Monday, February 2, 2015

The Presentation of Our Lord, Atheism, and The Problem of Suffering

 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed." (Luke 2:33-35)

Girolamo Romanino: The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple
     The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord presents us with a paradox, or maybe a series of paradoxes, which can lead us deeper into the mystery of Christ.  On the one hand, it is our last look back at the recently concluded Christmas Season, and we experience some of the joy and wonder of that season, particularly in the prophetic utterances of Simeon. Simeon proclaims him “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel” (Luke 2:32). His final words, however, foretelling that Christ will be “a sign that is spoken against” and warning the Blessed Mother that “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” redirect us toward the quickly approaching Season of Lent and beyond to the sorrow and suffering of the Triduum.  The last thing we see in Luke’s account of the Presentation is the prophetess Anna, who pulls together the apparent contraries in Simeon’s prophecy: she “spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In the end, the glory of Christmas and the sword of Good Friday come together on Easter Sunday: redemption only comes from the light shining through the darkness of suffering, and we catch a glimpse of the entire story in the Feast of Presentation.
     Given the above, I found it interesting that this story [here] appeared just this morning: Englishman Stephen Fry, an “outspoken atheist”, was asked what he would say if he found himself, contrary to his expectation, face to face with his Creator in the afterlife:

 “I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about?’” he began.

“’How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault,” Fry continued. “It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.”

"Outspoken Atheist" Stephen Fry

In other words, the old Problem of Suffering, which I spend a lot of time discussing with my adolescent religion students.  For us Christians this problem is resolved in the Mystery of the Cross, as we saw above: it’s a paradox that leads us to a higher understanding.  For the unbeliever, however, it is a contradiction which, if followed to its logical conclusion, leads to annihilation.  The atheist believes that all reality is reducible to matter, and that this present world is all there is.  Suffering, therefore, is the worst thing that can possibly happen:

Fry went on to question why the God of the universe would allow pain and suffering and argued that doing away with belief in God makes life “simpler, purer, cleaner, more wroth [sic] living, in my opinion.”

Doing away with belief in God, however, really only makes Fry’s problem worse: instead of leading to redemption, suffering is now random and pointless.  Not only that, but it is something that everyone experiences, it’s inescapable.  The only way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate not God, but humanity.  Fry’s fellow atheist, the philosopher David Benatar [here] proposes just this solution is his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence
    Small wonder that The Presentation is included in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, despite Simeon’s ominous (and alarming, no doubt, to Mary and Joseph) utterance.  We are reminded that, through his Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection, Christ has sanctified suffering, that it is no longer a random, meaningless evil, but a path to Heaven.  That is, indeed, Good News.