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Who Sees Clearly?

The problem of evil is frequently cited as one of the most powerful arguments against religious faith.  The existence of suffering, whether on the micro or macro level is seen as evidence against the existence of a benevolent and powerful deity.  And yet, the empirical data around suffering and religious faith stubbornly refuses to fit into this view of how and why human beings believe what they believe about the world.  Religious faith seems to be the highest in contexts where suffering is the greatest.

This phenomenon is the subject of a recent article analyzing the state of religiosity in New Zealand before and after the 2011 earthquake in Christchurch.  New Zealand is a fairly secular nation, but it witnessed an increase in religiosity after the earthquake in and around the region affected.  Suffering seemed, again, to have led to an increase rather than a decrease in faith.  How to explain this?  According to the author, the “religious comfort model” makes the most sense:

But, demographically speaking, personal suffering doesn’t actually seem to cause disbelief, at least in our day and age. In fact, the poorest and most deprived regions of the world tend to be highly religious (for instance, sub-Saharan Africa and India), while the richest areas are increasingly secular (for instance, Sweden, France, and the northeastern United States). This phenomenon – that people who suffer are more religious than those who don’t – has spawned a so-called “religious comfort model” in the social sciences that claims that religious faith gives people the psychological resources they need to cope with adversity. Those who don’t have many problems just don’t have much need for religion – hence the relative godlessness of most wealthy countries.

Now, we might debate how novel this “model” from the social sciences actually is.  Certainly the idea that religion is a coping mechanism for the difficulties of life is a very old one indeed.  Marx, Freud, Feuerbach and countless others have set forth something like the idea that religion is a crutch for those who are unable or unwilling to face reality as it really is.  But whether this explanation comes from the intellectual giants of history or a “new model” from the social sciences, it is an idea that has a lot of popular traction, in my view.  Religion is kind of like a security blanket or a teddy bear for a frightened child.  It brings them comfort so we “allow” them their comforts (why burst their bubble, after all?).  Of course, we know that ratty old blankets and beat up stuffed animals and religious beliefs don’t actually change anything about the world, but they make people feel better.  And really, what else could we hope for?  Whatever gets you through the night.

There are many things that could be said about this interpretation (I’ve written about it periodically on this blog—here, for example).  But the question it brings up for me today is simply this: Who sees reality most clearly?  Is it the secure, the wealthy, the educated, those who seem to skate across the surface of life untroubled my pain and misfortune?  Or is it the poor and the broken, those who stagger under the burden of pain and tragedy?  Is it the sociologist in the ivory tower who coolly and detachedly surveys the “data” from their comfortable office in Wellington or Auckland or is it the mother crying out to God as she sifts through the post-earthquake wreckage in Haiti in search of a child who may or may not have survived the storm?  Is it the pastor of a middle-class church on the Canadian prairies or the kid from the reserve down the highway who has seen more human tragedy by his 10th birthday than many see in a lifetime?  Is it those whose senses have been dulled by privilege or those who are not afforded the luxury of self-deceit when it comes to their need for comfort, protection, salvation?

Who most fully understands how the world works and what possibilities may or may not exist?  Who has more insight into what suffering means and how a human being ought to respond to it?  Who is closer to the God said to be most fully disclosed in the man of sorrows, the one well-acquainted with grief, the one who came to proclaim good news to the poor and the downtrodden?

Who sees clearly?

——

Image above courtesy of Russell Berg at Seeing Berg.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Rick deKleine #

    Part of the problem is too much Religiousity. It has nothing to do with Religion, but everything to do with Jesus. When believers wake up to who they are and understand their Identity in Jesus and start taking Dominion of the Earth as we are instructed too, Gods goodness will reign.
    It is coming, The Lord is releasing his Spirit like never before. The Bible says in the Last Day people will fear his Goodness. That’s an awesome Loving God if you ask me. There is so much goodness ahead. Believers who think the world is going to get worse and worse and Jesus is coming to “Rescue” us, don’t know who Jesus is.
    More Lord! Show us your Glory.

