God, Medicine, and Suffering
- Coulehan, Jack
- Date of entry: May-12-2003
- Last revised: Dec-29-2009
The author introduces his book by saying, "I should like to write a book to help people cope with inexplicable pain and suffering." He is "profoundly suspicious" of the genre of books that attempt to explain why a good and all-powerful God allows us "to undergo suffering for seemingly no reason." Thus, he distinguishes his investigation from theodicy in the traditional sense (an explanation of why God allows suffering); rather, Hauerwas wishes to explore why human beings believe it is so important for us to ask why God allows suffering.
The narrative backbone of this book is provided by fictional and non-fictional texts about the suffering and death of children. The prime fictional example is The Blood of the Lamb, Peter De Vries's 1961 novel about an 11-year old girl who dies of leukemia and the anguish of her father. This fiction, however, was based on De Vries's personal experience. [See annotation in this database.] Hauerwas also explores several non-fictional accounts of dying children, especially Where Is God When a Child Suffers? by Penny Giesbrecht, The Private World of Dying Children by Myra Bluebond-Langner, and Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff.
Traditionally, suffering and death were interpreted in the context of religious meaning (e.g. part of God's plan, punishment for sin, etc.) Yet, the fact that God allows evil--in the form of suffering--to occur poses a problem, if God is both all compassionate and all-powerful. Modern medicine dispenses with the meaning of illness--disease and suffering are pointless and should be eliminated, if possible. Likewise, in modern society our preferred death is sudden like a bolt of lightning (no suffering), while in the past people looked for a "good death," which might involved a period of suffering during which the person could become reconciled to family, friends, and God.
Nonetheless, even if we adopt a scientific point of view, as human beings we can't help attributing narrative meaning to our illnesses. Thus, when adults suffer, we place their suffering in the context of a life story that may include a number of layers and dimensions. We "dilute" the suffering in the context of story. However, childhood suffering and death appear to truncate narratives, sometimes even to abolish them. Therefore, the suffering seems particularly meaningless, and it feels more "evil" and more devastating.
William B. Eerdman's
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Why does a good God permit suffering to exist? This book approaches the question of theodicy by taking a step back and reflecting on why we ask the question, rather than by attempting to answer it. This book is a powerful meditation on the human need to create meaning in our lives, and to understand suffering and death as having intelligible meaning. When we encounter the deaths of children, we face an especially difficult problem--their life narratives are truncated, or maybe even completely blank, so how can we deal with their suffering?
Hauerwas doesn't address this issue systematically, but rather he explores the story of Don and Carol Wanderhope. Thus, the first part of the book is devoted to examining The Blood of the Lamb, a fictional "test case" narrative of meaningless suffering. In the remainder of the book, the author considers, and largely rejects, several commentators' "takes" on theodicy and the meaning of suffering.
The last chapter is entitled "Medicine as Theodicy." I understand this to mean that in our society people expect medicine to be able to explain suffering; i.e. that we can "see" why human illness occurs. But, of course, medicine's answers are meaningless from a human perspective. We can only give meaning to our suffering by inventing narratives on love and compassion that, thereby, reveal some small facet or shard of the "eternal pity." (See p. 246 of The Blood of the Lamb)