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    PloughCast 50: C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Pain

    Pain and Passion, Part 1

    By Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    March 15, 2023

    About This Episode

    C. S. Lewis is an imaginary guest as the hosts consider the problem of pain.

    Peter and Susannah take Voltaire as an interlocutor first, considering the nature of the challenge of suffering.

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Then, they look at Lewis’s first response: The Problem of Pain, which takes an apologetic or intellectual approach. The hosts examine the Christian origin of the problem – why was this not a problem in the Classical world? – and some Christian approaches to the intellectual challenge.

    Then, they look at Lewis’s second book on the subject, A Grief Observed, a very personal journal of his agony after the death of his wife. They look at A Grief Observed through the eyes of Randall Gauger, a Bruderhof pastor who lost his son to cancer and whose wife suffers from chronic pain.

    Finally, they give listeners a preview of important pieces in the current issue.

    This is Part 1 of the podcast series tied to the Pain and Passion issue of Plough.

    Recommended Reading


    Section I: Setting the Table: Voltaire’s Challenge and the Reason for this Issue

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the first episode in our new series, covering our Pain and Passion issue. I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter Mommsen: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough. In this episode, we’ll be talking about the whole shebang, discussing the concept of the issue, and we’ll be bringing in a very special imaginary podcast guest: C. S. Lewis. We’ll also be solving the problem of theodicy.

    Oh, wretched man, earth fated to be cursed.
    Abyss of plagues and miseries the worst!
    Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show
    That man’s the victim of unceasing woe,
    And lamentations, which inspire my strain,
    Prove that philosophy is false and vain.
    Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries
    Or from their ashes, see the smoke arise,
    Say, will you, then, eternal laws maintain
    Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
    Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
    Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?
    Earth Lisbon swallows. The light sons of France
    Protract the feast or lead the spritely dance . . .
    Yet in this direful chaos, you’d compose
    A general bliss from individuals’ woes?
    Oh, worthless bliss, an injured reason’s sight.
    With faltering voice, you cry, “What is is right.”

    This was a selection from a poem “The Lisbon Earthquake” by Voltaire written in 1755 after an absolutely horrible earthquake in Lisbon, a translation here from William F. Fleming. Of course, this reminds us of the earthquake that just took the lives of 40,000 people in Turkey and Syria and, again, raises the problem of pain and suffering. Why are they, and are they a challenge to any claim that the universe was created with the good of human beings and of the creation as a whole in mind?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right. When we decided on this issue, we realized we were biting off a big hunk of something.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, this is not a small topic.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No.

    Peter Mommsen: A big, big chunk of all the world’s religious and philosophical traditions are implicated in the question of, Why suffering?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right? The problem of pain. The title of the issue is “Pain and Passion.” On some level, we did that because just an issue called just “Pain” seemed like more of a bummer.

    Peter Mommsen: It almost seemed like a visit to the dentist.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, but we also did that because pain and passion, in the classical sense, are related to each other. I guess we can start out, and obviously, these questions of pain don’t just relate to what happened in Syria. Obviously, the issue of pain doesn’t just have to do with natural disasters like earthquakes. It also touches on lots and lots of other political issues in the news. It touches on questions of MAID, medically assisted death, of abortion, of the opioid epidemic, as well as obviously more pressingly being something that each of us deals with in our own personal lives.

    Peter Mommsen: Actually, the idea for the issue was suggested by a friend of ours, Randall Gauger. He’s a pastor in the Bruderhof community and he contributed a piece to the issue which we’ll talk about a little bit later, called “In Search of Solace.” He was inspired particularly by the experience of chronic pain, which is something that many, many people live with, which, of all things, if you’re the one living with it, forces you to reckon with the fact that life without suffering, actually, for all of us eventually is not imaginable. Human life simply does involve pain, for some sooner than later.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We do want to talk a little bit about passion. Why do we have passion in there as a word? What is passion in this context? Obviously, one of the ways that we can understand passion is the passion of Christ who went to the cross to suffer, but why is that called the Passion? It seems like a weird word to use for it. It has to do with something very strange about Christianity, especially if you consider that Christians are, for the most part, classical theists. One of the attributes of God in classical theism is that he doesn’t have what what’s called passion. He is without passions, meaning that He can’t be moved by something outside Him. That’s what passion means. He’s impassable in that context.