    February 19, 2013
  2. I’m gonna sorta call your bluff on this one… I think this phrase – even in its interrogative form – gives away your predisposition.
    “those whose senses have been dulled by privilege or those who are not afforded the luxury of self-deceit when it comes to their need for comfort, protection, salvation”
    There are recurring memes in the socio-anthropological sciences which perhaps bear a sort of transference here from the old colonial motifs. There was, in the colonial era, twin motivations driving the exploration and exploitation of the colonized. On the one hand there was the White Man’s Burden voiced by Kipling’s poem of the same name. Here the colonizer was seen as the model into which the colonized was to be converted. It was the European’s duty to bear the load of this transformation-a sort of ‘bringing up to speed’ of the ignorant savage.
    There also thrived (promoted strongly by Conrad, Livingston, Darwin (strangely even Kipling as well) and many early anthropologists) the image of the pristine and unblemished savage which as encountered in his/her natural state could point to the fundamental essence of being human. In this motif the savage was the one toward which conformity was bent.
    Both motifs have taken on compelling roles in the intellectual goals of sociology and anthropology. The former became a useful tool in controlling the assets that the colony represented to the Empire. The more like European the colonized became the easier they were to control and more productive they could become. And so it became easy to rationalize that killing buffalo with guns rather than arrows and spears improved the quality of life of the First Nations people. To deny access to such an improvement would be cruel indeed.
    The later motif suggested that the cruelty was indeed in ruining the old ways. Clearly they also had a point. The loss of the buffalo meant the demise of the Plains Indians which lea to dire consequences – even to Residential Schools. So they claimed that converting the savage to the White man’s ways was merely a form of greedy exploitation where the only beneficiary was the colonizer. But could people like Darwin and Conrad conceive that the very framing of the savage as pristine might itself be a form of exploitation – a type of archetypal casting of ignorance and simplicity that was ultimately unsustainable.
    Please forgive the anthro lesson but I hope you can see the parallels with the question you have asked.
    First it strikes me that in matters of faith and religiosity, the difference between the privileged and the suffering bears a striking resemblance to the colors of the old colonial ideas of the European and the savage. I suggest that it bears several consequences if it is true.
    The privileged person can be elevated as the model toward which the suffering person can aspire. (someday you too may know that you naïve interpretation of these certain scriptures that now give you hope in the face of pain are really meant to be translated in a much different way)
    Or the suffering person can be elevated as the model toward which the privileged ought to aspire. (someday you too may be able to negate your rational thinking and embrace a simpler faith that replaces doubt with blind devotion)
    Each I suggest has its dangers.
    It also begs me to ask whether the question of who sees reality better is the right question to ask here.

    February 20, 2013
    • Tyler #

      Great comparison Pickler!

      “Who has more insight into what suffering means and how a human being ought to respond to it?”

      This question is based on the assumption that suffering means anything at all.

      February 20, 2013
      • Tyler… It’s a fair question that you ask. I am simply asking the question of who is most qualified to answer it.

        In very general and terms, it tends to be answered in the negative by privileged Western postmoderns coming out of a Christian history and in the positive by many of those undergoing the worst suffering around the world (this irony is, of course, the subject of the post linked to above). I think this is interesting.

        (I realize that there are hugely important and influential Eastern traditions which view suffering very differently than in the West. I would submit that suffering still has some kind of meaning in these traditions, even if it is more pedagogical in nature as opposed to somehow pointing toward redemption as in the West.)

        February 20, 2013
    • Pickler… Yes, of course both of the consequences you describe at the end of your comment are possible. Of course both have dangers. The fact that elevating either “the poor” or “the privileged” is open to abuse does not thereby disqualify either of them from analysis, nor does it, in my view, render the question of who might have better access to reality “as it really is” irrelevant.

      There are at least two reasons that I think the question is not only permissible but obligatory to talk about:

      1) In a postmodern Western culture where academics tend to function as our new priests, who mediate reality to the rest of us who are unqualified to comprehend the mysteries they deal in daily, it’s worth asking if the illusion of the “objective,” dispassionate academic “view from nowhere” ought to be privileged in the way that it is.

      2) The biblical narrative—and the gospels in particular—consistently portray the poor, the downtrodden, the oppressed, the suffering, etc as being closer to God, having a window into divine mysteries that the rich and the powerful do not. As a Christian, I have to take this seriously.

