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Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering.

In The Plague, Camus's Father Paneloux delivers a homily to the suffering townspeople of Oran on why God allows such afflictions. His justification of plague as a form of divine retribution for sin prompts Dr. Rieux to comment to a companion: "Paneloux is a man of learning, a scholar. He hasn't come in contact with death; that's why he can speak with such assurance of the truth--with a capital T. But every country priest who has heard a man gasping for breath on his deathbed thinks as I do. He'd try to relieve human suffering before trying to point out its excellence."

The question of theodicy--the justification of God in the face of evil--has occasioned both soul-searching and profound theological reflection. Yet, not unlike Dr. Rieux, in Naming the Silences Stanley Hauerwas suggests scholarly speculation does little to comfort a soul actually experiencing the reality of suffering. We may offer the sufferer all sorts of armchair constructs to explain suffering and absolve God of responsibility, and yet fail to suffer with our companion, thus meriting the rebuke Job delivered to his comforters: "You are all physicians of no value."

We all experience the surd of suffering in the course of our lives, and yet Hauerwas points (rightly) to the diseases and dying of children as the most vexing experience of the reality of evil, and for Christians (his primary audience) the most perplexing challenge for their created constructs of God. Why, however, is this the case--why do we find the illnesses and death of children not only distressing, but so threatening, so revealing of our "inability to name the silences such illness creates," as to suggest that our lives are subject to arbitrary, capricious powers of destruction that mock our efforts to find meaning?

Hauerwas probes these issues provocatively and poignantly through narratives about the dying of children, for such stories serve as the medium for sharing suffering, anguish, and candid expressions of existential rage, though not for communicating consoling answers. Indeed, the suffering and dying of children is disturbing precisely because "we assume that children lack a life story which potentially gives their illness some meaning." Even more, such experiences force us to confront "our deepest suspicions that all of us lack a life story which would make us capable of responding to illness in a manner that would enable us to go on as individuals, as friends, as parents, and as a community" (p. 67; my emphasis). This life story that helps us live through the suffering, that sees suffering as a practical rather than intellectual challenge, may well be supplied, Hauerwas contends, by the Christian narrative of a God who does not abandon the ill, but is present in the midst of suffering.

Yet Hauerwas expresses substantial skepticism about whether contemporary Christianity even embodies such a narrative. The problem (one that will surely surprise most believers) is that the god whom modern Christians worship doesn't exist, but is rather a mental fiction and human creation of the Enlightenment era. "The true god has been driven from the world," and in its place is the god of "philosophical theism" who functions along the model of "a transcendent watchdog, a bureaucratic manager" (pp. 59-60), a god freed from tradition, history, and community. Significantly, the idea of theodicy is theologically intelligible only if we presuppose a pervasive belief in this strange and alien god. For Hauerwas, the, the question of theodicy is a "theological mistake" and indeed is "often based on destructive presuppositions about the nature of our existence" (pp. ix, x) including individualistic assumptions about human beings that deny the narrative, relational, and contextualistic character of the moral life experience in community.

Nor is modern medicine any better positioned to provide the kind of story that helps us live through suffering, for it likewise has come under the sway of the presumptions of Enlightenment imperialism. Hauerwas suggests instead that the watchdog god supports the contemporary endeavor of human mastery over all contingency, which is particularly expressed in medicine's aspirations to eliminate illness and suffering because they are experienced as threats to individual autonomy. The consequences of this pursuit are not, however, freedom from contingency, but bondage to technology and ultimate failure, so that paradoxically "we now suffer from the means we tried to use to eliminates suffering" (p. 108). These aspirations, it seems to me, make us unable to set rational priorities for health care allocations (because we want to succeed) and simultaneously drive the demand for voluntary euthanasia (as a concession to our failure). And so, because of our own distorted values, we likewise find ourselves complaining through litigation about physicians of no value.

Hauerwas acknowledges that his theology of some suffering as "pointless" because we cannot integrate it into any ongoing narrative, religious or professional, may well appear as a form of "blashphemy" (though, of course, it's rather difficult to blaspheme a god that doesn't exist). His account also requires renewed attention withinh the discourse of religious and medical ethics to tragedy as perhaps the most plausible account for the brokenness of life. Such perspectives at the same time draw upon themes of community, narrative, tradition, and contextualism that are familiar from his past critiques of liberal ideology and the social structures that embody liberalism.

What is perhaps distinctive about Naming the Silences is that these themes are employed so insightfully within a religious context, where they expose some fundamental inadequacies in Christian constructions of God and in the attitudes and practices of religious communities towards the ill and the sick, the suffering and the dying, the vulnerable and the survivors. Hauerwas is surely correct to contend that the experience of evil in the form of suffering does not conform to the theodicies of scholarly speculation. One might think in this connection of the British essayist C. S. Lewis, whose succinct theorizing in The Problem of Pain held little personal meaning in helping him live on following the death of his wife. Indeed, as related in his wrenching journal, A Grief Observed, Lewis cannot but ask whether God might, after all, be "a cosmic sadist" or "the eternal vivisector." Similarly, Hauerwas's contention that theodicies function to legitimate social order and inequality is confirmed in Elie Wiesel's moving narrative of his experiences at Auschwitz (Night), in which the Jewish theodicy of God testing his chosen people sanctioned passivity in the face of the Nazi atrocities. A more contemporary example in this country is the way in which a theodicy of AIDS as a divine punishment functions to support discrimination, disenfranchisement, and marginalization rather than evoking care and compassion.

Still, if Hauerwas helps us see what it means to get the question of theodicy right, it is important to appreciate that the speculative responses to this question may well be grounded in, rather than divorced from, experience. And if we are to take the theme of contextualism seriously, its's not clear why the experience of early Christians should have any more normative validity than that of modern believers.

Moreover, we should not overlook that "answers" rendered out of the more speculative endeavor can in fact provide consolation for the compassionate givers of care, something I have witnessed many times in families who suffer with their seriously ill and dying newborns or their mentally impaired children. In such families, though, the problem of evil ceases to be a "problem." Finally, Hauerwas does not resolve to my satisfaction his own individual-community tension, namely, that if the experience of suffering is as unique, individuated, and contextualized as he claims, and further, if there is no commonly shared fundamental response to suffering that provides a touchstone for all, how is it then possible to create the practical response to suffering that Hauerwas ultimately wants: a community that through its expression of care and compassion is capable of absorbing the terror and suffering of the experience of evil?

As C.S. Lewis finally emerged from his hellish grief to some reconciliation with his faith, he cme to understand God as "the great iconoclast," one who continually shatters images of ourselves and our spiritual and moral relations that we may see life truthfully. In a similar vein, readers of Naming the Silences will find their own images of God, or the significance of suffering, or the purposes of medicine, if not shattered, at least in need of candid, truthful reconsideration. It is a powerful testimony to Hauerwas's expressed commitment to honesty rather than false consolation.

Courtney S. Campbell is assistant professor of religious studies, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oreg.
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Author:Campbell, Courtney S.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1991
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