January 16, 2021

Not Logic but Love

Two hours into the conversation, the real question emerged: “but what about the suffering of the innocent children”?

My friend and I were basking in the sunlight streaming into our favorite coffee shop, and he had been relating his recent spiritual journey. The atheism he had embraced some 8 years earlier was wearing thin. He was especially troubled by the thought of his own story, and his children’s story, not being connected to anything larger or more significant.

My friend is perhaps not quite ready to turn to Christ. He had read (as I had also) the new atheists. But their arguments were not what was holding him back. Rather it was this question: How can God allow the innocent children to suffer?

After a few years as a debate coach and a few decades as a pastor I could have given answers that would, at least in my mind I suppose, logically defended God. On my bookshelf is a tome of some 600 pages written by one of my philosophy professors on the problem of evil. He wrote it as his Ph.D. dissertation, and it reads like one. The problem of evil is looked at in its various forms, and each analyzed and answered from a logical, rational viewpoint.

But after listening to my friend enough to know if he wanted my opinion, I did not pull out the logical syllogism I sometimes teach my students, or summarize the tome on my bookshelf. Instead, I summarized a book of an entirely different sort. A book that has helped me in this area more than any other.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

This is, of course, a work of fiction, published in Russia in 1879. The main characters of the story are the father, Fyodor Karamazov, and his four sons: Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha and their half-brother Smerdyakov.

Each of the brothers has a quite distinct worldview and personality. Western-educated Ivan is a thoughtful and moral atheist. Dimitri would likely claim to be a Christian, but is dominated by passions and sensuality. Alyosha is a devote believer, who is marked in the story by a strong, Christlike love to others, especially the hurt and needy. And Smerdyakov is the closest thing in the novel to a villain: at once cunning and foolish, he seems to wear a perpetual sneer.

The plot of the story centers around the murder of the father, Fyodor Karamazov. Dimitri, violent of temper and a rival to the father for the affections of a woman, is the immediate suspect. Though the evidence against him is only circumstantial, he is ultimately convicted and sent away to a prison labor camp.

This is not a plot-centric novel. Its majesty comes from the psychological portraits of the brothers, and especially the interactions between Ivan and Alyosha.

The key chapter is titled Rebellion, and focuses on a dinner conversation between the two brothers. Ivan does most all the talking; one senses he is at last able to unload his thoughts on his younger brother. He relates his own spiritual journey, and how the one sticking point to believing in God (or, more precisely, to accepting the offer of the kingdom of God), is the suffering of children. He focuses on children alone, for, as he says, adults have “tasted the apple”, but young children are innocent, and thus the question of punishment is not relevant.

He confesses that he has become something of a collector of stories of suffering children; he clips and saves the newspaper articles. He relates a half-dozen of the worst stories to Alyosha, who is almost silent in pain as he hears them. Ivan concludes that even if the kingdom of heaven could somehow justify the suffering of one child as necessary for it to come into the world, he could never accept it. He would instead, “return the admittance ticket”.

Here, and in other chapters, Ivan Karamazov makes the most moving and passionate argument for rejecting Christianity that I have ever read. That, and the profound psychological analysis, is perhaps why Freud would call this book “the most magnificent novel ever written”. I would agree with the claim, but not, I suspect, the reason.

For despite Alyosha’s silence, there is in this novel a profound answer to Ivan. It is not in the words of Alyosha. It is Alyosha.

Alyosha loves. He even loves Ivan despite his great sadness and fear that Ivan’s philosophy will destroy his life, and even though Ivan affirms that without God, “everything is permitted”.

Alyosha loves. He continues to love, even those who abuse him and scorn him. He continues to seek peace and healing. He continues to do good to those who are in need, even when they, in their resentment, insult and despise him. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Despite not even attempting to argue with his atheist brother, despite not even having an answer, Alyosha goes on doing what he has been doing: loving others, and sharing their suffering, in Christian devotion.

Ivan, in the meanwhile, finds he walks a more bitter path. He learns, to his horror, that Smerdyakov, not Dimitri, is the murderer of their father. Worse, that Smerdyakov has done this influenced by Ivan’s philosophy. Smerdyakov has taken “everything is permitted” quite seriously. Or…more consistently.

Ideas have consequences. And Ivan finds that while he himself would never commit parricide, his ideas, taken up by men with lesser intellects and worse morals, lead to suffering and death. And here Dostoyevsky predicts 20th century Russia.

Alyosha and Ivan see the same reality, yet choose differently each how to interpret that. One brother, while not having the answer for suffering, lives a life that relieves suffering and spreads love. The other brother collects newspaper accounts of the suffering of innocent, yet does nothing to relieve such suffering. In fact his rejection of God leads only to more suffering and evil.