    One of the things that bizarrely happens in the crucifixion and that happens as the result of the incarnation is that God who is without passions becomes able to be passionate, essentially. He becomes able to be moved and our very special guest who we are not having here because we’re not necromancers, but we are having here imaginarily because we are talking about his books, C. S. Lewis talks quite a bit about this, so we’ll get to that a little bit later.

    What we’re trying to do here is to talk about these common human experiences of pain and suffering in a specifically Christian way. What’s the difference philosophically that Christianity makes and what’s the difference existentially that Christianity makes? Pete, you recently had a really interesting conversation that touched on the difference that Christianity makes. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Peter Mommsen: Sure, absolutely. That’s actually the next episode of this series of podcasts on the Pain and Passion issue of Plough. That’s with the historian and author Tom Holland, the beloved co-host of podcast, The Rest is History. We had a discussion about the change that happens when Christianity enters history, people’s approach to the question, the problem of pain before and after, and the huge change that made. Now, I don’t want to steal too much of the thunder from that upcoming episode because, of course, Tom in his immensely witty and amusing way with his vast knowledge of ancient culture is going to do that better than we will right now, but that is one thing that we’re going to get into in this series, the difference that Christianity made to the way people thought about all the things that we try to avoid in life.

    Susannah Black Roberts:Even though we are in arguably a post-Christian culture or something of a post-Christian culture, there are still effects that we can see from the Christian reconception of pain that persist even in our secular culture. The idea . . .

    Peter Mommsen: What are those, Susannah, because this is stealing more from Tom Holland, not from our interview. How post-Christian are those ideas, actually?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right, they’re not particularly post-Christian. I think without the ballast of Christianity, they tend to run wild, like unharnessed truths, but they are thoroughly Christian. The idea that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong, that it’s more noble to suffer than to do wrong, that if you are in some sense, a victim, you have a particular place of authority, in a way, in society and that you have a particular power in your powerlessness: These are all ideas that are fundamental to the way that we do politics and the way that we experience political debate. Very frequently, it seems that both left and in US politics at least, which is what I know best, seek to portray themselves as the victim because that is the most powerful place to be, ironically, in our psychology, which would’ve made no sense at all to pre-Christian classical cultures.

    Peter Mommsen: Right, to be among the oppressed gave you no moral superiority to the oppressor. In fact, it was the oppressor who was more like the gods and it was the oppressed who were ridiculous. Their suffering was of no interest and at most was something to be mocked. There was something deeply in what is often called negatively by, I guess mostly conservatives, victimhood culture. That is a form of this Christian insight that the suffering one is the one to whom God is closest.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right, or who has history on his side or her side or who is the noble one, the good guy.

    Peter Mommsen: Which gets us back to Voltaire.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right.

    Peter Mommsen: Voltaire, with that rather passionate cry against the idea that in the face of a calamity like the earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 or the earthquake this year in the Middle East, that there could be a good God who wills or permits or has created a world in which so many people, so many children, so many innocent people just going about their lives could die, lose loved ones, be injured, lose all they have. In this last earthquake, I believe 1.5 million people are estimated to have been left homeless in the cold. That itself is a very Christian cry. It would not have troubled an ancient Greek to wonder why Zeus permitted people to suffer.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right, because we’ll get into this a little bit later in C. S. Lewis’s discussion of why this is a problem, but there’s something deeply Christian, even in Voltaire’s rejection of Leibniz, and I think Alexander Pope was the other big early Enlightenment dude who was very into the idea that “whatever is is good.” That is basically the philosophical optimism that Voltaire is attacking in this poem, and he goes through all the different ways that people in his experience were trying to explain or justify the ways of God to man, so to speak, to explain why this earthquake was somehow OK.

    Is God bringing a greater good out of this suffering? Are the people who suffered in the earthquake sinners? Is this something that we ought to learn from? All of these different approaches to and explanation for the philosophical problem that is made existential by something like an earthquake being in something like the news, which was the other weird thing about the Lisbon earthquake. It was the first international news story of disaster, which we obviously now get very frequently.

    I actually think I read through the poem and I thought it was interesting the degree to which Voltaire didn’t really even seem to know about what I would consider to be a distinctly Christian answer to this question, or at least he doesn’t raise it as one of the things that he waves away angrily as insufficient. It’s not really there on his horizon and what that Christian answer is, or what that field of Christian answers is, I think we’ll talk about later.

