Two television programs on ABC earlier this year revealed an important battle at the heart of Western culture over the nature of human life and suffering. There was an Australian Story program which was about a businessman, Peter Roberts, providing solace and comfort to sick and dying patients through music. On the same evening, there was a Q&A featuring the philosopher, Peter Singer. According to form, Singer advocated for euthanasia for the severely disabled. Underlying Singer’s attitude about euthanasia is something seemingly typical of the utilitarianism of modernity, in which it is increasingly difficult to make sense of suffering, and so, it must be avoided.
It seems that modernity, with its struggles between cold rationalism and sentimental romanticism, can make little or no sense of suffering. From a theological perspective, the modern notions of the human person, with their emphases on individualism, relativism, and affluence, seem to be lacking a relational understanding of what it means to be human. It is this relational understanding that lies at the heart of Christianity:“The whole history of mankind was led astray, suffered a break, because of Adam’s false idea of God. ...He thought God was an independent, autonomous being sufficient to himself; and in order to become like him he rebelled and showed disobedience. But when God revealed himself, when God wished to show who he was, he appeared as love, tenderness, as outpouring of himself, infinite pleasure in another. Inclination, dependence. God showed himself obedient, obedient unto death. In the belief that he was becoming like God, Adam turned away from him. He withdrew into loneliness, and God was fellowship.” (L. Evely in Ratzinger, 1990, Introduction to Christianity, p. 202).
Unfortunately, the wonder, depth and vulnerability of relationality has to some degree been lost to the modern world because of the individualism that feeds the capitalist system, the romantic myths that reduce relationality to sentimentalism or because of the cold rationalism that seeks to counter it. The split between romanticism and rationalism – between reason and faith – continues to plague the West; and it impacts in real ways on Western notions of human suffering and life that form how we live and even who we allow to live.
Suffering for many affluent Westerners, supported by philosophers like Singer, does not fit into their picture of human life: it must be cut out to make a nice, neat system in which we can control our lives. Yet, the gaping holes in this Western worldview are manifested in many modern Western problems that show how we find it hard to cope with suffering (e.g. drugs, alcohol, suicide, etc.). For example, if the media are correct in their reporting, the recent court ruling in Adelaide to allow a woman to starve herself occurred because it was not regarded as “suicide”. Thus, the semantic games continue in the justification of an underlying cultural movement: ending the life of the fetus for the mother’s “suffering” is not killing; starving oneself is not suicide; waterboarding is not torture; and so on. Human dignity is being degraded because the West struggles to make sense of human life and suffering.
Yet, there remains hope, as the Australian Story episode shows: there are still ordinary people being human – that is, utilising and seeking the good in relationship with others – in the midst of suffering, pain and evil. At work here is a Christian instinct that brings out humanity’s true goodness: one does not seek to impose one’s view of being human and eradicate the situation (of pain and evil), but confronts the situation by humbly seeking to provide whatever good is possible from one’s talents for the building-up of others. It is shown that it is natural for humans to seek good in the midst of evil, rather than to cut that evil off through bad or evil means (i.e. killing). Advocates of euthanasia claim that the good that they pursue is the alleviation of pain that is not natural to human beings; but they use what is ordinarily regarded as negative or evil (killing) means to achieve the good they are seeking.
The Christian witness similarly seeks to combat the evil at work here but through both good ends and means; as Peter Roberts on Australian Story shows in his service of music and fellowship to the sick and/or approaching death. This good ends and means comes through building relationality: by building up relationships and identities, not cutting them off. Suffering only ultimately makes some sense in these relationships. Many people caring for persons with disabilities can attest to the importance of their relationships, as Minister Peter Garrett explained on the Q&A program. For example, when my grandmother slowly approached her death at nine-eight years of age, she was in great pain. However, her last days and weeks were important moments of grace for us as a family to deepen our relationships with each other, our grandmother and God. Her weakest moments were in some ways her greatest: they showed who she was (as she persevered and offered her life in faith); and they revealed who we were in our solidarity with her. Confronting suffering in this way can lead to solidarity: to the unity of self-giving that builds communion.
The ABC has shown where the battle for the West lies: between the rejection or fear of suffering (in an individualised, self-sufficient notion of human being); and, the effort to seek and bring good out of evil and suffering with faith that God is moving life toward good ends. In the Christian tradition, God comes to a world plagued by suffering, violence and death to bring good out of it: the Cross is the symbol of this par excellence. It is the symbol that the West no longer wants to face – that suffering and evil can be and needs to be transformed into good, no matter the initial pain, cost and self-sacrifice that this involves. Thanks to Australian Story we can see that there remain witnesses to life and the Cross that the West can still celebrate, despite the deep misgivings the individualised, affluent West has about suffering and relationality.
Click on the following links to watch the programs online:
Joel Hodge teaches theology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
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