This is Dostoevsky’s “non-answer answer” to the problem of suffering. And this book, not the 600-page technical theodicy, is what has helped me, and what I recommended to my friend.

For evil is not an argument: It is a thing. And the answer to evil is not logic but the cross. Alysha is an heir and a symbol of the One who took evil and suffering upon Himself, out of love for others. And I live in the hope that the cross has laid the groundwork for that Day when evil is no more, and love is perfected.

Even so, come quickly.

Comments

  1. Iain Lovejoy says

    I don’t believe that there is a “price of admission” to the kingdom of others’ being left behind in suffering – I don’t believe that anyone can enter the kingdom until we all do, because the kingdom is not the kingdom unless all suffering for everyone is at an end.
    This, to my mind, is where faith comes in. I have absolutely no idea why all this horror is somehow unavoidable; I can only hope that it is only there because it (or at least allowing for its possibility) was unavoidable, and it will be fixed, and will be worth it, and not just for me, or some chosen elect, or most people, or even for almost everyone, but for every single person who has ever lived and suffered because of it, and that, eventually, all “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well” (to quote Mother Julian of Norwich). In the meantime, we all have to persist in doing what we can, and persist in a faith that enables us to do so.

    • senecagriggs says

      Universalism: A belief that Larry Nasser shares the same space as Jimmy Carter in Heaven

      • Are you willing to share the same space as the “thief ” (likely a murderer) who was on the cross next to Jesus in Heaven?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I smell RIGHTeousness.

        To a lot of Christians, The Other Guy HAS to get it in the neck.
        “IF I CAN’T BE BETTER THAN FILL-IN-THE-BLANK, WHO DO I GOT TO BE BETTER THAN?”

        • why the finger-pointing, when the Bible prohibits it?

          Why the ‘thank God I am not like that other sinner’, when God did not look with favor on that attitude?

          Why the persecution of suffering people who are ‘different’? When none of that is ‘of Christ’?

          On what grounds are people thinking they are ‘saved’ when they treat ‘the others’ so poorly ?

        • David Greene says

          Somehow I am reminded of Ruby Turpin in O’Connor’s “Revelation.”

      • –> “Universalism: A belief that Larry Nasser shares the same space as Jimmy Carter in Heaven”

        or…

        Universalism: If God chooses to save people I would choose not to save—like ALL OF HUMANITY—I guess that’s His prerogative.

        Universalism: Jesus is the way, the only way—and I’m pretty sure God can figure out how to guide people to that “way” in ways we can’t even imagine, like even during transition from life to death.

        Universalism: God’s love might be above and beyond what I can imagine. And that’s good news for me, as well as my friends and family.

        • I’ll add another one:

          Universalism: It helps me dive more fully into grace and love than if I didn’t believe in some sort of universalism. It helps me avoid sliding toward “judgment” and “wall-building.”

      • More accurately Seneca, what Iain Lovejoy so wonderfully shared is something closer to “ultimate reconciliation” than “universalism.”

    • senecagriggs says

      As Robert F pointed out, the thief on the cross went to “paradise” the moment of his death. BUT, remember the thief believed at the end. Iain appears to take the approach that neither repentance or faith is required to join Christ in the Heavenlies.
      Therefore we have a Totally, Unrepentant, evil abuse of female children[ Larry Nassar ] in the Heavenlies.with the repentant and the faithful.
      *
      Fellow I-monkers, I CANNOT get there

      • Let’s grant that faith and repentance are necessary (which I would). Where is it written that faith and repentance must only happen in this life, or in ways that are blatantly obvious to Western Christians?

      • I don’t think Iain anywhere said that repentance would not be necessary. Based on his past comments as I remember them, he thinks that it is necessary; he just sees a much wider, invisible (to us), long term, universal scope for its working out than you do.

      • –> “Fellow I-monkers, I CANNOT get there”

        We know that. You’ve been clear about that since you’ve been here.

        Curiously enough, several of us here used to think that same thing. I remember a discussion with a friend who first planted the seed of universalism in my brain. He told me, “You’re going to think me a heretic, but…” Then he laid out the universalism argument. And I did go away thinking, “Heretic.” (jokingly, of course, since we are good friends)

        But over time, as I’ve considered the notion, and read and studied the Bible more fully, I’m more convinced now of a “universalism” side to God and salvation over, say, the “Sinner’s Prayer” route to salvation, which I’ve come to see as more or less a box to be checked so we can say, “This person is SAVED!”

