I awoke in the middle of the night to a strange thought. It did not seem to come out of a dream but was simply there in my mind. The thought was something like this: “They will have parties to celebrate suicides.” What the thought meant was that a day is coming in which people will gather for something of a “send-off” party, to celebrate someone’s decision to die. Euthanasia parties. It has probably already happened in a few places. The thought was not a speculation about the future. Rather, it was something like a realization: “this is going to happen.” It will seem normal and good, an example of the kindness of friends. That such a thing is possible, that my waking thought was both plausible and likely, reveals something about our present world. Dostoevsky famously said, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” What he did not see is that unless we are quite specific about who God is, everything is still permitted. Indeed, everything is not only permitted, but we will imagine it to have been blessed by God. There is a word for this God: sentimentality.
It is a word I’ve borrowed from the theologian, Stanley Hauerwas. It fittingly describes the God who is a cipher for a set of feelings, of sentiments. It describes a God who is “love,” when the word “love” has no specific content other than how we feel about something. In the scenario of my middle of the night thoughts, we will celebrate killing each other because it will feel good. This killing will be blessed by “God,” because what feels good is understood as love.
One of the dangers within sentiment is its inability to suffer. We do not generally choose to suffer. Thus, when guided by our sentiments, we choose that which allows us to avoid suffering. Modernity is a society largely constructed in a manner to minimize suffering (at least for many). Even if pleasure is not always maximized, it is nonetheless the primary product sought by consumers. “God” is no exception.
Suffering is the boundary of our existence, though to say it seems strange. We naturally withdraw from suffering, while we seek to make pleasure our own. Though we do not like suffering, it is also an essential element in our existence, at least in its mildest form. That form is constituted by being told, “No.” In our interpersonal relationships, “No” is essential in understanding boundaries. The other person is not me and there are boundaries that may not be crossed. Others do not exist for my pleasure.
In the Garden of Eden, there is a “no,” a Tree from which we may not eat. Everything else is given for use and enjoyment. But, oddly, that Tree alone serves as the primary sacrament of God. (There can be no eating from the Tree of Life, if the forbidden Tree’s fruit is consumed). For everything that is eaten, pleasure has its way. But the Tree whose fruit may not be eaten insists that God has spoken. The first recorded theological conversation takes place in the presence of that Tree (and turns out badly).
The primary suffering of our lives can be described as “legitimate suffering.” It is not necessarily painful so much as it is annoying, a way in which the world confronts us with our limits. A healthy life, indeed, the only path to a life of love, must embrace these limits and bear its legitimate suffering. Anything else is ultimately an expression of a narcissistic existence – a hallmark of the modern world.
The larger part of what passes for “ethics” in the modern world can be described as the avoidance and effort to abolish suffering. On its surface, such reasoning is always difficult to argue against. Only a heartless beast would refuse to relieve pain when he could (we reason). Indeed, relieving pain brings its own pleasure. But this reasoning also refuses to acknowledge the presence of the “Tree.” Even as we seek to relieve suffering, there is a “no” that confronts us. The pleasure of such a satisfying undertaking has a limit. “You shall not kill,” is one in particular.
There are other limits, but they are only apparent to someone who allows his life to be shaped and formed by the Cross of Christ. To be a Christian necessarily means to embrace a life within limits. We have a God who is not the product of our imagination or sentiments. He has revealed Himself in the God/Man Jesus Christ and taught us how we should live. Various contemporary Christianities that have embraced the God of sentiment can make no true claim to be Christian. Christ becomes window-dressing, a God whose function is to bless the modern way of life.
That we do not think about a life within limits is evidence of the disease (sin) at work within us. The collective narcissism of modernity, in its boundless consumption, slowly transforms the world into a deformed, poisoned and spent version of itself. We harness technology in order to extract more pleasure from the world, only to be enslaved to the technology itself. For example, our present economy could not exist unless technology is harnessed to control sex and procreation. We can no longer afford to live within the natural bounds of our biology and so unleash the limitless appetite of our sexuality onto the world. We consume one another.
The frightful experiment that was the Soviet Union has left examples of the unlimited life. It was the first nation to legalize abortion, freeing women into the marketplace and the economy. In the 1980’s, estimates say that there were 115 abortions for every 100 live births. The Russian population plummeted, creating an economic crisis – a shortage of human beings! Post-Soviet government policy, supported by the Church, has reduced abortions 8-fold over the past 25 years. Since 2007, the number of births has exceeded abortions by 2-to-1. But the Russian state is currently seeking to implement an older tradition, a Christian vision rather than a purely modern vision. Time alone will tell how well it succeeds (and this is not meant to say that there are not many problems within contemporary Russia).
The classical virtues taught within traditional Christianity all presuppose a life of limits, self-discipline and the ability to embrace a God who can say, “No.” The traditional life within the Church intends to form and shape those virtues within its members. In contrast to this, contemporary Christianity, driven by a consumerist ideology, forms only the vapid pseudo-virtues of a shopper. When a Church member becomes unhappy and begins to search for a better Church, he is only exercising the “virtue” he has acquired. Those who live by shopping are bound to die by it as well. In time, the Mega-Churches will, undoubtedly, stand as empty as the shopping malls of the 80’s that have now been left behind. I have no hesitation to say such a thing because the desires of shoppers always change.
“We must learn to embrace change,” is a modern slogan, meant to underwrite the constant destruction of the present. “Take up your Cross and follow me,” is an older saying, one that suggests the need to embrace God-given limits in a life of self-emptying love.
We are not commanded to end suffering. We are commanded to be the kind of people who can stand with those who suffer and bear their burdens with them. This is a description of what Christ called, “The Church.”