Options to Endure Suffering

and what is needed to sustain a liberal democracy. This follows the transcript of the video done by Nick Wolterstorff and Miroslav Volf.

I thought the whole interview was terrific, but the part that really caught my imagination was the question of the resources required for losers in a liberal democracy to resist the urge to burn down the house because they lost an election, their voice or their dominant position in the culture. Liberal democracies require that those out of power tolerate and to a degree accept losing. This is no small thing.

I can see three classes of reasons for those out of power to resist the urge to upend the system: 1. pragmatic calculations, 2. “it doesn’t matter”, and 3. “the sun will come out tomorrow”.

1. Pragmatic calculations. This is probably the most common reason those out of power tolerate their second class position and I think the most uninteresting. If you don’t have the opportunity or power to change your lot but burning down the neighborhood seams less appealing and will in your calculation afford you greater misery, you’ll simply figure out how to deal with your lot in life probably by resorting to one of the next two options.

2. “It doesn’t matter” There are secular and religious versions of this.

American culture has mastered the technology of distraction and diversion. Western entertainment industries qualify as far more efficient and successful pushers of a public opiate than Marx could have imagined.

More interesting to me are the religious resources that allow people to endure suffering. Helping people deal with suffering and powerlessness is a mainstay of much religious pursuit. On the religious side Buddhism was able to reduce suffering management to a pretty clear syllogism in its four noble truths.

3. “the sun will come out tomorrow”

Most of the Old Testament seems to have been written out of the need to come to grips with the failure of Israel as both a divine project and a political entity. How could this assimilation resistant people endure enslavement and exile of one form or another (Egypt, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome) and maintain their cultural and religious identity?

The three Abrahamic religions all look to their god to deliver them and to effect their vindication. All three have been forced to develop a prayer shaped endurance as they await the climax of their journeys. All three have to deal with the question of how the activities of the waiting faithful (or unfaithful) relate to the timing of the climax and resolution of the interregnum.

I really don’t know enough about Judaism and Islam to get too specific with them, but Christianity has some pretty impressive resources to deal with suffering and questions of eschatology. In Christianity the climax of history and the vindication of the faithful has already begun in the first coming of Jesus Christ setting Christians up for their “now and still not yet” dynamic. Because of the overlap of the ages Christians suffering and work is both cruciform (seemingly pointless but mysteriously fruitful) and connected with a hopeful destiny (you labor not in vain). Both of these visions do not require power or success to be maintained.

The poverty of a purely secular worldview

It seems to me that if you hold a materialist worldview you are really only left with option 1, half of 2 and 3 to the degree that you can employ something like the power of positive thinking (which is really more religious than materialistic).

The latest Books and Culture has a review of a book on WWII on “the bloodlands” between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. If in fact you only have one life to live, and if in fact your life is determined by your concrete circumstance in the now then power is the chief end of man (and woman). I am hard pressed to imagine what holds us back from power pragmatism to simply play an end game to get what we can right now.

Again, Miroslav Volf’s book is really helpful on these issues, especially his perspective on God’s violence of ours.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in Culture commentary, philosophical reflection and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Options to Endure Suffering

  1. Pingback: Why I Doubt the Efficacy of Liberal Theology | Leadingchurch.com

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