      • Christiane says

        it’s okay, senecagriggs

        just remember,
        it’s not ABOUT the ‘darkness’;
        it’s about the LIGHT that the darkness could NOT quench

        some help, this:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=34xgG2q8KMQ

        (Saint Lucia’s Day – a celebration of Light in the Darkness)

      • And the thief BELIEVED what?

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        The historic Christian universalist tradition is a belief in universal repentance and reconciliation. I agree absolutely that there are no unrepentant sinners in heaven. To be in the presence of God unrepentant would be to experience not heaven but unbearable torture. Universalism in not the belief that even unrepentant sinners go to heaven (which I would, with you, regard as impossible) but rather that, in the end, all sinners will eventually repent, if not in this life, then in the next.
        I also believe, with you, that without Christ to lead us repentance and salvation is impossible. This is precisely why Christ died and descended to the dead: so that he could go down into the depths of hell and bring God’s light to the sinners there, that they, too, might repent and live, and be saved and brought back to the Father with and by the resurrected and ascended Christ.

  2. Jordan Peterson often cites this book, and this conversation from the book. He says that when Dostoevsky is setting up contradicting points of view, he does the opposite of the straw man: he gives the opponent the killer arguments.

    I think also that beyond what you say about “evil is not an argument”, life is not an intellectual treatise. We are so often tied up in our heads, walking straight past our lives whilst ruminating on the meaning of life. (Like the Pharisees asking questions about who is our neighbour whilst not even noticing their neighbour).

    This touches on something else related to Jordan Peterson (sorry!): when he reacts to people asking about whether he believes in God: “what do you mean by believe?”. So often, our belief in God is *also* an intellectual exercise, divorced (or at least estranged) from our lived reality. What would our lives look like if we really *really* believed in God?

    So Alyohsa is right: less theories, more love.

    • –> “less theories, more love.”

      Amen. And, oddly, those two increasingly “flip” (toward more theories, less love) the more fundamental a person gets in their religion.

  3. I read TBK in my late teens for the first time. It has been my companion since then, a book — along with a few others, like Moby Dick — that I circle back to again and again. It certainly plumbs the problem if evil in a searing and relentless. And Alyosha, along with his spiritual master, Father Zossima, is the model that the novel points to as the “answer” to the problem. But the fictional answer to the question is one thing; the other question is: What about the real life Dostoevsky? Did the ideas he presented in his novel result in him demonstrably living out the fictional ideal drawn out in the dynamic between Alyosha and Zossima? Or was the fictional ideal limited to the world of fiction, not realizable/successfully implemented/attempted in his real life?

    • An artist like Dostoevsky would probably fail to make a distinction between his life and his art since his life was his art.

      • But what would his house servants have said about him, assuming they would have been illiterate and only known the art he expressed in the flesh?

        • From what I know, his house servants would have found him quite crochety. To my knowledge, he wasn’t one who beat them. He did not remain entirely faithful to his wife. He loved Jesus and was a very pious believer, while not attending Church a lot as an adult because he was completely frustrated by the institution. He did respect monastics who were truly pursuing holiness; there were a lot of them “under the radar” in Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

          There was a real turning point in his life when, in prison for literary “crimes” (circulating banned books) which he may not actually have committed, he was hauled up before a firing squad with some friends and was minutes before death when the Tsar communted their sentence. He then spent a few years in a prison camp with only a New Testament to read. He had epilepsy. So yeah, it would be understandable if he were a bit crochety.

          A mixed bag, like every human being. It’s very tempting, but I’m not willing to discount his brilliance – and his message – because of his sins.

          Dana

          • I don’t discount his brilliance or his message because of his sins; but his sins have to make me wonder if Dostoevsky spoke whereof he really knew when he spoke of active love and sharing the suffering of others as being faith’s response to evil. Are Alyosha and Zossima real persons in the real world, or fictional characters confined to the pages of a brilliant novelist’s masterpiece? Did Dostoevsky really know the answer to that question?

  4. A non-answer is still a non-answer. Like Job, I want answers, even at the price of divine rebuke.

    • Yet we get neither an answer nor a divine rebuke.

    • There is an answer, in “The Grand Inquisitor”. It is the Kiss Jesus gives to that despicable, evil and self-righteous man. That will heal the Inquisitor – if he will accept it and what comes with it.

      “All manner of things shall be well” means that Jesus, in his judgment, will make everything right. He has not disclosed to us how he will do that. In Scripture, the idea of judgment is accompanied by the picture of fire. Fire burns up, but mostly it refines. It will do its work on every human being, you and I included.