    Peter Mommsen: I think it is appropriate now before we get too much farther into this, to take Voltaire’s admonition to humility and just admit that it’s very difficult to talk about these things as people who haven’t experienced them. There is something, I believe, to the modern tendency to say, “Well, if you’re not an injured party, you have no right to speak for them.” I certainly haven’t experienced anything like the earthquake in Turkey or Syria. I’ve experienced no particular great tragedies in life and even in terms of physical pain, not a lot to speak of since losing my wisdom teeth, Susannah.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That was my major one as well.

    Peter Mommsen: Which is one reason why I hesitated before writing an editorial to this issue and in the end, ceded the ground to Randy, who had a little more life experience in this area. Randy lost his son to cancer at age twenty-one and then has, in his family, some experience of long-lasting chronic pain that definitely influences his thinking about this. None of what we’re going to say is offered in the spirit of hopefully what Voltaire is criticizing, that we’re trying to justify, explain away, minimize, say it’s all for the best. There is something about the fact of suffering, about this earthquake, right? When it happened, I think I, like many people were just kind of depressed for days.

    People use the phrase that there’s been purposeless suffering and it really does seem, an event like this, particularly in an area that’s already been suffering so much from years of warfare, just so, so horrible. You can think back to other such events over the last couple of decades. For instance, the tsunami in Asia back in 2004. These things happen and I think Voltaire’s reaction against a lazy philosophy that just said in his words, “With faltering voice, you cry, ‘What is is right.’” Christians, for years, probably let themselves get off too easy with this stuff.

    In our way of talking about it, we’re definitely going to try at least not to just give some easy answers to these things, but also take them with the seriousness that they deserve and hopefully also remind folks, which is one reason why we wanted to start with the Lisbon earthquake, that these conversations, these questions, this heartache is nothing new. We moderns are not uniquely sensitive. We’re not the uniquely moral people who for the first time have a problem with this stuff. This is something that goes back certainly right to the beginning of Christianity and I’d imagine back ten-thousands of years of human history.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, there’s an interesting thing about the way that Voltaire was thinking about the earthquake and the way that people have written about it since. There was this sense that he had that now we know that everything is horrible. It used to be that we had these small worlds and we could think that everything was basically OK, but now because of the Enlightenment, because of greater degrees of communication, now we know that things are horrible.

    As C. S. Lewis points out in his The Problem of Pain, which is the first book of his we’re going to talk about, all of the experience of humanity leading up to our contemporary world, he doesn’t point this out, but infant mortality was 50 percent. Every child who was born was had a 50 percent chance of dying before age five. And there was no chloroform. There were no opiates. In a world where those two things are true, I don’t think that we can say that we know more about pain or more about suffering than our ancestors did.

    Section II: C. S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain

    Peter Mommsen: With that, we should probably invite our invisible guest onto the show, so welcome, C. S. Lewis.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Welcome to C. S. Lewis.

    Peter Mommsen: There are two books of Lewis’s that we’re going to imaginarily converse with. Susannah, did you want to give us a little bit of an introduction?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sure. Well, let’s talk first about C. S. Lewis, his history. As many of you may know, he was born in the very late nineteenth century, I think 1899 or something like that. His mother died of cancer when he was ten, I think. He was in the first World War where his best friend died, I think in front of him. He still had not had an enormous, what he would consider an enormous amount of suffering in his life, I think, although he did have some chronic pain later.

    As an adult, he converted to Christianity and at the urging of a friend, he wrote his first attempt to handle what’s called the question of theodicy, which is the official name for these sets of questions that we’re dealing with, the problem of pain. If there is a good God and if God is all-powerful and if God is all-loving, why do we still suffer? Either God is not all-powerful and so He can’t stop our pain or He is not all-loving and He doesn’t want to stop our pain. That’s the framework. He wrote a book called The Problem of Pain fairly early in his life, I think? I think he was in his thirties, not that long after his conversion.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. It came out in 1940.

    Susannah Black Roberts: He was early forties. He then got married quite late in life, I think when he was close to sixty, and his wife, very quickly after they were married, it might have even happened just before they got married when they were on their way to being married, she was diagnosed with cancer and she died after a good deal, quite a lot of pain, I think around three years later. I’m not sure of the exact timetable there. After which he wrote a book called A Grief Observed, which was actually just originally his journal from that time, which again, a friend urged him to publish.

