Posted by douglashunter on October 5, 2008
Some thoughts concerning Lesson 19: Stand Fast Through the Storms of Life.
1) When addressing the storms of life, or trials, or suffering, what types of suffering are we talking about? The opening example of the lesson from Joseph’s life is a dramatic story of individual physical torture, as a result of his teachings and leadership of the Church. This type of suffering is also implied / described at several other times in the lesson even though no other such dramatic examples are provided. Physical suffering for the cause of the church, for the sake of faith in God dominates the material, but there are mentions or suggestions of other types of suffering such as the photo of a family in the hospital found on p. 234, or the mention of Joseph having a serious illness on p. 233. Nonetheless it’s worth asking how broad the notion of suffering presented in the lesson is? Are the mentions of different types of suffering central, or an afterthought? Is the lesson really defining a narrower subset of suffering as it relates to individual salvation? I’m not sure of the answer but I will proceed as if the lesson and the ideas of suffering contained there in are supposed to be taken in a broad sense. While at the same time acknowledging the primacy of physical suffering, the idea being that such dramatic struggles are a necessary part of being devoted to Christ and to achieving the delivery and Exaltation (p. 230) that lead up to Christ’s vengeance and triumph (p 232). This raises some questions: Today it seems less likely that we as a community or individuals will face the kind of vicious physical persecution that the early Saints faced, so what do we do with the lesson’s emphasis on intense physical suffering as requirement of our faith? Is there a way to productively examine our own lives today through this lens without overstating the degree to which we suffer and without falling into the trap of using suffering as evidence of our own righteousness?
2) Narratives of suffering / Mormon theodicy.
One of the more obvious aspects of the lesson is the way in which it participates in Mormon theodicy. It does so by creating a narrative in which all suffering occurs for the sake of specific religious outcomes.
Not necessarily in order but here are some of this theodicy’s features:
-Suffering as described in the lesson points both to the past and to the future. It points to the past in a way Joseph Smith put in terms of our relation to the ancients. Comparisons to the ancients are made several times in the lesson, on p. 230 we read:
“. . . that it will be a sign to this generation, altogether sufficient to leave them without excuse; and we think also, it will be a trial of our faith equal to that of Abraham, and that the ancients will not have whereof to boast over us in the day of judgment, as being called to pass through heavier afflictions; that we may hold an even weight in the balance with them.”
“Trials will only give us the knowledge necessary to understand the minds of the ancients. For my part I think I never could have felt as I now do, if I had not suffered the wrongs that I have suffered.”
So suffering contains a very old point of reference it is able to help us understand the trials or maybe even the spiritual condition of the prophets of old. It seems that Joseph felt that this comparison with or similarity to the ancients is part of what makes suffering valuable as it also points in the other direction, to the future. Suffering points to the future in that final outcome and purpose of suffering is always yet to come.
This “yet to come” describes suffering as teleological in that all suffering positions us in relation to God. It is an individual opportunity that eventualy confirms that we have proven our selves worthy to God and therefore are fit to receive his reward, to be delivered or exalted since suffering always is, from the beginning a test of our faith. This is the pre-condition and reason for suffering.
I imagine that some are comfortable with such narratives and don’t see much that could come out of examining them. But it may be worth while to ask if part of these narratives insistence on the purpose and meaning of suffering is a form of repression, a denial of the possibility that there is such a thing as useless suffering, suffering without meaning or purpose, that we experience as, and that in fact is, a pure excess without telos.
But before examining that possibility it’s also worth asking, who gets to create narratives of suffering? What purpose do they serve in the community and in individual lives? Further, what are the ethical and spiritual dimensions of such narratives? It’s not unexpected that on one hand they figure into heroic institutional narratives intended to inspire members of the Church. In addition, as we learn to understand or deal with our own suffering, narratives that insist upon suffering’s theological importance and meaning can be part of a healing process. But there is another possibility that should be kept in mind as well, this being that these narrative can be imposed in unhelpful ways on individual experience. If such a narrative is applied to the suffering of the other, is it ethical? In addition there is the question of child abuse, torture, rape addiction, psychosis and depression, among others; what relation do these types of tragedies have to Mormon theodicy? Are they part of an institutional or official narratives or are they left up to the individual? Aren’t there significant, ethical and pragmatic reasons for resisting narratives of such traumas and suffering as being part of a greater theological purpose, part of God’s plan?