      I should be clear. I am not attempting to glorify or romanticize suffering in any way, nor am I trying to foist a romanticized conception of “the suffering” back on to this very category of people as some kind of updated act of colonialism/oppression. I think human suffering is horrific, even though many people claim to learn things from pain that they could not have learned any other way, even though many people claim that suffering brings them closer to God. The point of the post (and the “Who sees clearly?” line) was simply to call into question the assumption that the rich and the smart and the powerful ought to be the ones to interpret pain on behalf of those going through the suffering themselves.

      You say:

      It also begs me to ask whether the question of who sees reality better is the right question to ask here.

      OK, so what is the right question to be asking?

      February 20, 2013
  3. I have a suspicion that there is no truly satisfying way to resolve the conflict that emerges from favoring one side or the other of this problem.
    It seems that those with the luxury of asking these questions are necessarily in a bizarre position of power in this discourse. Unfortunately, those who are busy suffering do not or cannot ask these questions which means that their voice in this dilemma is silent. Perhaps one of the better questions might be to search for the qualities of privilege that drive this type of question in the first place. Or how does asking the question actually reinforce a sense of superiority in the privileged…
    Certainly, Scripture must be a consideration as you point out. However there appear to be some bizarre extensions to the biblical instructions that could suggest that suffering is desirable – even to be pursued. The implications of glorifying suffering in this way, as you have pointed out, leads to a number of theological and doctrinal problems. i think Scripture, while being instructive and clearly ‘on-the-side’ of the poor is ultimately reduced to thinly disguised tool in reinforcing avenues of power for the privileged. I say this because of the earlier statement I made that suggests that the privileged can cover both sides of this dilemma.
    perhaps investigating the nature of suffering as a universal if mostly relative experience might be a better investigation or perhaps the ways that suffering seems to draw more irrational (although arguably more emotionally satisfying) expressions of faith…

    February 20, 2013
    • If being uncontaminated by one’s social location were a prerequisite for discourse, none of us would ever say anything. Sure, there are potential problems that come with speaking from a place of privilege. But from where else can we (I) speak? Surely we can do our best to be aware of the pitfalls and press boldly on, privileged or not, right?

      I maintain that it is possible to ask the questions raised above with integrity and without glorifying suffering or reinforcing the power of the privileged. When I read an article by a Western academic that explains (away?) the persistence of religious faith in the face of suffering as owing to the “religious comfort model” as described by the social sciences, I think it is perfectly legitimate to ask, “and what makes you think that you so confident that you understand the reasons for their faith better than they do? What gives you the right to ‘explain’ why they continue to believe? Why not listen to their own explanations?” As I said, I think these are legitimate avenues to pursue both for logical and biblical reasons.

      I’m curious about one final thing. You said:

      perhaps investigating the nature of suffering as a universal if mostly relative experience might be a better investigation or perhaps the ways that suffering seems to draw more irrational (although arguably more emotionally satisfying) expressions of faith…

      To what end?

      February 20, 2013
      • “If being uncontaminated by one’s social location were a prerequisite for discourse, none of us would ever say anything.” Now wouldn’t that be nice!
        I suppose that there are times when we must take on the ‘virtue’ of challenging the presuppositions and deconstructing the lived experience of the ‘other’. But the pitfalls of superimposing our own frames on them leads not only to a type of subjugation of the other but also ultimately to a dissatisfying end to our quest in asking these questions. It is dissatisfying in much the same way that asking an orange how an apple feels when it is sliced. The contextual distinctives do make a difference – so much so that the comparative work that rests at the heart of these and other similar questions is rendered mostly meaningless.
        I have no particular argument with challenging an “academic that explains (away?) the persistence of religious faith in the face of suffering as owing to the “religious comfort model” as described by the social sciences” the reason and end for the type or inquiry that I mentioned is mostly a stab in the dark (if questions must be asked then perhaps those that are more introspective are more appropriate??).
        I know that does not help much 🙂

        February 22, 2013
      • I don’t think the attempt to look at things from the perspective of “the other” is meaningless at all. Indeed, I think it is imperative for followers of Jesus to at least make the attempt. What else are the Beatitudes if not an invitation to consider reality (including the nature/meaning of suffering and the role it plays in the life of faith) from an entirely different perspective than the one that is typically assumed?

        February 24, 2013
  4. Tanya #

    Thanks Ryan.

    February 20, 2013

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