    It’s a very different kind of book. If The Problem of Pain addresses the philosophical and theological intellectual issues in an apologetic mode of believing in God, in the Christian God, in a world where pain exists, A Grief Observed is a very painful book to read. It’s a cry of the heart. He’s suffering as he’s writing and it’s wonderful. Both books are wonderful. I’m not of the camp which says, “Oh, The Problem of Pain was a book of, it was an epistle of straw, basically, or it was fake because he hadn’t really suffered until he wrote A Grief Observed.”

    Peter Mommsen: Actually, I mean, it’s very endearing. He wrote a little preface to The Problem of Pain where, I could totally identify it with this, where he basically said, “I didn’t want to write this book. I wanted to write it anonymously because I knew I hadn’t suffered very much and whoever commissioned it told me, ‘Well, you can write a little preface where you basically disclaim the whole thing and say you don’t know what you’re talking about.’” He basically did that. The preface almost is the strongest criticism of the book from the point of view of, you don’t know what you’re talking about. He took it totally on board and throughout the book he says, “Dear reader, you’re probably imagining as I’m saying this, ‘That’s very nice for you to say while you’re writing. I’d like to see you when you’re actually suffering.’” and he admits straight out, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’m like while I’m suffering. I am a great coward and you should be able to understand that because so are you.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, Lewis is very much, here, he’s approaching it from the point of view of what are the intellectual issues involved, so let’s talk about that. What he first addresses is what we were talking about earlier, which is that the problem of pain as it exists for us wouldn’t really have been something that existed for the pagans, for example. “If Zeus is all good and Zeus is all-powerful, why would Zeus allow suffering, if he loves us,” is not a question that the ancients would have asked, because they didn’t think that Zeus was particularly all good, nor did they think he was all-powerful, nor did they think that he loved them particularly, although some of them have been his favorites.

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, he didn’t love Prometheus very much, did he?

    Susannah Black Roberts: No, he didn’t love Prometheus very much. So the mystery at the heart of the question of theodicy is not, how can we believe that God exists in the midst of this mystery of pain? It’s, how did anyone start to believe that the Christian God exists, given that everyone who started to believe that he existed was living in a world with no chloroform and where most children died before the age of five? How could you believe, and why on earth would you ever believe in a God who was something more like Yahweh than Zeus?

    Peter Mommsen: How did the idea that the universe is good, that you could derive an idea of an ultimate goodness, how did it even occur to people?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Lewis goes through a little bit of a genealogy of how these ideas got started with human beings, and the crucial thing is, the moment that your experience of the numinous and the sense of mystery or the sense of beyond or the sense of the supernatural, which tends to belong to the world of gods and monsters and myth and ghosts and so on, which is an aspect of the world that people have usually mostly believed in and had been worried that exists.

    Peter Mommsen: Right. That’s for all forms of shamanism, of primitive religion, so to speak, that we’re aware of, this sense that there’s something awful and terrible that is bigger than us, that makes our skin prickle.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Not necessarily terrible in a bad way, but terrible in a terrifying way and not necessarily terrifying in the sense that it’s going to hurt us, but terrifying in the sense that that it exists is terrifying.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s somehow bigger than us. It’s uncanny is the word he uses.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right. The moment where things got interesting for us was the moment when that idea merged with this quite separate idea that had been mostly the province of people trying to make good decisions in their lives on the one hand and also philosophers on the other, which is the question of goodness, so ethics. The moment when the numinous and the ethical merged, that moment, which one could point to Moses getting the Ten Commandments from the extremely numinous and freaky God and these Ten Commandments are things like, “Don’t lie.” That’s the weird moment. That right there, if you think that’s normal, that’s not normal.

    Peter Mommsen: Lewis, I think, is quite convincing on this, that people in many different cultures and geographic areas had this sense of the numinous. I mean, we know just from cave paintings, we presume, we imagine, we speculate that there was this sense of the numinous going way back, this sense of awe. And we know that people around the world have a pretty similar set of ethical intuitions, right? Oughts and ought nots, not lying, not betraying, not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, with variation, are pretty widespread, but again, going back to the ancient Greeks, you look at ancient Greek mythology, you do not see those two combined. You don’t see the great gods simultaneously modeling the oughts and ought nots very well.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Mm-hmm.

    Peter Mommsen: Then comes Abraham and the Hebrew prophets and Moses.

    Susannah Black Roberts: This vision of ethical, and then it got even weirder because not only is the numinous connected to the ethical, but there is only one God, so everything is just getting stranger. Everything is getting, in a weird way, less intuitive as you go through human history, as you go through the development of Judaism.

