“I believe that the most decisive challenge which the experience of childhood illness presents is our inability to name the silences such illness creates. Modern medicine can and too often has become a noisy way to hide those silences. I will try to show how the God whom Christians worship can give a voice to that pain in a manner that at least gives us a way to go on.”
Stanley Hauerwas is clear from the beginning that what he is NOT trying to do is attempt to explain “why a good and all-powerful God allows us to undergo suffering for seemingly no reason.” In fact, Hauerwas points out that he is “profoundly suspicious” of all attempts to do this. As a theologian he believes that this question is a mistake and this book is an attempt to show why.
This book looks closely at suffering and death in childhood, and is broken into 3 chapters:
1) “A Child’s Dying”
2) “Theology, Theodicy, and Medicine”
3) “Medicine as Theodicy.”
For definition of “Theodicy” click here
Chapter 1 – “A Child’s Dying”
Thankfully at the outset of this chapter Stanley acknowledges that “sitting in my office reflecting on the problem of evil is more like a game than a serious activity…we are, quite rightly, not interested in the theoretical issue of suffering and evil; rather, we are torn apart by what is happening to real people, to those we know and love.”
Hauerwas grounds his study of suffering in story and so begins with a novel (The Blood of the Lamb by Peter DeVries), which is based upon a tragedy the author himself actually experienced.
DeVrie’s novel is from the perspective of Don Wanderhope whose daughter Carol, aged 11, is dying of leukemia. Wanderhope, expresses the awe and wonder of many parents, “What, I thought to myself as I gazed at Carol, if anything should happen to that creature…this child who was so full of grace that you could hold her on your outstretched palm and she would balance perfectly.” Wanderhope’s world descends into pain and chaos as Carol is diagnosed with leukemia and gets sicker by the day. Don goes to visit Carol, with a cake for her upcoming birthday. On the way to the hospital he passes a church and says a desperate prayer. When he arrives at the hospital Don discovers that it is the day in which Carol will take her last breath. A little while after her death, Don wanders out of the hospital, drinks for some length at a bar and as he leaves the bar passes the church of St Catherine, he goes inside to discover in his haste in the morning he left the cake behind. In a fit of rage Don hurls the cake at the crucified Christ hanging over the central doorway of the Church. In this moment, Don has a picture of Christ patiently wiping the icing away and Don finds himself at the foot of the cross.
Hauerwas reflects on this story saying: “By suggesting that Wanderhope is ‘comforted’ by finding himself at the foot of a cake-drenched Jesus, I do not mean that he is or should be any less angry about Carol’s death. Moreover, the novel ends with Wanderhope’s comment that all we can gain from our suffering is a sense of compassion for one another’s hurt.”
Hauerwas suggests that the issue is that our questions about suffering are formed in a world in which our “hope is schooled by medicine – a world that promises to ‘solve’ suffering by eliminating its causes.” He makes the point that the way in which we understand the nature and function of medicine shapes the questions we ask about illness and suffering.
Chapter 2 – Theology, Theodicy, and Medicine
This chapter opens with a discussion of atheism and theodicy. It is a dense chapter and deserves to be read at length (In other words, I can’t do justice to it here!) Nevertheless here are some highlights.
“What is important for our purposes is to note that the assumption that there is something called the problem of evil which creates a discourse called ‘theodicy’ occurred at the same time that modern atheism came into being. The creation of ‘the’ problem of evil is a correlative of the creation of a god that, it was presumed, could be known separate from a community of people at worship.”
Stanley labours to make a distinction between the god of “philosophical theism” and God as revealed in Scripture.
For early Christians the question of “why suffering?” wasn’t so much a question, rather the question was one of how to carry on in the midst of suffering and evil. “Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response.” Considering this, until recently the emphasis of Christians has been on a community of care in the face of evil rather than a solution to philosophical questions.
It is the enlightenment assumptions that Western individuals hold that form the worldview necessary to ask the question of suffering and God separately from community and the story of God as told in Scripture.
Stanley says: “The problem of evil is not about rectifying our suffering with some general notion of God’s nature as all powerful and good; rather, it is about what we mean by God’s goodness itself, which for Christians must be construed in terms of God as the Creator who has called into existence a people called Israel so that the world might know that God has not abandoned us. There is no problem of suffering in general; rather, the question of suffering can be raised only in the context of a God who creates to redeem.”
Hauerwas doesn’t seek to minimize suffering in any of his arguments, especially the sickness of children. He doesn’t even try to explain the suffering, that in fact is not the point. Rather he tells another story of a family who struggled with a sick child, and the way that Christian community functioned to provide love and care during the hard times.
Chapter 3 – Medicine as Theodicy
In this chapter Hauerwas discusses how death is viewed in modern society and the limits of medicine. He makes the point that cure rather than care is emphasized, therefore we have no sense of a good death or the limits of life. Where is the line drawn between extending life through medicine and dying well? Stanley says, “Our medical technologies have outrun the spiritual resources of our society, which lacks all sense of how life might properly end.”
Hauerwas discusses how we construct the “stories of our lives”, and takes a philosophical look at narrative (which can’t be discussed at length here). The big point he makes though is that in modern society we tend to think we can create our own narrative to make sense of our lives, and within this view we struggle to make sense of death and suffering has no point.
Turning, once again to the suffering and death of children Hauerwas looks at a study written by Myra Bluebond-Langner (The Private Worlds of Dying Children, 1978). In this study Myra spoke to children suffering from leukemia. She discovered that what happened between children, hospital staff and parents was a kind of conspiracy which refused to face the reality of death. Here is a snippet of her study:
“Since the children interpret death as an inappropriate topic of conversation with adults (evidenced by the adults’ reactions when children try to discuss it), and as an appropriate topic with other children, they refrain from discussing the subject in the presence of adults, but pursue it with peers.”
Langner found that children often shared stories of their suffering in the hospital bathroom, away from parents, medical staff and other adults. She also found that the children who were sick were willing to keep up the pretense that they might get well:
“The practice of mutual pretense allowed them to act as if they had a future, to act like children. By following the rules necessary for maintaining mutual pretense, they showed themselves responsive to the needs of others…by reinforcing the adults’ hopes, the children thereby guaranteed their continued presence. They were not left alone.”
This heartbreaking study revealed that in the end what the children were really most concerned with was having their parents around.
Commenting on this study, Stanley says: “Our inability to be with our children in their deaths, an inability that results in our children dying terribly alone, is but the result of our inability to deal with our own deaths.”
Commenting on the Christian approach amidst such confusion about death, Hauerwas says: “We have no theodicy that can soften the pain of our death and the death of our children, but we believe that we share a common story which makes it possible for us to be with one another especially as we die. There can be no way to remove the loneliness of the death of leukemic children unless they see witnessed in the lives of those who care for them a confidence rooted in friendship with God and with one another.”
The book finishes with a section reflection on Wolterstorff’s book, Lament for a Son. Wolterstorff lost his 25 year old son in a climbing accident. Looking back on this Wolterstorff makes the point that like God, we suffer because we love: “Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history.”
Wolterstorff, like Hauerwas is not interested in easy answers. This book rightly ends with a quote from Wolterstorff, “To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.” In the end, this book is a humane and honest account of suffering and death that doesn’t give answers but rather points to a community that has the capacity to sit with each other in suffering because the God this community worships is a God who suffers too.