Naturalism and Suffering

12 March 2011


Lisbon was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami in 1755.

The scale of destruction and suffering caused by the earthquake and tsunami that has just struck the northern part of Hokkaido in Japan (2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami — 東北地方太平洋沖地震), cannot but remind us of other natural disasters, some of them in the recent past, and some long past. It is likely that the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake of 26 December 2004 was the worst natural disaster that has (or will) occur in my lifetime, in terms of total casualties, with almost a quarter million dead, most as a result of the tsunami following the earthquake.

The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 became a point of contention between a naturalistic view of history and an eschatological view of history.

The most famous earthquake and tsunami in Western history is the disaster that struck Lisbon in 1755. I previously mentioned this in The Rational Reconstruction of Cities. I mentioned in that post Nicholas Shrady’s book, The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin, and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which presented in some detail the intellectual controversy that emerged following the disaster. Shrady cited the work of Gabriel Malagrida, whose 1756 pamphlet, “An Opinion on the True Cause of the Earthquake” (“Juizo da verdadeira causa do terramoto”), argued that the disaster in Lisbon was divine retribution for the sins of the people of Lisbon:

“Learn, Oh Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins, and not comets, stars, vapours and exhalations, and similar natural phenomena. Tragic Lisbon is now a mound of ruins. Would that it were less difficult to think of some method of restoring the place; but it has been abandoned, and the refugees from the city live in despair. As for the dead, what a great harvest of sinful souls such disasters send to Hell! It is scandalous to pretend the earthquake was just a natural event, for if that be true, there is no need to repent and to try to avert the wrath of God, and not even the Devil himself could invent a false idea more likely to lead us all to irreparable ruin. Holy people had prophesied the earthquake was coming, yet the city continued in its sinful ways without a care for the future. Now, indeed, the case of Lisbon is desperate. It is necessary to devote all our strength and purpose to the task of repentance. Would to God we could see as much determination and fervour for this necessary exercise as are devoted to the erection of huts and new buildings! Does being billeted in the country outside the city areas put us outside the jurisdiction of God? God undoubtedly desires to exercise His love and mercy, but be sure that wherever we are, He is watching us, scourge in hand.”

There are probably people who continue to think such things today, and a few who say so in private, but this is not the dominant narrative today. We certainly bear traces of a past dominated by an eschatological conception of history, but civilization has largely moved beyond this. Now, whether we like it or not, or whether we know it or not, Occidental civilization today embodies a naturalistic conception of history. The transition from medievalism to modernism was also a transition from an eschatological Weltanschauung to a naturalistic Weltanschauung. This does not mean that we have “solved” the problems of an earlier era, but only that we have moved on to other problems.

God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question--Why We Suffer

As I said above, we bear the traces of our history, and some of us bear these traces more heavily than others. Recently I have been listening to Bart D. Ehrman’s book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman is a serious scholar of early Christianity, and, by his own account, someone who started out as a sincerely and devoutly believing Christian, only to find that he had lost his faith after many years of study and confronting the problem of suffering.

Ehrman writes:

Over the years I’ve talked with a lot of people about issues pertaining to suffering, and I am struck by the kinds of reactions I get.

After briefly discussing avoidance of the issue of suffering altogether and those responses to the problem of suffering that he considers to be answers that are “too pat” to be satisfying, Ehrman moves on to a third category of responses to suffering that he cannot accept:

Other people — including some of my brilliant friends — realize why it’s a religious problem for me but don’t see it as a problem for themselves. In its most nuanced form (and for these friends everything is extremely nuanced), this view is that religious faith is not an intellectualizing system for explaining everything. Faith is a mystery and an experience of the divine in the world, not a solution to a set of problems. (p. 15)

In Ehrman’s formulation of this view that he cannot accept, there is an echo of a famous passage from Hume, who wrote in his essay on miracles:

“…we may conclude, that the Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: and whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.”

This passage from Hume has become a standard point of reference not only for those who followed Hume and formulated the naturalistic conception of the world that dominates our thinking today, but also fideists who see in this the last remaining legitimate form of an uncompromising expression of faith: faith is a miracle, therefore proof in and of itself of what faith wants to believe. Thus this from Hume is, at once, both purple passage and locus classicus.

David Hume is the source of the empiricism in philosophy that eventually become contemporary scientific naturalism.

Ehrman writes that he respects this view and sometimes wishes that he could share it, but ultimately he cannot share it. He writes, “The God that I once believed in was a God who was active in this world.” He makes it clear that his confrontation with suffering was crucial to his loss of faith, and he further makes explicit that his remarks about his faith are all in the past tense, so there is no question of an equivocation in his belief; he is not about to say that he will change his mind if only someone can show him an intellectually legitimate way to formulate the problem of human suffering.

The Eschatological Conception of History

The eschatological conception of history assumes non-human agency in the world, and any human agency under this conception is mediated by non-human agency.

Ehrman is living a conundrum. He has abandoned the faith that the world has a particular metaphysical and eschatological structure, but he hangs on to the idea that our suffering must be expressed in eschatological terms, and our response to that suffering must also be expressed in eschatological terms. If it is not so expressed, according to Ehrman, it is avoidance, too pat, or a naturalism that he cannot share. But he has nothing to offer in place of naturalism, except strong feelings of its inadequacy.

I have encountered this attitude elsewhere, and when I thought about it I realized that I had written about it. In my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception I wrote:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted to grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Ehrman does not express himself in terms of war, but there is a close parallel between those who reject utilitarian and pragmatic assistance because it does not come wrapped up like an eschatological care package, and those who cannot accept a naturalistic conception of human suffering because it does not answer their deepest needs and longing to do justice to a noble and honorable conception of man, but a conception rooted in an eschatological conception of history that is no longer defensible in rational terms.

For Ehrman, human suffering is a cosmic grievance, and a cosmic grievance can only be addressed by a cosmic remedy. I don’t think that Ehrman is alone in this. Indeed, what makes his view interesting is that he is able to give eloquent expression to something that is sharply and poignantly felt by many who do not have the means to express themselves so well.

The question, then, as I see it, it not how to give the proper cosmic response to the cosmically formulated dilemma, but rather this: is our modern naturalism merely a superficial overlay, so that the vital forces that drive life remain profoundly and unalterably eschatological, or is the kind of attitude Ehrman expresses typical of a transitional age, indicating that we still have a long way to go in coming to terms with the naturalism formulated by visionaries like Hume? There are, of course, other possibilities as well — and interesting possibilities at that. The only reason I am going to bring this post to an end at this time is not because I am satisfied with what I have said, but only because I am tired.

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