    Then it gets even weirder in Christianity because that impassable God who’s the God of the philosophers, who’s also the numinous God of storms at the peak of Sinai, who was in the burning bush, which is an incredibly freaky and numinous thing to happen, if you think about that – That impassable God, the God of the philosophers, who’s also the ethical God, who’s also the numinous God, becomes a baby and empties himself of all that kept him apart from us and became passable. He became able to suffer passion. Then what He suffered on the cross was his Passion. It was an ultimate example of being acted on and suffering in the sense that we understand suffering. And that was not the end of the story either!

    What we’re trying to do here is connect the problem of pain as we experience it as a philosophical problem with the weirdness of the story of Christianity. They’re very, very closely connected. They don’t really exist apart from each other.

    Peter Mommsen: I actually thought that this genealogy at the beginning of Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain, was the strongest part of the book. The rest of it is excellent and I don’t think we’re going to trace the rest of the argument here.

    Susannah Black Roberts: No.

    Peter Mommsen: Our point here is just to lay the groundwork that, again, to get back to Voltaire’s protests against the Lisbon earthquake, this makes no sense unless Voltaire was already convinced, had been brought up in a culture in which the numinous, the all-powerful God, was also supposed to be a good one who cared about some random poor people in Lisbon. Why should he otherwise? Voltaire’s rebellion against the Christian God really only makes sense on Christian premises. Lewis gets into all this.

    He also talks, there’s a very moving chapter at the end about animal pain, which is one thing that I think a more modern atheism tends to focus on a lot. Think about parasites. Think about just the death toll in a herd of deer in a given winter, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Cordyceps.

    Peter Mommsen: All these things bother us, particularly, I think, nowadays in a certain way. We definitely do know a little bit more about parasites and just all the weird fungi and other things that afflict animals than folks did back in the day, but again, people back in the day lived a lot closer to animals than we do and they, too, were hardly unfamiliar with animals suffering. That’s another topic his books get into, but we won’t. We will keep ourselves, Susannah, from diving into it right now because we want to get to Lewis’s second book.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Right.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Just a little housekeeping before we continue with the rest of our discussion. Heads up – we have a new format! As opposed to each episode containing two segments, we’re switching to just one segment per episode. But you’re not getting any less content – rather than having six weeks on and six weeks off, we’re just going to be giving you an episode every single week. There’ll also continue to be Plough reads, audio versions of our articles, however, which you’ll be able to access through a different channel.

    Peter Mommsen: And don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes! We’ll be back with the rest of our conversation about theodicy and the current issue, with our special guest, C. S. Lewis, after the break.

    Section III: C. S. Lewis: A Grief Observed

    Peter Mommsen: The Problem of Pain is just a really, really great primer in Christian way of thinking about suffering and why it matters. I guess we should give away at least one of the payoffs before we move on to A Grief Observed. Let me give one quote from this book which at least points to the solution that Lewis finds, which is that suffering is not good in itself, but suffering can serve to remind us that God exists and point us to the higher destiny that human beings are called for in a way that we wouldn’t have access to if suffering didn’t exist. In that sense, pain can be, not always is, can be good for us.

    He says, “Let me implore the reader to try to believe if only for the moment that God who made these deserving people who suffer may really be right when He thinks that their modest prosperity and the happiness of their children are not enough to make them blessed, that all this must fall from them in the end, and if they have not learned to know Him, they will be wretched, and therefore He troubles them, warning them in advance of an insufficiency that one day, they will have to discover. The life to themselves and their families stands between them and the recognition of their need. He makes that life less sweet to them,” so that’s a teaser.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s a teaser. It’s not, I don’t think, the ultimate. I think there are two other pieces that are even more ultimate in both Lewis’s answer and in, I would say, the answer, but we can get to those later. Now, let’s turn to his approach in A Grief Observed.

    Peter Mommsen: A Grief Observed. I’d like to introduce that by returning to my friend Randall Gauger who, again, inspired this issue with his idea. I’d like to, before we get into Lewis, talk about, just quote a couple of things from Randy because Randy wrote a piece for the issue which we’re going to drop in the show notes, again, called “A Search for Solace,” where he leans a lot on A Grief Observed. I think it helps set up how this matters.