      Dana

  5. It all boils down to this – if God is the source and fountain of our morality, how can He (even after the cross) look at everything we all are and everything we have done and are doing, and NOT feel outraged? Any being who can see us as we truly are, and not be outraged, is not moral in any real sense of that word.

    If God is moral, He should intervene to stop our wickedness, or put an end to us. I cannot conceive of how… I’m having a lot of trouble with the verse that “our present sufferings are of no consequence in compared to what awaits us.” It’s starting to sound like a cop out. Because the present sufferings of our race and our planet are horrible and will only get worse. And then they will get still worse. Is He going to act at all?

    • The sufferings are certainly real to the extent that “the Preacher” says,

      I saw the tears of the oppressed—
      and they have no comforter;
      power was on the side of their oppressors—
      and they have no comforter.
      2 And I declared that the dead,
      who had already died,
      are happier than the living,
      who are still alive.
      3 But better than both
      is the one who has never been born,
      who has not seen the evil
      that is done under the sun.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        As someone who has not suffered my share of the suffering on this good earth, I am ill-suited to offer my opinion, but that has never stopped me before.

        The Problem of Suffering is bound together, warp and woof, with the Problems of Justice, Vengeance, Repentance, and Pardon. If we had no moral lodestone, Suffering would be no more of a problem for us than it is for wolves, lizards, or algae.

        Could I forgive an unrepentant Larry Nasser as Christ forgave His unrepentant killers? Would I be willing to submit to death by torture so that Larry Nasser could have another three dozen years of life, with which he would likely continue his barbarities? I dunno.

        There are depths here that completely escape my water-strider existence.

    • I think He is doing something, and that something entails a lot of pain but results in things coming to right. The answer from the book of Job is God is LORD. That’s it.

  6. The problem of suffering will still be there, pushing you toward cynicism or hopelessness, regardless of whether you’re a believer or an atheist. And in either case, it only has one good answer: to go out and live your life in such a way as to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, instead of adding to it. So, any faith should be judged not by how well it enables us to give an intellectual answer to that question, but by how well it empowers us to *become* an embodied answer to it. (And of course, that’s exactly how God chose to answer that question.)

    • Klasie Kraalogies says

      As an atheist, I heartily agree.

    • “it only has one good answer: to go out and live your life in such a way as to reduce the amount of suffering in the world, instead of adding to it.”

      Thanks to climate change, unless every human being (and especially us in the West) does this, we’re all doomed. But we won’t all do this because free will. Ergo, we’re all doomed. So what’s God going to do about it?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Agree.

      I’ve come to orbit a pretty radical dissent from, as stated in this post, “Ideas have consequences.”. I’m really not convinced they do; my ‘struggle’ is to perceive the correlation between [claimed] ideas and outcomes/results/actions.

      And – damn – getting those who argue most fiercely about ideas to take any action… that is a correlation I experience.

      I increasingly find the hand-wavery to maintain “Ideas have consequences” nearly as thick as that required to reconcile Pervasive Suffering and a Just Universe.

    • Christiane says

      I agree with you, Michael Z

      ” Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”

      (J. Claudel)

    • As a functional atheist at least half the time, I agree.

  7. Klasie Kraalogies says

    To save us from our own despair, we build narratives. But after awhile, like the painkiller that no longer works, we build bigger narratives. And when we get to the point where we beginning to see that all we have been doing is covering the pain in bandage after bandage of narrative, we think ourselves clever, and start on the meta-narratives.

    But as Terry Pratchett wrote –

    “We are here, and this is now.” Constable Visit, a strict believer in the Omnian religion, occasionally quoted that from their holy book. Vimes understood it to mean, in less exalted copper speak, that you have to do the job that is in front of you.
    – Nightwatch

    Maybe the explanations we construct help us sleep. Fine and well. But the real task is still to live better and do something about the pain and suffering. Small or large.

    However – if we get to the point where our narratives become the source of the pain and suffering, it is time to examine the narratives, the weltanschauung that shapes our minds.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “if we get to the point where our narratives become the source of the pain and suffering”

      +1,000

    • –> “To save us from our own despair, we build narratives. But after awhile, like the painkiller that no longer works, we build bigger narratives. And when we get to the point where we beginning to see that all we have been doing is covering the pain in bandage after bandage of narrative, we think ourselves clever, and start on the meta-narratives.”

      The speaker I heard at Cannon Beach Christian Conference Center this summer focused his talk primarily on “poor narratives” in the Bible, and poor narratives we create in our own heads. He was all about, “Recognize unhealthy narratives, make sure your narrative is mostly ‘true’!” He then gave some ways in which people can do that.

