Fr. Tim Perry reviews the fourth and final book in Fr. Spitzer's quartet of volumes introducing the Christian faith
For any careful and winsome description of the beauty, goodness, and truthfulness of Christian faith, suffering is an inevitable problem. One could say, in fact, that it presses with creedal force upon the believing imagination. After all, if the Creed affirms both that God is “Almighty” and the “Creator of all that is, seen and unseen,” and our experience of the everyday world demands we acknowledge the weighty reality of suffering, then we have a problem. It is to this problem that Fr. Robert J. Spitzer turns in the final volume of his quartet.
Up to now, he has argued that human beings are hardwired for happiness (vol. 1, reviewed here), that the longing for happiness itself a longing for the transcendent (vol. 2, reviewed here) and that belief that Jesus of Nazareth is the most complete disclosure of such transcendence withstands rational investigation (vol. 3, reviewed here). The result is a thoughtful, convincing, if at times complicated, presentation of orthodox Christian faith. Spitzer himself knows, however, that were he to stop here, the picture would be incomplete.
Volume 4 seeks to accomplish two goals: offer an account of suffering that fits within the picture of Christian faith already drawn and offer pastoral advice for believers such that suffering becomes an occasion for growth in holiness, toward the very happiness for which we long.
It is an unqualified success in achieving the second goal. Fr. Spitzer’s advice to suffering souls speaks from a deep immersion in the Bible, the history of the Church, and personal experience. Though I quibbled at points with Fr Spitzer’s exegesis, and especially the ease with which he passed over troubling parts of the Old Testament, there can be no doubt that he lives in a world grounded in the grand biblical story of God’s love for the world. Further, I enjoyed his treatments of the saints, and especially St. Ignatius Loyola, as examples of holy sufferers. The saints always remind us that the heroic virtue to which we are all called in our Baptism is hardly cookie-cutter uniformity, and that it is always cultivated in the crucible of pain.
But it is the personal dimension that, in my view, ensures the pastoral success of this book. If a reader is ever disposed to wonder whether his or her experience of suffering is somehow unique, untouched by the resources Fr. Spitzer offers, he or she will be immediately reminded of Fr. Spitzer’s own struggles with deteriorating eyesight. Spitzer is aloof neither from suffering, nor from the practices which attune us to God’s presence within it. His own suffering has given him a pulpit and he uses it wisely and well.
It is the first goal where I wish to demur—if only a little. There is an important distinction to be drawn between God bringing good from suffering, using suffering for our ultimate benefit, treating suffering as a crucible which burns away sin and burnishes holiness, and saying God lovingly ordains suffering for these reasons, that suffering is necessary for the cultivation of the good. Spitzer unapologetically argues for the latter and there, imprimatur and nihil obstat notwithstanding, I believe he errs.
Fyodor Dostoevsky helps me unpack my worry. In his novel The Brothers Karamazov, the character Ivan Karamazov passionately preaches an atheism that denies not so much God’s existence as the right of God’s claim to be God. If, Ivan insists, God requires the suffering of one child as a necessary precondition for heaven, then he will refuse to believe in that God. His atheism is not a dispassionate denial of existence, but a willed refusal to trust. This, of course, is not an argument, but a punch. One empowered by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s own reading of the newspaper and its harrowing, true, accounts of horrific and pointless abuse inflicted upon the weakest. As he has Ivan pile example after example upon the reader, it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that such suffering is ingredient in the plan of God.
One can say, God planned this suffering for me as a means for me to grow in holiness. I certainly can say that regarding events in my own life, even as I admit that the divine physician’s medicine was from top to bottom unpleasant. But it rings rather hollow to say that, for example, God planned the suffering of child-refugees in southern Turkey as their route to greater goodness, to the realization of their happiness, or to the cultivation of their virtue.
Spitzer, if I understand him correctly, at least implies the latter and that is deeply problematic for two reasons. First, this is to make evil a precondition for the good, granting it and the consequences that arise from it, a status that Christian reflection ought to deny. And second, it is to affirm God’s responsibility for evil’s ongoing existence. A wiser route—which would preserve and indeed strengthen Spitzer’s profound pastoral insights—would be Augustine’s. For the great saint, evil is not a a thing, but a lack even as blindness is not the presence of anything, but the absence of sight. Suffering, on this view, is our shared participation in the lack or wounds of creation which will persist until the resurrection. And while God in his grace and mercy brings good out of evil and suffering, it is God’s plan to end both, whether penultimately through the works of his people or through, or ultimately in the new heaven and new earth.
In the end, the cross is the sign of God’s obstinate refusal to give his good creation over to the absence and annihilation of the grave; the resurrection is the promise of the new life that lies beyond; and the Ascension and Pentecost, our foretaste of and participation in a world where suffering is no more.
A final word about the quartet as whole: I think it works very well as an introduction to Christian faith for a special kind of audience: namely, one that can invest a good deal of time and intellectual energy in working through a difficult set of texts. Believers who undertake this journey will find their faith strengthened; seekers will find many of their questions answered thoughtfully and with a view to their pastoral care; and honest critics will find their concerns respected, re-stated, and addressed in a kind and thorough way. It is a great resource for priests, lay-ministers, parish leaders and others. I hope it receives wide attention.
Purchase the book here