    He writes about losing his son, Matt to cancer. Matt was actually a good friend of mine. He died within about six months of getting a metastatic cancer at a young age. Really, really tough, super painful death, really hard to watch. Randy writes, “It is unnatural to see your child die. There is something inside you that simply says, ‘This should not be,’ but being in that room when he left us and hearing him speak of things he was seeing and feeling, things of heaven and eternity, changed us forever. Matt saw things that we could not see or fully comprehend, but for a few hours, we glimpsed through him the other side of that door we will all go through one day.” This experience turned Randy to A Grief Observed and I believe, Susannah, you’re going to introduce that book to us.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. Again, this is a book that was originally just his journal entries from the period of time after his wife of three years. He never thought he’d be married. He didn’t particularly, he was like a lifelong bachelor. He fell in love with this American woman who had two sons of her own, and they got married when he was, I think, in his late fifties. Within a very short period of time, I’m pretty sure it was after they were engaged, she was diagnosed with, again, cancer and she, within a couple of years, had died of it.

    There are some really interesting things that happened in the course of her illness. She was suffering from, I think, bone cancer. The cancer was in the bones of her legs, I think, and just suffering a lot of pain. Lewis asked, he prayed to experience that pain for himself to take it from her.

    That happened. He got some kind of weird, very quick onset arthritis in his legs and her pain went away.

    But that didn’t last. Her cancer came back and she died. His book is the rawest kind of cry written by somebody who’s very articulate even in his passionate grief and anger at God. After all of the very good and true and helpful, I think, writing that he had done in The Problem of Pain, he talks about the experience of being, in his experience, rejected by God. “To go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside and after that, silence.”

    Then he gets even darker. “Aren’t all these notes the senseless writings of a man who won’t accept the fact that there’s nothing we can do except suffer it? Not that I am, I think, in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘There is no God after all,’ but, “This is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.”

    Those two things, the experience of God’s absence and the worry about God’s character are the things that he writes his way through and that he ultimately, that God brings him through. Towards the end of the book, he writes, “When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer, but rather a special sort of no answer. It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate gaze as though He shook his head, not in refusal, but in waving the question like, ‘Peace, child. You don’t understand.” Randy Gauger quotes Paul in 2 Corinthians 4, which was something that Lewis ultimately also turned to. There’s this sense of, we don’t know. God is there. God is not absent and we don’t know the answer.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s not a tidy theodicy, the kind that infuriated Voltaire.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yep, but there is an additional peace to all of this, which is Paul’s hope in 2 Corinthians. “Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly, we are wasting away, yet inwardly, we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all, so we fix our eyes not on what is seen but on what is unseen since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

    This is just the promise of the gospel. Ultimately, the promise of the gospel is not an explanation for suffering, but a twofold promise. One is that God has done this himself. He has taken his own medicine on the cross. He suffered with and more than any of us, that He is with us as we suffer whether or not we experience him and that ultimately, this is a problem that He will and has solved. Ultimately, the ultimate reason for suffering is that the world is not as it should be, that there was a fall and that God is going to set this right.

    That’s the apocalyptic gospel that I don’t think that we can lose sight of in attempting to answer these questions. I think a lot of the people who, a lot of the philosophers who Voltaire was getting irritated with, particularly Leibniz, were trying to have a very tidy explanation of why, in this world, suffering was actually good. One thing that Christianity does is to say that no, actually, suffering’s not good and God’s going to solve it. This world is fallen and this world is ultimately going to be transformed completely. That said, I think that there are ways that this can be, I guess, taken in a way that I don’t think is helpful or right.

    I’ve had a lot of debates lately with a Twitter friend, actually, who was actually responding to someone who was an atheist, I think, who was, in light of the earthquake in Turkey, basically pulling a Voltaire famous atheist or possibly deist, probably atheist. This is something that they do, which is when there are tragedies, they say, “Where’s your God now?” Someone said this on Twitter and Henry basically said, “God is going to destroy this world. This world is essentially hell and God is going to destroy it and make a new one.” I think that that is wrong. I think that, yes, the apocalyptic gospel of radical transformation, of radical renewal, of the wiping away of every tear from every eye is true, but at the same time, even in the midst of the pain of this world, we also have to be honest about the beauty as well. There’s something that could be called the problem of pleasure or the problem of joy that I think we need to hold up alongside the problem of pain if we’re thinking about this.

    Peter Mommsen: And the problem of beauty and the problem of goodness.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: How is it possible that even in the midst of these tragedies, there are examples of just incredible self-sacrifice and nobility? Lewis actually writes about this in the context of his war experience that yes, the experience of World War I, the horrors of World War I on the front brought your face to face with not just natural evil, but also the peculiarities of human ignobility, and yet you saw, too, at least he reported, the other side. Those problems need to be seen and kept in mind side by side.