      It was awesome!!!

  8. The Calvinist Neal Punt has an interesting take on the subject of who is saved. In his book “A Theology of Inclusivism” he looks closely at the universalistic texts of the Bible, and also facts that scripture neither teach nor imply anyone is consigned to eternal damnation solely on the basis of their sin in Adam. Yet this is separate biblically from actual , willful, and persistent sin on the part of the person.
    So Punt proposes the following. Who does the bible teach are saved? ALL ARE…SOME ARE NOT. As difficult as it may be for our logic to embrace, the scriptures teach this.
    “The true light gives light to every man” Jesus tasted “death for everyone”.
    “Do you not know the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God”. “Therefore God gave them over…” because “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie”.
    Inclusivism is not universalism or exclusivism.
    Personally I believe Clark Pinnock best describes inclusivism, although C.S.Lewis is in there. Even Billy Graham, although later in his life. Early on he was an exclusivist.

    • –> “Early on he was an exclusivist.”

      My guess is most of us who were born-again via evangelical routes were primarily “exclusivist.” Some have since shed that, like me.

    • David Greene says

      “So Punt proposes the following. Who does the bible teach are saved? ALL ARE…SOME ARE NOT.”

      Kind of like C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle” where the elves continue to live in darkness even though they are in Aslan’s Land because “the elves are for the elves”?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Actually it was Dwarves.

        Lewis may have written them as an illustration of “Invincible Ignorance”, but I always apply their example to Online Echo Chambers and Airtight Conspiracy True Believers.

  9. senecagriggs says

    “It is granted ONCE unto man to die, then judgment.”

  10. Daniel, thanks for this post. Not logic, but love… Yes.

    I have a good friend who was at one time agnostic. This man is one of the most analytical guys I know. Before he retired, his job was “operations analyst” and “cost analyst” and “anything you want” analyst.

    He approached me out of the blue one day and said, “Rick, you’ll be surprised to hear that I now believe in God. I’ve analyzed it over and over–is there a God or not–and I find It’s actually the only thing that makes any sense.”

    Now while “logic” and “analysis” went into his newfound belief in God, it was LOVE that won him over. It was Jesus Christ and his story and his love that suddenly made more sense than “pure” logic, which told him there wasn’t likely a God.

    This friend is now more Christ-like than I am in many ways. Seriously, the guy oozes “love.” Quite remarkable.

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Hi Rick, thanks for your nice words. I have been busy all day so haven’t had time to interact with anyone.

      Good story about your friend.

      • What makes it so wonderful is that discussions that had to dance “around God” are suddenly discussions “about God.” And to hear someone who is so “logical” talk about God and Christ has been quite refreshing and helps me find different ways to articulate my beliefs.

  11. Even so, come quickly.

    My natural response is to say “YES!”

    However, reason tells me that over the long haul nothing changes.

    • “Now a deputy walks on hard nails/ And a preacher rides a mount/ But nothing really matters much/ It’s doom alone that counts/ And the one-eyed undertaker/ He blows a futile horn/ ‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give ya/ shelter from the storm…'”

      “Shelter From the Storm” — Bob Dylan

    • I gotta be honest, I don’t like the idea behind “even so, come quickly.” The reason is, if God is NOT universalistic, a great many good people–friends and family–will be “left behind” if and when He comes… assuming He is NOT universalistic.

      My heart and soul just can’t fathom that.

      So no… don’t come quickly, Lord. Not if you’re not universalistic. Not if too many good and fine people will not be ushered into the kingdom.

  12. David Greene says

    Well that verse says “judgement,” not necessarily “damnation.” In the Bible Jesus clearly indicated some sins would be forgiven in the next life.

    • Not sure how a duplicate post got in here… sorry 🙁

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Unfortunately in Chrisitanese, “judgement” does not mean “a binding decision” or “making a binding decision” but “somebody (always Thee, never Me) gets it in the neck from God Himself!”

      Think about it.
      In Christianese, when is “judgement” ever a GOOD Thing?

      • –> “Christianese”

        At first I thought you had coined a term for which our own iMonk regular Christiane speaks, which, to be honest, DOES deserve of some sort of term!

  13. snow flurries —
    first of the season,
    white surprise

  14. senecagriggs says

    37 Even Moses demonstrates that the dead are raised, in the passage about the burning bush. For he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive. 39Some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, You have spoken well!”…

  15. I found this article to be quite interesting. Gave me a lot to think about. I generally agree with it.

    http://www.oodegr.com/english/dogmatiki1/G1b.htm

    Dana

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