By John Rieping | Published 19 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
In the philosopher Plato's great work "The Republic," his elder brother Glaucon is described as proposing an extreme test of morality to their teacher Socrates in the ancient city-state of Athens.
Glaucon felt that laws forced respectable men to walk "the same road" of justice due to fears of being punished as an evildoer or being powerless as a victim. Remove both fears and "the actions of the just would be [the same] as the actions of the unjust" -- immoral
There is only one way, he claimed, to test whether a virtuous life was better than a wicked one. We must compare the happiness of an "entirely unjust" man who has "the greatest reputation for justice" with another man whose situation is the opposite.
"Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst ... and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.
"When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two ... The just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound ... Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not be, just."
Half of Glaucon's test would become reality more than 400 years later in the life and execution of a wandering rabbi, Yeshua (aka Jesus). In the eyes of Christians and Muslims, he was an entirely just man.
A superficial hearing of his final words would seem to support Glaucon's position however. According to one record, they include, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 15:34)
This plea is a reference to a hymn from the Jewish "Tehillim" (Hebrew for "songs of praise"). It begins, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief." (Psalm 22:1-2)
Echoing Glaucon's test, it later continues, "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they who see me laugh me to scorn: they stick out the lip, they shake their heads, saying, 'He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!' " (Psalm 22:6-8)
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted within me." (Psalm 22:14)
Does that sound like happiness to you?
Yet, for Christians, these are not the final words. For beyond the agony of the cross we see a resurrection. The rabbi's cry was heard.
Near the end of the same song, the singer promises: "I will declare your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise you ... For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has he hid his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard ... The poor shall eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD shall praise him ..." (cf. Psalm 22:22, 24, 26a)
An unappreciated life and undeserved death can end far better than Glaucon imagined if God is one's hope. But in this we find a paradox. For don't Christians say Jesus is God and, if so, isn't his rescue by God a hoax? And who among us can claim to be so worthy of help?
Strangely, the answer to both concerns is the same: emptiness.
As the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Macedonian city of Philippi: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant ..." (Philippians 2:5-7a)
The life of the one Christians consider to be both God and man was like his death. For both involved radical self-emptying (in Greek, "kenosis").
Why? For the same reason we seek an empty cup when thirsty: so we can fill it.
Let us be humble enough to accept and lift up our own emptiness to God in prayer and in service. We can embrace God no other way than with empty arms.
By John Rieping | Published 7 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Few of the 300 writings by ancient Greek philosopher Epikouros survive today. One paradox said to be his we know only through an early Christian writer in North Africa, Lucius Lactantius (A.D. 250-325).
In it, the problem of suffering is posed as a riddle for those who believe any god cares for humanity.
"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can," Epikouros allegedly wrote.
"If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful, which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful -- and so not a god.
"If he wants to and can, which is the only fitting thing for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"
Throughout history, many believers in divinity have proposed solutions to this mystery. But perhaps none match that offered by Christianity, insofar as every element of its message is in part a reply to the problems of pain and evil.
A drawback of this is that any quick or brief response to the scandal of evil falls short, both of the question and of the depth and breadth of Christianity's answer. Yet even Christianity admits it has only "partial" understanding of such divine mysteries (1 Corinthians 12:12).
So what can be said?
First, let us be honest here. When the paradox of Epikouros most hits us is not in a classroom or amid peace. It pierces when you lose someone you love and there's no remedy. It smashes in when we do our best or worst and the results are terrible beyond expectation. It crushes when we feel trapped in misery with no hope left.
In such moments, we don't want a rebuttal. We ache for restoration, if not immediately then someday.
This too Christianity promises, but that can fail to comfort when doubts overwhelm any belief in such assurances. Such skepticism can be fed by past disappointments, when our pleas for help seemed fruitless.
Hence the problem of pain can be a problem of perception.
Imagine, for example, a deathly ill child brought to doctors for a cure that requires an agonizing treatment. The boy resists, so the doctors ask the parents to hold him down. What betrayal he may feel as his supposedly loving parents, who gave him life and provide for him, seem deaf to his cries for escape.