Coming back to the idea that suffering, trials, and adversity point to the past and to the future. It’s conspicuous that in the lesson suffering does not point in other directions as well. What is absent from the lesson is any suggestion that suffering can point to the present, or near future, or to the suffering individual’s relationship to community. Why are these potentials absent from the lesson and what might these potentials look like? One answer may be that these elements are not necessary to Mormon theodicy, which I admit may be the case but I experience that potential as a loss. So to get a sense of how suffering may point in these other directions, I will take a lengthy quote from Levinas as a catalyst.
“For pure suffering, which is intrinsically senseless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond that appears in the form of the inter-human. It is seen in the light of such situations, be it said in passing, that medicine as technique, and consequently the technology as a whole that it presupposes -technology, so easily exposed to the attacks of “right thinking” rigor- does not derive solely from the so-called “will to power.” That bad will is perhaps only the price that must sometimes be paid by the high-mindedness of a civilization called upon to feed human beings and to lighten their sufferings.
A high-mindedness that is the honor of a still uncertain, still vacillating modernity, emerging at the end of a century of unutterable suffering but in which the suffering of suffering, the suffering for the useless suffering of the other, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable of the other, opens suffering to the ethical perspective of the inter-human. In this perspective there is a radical difference between the suffering in the other, where it is unforgivable to me, solicits me and calls me, and suffering in me, my own experience of suffering, whose constitution or congenital uselessness can take on a meaning the only one of which suffering is capable, in becoming a suffering for the suffering of someone else. It is this attention to the suffering of the other that through the cruelties of our century can be affirmed as the very nexus of human subjectivity, to the point of being raised to the level of supreme ethical principle-the only one it is impossible to question- shaping the hopes and commanding the practical discipline of vast human groups. This attention and this action are so imperiously and directly incumbent on human beings (on their I’s) that it makes awaiting from an all-powerful God impossible without our lowering ourselves. The consciousness of this inescapable obligation brings us closer to God in a more difficult, but also a more spiritual, way than does confidence in any kind of theodicy.”
I quoted a long section in order to provide some context and also hoping that those who read this blog that are far better equipped to handle Levinas than I am might be prompted to comment. For my purposes though, I am going to simplify the issue and say there are two things here that are interesting and may provide a useful juxtaposition with the lesson material. First, is Levinas’ depiction of suffering as useless, specifically in the excesses displayed in the 20th century, according to Levinas they are beyond the kind of theodicean narrative the lesson material seeks to create. Second, is that suffering directs us to the inter-human, which I will summarize as the relationship between individuals and the relationship of individuals in community.
It’s exactly in his challenge to theodicy that Levinas emphasizes the elements that are missing from the lesson, it’s also through this challenge and through the emphasis on the inter-human that Levinas suggests we find the more spiritual way to get closer to God.
Is this a coincidence? Is there anything necessary in the differences between the view that all suffering always has personal / theological meaning and purpose but that does not necessarily draw us into community, functioning rather towards the end of proving one’s self to God; and the view of suffering as useless but that comes to have meaning when it opens us to the inter-human subjectivity of ethics?
There is a great deal that can be said on this topic, starting with the observation that an essential distinction between Jewish and Christian theology is that the suffering of Christ is of central importance to each individual who takes the name of Christ upon him or herself in that Christ’s suffering is a necessary part of the atonement.
But when it comes to the distinction between suffering as either useless or part of theodiean narrative I am reminded of some of the posts I read last week on the Exponent II blog. Where a number of brave women described the profound suffering in their own lives, physical and sexual abuse among others, and the isolation that such suffering can cause. But Levinas’ emphasis on the inter-human has a powerful relation to the idea of bearing one another’s burdens. I think its difficult to have a testimony that the physical abuse suffered at the hands of a sexual predator, mentally ill family member, or sociopathic neighbor is a test of faith, and is a way of proving one’s self to God. At least this is the case in my own experience of such things.
So while it seems to that useless suffering, or suffering without direct theodicean meaning is very real. There is a point at which even this useless suffering can begin to have utility or meaning. This meaning is found in the degree to which our individual suffering opens us to the suffering of others, and allows us to discover within ourselves, not sympathy, but profound empathy with, and acceptance of, the suffering of others. This empathy can lead to solidarity, can lead to new relations between individuals. It can also allows suffering to be both a point of entry into the ethical, and to be an experience that does not have to be part of a specific pre-determined relationship between individual and God.
To be honest, it seems necessary to our religion that suffering be allowed both meanings: that of a test of faith to God, and also as a useless excess that may (and also risks the possibility that it may not) at some point find meaning on the level of the inter-human. And finally that there may be situations in which there is a direct relationship between the two and other situations in which there is not.