species. Once nervous systems developed, there never was life without pain.
Could the biological world have developed otherwise? The majority of scientists, philosophers, and theologians hold that pain – and eventually the conscious suffering in more complex creatures – is inevitable in a system where organisms interact with their environments. So too, death and extinction are intrinsic to an evolutionary process that over thousands of millennia brings forth ever new forms, including humans. Indeed, some Christian theologians have described the evolutionary process as a way of the cross.
Pain, suffering and death are woven into the very fabric of evolution:
We need to take the evolutionary function of affliction at face value, and then reflect on its workings in view of our understanding of the God of love.
We also need to seek ways to ameliorate suffering, not to reconcile ourselves to it.To assuage suffering and promote life’s flourishing is a moral imperative in the Jewish and Christian traditions.
But then how can we still see God’s world as good – indeed, as “very good”?
Without giving this reality ultimate meaning – that is, without rooting it in the eternal will of a good and gracious God (and without using it as an excuse not to do good) we can begin by acknowledging it as part of the finite character of the natural world, and respect its role in the evolutionary process.
This can lead us to a deeper understanding of the ‘theology of the cross”:
God’s compassionate presence dwells in the midst of pain and death. A rich source for this idea lies in Jewish theology: the Holy One of Israel is a God of immense pathos who freely relates to the world in delight and anguish. Christian theology adds the story of Jesus Christ: the living God, the Holy One of Israel, redeeming the world not by the divine fiat of a kindly, distant onlooker, but by freely participating in the groaning of the flesh.
Tomorrow – we look at ‘deep incarnation’.