    It really is the case that the age to come, of which the New Testament speaks, although there is some language of the abolition of this present world, there is even more language, especially in, I think of Paul, Romans 8, of the renewal of creation, the restoration of creation, that everything from the insects haunted by horrible parasites to people who are suffering from natural disasters, that there is a way and all of that will be made right and that the beauty will triumph over the horror. That is a promise that I think we need to hold onto in the midst of these very shaking things.

    Whenever you say that, you’re going to infuriate a certain kind of person and the old Marxist cry of religion as this opiate making people feel good.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Pie in the sky when you die.

    Peter Mommsen: Mm-hmm. What’s your response to that? There is a form of religion that is an opiate, right?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: There’s certainly been forms of Christianity that were pretty well-designed to keep people happy in their estate. I think of the original version of the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” which has a verse that’s no longer sung, which talks about the great order of being. He put the rich people in his mansion and the poor cottager in his hut and he ordered their estate, I believe, is the line. Just: little cottager with your kids dying of dysentery, be happy. That is a perversion of Christianity. I actually think that the atheist, Marxist crowd make much more of it than is justified. What do you think?

    Everything has its perversion, right? I mean, every good thing has its bad form.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah, and if you’re going to look for a philosophy that is really good at oppressing the poor, Christianity’s not going to be it. Christianity is not your go-to if you’re going to look for a philosophy.

    Peter Mommsen: No. The New Testament and the early church’s fathers are harsh on rich, comfortable people, “Weep and wail, you rich.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Do something about it. Do something about it.

    Peter Mommsen: Do something about it, right? Yeah, the call of the prophets. Yeah, remember the widow and orphan.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah.

    Peter Mommsen: The Beatitudes, this praising of the hungry, the thirsty, the suffering, the weeping, those are the ones who will laugh and then, of course, in Luke, those promises are reversed for those who are satisfied in this life. They are promised suffering in, I guess, the eschatological future.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think one thing to think about is that Christianity is complicated and there’s a lot of different parts to it and there’s a lot of different moods of it in there and a lot of different angles on reality because reality itself is complicated. At least in my own experience of thinking about these things and then trying to act on them – because Christianity is a way of life that leads to action. It’s not just something to think about – Things are always changing. You’re always following a path. You’re trying to use a map. You’re on a journey and things are complicated.

    But what I would say is, if there is a time and a place and a state of being where all of these things are going to be reversed and all that is sad is going to come untrue, if it’s true that we need to prepare ourselves for that in some significant ways in order to be able to participate in it, then that’s important. If it’s not true, if Jesus did not rise from the grave, then we are of all people the most to be pitied, but if it’s true, then everything’s different. Part of this is a matter of fact. If Marx is wrong, as a matter of fact about Christianity, that’s important.

    That’s thing one. Thing two, as we were talking about implying earlier is Christianity is absolutely terrible if you’re looking for a religion that is going to make people passive or keep them down. One of the things that we believe is that everything good that we do is going to be caught up in the world to come.

    All of the good deeds that we do, all of the good acts that we do, we’re storing up treasures in heaven. All of the hospitals that we build, and we can talk about Ivan Illich later, maybe, all of the alms that we give, all of the times that we sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, all of the joy that we have, all of the moments of earthly good that are experienced in loving ways, none of this will be lost. There’s actually, in my experience at least, a much, much greater impetus to do good and to make good things because they’re not going to be passing away. There are parts of the world that are passing away, but not everything passes away. I mean, I guess that’s one of the things that I would say to Marx.

    Peter Mommsen: We’re going to keep on saying things to Marx over course of this next series of podcasts.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We are.

    Section IV: Preview of Coming Attractions

    Peter Mommsen: You did mention and we started out with talking about my interview with Tom Holland, which is coming up next, where we talk specifically about the difference that the crucifixion of Christ makes to the way we think about pain and basically, the way it’s completely reversed, the way humanity approaches pain and the question of suffering. This whole series, quite a bit of it will run during the season of Lent as we lead up to Holy Week. That will certainly be part of this series, but before we close off this opening episode, we do want you dear listeners to also check out the issue of Plough Quarterly on which the series is based and give us some inspiration. Susannah, should we just go back and forth and talk about a few of our favorite pieces before we close out here?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Sure. You want to go first with number one on my little list here?

