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Crucified Christ by
Matthias Grünewald

Sometimes texts and utterances become what they purport to describe. Case in point? This little meditation on the spiritual meaning of suffering, An Attempt to Explain Christianity to Atheists In a Manner That Might Not Freak Them Out by The Bad Catholic at Patheos.com. Well, it certainly became a source of suffering for me (and apparently for P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula), and I suspect not a few others trying to sift through the article for one reason or another. Whether or not the article succeeds in becoming meaningful is another question.

Honestly, the whole thing is a Gish Gallop for me, from the scholastic presentation to the major assumptions of the argument and the vocabulary its author uses. Were I to attempt a refutation, I wouldn’t know where to start. If this was an attempt (as the author suggests) to speak to atheists, I can’t help but think it is an utter failure (or perhaps an ironic joke). If its author ever seriously had an unbelieving audience in mind, then he has done just about as much as he could to avoid communicating with that audience.

There is however one thing about this piece that does catch my attention; its final paragraph (emphasis added):

This changes everything: To see the child with leukemia is to see Christ suffering in that child, suffering to bring the world back to Perfection. To experience agony is to cry out with the strain of lifting this fallen world to Paradise. We are called to recognize this, and to actualize this. This is why I am a Christian.

I say this bit catches my attention, because I find it genuinely disturbing. I also recognize it (or something like it) from a number of previous conversations with believers, many of whom have advanced the argument that life is somehow less meaningful without God. They don’t always state their position in such stark terms, but I do think the view is common enough to rise above the idiosyncracies of this particular article. So, it is perhaps worth a comment or two.

Kitch-Christ: The true meaning of suffering?

The claim that Bad Catholic makes, that to see a child suffering is to see Christ suffering within her is thoroughly dehumanizing, because it relegates the suffering of the child to a secondary role. What is moving about the suffering of a child is not her own suffering but that of Christ. The meaning of suffering has, according to Bad Catholic, less to do with the pain of particular persons than the cosmic struggle of a heroic Jesus trying to lift the fallen world into paradise. I am not even sure if it is the crucified Christ we are supposed to see in this girl. Rather, I think we are supposed to see in the eyes of a child suffering the muscular Jesus of the Lord’s Gym lifting his heavy cross up to save the world. Her suffering is meaningful precisely because of the meaning that Christ gives it.


Not just ‘no’, but Hell no!

And if you want to write about a deficiency of meaning in the world then you have one right there. Never mind a world without God; how about one in which you cannot see the most compelling moments of human suffering because of the big giant Jesus standing in your way!

If the suffering of people right in front of you requires a theory making it about something else altogether, or rather someone else, then your faith does not augment the meaning of suffering; it detracts from it. And the theory that was supposed to deepen our understanding of suffering has instead blunted its very force. It is not the suffering of the little girl that matters; it is not her loss of hope, or her agony, or her tears; it is that of someone else.

As I read this utter crap, I can’t help but to be struck by a quote the Bad Catholic keeps at the top of his webpage. It is attributed to G.K. Chesterton; “Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” I can’t help but think this wonderful little quote might well have forestalled this miserable exercise in tortured logic and pathetic indifference to the actual condition of suffering in another living being.

Perhaps one ought to let his sense of other living things be less a theory and more of a love affair.

The meaning of human suffering is immediate. This is no less true of others than it is for ourselves. I for one do not need to see Jesus Christ or any other supernatural entity to give a damn about the suffering of another human being, or even that of an animal.

Do you?

Photo by Kevin Carter