Sometimes the healing we seek frightens us more than the sickness that devours us. We may prefer destruction to change.
Alternately, we may not even realize we're dying at all if not for symptoms that shout too loudly for us to ignore, like despised prophets of doom.
"We need crises," writes Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, "for we have spiritual sleeping sickness and need frequent alarms.
To unravel the paradox of Epikouros, though, is not a task for the mind so much as the heart. Both are precious, but the wounded first need aid, not insight.
The instinct of Christianity has always been that the mystery of evil can only be understood at the foot of another mystery -- the cross. For Christians assert as true what seems foolish to some: God chose to become man to liberate humanity from evil by suffering and dying.
Reflecting on and reacting to this mystery of the cross is the greatest answer to the mystery of evil any Christian heart can find. Yet how often we believers look away, whether the crucifix before us consists of metal or flesh.
"When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree, / They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary; / They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep, / For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
"When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by. / They would not hurt a hair of him, they only let him die; / For men had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain, / They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain.
"Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do,' / And still it rained the winter rain that drenched him through and through; / The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see, / And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary." (G.A. Studdert-Kennedy)
By John Rieping | Published 28 Feb 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
"Empty is the argument of the philosopher that does not relieve any human suffering."
-- Epikouros (341-270 B.C.)
Greek philosopher Epikouros, one of the most popular of his day, saw pain as evil and the archenemy of happiness. To thwart it, he taught, one must fearlessly dwell on past or present enjoyments.
"Pleasure is our first and kindred good," he wrote. "It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing."
To maximize pleasure and minimize suffering, Epikouros advised avoiding marriage, religion, politics, the problems of others, and concern for the future. The well-being of the world is not one's responsibility, he claimed.
"The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd," he wrote.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3 B.C. - A.D. 65) also believed in enjoying the present without worry about the future. But the Roman statesman and writer saw value in suffering.
"To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature," he wrote.
Born in what is now Spain, Seneca followed the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which taught that everyone has a spark of the universe's intelligent divine fire (aka Fate or Reason). To be happy, one had to live in harmony with this divine fire by virtues, which are how we apply reason to our lives.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person,” he wrote in a letter.
It isn't that we should behave unnaturally, he felt, but rather the opposite. We should act according to human nature, which is rational. We should govern the fires of desires with reason instead of being slaves to emotions or circumstances.
"We should every night call ourselves to account," he wrote. "What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to confession."
He noted, "To err is human, but to persist [in wrongness] is diabolical."
Seneca believed virtue enables peace of mind, which lets us rise above suffering. It also allows us the pleasure of simply being ourselves instead of "assuming a pose."
"For it is torturous to be constantly watching oneself ... fearful of being caught out of our usual role. And we are never free from concern ... for many things happen that strip off our pretense against our will, and, though all this attention to self is successful, yet the life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety."
You may have already heard the words of Seneca more than you realize. Some of his sayings, such as "it's quality not quantity that matters," continue to be used by many to this day. The man who wrote, "The best ideas are common property," would surely approve.
Though Seneca wasn't a Christian, the ancient and medieval Christian Church recognized in him a kindred mind. One early Christian writer (Tertullian of Carthage, Africa) referred to him as "our Seneca."
Coincidentally, Seneca's elder brother, Gallio, appears in the Bible. The Roman official showed apathy towards a religious dispute involving the apostle Paul in the wealthy Greek city of Corinth (Acts 18:12-17).
In his letters, Paul would repeatedly display an attitude toward suffering that even today seems countercultural.
"I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church." (Colossians 1:24)
A core belief of Christianity is that God chose to become a man, Yeshua (aka Jesus), to suffer justice in place of all who have done wrong. By doing so, he earned for humanity a pardon for our crimes so that we could be free to return to God, who we reject by wrongdoing.
Paul's words point to this belief and a related one: the suffering of those united with God shares in the value of his anguish as a God-man who died for all.
Hence Paul could rejoice in suffering, because he -- like Jesus -- could offer it to God as a sacrifice for the benefit of those Paul loved.
So should we who claim to believe.