In the midst of the holiday cheer, carols, and season’s greetings cards, there is something else that demands our attention, something that cannot be silenced and will not go away. I speak of it not because I’m a pessimist, or even a grave realist, or because I want to dispel any of the seasonal magic to which we are desperately clinging, but simply because it is there, haunting our cultural consciousness like a Dickens Christmas ghost.
Of course, there is nothing new and shocking about the massive disconnect between the “peace on earth” and “good will toward men” slogans, and the reality of everyday life that any relatively thoughtful person experiences during the holidays. Every year, many of us perform Herculean efforts of will in attempts to maintain a sense of hope and joy within a society and world that are characterized by selfishness, injustice, and violence. Yet, the absurd contradiction is always present and perhaps has now become so familiar that it is taken for granted as an inherent aspect of the background scenery of our Christmas experience.
However, events of extreme and horrific violence do have the power to truly shock us out of our complacent denial, heightening to unbearable levels an agonizing awareness of the seemingly infinite chasm between what we are supposed to celebrate and a reality that not only cannot be celebrated, but may perhaps be intolerable. Last week, there was a deadly shooting in a public mall in the area of greater Portland, where I live, and by now we all know of the catastrophic massacre that occurred at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Such events are terrible and incredibly devastating at any time, but at this particular time the impact is that much more intense and severe because they have occurred within the cultural context of Christmas, the time of the year when kindness, compassion, joy, happiness, and peace are most explicitly and fervently proclaimed. How can we even begin to reconcile and make sense of the cruel riddle of “joy to the world” and these astoundingly tragic events?
For this does in fact represent an essential riddle, perhaps the most foundational, of human existence that we each must confront and in some way attempt to understand and explain…our primal need for constructive meaning in response to suffering that appears to destroy such meaning. Among other questions in the midst of suffering, and especially suffering of this magnitude, the ultimate question is asked with one simple and heart-wrenching word…Why?
We need, above all else, for our suffering to be meaningful. We strive to make some sense out of it, to understand some comprehensible reason and purpose within it, rather than experience it as merely senseless and meaningless. I believe that this is the most important process to which we can commit ourselves as human beings and that everything depends on finding an answer.
However, I would stress that this must be an existential answer that one can live and not merely an abstract or purely intellectual answer to resolve a cognitive or rational incongruity. My intention is certainly not to provide such an answer and honestly I don’t think that anyone can legitimately do so. Humanity has struggled through the millennia to form such answers and will likely continue to do so, but I don’t believe that any person, philosopher, theologian, psychologist, ethicist, anthropologist, etc. will ever be able to provide an answer of this kind that will be truly convincing or satisfying.
I would like to humbly suggest that in so doing we are asking the wrong question and thus searching for the wrong answer, or rather, that the abstracted, rationalistic, intellectually-based “Why?” question regarding human suffering is ultimately an unanswerable question that can only lead to empty and hollow pseudo-answers.
Given the present context of Christmas, a theological framework is the most immediately relevant, and may be that to which our search most essentially turns in general. While one of my strongest values is respect toward the diverse range of people’s religious/spiritual beliefs, I think we have to honestly acknowledge that traditional theistic “solutions” to the problem of suffering are at best naively pathetic and at worst psychologically and spiritually damaging. While it may be true that as finite creatures, we have no right to demand a suffering-free existence from our creator, and that suffering in itself doesn’t necessarily negate a personal, omnipotent, and loving deity, I personally can’t believe in or follow an all-powerful and supposedly “good” God who allows or does not prevent the violent atrocities that we are discussing here. I can’t believe that these tragedies have happened to the victims and survivors because they “sinned,” that their suffering represents some form of divine punishment or an intentional divine test of faith. The victims didn’t die because God needs them in heaven, to teach us all an invaluable spiritual lesson, or to fulfill an incomprehensible divine plan that will eventually be clarified in a future afterlife.
Whether ultimate responsibility may rest with God for creating human beings with “free will,” our capacity for freedom is one of the most essential characteristics of our nature. We are constituted with the potential for both good and evil and are capable of choosing to harm others as a compensation for our own pain. We exist in a broken world, and therefore suffering is unavoidable. We don’t need to know why suffering happens—we need to know how to live through and overcome it. So, if we can’t rely on the solace of traditional religious explanations, what can we believe in? Is there anything left to believe in which can provide an existential, “livable” answer to this immense suffering?
The only way that I can meaningfully experience the Christmas story and message in the face of incomprehensibly traumatic events like Newtown is through the deeper reality of the Incarnation. The Christ child in the manger is Emmanuel, “God with us,” meaning that the Divine Ground of Being and Existence-itself has entered into our humanity, becoming manifest in a personal life and participating fully in the conditions of human existence, particularly those involving pain and suffering. We are not alone and powerless in our suffering. The God that can be found in the depths of our painful tragedies is the suffering God, the God who understands our pain, who suffers with us, empowering us to overcome and transform them into sources of strength and greater wholeness. We are not given an absolute reason or purpose that completely explains our grief and devastation, but we are given the power to live, endure, and perhaps eventually even thrive through it. In speaking of the meaning of divine Providence, Paul Tillich (1948) states:
Faith in divine Providence is the faith that nothing can prevent us from fulfilling the ultimate meaning of our existence…Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event. (p. 106)
The meaning of Christmas in the wake of events like Newtown is that, although the impact of such loss will always be present and the resulting suffering may never completely heal, because of the suffering God in the manger the ultimate meaning of our lives can still be actualized and the possibility of salvation and re-creation that upholds us can never be destroyed.
Tillich, P. (1948). The shaking of the foundations. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
— Scott Kiser