“We talk as if we had to explain suffering away, to defend God in relation to it; whereas our real task is to see the meaning of it and to use it.” Frank Sheed
Our society has developed a great aversion to suffering. We say the words, but have lost the understanding that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (Col 1:24-25). Only a small percent of the human race believes this truth – even among Christians. Making it even worse, there is a pernicious modern meme that “dumbs down” the definition of suffering. Many people treat any unsatisfied desire or passion as a kind of suffering. Our society is replete with Plato’s tyrannical man, ordering life by passions instead of reason. The unprecedented prosperity of the 20th century undoubtedly contributed to this. “Our body has this defect that, the more it is provided care and comforts, the more needs and desires it finds.”(St. Teresa of Avila). This change in how we view suffering has greatly influenced modern society. I suggest that this misunderstanding both of what constitutes true suffering, and of its purpose, is a far bigger barrier to Christian unity than all the well-known differences on justification, ecclesiology and sacraments.
We still recognize a sense of noble purpose in suffering, but it is very selective. In fact, “selective suffering” forms a mostly invisible underlayment on which much of our society is built. That which I choose as either the means or the consequence of some personal desire is good and even noble. Suffering which I do not choose, however, is always an evil to be rejected. This paradigm is so common-place that we often don’t recognize it. People at the gym put their bodies through excruciating workouts for the sake of their appearance. “No Pain, No Gain” is a slogan about selective suffering. Anti-logging zealots gladly spend a cold, wet night chained to a tree, followed by another night in jail. Politicians frequently work themselves to exhaustion during a campaign. Hunters mortify themselves in cold, wet and wind for the sake of their hobby. This is the suffering of personal choice, with limited duration and a guaranteed out. The normal limit of our tolerance for suffering begins and ends with my will, not Thine.
That is not particularly insightful, and the effect on modern culture is obvious. Men have moved from personal interpretation of Scripture to personal interpretation of virtue. The development of virtuous habits has been largely replaced by the satisfaction of urges. The entire sexual revolution (or regression) is built on avoiding the discipline of chastity and the sacrifices inherent in raising children. Abortion is legal because who am I to say you should have to suffer through carrying and bearing a child you conceived? Unnatural sexual relationships are legitimized by the State, because who am I to say you should have to suffer the stigma of disapproval for your disordered lusts? If you want your doctor to kill you, who am I to say you should have to suffer through a natural death? The word heresy comes from the Greek word hairesis, meaning “choosing” or “choice.” The modern obsession with “lifestyle choices” should properly be understood as a heresy from a normative cultural state. And as with St. Athanasius battling the Arians, banished five times from his diocese and dying before the final victory, it is likely that our own battles with the modern heresies will involve public disgrace and probably few clear-cut victories in our lifetimes.
Ironically, the State could have created none of these terrible realities unless the Christian population of the country first led the way. Our culture was not conquered by an outside coalition of atheists, New Agers and Zoroastrians. It was, rather, a kind of Christian Masada, the slitting of our own throats. The original leak in the dam that has led to the great flood of abomination was the approval of artificial birth control. The Anglican Church’s Lambeth Conference in 1930 approved the use of birth control by a 193 to 67 vote. In 1931, the Committee on Home and Marriage of the Federal Council of Churches urged the repeal of laws prohibiting contraceptive education and sales. By 1961, the North American Conference on Church and Family of the National Council of Churches endorsed development of a new sexual ethic, not grounded in the Christian faith, but rather “relevant to our culture,” replete with calls for abortion on demand, a “sexual economy of abundance,” and praise for homosexuality. By the ‘70’s, Presbyterians, Lutherans and the United Church of Christ had jumped squarely on the contraceptive/abortion bandwagon. We had moved quickly from Protestants supporting the satisfaction of heterosexual urges within marriage without “suffering” from children, to the rebuilding of Sodom and Gomorrah, albeit with a religious façade. The State could not have created our modern “abomination that makes desolate” (Dan 11:31) unless the Protestant denominations had first led the way. Of course, all of the support for pornography, promiscuity, homosexuality, birth control, et al. are variations of the attack on marriage.
This leads into the problem of Christian disunity, and how the paradigm of suffering is a great wedge between the Catholic Church and most other Christians. The point is simply this – Catholic doctrines that pose moral challenges to Christians are a harder sell than ones that pose intellectual challenges. Explain transubstantiation to your average non-denominational Protestant and you may elicit anything from polite engagement to a yawn, but explain why they shouldn’t use birth control and why their homosexual sibling cannot marry his partner and you are more likely to galvanize something a little less polite. Yet these Christians will rarely, if ever, be challenged to greater moral rectitude in their own churches. The leaders of most Protestant denominations and independent churches are deeply committed to teaching according to the prevailing wind of their members (to be fair, some priests are guilty as well). After all, in the open pasture that makes up the modern Christian landscape, sheep feel free to wander from one flock to another depending on whose path looks easier. “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). How is a shepherd supposed to lead his sheep in a climb up the mountain?
After the Minnesota legislature legalized so-called homosexual marriage, I spoke to one Lutheran pastor to learn his viewpoint. He did not share his own belief, but only responded that “Our members haven’t really come to a consensus on that issue yet.” I have rarely heard the problem of Protestantism summarized more succinctly. When church members essentially vote on what they want Christian doctrine to be, the moral life enters a death spiral. “The path of sinners is smooth stones that end in the depths of the nether world” Sir 21:10. Yet convincing entire denominations that they have erred on doctrines that will force them to radically change their lives is nigh impossible. Even if their shepherds believe they are on the wrong path, they are beholden to the will of their flock. When sheep choose their own path, it is always the easiest one down into the valley. The shepherds are following behind the sheep. “If the folks want birth control, give ‘em birth control” the Anglican leaders at the Lambeth Conference preached from the back of the flock.
Near my house is a non-denominational church whose slogan is “Guilt Free.” Yet how can we be guilt free if “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23)? It seems that such guiltlessness can be justified in two different but equally incorrect ways. In the first case, the doctrine of total depravity, sin is basically ignored by God, and so essentially meaningless, and so, in practice, guiltless. In the second case, the sea of sin is simply declared to be so small that one can do practically anything on the enormous beach without getting wet. In either case, the sheep are already deep into the valley, and the stones are getting smoother.
Except for the Orthodox Churches and a very few tidbits of the Anglican Communion, it is already too late to approach Christian unity from the standpoint of other ecclesial communities. The old guard Protestant denominations are evaporating, and the non-denominational churches have as many authorities as they have members. There is no one with whom to make an argument. That means pursuing unity the long, hard way, one Christian at a time. As most Christians today were brought up with “a sexual economy of abundance” as the norm, the task seems overwhelming. Yet what choice do we have? Toward that enormously difficult task, Frank Sheed has something to say. “Men will sacrifice themselves for any ideal that they value. The integrity of marriage does not seem to them such an ideal. Why should it? Who has ever shown them the enormous human interests involved in it? At any rate we can say of marriage what we have already seen true of social relations in general, that we are not entitled to say men will make no sacrifice for the ideal, until we have done something to show them why it is the ideal.”
St. Athanasius, pray for us.