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah. One is actually a piece from Ben Crosby. He’s an Episcopal priest up in Canada, and he wrote a super powerful reported piece, Where are the Churches in Canada’s Euthanasia Experiment? Folks may have been following the increasing debate around Canada’s Medical Assistance and Dying Law, which is being expanded year by year. The last year for which we have data, 2021, 10,000 Canadians chose to die by medical assisted dying. That is, to be specific, not assisted suicide. That is actual active euthanasia. This thing is growing and the passivity of many Christian churches is especially shocking and Ben gets into that. That’s a piece that you should definitely read that has a direct link to this question, does my suffering have meaning or should I simply take an early exit?

    Susannah Black Roberts: Yeah. We also have a piece which is actually an excerpt from a recently published graphic novel by Jason Landsel called “Felix Manz: The Making of a Young Radical.” It’s a selection from our graphic novel, By Water. It’s basically the story of one of the leading figures of the Radical Reformation and the way that in his pursuit of a true Christianity and a more authentic Christianity, how he passed from Catholicism through a Zwinglian magisterial Protestantism to the Radical Reformation, to a kind of Proto-Anabaptism. That story is told dramatically with Jason Landsel’s characteristic art.

    Peter Mommsen: It’s a great father son story between Manz, the bastard son of a priest, and his father figure is Zwingli and their complex relationship ending in Manz’s execution at Zwingli’s, more or less, behest.

    Another piece that I just really, really love in this issue is by the German writer Navid Kermani. He’s a reporter, travel writer, a son of Iranian parents. He’s Muslim. He traveled to the south of Madagascar to report on what the United Nations is calling the world’s first climate-caused drought. It gets at a lot of the issues we talked about in this podcast. South Madagascar has a farming area historically neglected by the big metropolitan centers in Madagascar. These farming families, who are extremely traditional, extremely linked to their land through their ancestors, they’re Christian, but they have a very strong ancestor veneration culture that doesn’t permit them to just leave their villages, are extremely vulnerable to a terrible drought that’s been going on for a while now. It’s called “The Dust on All the Faces.” This may sound like an extremely depressing article, but Navid Kermani did a wonderful job of helping us meet these people as people, not as statistics in a natural disaster and pointing out the ways that we can learn from them. It’s just a beautifully, beautifully done, very literary piece of reportage.

    Susannah Black Roberts: We could take a lot of time to go through all of these at this level of detail, but we don’t have that time, so I’m going to just give three more and then Pete’s going to give three more really quickly, and you guys can pick up a copy of that magazine physically if you have the capability of doing that. If you wanted to sign up or you can just go to to check out the current issue. Rick Warren, “God’s Purpose in Your Pain,” talking about the suicide of his son. Nathan Beacom on “The Return of the Bison,” which is what it says on the tin. Lisabeth Button, “Letters from a Vanishing Friend,” about a woman with Alzheimer’s, and Pete?

    Peter Mommsen: Yeah, Lisabeth Button about the woman with Alzheimer’s, that’s my little sister. Definitely read her article. It’s about her story of a friendship with a woman with Alzheimer’s when she was a teenager. Eleanor Parker wrote this beautiful piece, “The Speaking Tree” on The Dream of the Rood, and there’s a great series of excerpts from Wang Yi, who’s a house church pastor in Chengdu, China, who’s been imprisoned for years and it’s his writings from prison. You could think of a modern Bonhoeffer. Then our Books and Culture Editor, Joy Clarkson, wrote a piece on the Oberammergau Passionsspiele, the passion play in Germany called “Oberammergau’s Broken Vow,” so check that out, find out what’s broken about their vow.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Thanks so much for joining us for this first issue or first episode of this new series. We are excited for this issue of the magazine. We think it’s an important one. We wish you all a blessed Lent and we urge you all to face whatever pain is in your life with fortitude. Lent is obviously a time when we turn directly into those parts of our lives that are less than pleasurable and the parts of our lives that draw us closer to Christ in his suffering and draw us closer to each other, so thanks very much and we will see you again soon.

    Thanks for listening, be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met, and share with your friends! For a lot more content like this, check out for the digital magazine. You can also subscribe: $36/year will get you the print magazine, or for $99/year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books, to regular calls with the editors, to invitations to special events, and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community, and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. Go to to learn more.

    Peter Mommsen: On our next episode, I’ll be speaking with Tom Holland on the sheer weirdness of Christianity’s approach to pain.

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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